Saturday, July 26, 2003

My summer holiday starts on Wednesday, and quite frankly, it can’t come a moment too soon. Trying to make sense of the anti-war campaign, the controversy over the British Broadcasting Corporation and the latest attacks on Tony Blair has been so bewildering that I cannot decide whether I am a patient on a psychiatric ward or whether I am just visiting.

That particular cloud has been following me around for quite a while now. Just a few months after September 11, for instance, I had a polite dinner party conversation with a B.B.C. luminary who took the standard anti-American line on international affairs. What seemed to distress him more than anything, though, was the fact that the world and its neighbor had taken to strolling around in that time-honored emblem of U.S. power, blue jeans.

Now there are, of course, all sorts of aesthetic arguments for and against these jeans (I happen to like them, with or without cowboy boots), but if you are going to denounce them as a symbol of global capitalism, it is probably a good idea to make sure you are not wearing a pair at the time. The man from the Beeb had clearly forgotten to check below his waistband. And a very nice, expensive-looking pair of denims they were too.

But then, as he explained when I pointed out this slight, um, inconsistency, it was safe for him to wear them: He was much more concerned about the manipulation of “the masses” (yes, there are people who still use that hoary old Marxist term) than educated middle-class people like himself. At this point I realized there was no point pursuing the argument unless I was willing to get into a fight, and to be honest even at that early stage in the new world order I was tired of arguing. Logic makes little impression on the anti-U.S. camp. Either you sign up with their conventional wisdom or you are guilty of thought crime. There is no middle ground.

In the end, you can only trust your eyes and ears. When I watched Tony Blair’s speech to Congress I came away feeling it was a decent speech by a decent man. But I must have been wrong, because a day or two later, listening to a discussion on B.B.C. radio, I heard a respected newspaper columnist describe the Prime Minister as “near-psychopathic”. No one, I noticed, around the table sprang to Mr. Blair’s defense. When I picked up the latest issue of the left-wing weekly The New Statesman, I found one of its main articles gave a group of psychiatrists and psychologists the opportunity to put the prime minister on the couch.

“One view emerged strongly,” the article declared. “There appears to be something worryingly adrift in the mind of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, a man who doesn’t really know who or what he is. More technically, he is diagnosed as a psychopath capable of reinventing himself with remarkable dexterity, like an actor.”

So much for rational debate. It’s to Tony Blair’s enormous credit that he has been willing to try to engage the enemy in a grownup conversation. So far it has not done him much good (even the Tories are debasing themselves by cashing in on the postwar hysteria). I fully expect him to have the last word once Saddam and his WMDs are finally run to ground, but in the meantime, it would be nice to think that he was getting more concentrated support from Washington.

Speeches to joint houses of Congress certainly play well in the States, but they look less impressive to a skeptical British public which still largely sees the world through the distorted prism of a B.B.C. bulletin. Much as I admire George Bush, I have to admit that presidential asides about the “bad people” in Guantanamo Bay make Mr. Blair’s job even more difficult. America should be winning all the big arguments on this side of the Atlantic, but at the moment it is losing them by default simply because it is not making enough of an effort to state its case.

All the nostalgic talk of the WWII alliance and the Anglosphere is blinding Washington opinion-formers to the uncomfortable truth that Middle Britain, and the middle classes especially, can no longer automatically be counted as allies. What is needed is not so much a propaganda offensive as an attempt to convey the basic facts about the United States’ role as the world’s leading liberal democracy. Ignorance about American history and politics runs very deep here. Anti-Americans, on both left and right, are making the biggest noise. But noise is all it is. It is time to demonstrate that the Emperor has no clothes — except, that is, for a secondhand pair of blue jeans.

At least the blogging community is taking the battle to the enemy. For the past year my morning routine has included a regular visit to Oxblog, the foreign policy site run by a trio of American graduates currently studying amidst the dreaming spires. A new addition to my “must-read” list is The Belgravia Dispatch, a collection of daily jottings and links assembled by Gregory Djerejian, a New York lawyer and self-confessed news junkie. An alumnus of Georgetown Law School and the School of Foreign Service, Mr. Djerejian set up the weblog earlier this year after moving to London to work for a financial services company.

Hence the title of the weblog: He lives near Hyde Park and his office is just around the corner from the quaint sculpture of FDR and Churchill seated side by side on a bench in Bond Street.

Last month he scored his biggest scoop so far when he managed to embarrass the Guardian into apologizing for an absurd news item claiming that Paul Wolfowitz had “admitted” that the United States had gone to war in Iraq over oil. Mr. Djerejian’s suspicions had been aroused the moment he saw the story in the paper’s on-line edition. It took only a quick Google search for him to establish that the piece was a flagrant distortion of Mr. Wolfowitz’s actual comments, made to a security conference in Singapore. “I figured it was such a whopper that I had to write it up straight away,” Mr. Djejerian told me when I dropped in on him last week.

He duly sent his copy to the influential weblogs run by Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Reynolds. Within minutes cyberspace was on the Guardian’s trail. The paper duly issued a shame-faced retraction — although not in time to prevent countless newspapers around the world repeating the falsehood.

My other new on-line discovery is the weblog run by British journalist and prominent Blairite Stephen Pollard, an engagingly combative commentator who could be described as the nearest thing the UK media has to a brawling neoconservative. He achieved journalistic immortality two years ago when he wrote a valedictory leader column in the Daily Express which concealed a coded obscenity directed at the paper’s new owner, a soft porn publisher by the name of Richard Desmond.

Mr. Pollard can be just as rude in his weblog, which is partly why I enjoy dipping into it. An unequivocal supporter of the war on Iraq, he called for a “shock and awe” campaign against British doves after the fall of Baghdad. Anyone taken prisoner by him can kiss goodbye to the Geneva Conventions.

Curiously enough, Mr. Pollard says one lesson of running his weblog is that he has come to appreciate the role of an editor in shaping a good piece of journalism. Having no barrier between his own thoughts and his readers is not, he suspects, entirely a healthy state of affairs. Still, so far he only regrets running one piece, which lobbed an ill-considered insult at the anti-war marchers.

It was, he told me, the only item he has ever pulled from the website. On the day we spoke he was still fuming at the New Statesman’s “contemptible” psychoanalysis of the prime minister. A regular contributor to the magazine Mr. Pollard had decided to sever all links with it. Another front has opened in the British media’s civil war. The lunatics are fighting back.

Clive Davis writes for the London Times.

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