Podcast / Start Making Sense / Nov 30, 2023

D.D. Guttenplan on Ending the War in Gaza and John Powers on Slow Horses

D.D. Guttenplan on Ending the War in Gaza and John Powers on “Slow Horses”

On this episode of Start Making Sense, The Nation’s editor talks about the peace movement, and our critic reviews the British spy show on TV.

A peace walk in Cologne, Germany, on November 19, 2023.
A peace walk in Cologne, Germany, on November 19, 2023. (Ying Tang / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

People with very different visions of what a just peace between Israel and the Palestinians might look like must work together to stop the war: That’s what D.D. Guttenplan argues. He’s the editor in chief of The Nation.

Also: Slow Horses, the British spy series based on the books by Mick Herron, is starting its third season this week. John Powers has our review.

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The Families that Made Fortunes Selling Opium, plus the News from Haiti | Start Making Sense
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The blue-blood families that made fortunes in the opium trade: Amitav Ghosh recounts the origins of much of the wealth for the 19th century New England elite on this episode of the Start Making Sense podcast. He wrote the cover story for The Nation's latest print issue. His new book is called Smoke and Ashes.

Also on this episode: The latest US moves in Haiti are framed in democratic rhetoric but are deeply anti-democratic in their effect. Amy Wilentz is on the podcast to explain. She’s written two books about Haiti, most recently the award-winning Farewell Fred Voodoo.

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Jon Wiener: From The Nation Magazine, this is Start Making Sense. I’m Jon Wiener. Later in the show, Slow Horses, the British spy series based on the books by Mick Herron, is starting its season three on TV this week. John Powers has our review.  But first: what we need to get to a just peace between Israel and Palestine: D. D. Guttenplan will comment – in a minute.

[BREAK]

The ceasefire in Gaza has been extended, which means more Israeli hostages will be returned in exchange for the release of more Palestinian prisoners and more convoys of aid trucks will provide food, fuel, and medicine to the residents of Gaza. More than a million of them have been driven from their homes by the Israeli military. What will it take to move from the current ceasefire to a real solution to this conflict? For that, we turn to D. D. Guttenplan. He’s editor of The Nation. His books include American Radical: The Life and Times of I.F. Stone, also The Nation: A Biography, and The Next Republic: The Rise of a New Radical Majority. We reached him today in the magazine’s offices in Manhattan. Don, welcome back.

D. D. Guttenplan: Thanks, Jon. Always good to be with you.

JW: You write in The Nation that, “The only plausible, peaceful solution to this conflict has long been obvious.” What is it?

DDG: Well, quoting Edward Said, as I always do when I’m thinking about Israel and Palestine, because no one has thought about it as clearly or as deeply as he, this is a piece of land that two peoples think they both have a perfect right to and the only just solution when two peoples believe they have a perfect right to something, if you concede that neither of them are delusional, and I understand that there are those who don’t concede that, but I think Edward did concede it, and I certainly concede it, is to share the land. Now that leads onto a whole series of very important questions. One state? Two states? Shared sovereignty? And I’m not dismissing or diminishing the importance of those questions, but the obvious part is that they’re going to have to share the land, which means they’re going to have to live with each other, which means they’re going to have to stop murdering each other.

JW: Let us note that the official announced position of the Biden administration stated by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken on November 8th is that “the Palestinian people’s voices and aspirations must be at the center of post-crisis governance in Gaza” and that “Palestinian-led governance and Gaza unified with the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority are US requirements… Palestinians living side by side with Israelis in states of their own with equal measures of security, freedom, opportunity, and dignity.”  The official American policy. That’s pretty close to what we want, isn’t it? 

DDG: Well, it’s what some of us want. I mean, I would say some of your listeners, some of our readers, want a two-state solution, some of them would prefer a single secular democratic state. I think that’s a debate worth having at some point, but I don’t think this is the point. I will say this, that yes, the position of the US government has been in favor of two states since Camp David, and it remains the position. It is also true that to adapt Abba Eban’s formula about the Palestinians, the United States government has missed many opportunities to actually do something about moving towards a two-state solution as opposed to offering lip service.

I mean, for example, many governments around the world recognize the State of Palestine as a government. If the United States had done that 10 years ago, 15 years ago, even five years ago, that would’ve strengthened the hand of the Palestinian authority for all its faults. And its abiding virtue for those of us who believe in sharing the land is that it accepts the obligation to share the land, whereas Hamas does not. So the United States government had it within its power. It has it within its power tomorrow to say, ‘If the Palestinians can form a unity government, we will recognize it as the authority over whatever territory they arrive at in negotiations with the state of Israel.’ They haven’t done that, but they could.

JW: Well, the immediate task is to make the current ceasefire permanent. The two forces doing the most to achieve that are first of all the movement in Israel to bring home the hostages. There was a demonstration in Tel Aviv last Saturday night with a hundred thousand people I read, and then Joe Biden, who’s been pushing Netanyahu hard on the ceasefire and hostage exchange. But I think Biden needs us to overcome the pressure from APAC and its many allies in Congress who, of course, call for a renewal of Israel’s war in Gaza. So the strength of the peace camp in the United States is extremely important.

And as you have noted, the two-state solution has always been defeated. A one state solution has never been considered, but we need to work again for some resolution along these lines, and that means we need to assemble the broadest, most effective coalition possible. That is the theme of your editorial in The Nation. You point out that for starters, we all need to engage in what you call the delicate challenging task of learning to speak a shared language and just to show how delicate and difficult this is, what about the term genocide?

DDG: What about the term genocide? I think brandishing the term genocide as your first resort to describing what’s happening in Gaza is a terrible disservice to actual victims of genocide. However, I have to say, my own thinking, and I thought that for some time, my own thinking though was moved by a piece that Omer Bartov wrote for The New York Times. Omer Bartov is one of the greatest living historians of genocide and he is deeply concerned to stop Israel before it commits genocide. So his point is if you want to stop a prospective genocide, don’t talk as if it’s already happened. Talk about the urgency of doing something now to stop it. And I think that that’s incredibly clear. It gives us a moral mandate for the urgency of both protesting and using the leverage that the US government has over the Israeli government, which I think Biden has been criminally slow to use.

JW: A term that we hear a lot on college campuses today, what about settler colonialism?

DDG: Well, again, settler colonialism is one of those terms that makes the people who deploy it feel better, feel superior. It is undeniable that the Israeli government, particularly when it’s a right-wing government, but also under Labor, has facilitated settlements in the occupied territories, which are violations of international law. So in that sense, certainly Israel can be described as acting like a settler colonial government. The problem with using that as a description of what’s happened and what’s happening is it negates the history of Israel, Zionism as a movement, and the people who live in Israel on two fronts. One is that the yearning of the Jewish people to return to Zion, even if it’s based on myth, which most religious beliefs are, is nonetheless a belief that’s been held for millennia. So you’re not going to argue people out of it just because you think it doesn’t make any sense.

And the second point is that by describing Israel as settler colonialist, you’re encouraging the fantasy that it is in some sense like the French in Algeria, which is to say, if you make life difficult enough for the Israelis, they’ll just leave. And first of all, most of them have nowhere else to go, so they’re not going to leave. That is their country just as Palestine is the country of the Palestinians, whether or not they have a state. And secondly, it erases the fact that at least half of current Israelis are Mizrahi Jews, i.e., Jews who come from the Arab world, which by most calculus of privilege means they don’t count as white.

So you’re negating those people’s existence by calling it simply a settler colonialist society as if they were all like the English people who came to Australia or Canada or for that matter to the United States. And that’s the third problem with it, which is, sure, let’s all oppose settler colonialism, but to quote Booker T. Washington, “Put your bucket down where you are.” So if you want to oppose settler colonialism, start a movement in America to return land to Native Americans. And when you’ve done that, then you have some credibility about returning other people’s land that were stolen from them.

JW: The Netanyahu government has promised to renew hostilities and their argument is Hamas is playing an extremely cynical game. They kidnap women and children because they know Israelis value Jewish life above all else and will stop the war briefly to get them back and playing Hamas’ game only gives them time to strengthen their terrorist movement. What do you say to all of that?

DDG: Well, there are two things that are wrong with that. One is you talked about Israeli hostages and Hamas prisoners, but of course a lot of the Hamas prisoners are children and women. So why not talk about hostages and hostages? The Israeli state takes hostages too. The second point though, and I think the more salient one, is that Netanyahu’s pledge to eliminate Hamas is a fantasy. As we point out in this editorial, Israel claimed to have eliminated something like 2,000 Hamas fighters, and that was at a cost of tens of thousands of civilians. So if there are 30,000 Hamas fighters as there’re supposed to be, we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties if Israel pursues the war in the same way that it pursued it before the pause. And all that that will do is generate generations more of recruits for whatever organization springs up to replace Hamas, even if Israel could succeed in eliminating it, which it can’t. So it’s not just a fantasy, it’s a murderous self-destructive fantasy and it needs to be abandoned and ended.

JW: And then what about the phrase “from the river to the sea?”

DDG: Well, I don’t mean to evade the question, Jon, but I think really people who want to argue about language when we need to be working hard to stop the slaughter are wasting time that is too valuable to waste. I remember going to stop the war demonstrations for the Iraq war in London 20 years ago and being put off by signs saying, “From the river to the sea, Palestine must be free,” because it struck me then as a non-Zionist, but someone with a lot of Zionists in my family that it was an argument for the elimination of the state of Israel, which again, you can make arguments for and against but I think any Jew who cares at all about the state of Israel will hear that as an argument for eliminating one ethno-state among all the ethno-states in the world.

So if what you are interested in, and this does come closer to the argument I make in The Nation, which is mostly not about language, it’s about a choice we have. And the choice is whether we want to achieve change or catharsis. Shouting about genocide, shouting slogans that alienate people who you need to have in your coalition in order to exert maximum pressure on the American and Israeli governments may make you feel better, but it is politically not as effective as using language that everybody can march behind, that everybody can assemble under, that we can all support and that doesn’t need to have to be explained to people because those explanations, sometimes they work and sometimes they just feel like gaslighting to the people who are being told, “Oh, you are wrong. You shouldn’t take offense at this.” Well, you can try and convince people they shouldn’t be put off, but maybe better to just work with them on the immediate objective of extending this pause to a real ceasefire.

And I have to say here, I want to give a shout-out to Bernie Sanders, who as always has shown the path to effective moral and political leadership. A lot of people on the left were trolling Bernie, particularly on social media, for his reluctance to advocate for a ceasefire, and The Nation advocated for a ceasefire weeks and weeks ago. That was our line, it remains our position. But if you look at what Bernie’s been doing lately, he’s been arguing for extending this pause, turning it into a ceasefire, and moving to negotiations which may well involve putting considerable pressure not just on the government of Israel, but also on Hamas and also on the Palestinian authority, but using the leverage that the US has and using the fact that although Israel has said for decades they won’t negotiate with terrorists, they always negotiate with terrorists. They’re negotiating now with Hamas. These are fruitful negotiations. If they’re fruitful enough to bring home the hostages, why not make them fruitful enough to stop this war?

JW: D.D. Guttenplan – his editorial, “To Stop the Slaughter in Gaza, We Need the Broadest Coalition Possible”was published at TheNation.Com. Thank you Don.

DDG: Thank you, Jon.

[BREAK]

Jon Wiener: Now it’s time to take a step back from Israel’s war in Gaza and talk about one of my favorite writers of books about spies, Mick Herron, author of the Slow Horses series of books and also TV shows, his return to TV Wednesday, November 29th with season three on Apple TV+. For comment, we turn to John Powers. He’s critic at large on the NPR show Fresh Air with Terry Gross, where he’s heard by something like 5 million listeners on the radio and another 3.5 million on the podcast.

John Powers: Wow.

JW: He’s worked for 25 years as a critic and columnist first for the LA Weekly, then Vogue. His work has also appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Nation.  Last time he was here, we talked about the films, Barbie and Oppy.  John Powers, welcome back.

JP: Glad to be here.

JW: You’re the first person I know who recommended Mick Herron’s books to me. At the beginning, the very first one that was titled Slow Horses, this was well before he became an international literary sensation with total sales of more than 3 million copies. There are now a total of eight books in the Slow Horses series plus one new one a few months ago that’s a prequel. For those who know nothing about all of this. What is the premise here? Who are the Slow Horses?

JP: They’re members of MI5 who have fallen out of favor for one reason or another with the people in power. They’ve either made a mistake in the field, they’ve had a drug problem, they’re overly violent, they are prying or unlikeable, and they get shipped over to a place called ‘Slough House’ where they are all working on almost nonsense jobs. And the reason why they simply haven’t been fired is that in the spy world, it raises too many questions of ministerial control and interest to go through all of that. So what they do is they simply farm them out to this place in the east end of London where they’re overseen by a brilliant spy named Jackson Lamb–played on this TV series by Gary Oldman–who was at once brilliant and staggeringly cruel and rude to all of them as he tells them how stupid they are, farts in their faces,   is constantly drunk, looks lousy, and in fact pushes them around. And yet—

JW: And yet.

JP: Even though these are Slow Horses, they’re in the old dream of getting back to MI5 and actually having real careers, which will not happen. And yet, even though they’re considered to be the losers, the Slow Horses in the field, as it happens in every case in the book, the biggest thing that’s happening somehow stumbles into their lap or they’re given it because someone in power wants it to be handled badly. So they’re given the thing and then they wind up handling it well.

JW: One more thing about Jackson Lamb, he’s fiercely defensive about his employees, even though he’s terribly abusive of them, he tells his superiors, “They may be screw-ups, but they’re my screw-ups.”

JP: And in fact, in this relationship, he’s slightly different to say some of the classic spy people because you have the sense that Jackson Lamb doesn’t actually believe at this point in any of the things that spies do, but the one thing he does have is loyalty to the people who are connected to him. And I think that’s kind of the burnt-out end of a long-time spy who no longer believes in the ideology but does believe you protect your own.

JW: Critics say that Mick Herron is the John le Carré of our generation. What do you say about that?

JP: Well, I think I probably have said it, so I can only think it’s a brilliant apercu.  And this gives me a chance to quote the old chestnut from The 18th Brumaire by Marx, where he comments that “history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” And if you know the John le Carré books, you know that when he was reinventing the spy novel starting in the sixties, they nearly always ended with tragic endings – that people were destroyed unfairly because spying does that – people’s lives are ruined and they feel meaningless and are often betrayed and killed. Mick Herron has similar kinds of things happen, but whereas it is played for tragedy in le Carré by now, Herron’s sense of the spy world is that, especially in Britain, is it’s kind of comical and that in fact it’s now run by clowns, it’s no longer the serious business that it was, but it’s a place of bureaucrat in-fight and silliness. So it is now farce rather than tragedy. It’s not quite that way. The stories were serious and all the rest, but that is the difference between le Carré and Mick Herron.

JW: And what strikes me most about the difference is that le Carré, of course, started out in the depths of the Cold War and his books had this critical element to them where he rejected the black and white of good and evil, the evil empire and the defenders of freedom. His world of spies was the gray zone where our spies and their spies sometimes had more in common with each other than with their own overlords who would betray them or mislead them. All that is missing from The Slow Horses, because of course, it’s long after the Cold War and tasks the Slow Horses are given, especially in season three, which begins this week, are much more melodramatic than what happened to George Smiley.

JP: They’re both more melodramatic and they are much more Britain-centered. So nearly all of the great le Carré novels, even the ones that come later, are set internationally and actually have to do with important international issues. Often what is happening in The Slow Horses is they are dealing with something where some political person, and there’s a Boris Johnson figure, he’s played by Samuel West in the series and he and lots of other people want to privatize the Secret Service. And often plots are set in motion by right-wing schemers or by people who want to privatize. And so that’s a very different kind of thing so that the criminals are no longer sinister Russians and there’s no ideological thing, except the ideological thing is that the people within MI5 want to protect themselves from being taken over by private corporations, which the Tory figure played by Peter Judd, that’s the Boris Johnson figure – his dream is to more or less outsource all of spying. And at that level, all of the Slow Horses, including the people who are enemies within Slow Horses who worked for MI5, the one thing they all want is to stop that.

JW: Obviously Mick Herron grew up reading John le Carré, knows all about this, and it seems like his Jackson Lamb is kind of the opposite of le Carré’s protagonist George Smiley, Jackson Lamb is just as you’ve said, flamboyantly, offensive and outrageous, and that’s certainly not what George Smiley was.

JP: Smiley was all discretion, and everyone kind of worshiped him because he never gave anything away. You never knew what he felt about anything. Even when he was triumphantly defeating Carla, the great Soviet spy, you could never tell whether he was really satisfied, whether he was dissatisfied, whether he thought it was worth it, any of that. I mean, he really plays his cards close to the chest. In contrast, Jackson Lamb says what is in his mind at every particular moment. It’s often extremely funny. If you watch the series, you realize once again, what a fantastic actor Gary Oldman is. This isn’t a role that is a challenging role. It is kind of a comic turn as a brilliant slob. And yet Oldman, every single scene finds some new way of doing that so that you’re just stunned at how effortlessly good he is – in fact, I was discussing with some friends, how was it that he wasn’t a huge movie star for the last 30 years in everything because he’s just a great actor.

JW: Let us note that a decade ago, Gary Oldman was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of George Smiley in the adaptation for TV of Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy. Of course, Alec Guinness was our George Smiley, it’s an impossible act to follow, and yet Gary Oldman did it.

JP: I think that he’s better, or he’s certainly more fun as Jackson Lamb. I mean partly because Lamb is a more fun character, but also I think there’s a certain largeness of spirit in Oldman that is not best served being bottled up. I think there’s just a life coming from him and a great humor, and he’s really, really funny in the TV series. In the TV series, if you’ve read the books, you realize that Jackson Lamb gets a bigger role in the TV series than he does in the books. He’s put in the stories earlier, he’s more present. And that makes perfect sense because he’s the star and is fun and no one in their right mind wouldn’t give him less time if you’re trying to make people watch a TV series.

JW: I want to talk about the new TV series in just a minute, but first I want to talk about the new book by Mick Herron came out in September, The Secret Hours. It’s billed as a standalone novel. If you have not read the Slow Horses series, The Secret Hours is probably not the place to begin with Mick Herron. But for those who have read The Slow Horses, the pleasures here are big and the surprises at the end are bigger.

JP: Yeah, they are. I mean, because basically it is a backstory of some of the characters in Slow Horses. They’re never identified by name in the course of the book, but you learn things about them, and some of the things you learn, I think, hit a new emotional register for the Mick Herron series, and you actually feel some things in a way that you don’t in the – sometimes the comedy is so powerful that you don’t feel things as deeply. He doesn’t want you to feel things as deeply as le Carré wanted you to. But somehow in this new one, there are characters who appear, and you learn something about them and their story’s interesting and touching and you understand, I think partly, how you get to the cynicism of Slow Horses, by looking at some of the things that happened to the characters along the way.

JW: So what can you tell us about the new season three of Slow Horses on Apple TV?

JP: Well, the short version is that one of the Slow Horses gets kidnapped and grabbed, and no one is quite sure why at first, and then the Slow Horses get involved in trying to save her. And this leads them into all sorts of complicated things and that touch on all of the big Mick Herron themes, the bureaucratic infighting, Jackson Lamb’s protectiveness toward his people, the way that politicians want private security forces to take over. And so more or less, all of the characters are there. And what’s interesting is that if you watch the series, Kristin Scott Thomas plays the second in charge at MI5. And she’s involved in a struggle with her boss, played by Sophie Okonedo, who you might know from Hotel Rwanda, who’s a terrific actress and whose style is low-key and therefore plays well off the slightly steamier side of Kristin Scott Thomas.

So you have these different struggles along the way. You actually have people getting killed, you have more gunfights than usual. But by the third season, and I think it’s also true of the book, you’re now slightly more invested in characters and so that you don’t want them to get killed. And yet Mick Herron does kill people off. Maybe you saw The New York Times article with him where he was commenting, “You actually have to kill some of the characters, otherwise there’s no suspense.” One of the things that’s always unbearable about most things is when they don’t kill off people you like, then it’s a different series. It just lacks something. Even if it’s a farcical series, you want to think that in any given scene, somebody you care about or interested in might be gone. Because that does give it some oomph.

JW: John Powers, final thoughts?

JP: One of the things I love about the series is the way that in each book Mick Herron introduces you to what Slough House is by approaching Slough House and describing it in a new way. And in each book, he manages to find a brilliant, funny, and perceptive way of telling you what it is without ever repeating anything. I compared to like the Hokusai prints of Mount Fuji where you’re always seeing the same thing and he approaches it in a different way and just in tour de force terms, when you’re reading it the first time he does it, you think, “That’s a brilliant description.” And then the second book, it’s also brilliant, but it’s completely – and then the third book. And you realize that he’s an incredibly witty and inventive writer and almost every sentence sings. There’s a good joke on almost every page. He’s a really wonderful, popular writer.

JW: Slow Horses, season three premiered on Apple TV+ on November 29th.  Mick Herron’s latest book, The Secret Hours, a backstory to the Slow Horses series. was published in September.  John Powers, thank you for being the first to recommend Mick Herron to me, and thanks for talking with us today.

JP: My pleasure.

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Jon Wiener

Jon Wiener is a contributing editor of The Nation and co-author (with Mike Davis) of Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties.

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