The View From the Top Table: On Timothy Garton Ash

The View From the Top Table: On Timothy Garton Ash

The View From the Top Table: On Timothy Garton Ash

Timothy Garton Ash is a fine writer of "analytic reportage," but his work has lately displayed symptoms of columnitis.


Toward the end of his life, George Orwell declared that his overriding aim had been "to make political writing into an art." The more we ponder this celebrated phrase, the more problematic it comes to seem. There is the initial question about what it could mean to make such writing into an art ("into an art," not "into Art," suggesting something nearer to cookery than to ballet). Orwell’s syntax also makes us wonder what this sort of writing had been before, such that he needed to effect this transformation on it. (Or is it just the transformation of his earlier political writing?) Any writer can, of course, have more than one goal in mind at the same time, but the phrase also prompts us to consider whether this was the best, or even an appropriate, way to describe, say, Orwell’s revelations about the Communists in the Spanish Civil War or his denunciations of the "russophile intelligentsia" at home? What relation had this overarching aesthetic project borne toward the more immediate purposes of getting some facts known and some untruths exposed? Is more artful or artistic political writing likely to achieve these goals more effectively, or the reverse? Orwell was famously the apostle of "plain speaking," telling it like it is, but perhaps, we come to think, that is not quite such a straightforward matter. Perhaps it requires no little art if we wish to be plain.

"Political writing" is the label Timothy Garton Ash applies to Facts Are Subversive, a selection of his work from the past decade, and he is explicit about his indebtedness to, and admiration for, Orwell. Garton Ash identified his life’s work with some precocity: "In the long summer after I took my first degree at Oxford, I read the whole of Orwell’s work, read him self-consciously as example and guide for a would-be writer." He then sought out some very Orwellian subjects to write about—East Germany in the grip of the Stasi, Poland in the heady days of Solidarity, Czechoslovakia during the Velvet Revolution of 1989. He wrote from the front line, having become friends with several leading Eastern European dissidents, but he also wrote as a trained historian. In the 1990s he went on to cultivate this dual identity in relation to other political and military hot spots in Europe, notably the Balkans. By this point he held a fellowship at St Antony’s, the Oxford postgraduate college that specializes in the politics and cultures of, essentially, the non-Anglophone world, and he had begun to contribute long, vivid, well-informed essays to The New York Review of Books. In addition to more detailed historical monographs, he also published collections of his occasional writings, beginning in 1989 with The Uses of Adversity, followed eleven years later by History of the Present. The latter volume contained a spirited defense of the "hybrid" enterprise he was engaged in, falling across and between journalism and scholarship, usually combining firsthand reporting with in-depth analysis.

Since that last collection, he has extended his geographical range well beyond Europe, writing increasingly about the United States (since 2000 he has held a part-time appointment at the Hoover Institution at Stanford) but also about Brazil, Iran, Burma and elsewhere. Above all, the past decade has seen him addressing the many cultures and questions folded into the term "Islam," whether pondering sympathetically the plight of poor immigrant communities of Muslims in Europe or the larger geopolitical questions focused around "terrorism." And since 2002 he has had a regular column in the Guardian that is syndicated to various publications across the world. So he is now acknowledged as an influential commentator on international politics, invited to advise heads of state almost as often as he is asked to speak to packed auditoriums around the globe.

The appearance of this third collection is an occasion for asking how far Garton Ash has made political writing into an art, and indeed, to what extent that is a desirable goal. American readers may be forgiven for thinking that it is a kind of writing on which the English have something of a corner—though, interestingly, few of the leading contemporary practitioners are in fact Anglo-English. For example, Ian Buruma is Anglo-Dutch, Perry Anderson Anglo-Irish; Tony Judt (who died in August) grew up in England as the child of Russian Jews before spending the later decades of his life in the United States. Garton Ash is at least as cosmopolitan as any of his peers (a better linguist than many, better traveled than most), though he is the only one who is Anglo-English and has remained tied to Oxford. This company also helps identify some of Garton Ash’s distinctiveness: he is, for example, less of a storyteller than Buruma, less analytical and Olympian than Anderson, less angular and polemical than Judt. His forte is the exceptionally well-informed, vivid account of the personal, cultural and geopolitical elements at work at a moment of political decision in a country most of his readers previously knew little about. His writing is more personal and more dramatic than that of most historians, but more scholarly and more comparative than that of almost all journalists.

* * * 

For all his admiration of Orwell, Garton Ash is a very different type of animal. He is a historian-journalist, not a novelist-journalist (or at least if he does write fiction he has yet to publish any of it). He is an academic, albeit of an unconventional kind, as well as, increasingly, a familiar of those who exercise power. It is almost impossible to imagine Orwell as a professor at an Oxford college or hobnobbing with world leaders. Though an Old Etonian, Orwell contrived to view the world from the bottom of the social heap as often as he could, living as a tramp in England, a plongeur in Paris, a volunteer in Spain, and cultivating his spiky isolation, ultimately retreating to the remote Scottish island of Jura. Garton Ash is far more mondain: his is the view from the top table, though with a hot line to the leading dissidents (especially the leading dissidents) and backed up by visits to villages and shantytowns. He nicely refers at one point to Orwell’s "sandpapery charm," but his own is silky smooth, scarcely ever abrading the reader’s sensibilities. I wonder whether he is not a little torn between the glamour of being acknowledged as one of the world elite, rubbing shoulders with the powerful at the World Economic Forum at Davos and so on, and the alternative glamour of being the graduate student who was spied upon by the Stasi (this is his equivalent of Orwell’s bullet in the throat on behalf of the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War).

A figure he admires scarcely less than Orwell is Isaiah Berlin. In reviewing a collection of Berlin’s early letters, Garton Ash probes the identity of the almost ostentatiously Anglicized, indeed Oxfordized, Russian Jew, citing Berlin’s sense of himself as a "Metic" (an alien living in an ancient Greek city who was not a citizen). And then suddenly Garton Ash breaks in with: "Often the difference between an academic and an intellectual lies precisely in this stubborn grain of alienation. All intellectuals are mental Metics." It’s a common enough contention; the second sentence needs only "Discuss" after it to become an ageless exam question. But is it true of Garton Ash? I know nothing of his biography except what is easily available in the public domain, and there may be deep rather than merely contingent explanations behind his having a Polish wife and spending much of his late 20s and early 30s in Central Europe. But just going by his published persona, the "stubborn grain of alienation" would be hard to identify. It’s true he is more international in his outlook than many educated Englishmen of his generation, but he is scarcely unique in that, even if exceptionally impressive in his range. In Garton Ash’s case, I suspect (this is pure speculation on my part) that his "alienation," such as it may have been, was less from the norms of educated English culture than from the limitations of academic research. Not—as he makes clear a little too frequently and insistently—that he has been at all tempted by any postmodern playfulness about the status of objective truth; the title of this volume bespeaks his continuing empiricist confidence on that score. But he appears always to have possessed the kind of restless curiosity, literary energy and fascination with the here and now that might have found the protocols of conventional historical scholarship a little too constraining. In this, as well as in his cosmopolitanism and his confidence, he may resemble another of Berlin’s great admirers, Michael Ignatieff.

To range oneself alongside such figures as Orwell and Berlin is to declare oneself a certain kind of "liberal," as well, perhaps, as a particular kind of anticommunist insofar as that is still a relevant identity. Garton Ash speaks up eloquently for legal and political freedoms in places where they are conspicuously lacking (most obviously in Burma and Iran), but he is a little less forthcoming about his understanding of the relations between liberty, on the one hand, and economic forces, on the other. He eschews any theorizing about this, reasonably enough given the constraints of journalism, but his passing comments suggest that he believes that "free markets" are the essential precondition of "free individuals," a view that may be axiomatic at the Hoover Institution but that, from the standpoint of some other (European?) traditions of political thought, may seem closer to the IMF than to J.S. Mill.

Ruminating on capitalism’s global triumph, Garton Ash observes, "Most anti-globalists, alter-mondialistes and, indeed, green activists are much better at pointing out the failings of global capitalism than they are at suggesting systemic alternatives. ‘Capitalism should be replaced by something nicer’ read a placard at a May Day demonstration in London a few years back." He ends his paragraph there, without offering any further comment on the placard’s slogan. This led me to wonder why he had quoted it. Does it seem to him to clinch his argument, to sum up the ineffectual yearning behind most anticapitalist sentiment, self-condemning in its feebleness? Or, assuming wit and playfulness on the part of the slogan’s author, does he quote it to endorse a rueful or knowing sense of being stymied, sending up one’s own lack of realistic proposals? (Does he, for that matter, rule out the possibility that it was the work of an anarchist infiltrator, satirizing and thus hoping to subvert the protest?) Does Garton Ash, I wonder, really want capitalism to be replaced by something nicer? Most of the time he seems pretty happy with capitalism as it is.

Although his reach is now global, Garton Ash still writes with particular authority on Germany and Eastern Europe (his essay on Günter Grass’s belated revelation of his time in the Waffen-SS is perhaps the most compelling piece in the book, clear-eyed about the damage to the novelist’s moral stature yet charitable about the pressures and confusions behind this representative German experience), and the anticommunist movements of the late cold war era remain important points of reference: "1989 established a new model of nonviolent revolution that now often supplants, or at least competes with, the older, violent model we associate with 1789." He also writes well about the European Union, why it’s necessary and how it’s flawed. He argues that it doesn’t require some additional kind of "Euronationalism" or historical myth on the lines of "From Charlemagne to the euro" to make it work better, but it may require more democracy. He astutely emphasizes that the power of the EU is at its greatest over those states that are on the point of being considered for membership and are therefore keen to acquire the necessary democratic and liberal credentials. And he has a lovely little tongue-in-cheek riff on the country that would make "the perfect EU member," the country that already has all the ideal political, economic and cultural qualities, including a commitment to using two of the major European languages, a willingness to contribute to peacekeeping and a suspicion of encroaching American influence. Also, its people are notoriously nice, though they do live rather a long way away from Europe. (Has anyone not got the joke yet?)

Since political writing is not itself a single form, we have to recognize that this collection comprises examples of three genres: the longish review essay, the public lecture and the regular newspaper column. They involve different opportunities and constraints, each requiring a different voice or relation to its implied reader. Garton Ash is very good at all three, spectacularly so with the review essay, but they do not all translate equally well into book form. There is no problem with the longer review essays. The lectures mostly survive the transition well enough, though readers of the book version are bound to feel they are hearing an echo of an occasion that had its own remit and its own intimacy. But the columns? The column is the adrenaline shot of opinion that we fuel up on at breakfast or on the commute to work; it’s the fast food of the mind. Served hot, it has a useful function; but served cold?

Contemporary "serious" newspapers carry a lot of columnists, and perhaps, as breaking news becomes easily available in other forms, the columns will be more and more the Unique Selling Point of the individual paper (perhaps they are already). The column is a handy pulpit, but the requirement to preach when the appointed day comes round, whether or not the columnist has anything new or important to say, can be damaging to one’s intellectual and literary judgment. The condition diagnosed as Compulsive Columnist Disorder may set in: the writer can’t help expressing confident and authoritative-sounding views upon almost any subject. Garton Ash often has something important to say, and he strikes me as one of the best exponents of this peculiar craft currently writing in the British press (I speak here as a regular reader of the Guardian). But even he cannot escape the déformation professionelle of the trade.

Garton Ash has always been an accomplished writer, and his virtuosity is frequently on display in this collection. For example, on seeing young men in Burma wearing Western clothes: "A few already wear their baseball caps reversed: globalization’s moronic meme." The deft use of the colon adds a kind of laconic force to the sigh here, the better to allow the alliteration to do its rhythmic work. Or again, he describes how, reading his own Stasi file, he was "deeply stirred by its minute-by-minute record of my past life: 325 pages of poisoned madeleine." But it is a question, to say the least, whether the ready availability of a column has had a salutary effect on Garton Ash’s style. His sentences now tend to be short enough and clear enough to win approval from the most grizzled sub-editor, but this is not always a virtue. I have to say I frequently had the opposite reaction to the one we all tend to have when reading Henry James: I longed for a few subordinate clauses. For example: "The facts themselves must be checked against all the available evidence. But some are round and hard—and the most powerful leaders in the world trip over them. So can writers, dissidents and saints. There have been worse times for facts." And so on. There’s nothing technically wrong with these sentences (journalism can stand a few "sentences" that contain no finite verb), but the effect starts to become monotonous and uninflected. There is this. There is that. And there is something else.

Even Garton Ash occasionally displays some of the secondary symptoms of columnitis: trite phrases, tired clichés and egregious puns (when his piece on Isaiah Berlin’s letters appeared in the NYRB, it was certainly not titled, as it is here, "Ich bin ein Berliner"). At the end of his admirable discussion of the need for European citizens of non-Muslim background to forestall the slide into disaffection and extremism by everyday acts of welcome and respect, he asks whether it is still possible that they will rise to this challenge, and answers, "Yes, but it’s already five minutes to midnight—and we are drinking in the last chance saloon." In this case, the double cliché is doubly disturbing: the jacked-up alarmism of the columnist is bad enough, but in addition the slackness of the clichés undermine the moral strenuousness he is attempting to encourage. Or again, when reflecting on the changes that have come over Europe in the past half century, he writes, "Most Europeans now live in liberal democracies. That has never before been the case; not in 2,500 years. It’s worth celebrating." Well, perhaps, but what could the emphatic gloss "not in 2,500 years" actually mean? There weren’t exactly a lot of "liberal democracies" around for the first 2,300 years of that period; indeed the concepts of "liberal" and "democracy" were scarcely current except in peculiar and now archaic senses of the words. Not only does this seem triumphalist whiggism of an uncharacteristically simple-minded kind, but it echoes the cadence of stump oratory.

It is hard not to feel, in reading the shorter pieces gathered here, that a certain forced punchiness is the stylistic correlative of his confidence that there is a right course of action in world politics and that we (whoever "we" are) are the ones to undertake it. To his credit, he reproduces the piece he wrote for the Guardian on the eve of the decision to invade Iraq, in which he summarized the arguments for and against, concluding inconclusively that "I remain unconvinced of the case for—and doubtful of the case against." With hindsight, he concedes that the arguments against invasion have stood up to analysis, and to events, a hell of a lot better than the arguments for, and that many Iraqis believe that things in their country were worse subsequently than under Saddam. Nonetheless, he reflects—and I respect his honesty as well as his principles here—"I still defend the right of the commentator not always to take sides, but in this case I got it wrong. Next time, I shall need a great deal more convincing. I’m not alone in that."

So far, so admirable. But the brevity of the form leaves us wondering whether Garton Ash endorses what appears to be the implicit premise, namely that the United States, or any other powerful country acting unilaterally, has the right to play the role of the world’s disciplinarian. In his original article he took Tony Blair to be acting as "a Gladstonian Christian liberal interventionist." That’s a pretty fancy gloss on what looked to many people even at the time to be unjustified, overconfident disregard for the lives of citizens of another sovereign state with whom Britain was not at war. The issue was, needless to say, very complex, but perhaps the quoted phrase obscures rather than illuminates the real issues. Insofar as one can draw parallels, one can perhaps imagine Gladstone authorizing a military expedition to protect British subjects or to help rescue persecuted Christians, but that’s a long way from the desolation visited upon contemporary Iraq largely because Britain’s more powerful ally felt it needed to do something in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

* * *

Garton Ash, I should make clear, is very far from being one of the intellectual cheerleaders for Pentagon hawkishness. He is not to be counted among those liberals who were Bush’s "useful idiots," and since 2003 he has been clear and emphatic in his negative verdict on that administration’s foreign policy. He recognizes what is so misleading and so dangerous about the idea of a "war on terror" (at most, "it’s a war to prevent such people wanting to become terrorists in the first place"), just as he will have no truck with those calling for a secular jihad against "Islamofascism." His views are measured and thoughtful, even if they do not always command agreement. What I am pointing to is not a ground for disagreement, especially in this particular case, which involved a difficult decision about which opinion was very divided at the time. What I’m pointing to, rather, is the brisk confidence with which he draws up the moral balance sheet on very complex issues and the taken-for-grantedness of the assumption that there exists a power with the agency, and the right, to try to arrange the pieces on the global chessboard to produce the "correct" answer. He emphasizes that he favors the "promotion" of democracy and does not think we should "sit on the sidelines and jeer" at the United States when its attempts turn out badly. But if we restate this sentiment in less pejorative language, do we not think it is one of the tasks of the independent commentator to remind governments of the limits of their knowledge and the frailty of their designs? This is not the same as head-in-the-sand irresponsibility or purer-than-thou moralism; it is, rather, a matter of being true to one’s intellectual vocation. There may be times when it might be better to decline the invitation to pronounce or to advise the powerful, not just because a region or a problem may be beyond one’s competence but also because briskly identifying the lesser evil tends to be habit-forming, working at the expense of that more extended brooding on a subject that not only probes beneath the surface of the evidence but also puts pressure on one’s own intellectual categories.

This is not about the seductions of power; it is about the seductions of the pulpit. In an ideal world (perhaps that same world in which Canada could become a member of the EU), one might imagine Garton Ash taking a sabbatical from opinion for a while, a vow of journalistic silence. Perhaps he could withdraw to a (well-appointed) cave in North Oxford and brood on questions of agency and causality, on issues of language and description, on the relations between the roar of the world and the whisper of thought. Perhaps a different form of that "stubborn grain of alienation" would help. After all, the slow food movement needs its slow thought counterpart. There are few better practitioners of the genre of "analytical reportage," as he calls it, than Timothy Garton Ash, and I admire the boldness and energy with which he has cultivated this particular métier. I would admire him still more if, when assembling his essays in book form, he concluded that even his best columns should not be subjected to the rigors of a curtain call.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy