Last week I went to hear Jung Chang and Jon Halliday talk about their new biography of Mao Tse-tung at a lecture in memory of the Great Helmsman of Moderation, Roy Jenkins. Almost every claim made in favour of Mao, they argued, is untrue — that peasant villages rose up in support of the Communists (not a single one did, say the authors), that the Communists bravely fought and defeated the Japanese, that the Chinese Communist party was a popular mass movement in China (in fact it was the creature of Stalin). When I was at boarding school in the early Seventies, almost the only free literature readily available was propaganda from the Chinese chargé d’affaires in London. We sent off for copies of the Little Red Book and for magazines which showed pictures of peasants studying it in the fields like secular versions of Millet’s ‘Angelus’. For us, it was mostly a joke. None of us felt towards Mao the frisson of horror we were all taught to feel for Hitler. In our occasional arguments on the subject, the pro-Mao faction would say, ‘Yes, he is repressive, but at least the peasants don’t starve.’ The anti-Mao faction (of which I was one) accepted the point about the peasants not starving but continued to argue that the repression was wrong all the same. In fact, the peasants did starve. Jung Chang and Halliday calculate that 32 million of them died in the Great Leap Forward which ended in the early Sixties. Of course, we were ignorant schoolboys, but what still shocks is how few grown-ups in the West sought out the truth. Even today, until this book, it has been muted. It was clever of Mao to call his last great policy of repression, purge and death a Cultural Revolution. The word ‘culture’ produces Pavlovian sympathy among many Western politicians, intellectuals and artists. It would be worth reminding ourselves of their names, and what they said in Mao’s praise.
Why do the papers say that the European constitution is buried, or even ‘in deep storage’? What last week’s European Council meeting actually agreed (Britain included) was that the ‘No’ votes in Holland and France ‘do not call into question the validity of continuing with the ratification process’. The Council agreed to meet early in 2006 to review progress. Surely the most likely thing is a change of a few provisions, and a relaunch, perhaps by Tony Blair.
Most of my colleagues find the present Archbishop of Canterbury wrong-headed, woolly, confusing and weak. His strictures against journalism last week have duly been denounced. It is true that Dr Williams is somehow mentally as well as physically bearded: his thoughts come out muffled, apparently indistinct. This is a fault of donnishness which can and should be cured by — dare one suggest it? — some media training. But what impresses me about the man is that he really does approach the whole of life from a Christian point of view. This marks him out from most of his predecessors who, though good Christians, tended just to stick vestments on the liberal orthodoxy of the age. Dr Williams, on the other hand, is always thinking about the tendency of the world (as in ‘the world, the flesh and the devil’) to deploy power brutally, as it did at the Crucifixion. This applies not only to war, money and state power, but to subtler things, such as how we communicate. In art, education, politics, media he looks for what he calls ‘a wide imaginative horizon’, and is right to find it often absent. His talk about the press dealt thoughtfully, for example, about how, being a metropolitan elite, we do not understand ‘local or civic loyalties’. The fact that his speech was widely attacked without, in most cases, being fully reported, precisely confirmed his point — that we in the press need to ‘show more awareness of [our] own limited and therefore compromised position’. The Archbishop did not use the phrase, but he was attacking ‘hardness of heart’.
Dr Williams noted the ‘unpoliced conversation’ that is the internet. Its lack of policing is surely a wonderful thing, but I do find it a trial every morning to wade through 30 or so unsolicited messages from holiday companies, Viagra sellers (with the spelling slightly scrambled to avoid firewalls), people who believe they are being watched by aliens and congratulations on winning prize draws for which one has never entered. Now a new, more sinister email has started to pop up. ‘Every child is precious,’ it says, and it comes from a middle-aged white man called Gordon Brown, who tells us what he is doing with children in Africa. One wonders if one should report this sort of thing to the authorities.
People like Rowan Atkinson and Stephen Fry have argued impressively against the forthcoming Bill banning the incitement to religious hatred. The worry, though, is that such grandees may not be in a position to defend those who are really threatened. ‘The arts’, publicly funded and fawned upon, will probably be more or less safe from prosecution and even from the fear of it. The danger will be much greater at a more humble level of society, where the possibility of prosecution will cast a chill on everything. Why risk putting on a school play which satirises Muslims, or run a cartoon in a local paper just for someone who doesn’t like you to start making trouble and claim the backing of the law in doing so? Why help distribute Bibles to hospitals, or promote Christianity in prisons or in schools if someone is going to tell your employer that you ‘have a problem’ with other religions?
Iqbal Sacranie, head of the Muslim Council of Britain, says that ‘there is no such thing as an Islamic terrorist. This is deeply offensive. Saying Muslims are terrorists would be covered by this provision [the Bill].’ He has just been made Sir Iqbal. I hope he helps us clamp down on this nasty slur: ‘They would extinguish the light of God with their mouths: but God seeks only to perfect His light, though the infidels abhor it.’ It is from the Koran, and the people insulted are Jews and Christians. The same passage also says: ‘The Jews say Ezra is the Son of God.’ As a generalisation about Jews, this is clearly and insultingly untrue. Presumably things like this are said in mosques each Friday. Should the police be called?
Off, excitedly, to a preview of Stubbs and the Horse at the National Gallery. One thing, though, which no one can tell me: why was that famous horse called Whistlejacket? What is a whistlejacket?