- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 21, 2006

In a Chinese restaurant in Soho last weekend, I found myself eating spareribs while Friedrich Engels stared down at me from the wall. A portrait of his old friend, Karl Marx, hung downstairs, along with various luminaries of China’s Politburo. Pride of place, near the front window, was taken by Mao Tse Tung, a man whoseappetite for blood is described at length in the new biography by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday.

Not exactly my idea of the perfect place to have dinner, then, but friends had chosen the venue to celebrate their son’s 18th birthday, and it would have been churlish to get into an argument about the decor. So, apart from a mildly ironic reference to the rogue’s gallery, I held my tongue. In any case, I am all argued out at the moment.

After five years of vainly trying to explain to all and sundry why George W. Bush is not Hitler in cowboy boots, I have decided not to waste any more breath. Once upon a time, I believed it was possible for people of opposing views to have a friendly discussion. The hysterical response to Dubya and Rummy and Condi has changed all that.

The Bush administration’s awful PR (about which I have banged on at length) must take some of the blame. But to read “The Retreat of Reason,” a new pamphlet published by the British social policy think tank, Civitas, is to be reminded how a fair portion of the country’s thinking classes have shut down their mental faculties. Striking the appropriate attitude counts for much more than mere facts.

“Political correctness” is a phrase I try to avoid using, for the simple fact that it has become a terrible cliche. But, as American readers know all too well, the phenomenon is all too real. “The Retreat of Reason,” written by the London Times’ Europe correspondent, Anthony Browne, is a passionate and frankly angry account of how Britain’s political and intellectual debate has been undermined by bad ideology and bad faith.

Let me start by saying that Mr. Browne’s sense of outrage sometimes gets the better of him, leading him to lob bombs at some fairly unimportant targets. There really is no point getting too indignant about the notion for instance, that Britain’s Black Police Association, is by its very nature somehow guilty of practicing the same discrimination that it exists to combat. There are bigger issues that need to be addressed.

PC has become almost a comic catchphrase of late: Think of the tabloid storms about “white” coffee or the use of “chair” versus “chairman.”

But the case which directly led to the writing of the pamphlet was literally a matter of life and death. Researching a story on the spread of AIDS, Mr. Browne published an article stating that an exponential increase in the number of cases of infection was mainly caused by HIV-positive immigrants from Africa. The response from ministers, civil servants and large parts of the media establishment was incredulity. No one, you see, wanted to be thought of as racist.

As Mr. Browne puts it:

“There was endemic dishonesty towards the public, but because everyone was in denial to each other, few realised it because their virtual reality had become the widely acknowledged truth. This received wisdom was in fact easy to disprove — it just required looking at some government tables — but everyone had an emotional investment in not disproving it … . The only people who phoned me up to thank me about it were HIV doctors, who lived in the real world, not the politically correct virtual one.”

Eventually, Mr. Browne was vindicated. How many lives might have been saved, though, if his words had been heeded from the beginning?

As to how to vanquish the worst excesses of PC, he acknowledges that the July 7 bombings have already helped nudge public opinion in the direction of common sense. (Much as Theo Van Gogh’s murder prompted second thoughts in ultra-liberal Holland.) To help the process along, Mr. Browne suggests Britain consider introducing its own version of a First Amendment (although the fact that much of the PC vocabulary is imported from the United States suggests there are limits to how much that would achieve) as well as U.S.-style citizens’ initiatives and referenda.

There have been positive aspects, of course, to the PC revolution. Mr. Browne acknowledges as much. But, peering far ahead into the future, he suspects that the rise of the new powers in the East, China and India, will sound the death knell for the politically correct.

When there is more than one hyper-affluent consumer civilization on the world stage, western self-loathing will start to look even more ridiculous and self-indulgent than it does now. It’s a very distant prospect, to be sure, but I’ll cling to that thought next time I’m obliged to dine out with Chairman Mao.

We all know publishers and agents are fickle souls, forever at the prey of the next big fashion, but their spectacularly unimpressive performance in a recent literary stunt still came as a shock. Curious to discover how sharp an eye the talent spotters possess, a national newspaper sent manuscripts to 20 firms and awaited a response.

Not any old manuscripts either, but the opening chapters to two Booker Prize-winning novels from the 1970s — “Holiday” by Stanley Middleton and V.S. Naipaul’s rather better-known “In A Free State.”

The result? Just one acceptance letter for the Middleton, rejections all round for the Naipaul. Sir Vidia sounded rueful but none too surprised when he was given the news: “With all the other forms of entertainment today,” he said, “there are very few people around who would understand what a good paragraph is.”

At one level, I wasn’t particularly surprised. More than ever before, the fiction trade is addicted to glamour and celebrity names. On the other hand, having once worked as a reader at a famous publishing house (novelist-to-be Zoe Heller was one of my co-drones), I would have thought editors might be desperate to seize on any manuscript that seemed reasonably competent.

In my days as a gatekeeper, I spent about six months in a Bloomsbury office, goggling at the ineptitude of the stuff that came through the letter box, often with breathless recommendations from topflight agents.

One then-unpublished first novel — an historical tale about Garibaldi and the Risorgimento — had already been optioned by an extremely famous Hollywood producer. Apart from the inept prose and plotting, it seemed to me deeply unpromising that the author never seemed able to decide how to spell “Risorgimento.”

Perhaps I came across one or two decent novels in that time, but if so, I don’t recall what they were. Had anything resembling a Naipaul landed on my desk, I would have danced a jig. Today, the first question might be: “Would he look good in a swimsuit in Vanity Fair?”

Clive Davis writes for the London Times, and keeps a weblog at www.clivedavis-online.com.

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