Letter from London: Selective Blindness and Corrective Grief

Peering across the Atlantic is something I have not really done in a while. How does the US look from here right now as we get up from the floor again after several more rounds of beating ourselves up, most recently with the wealthy widow of a construction tycoon paying for a meeting of over 50 MPs and peers in support of a return for Boris Johnson?

I was hoping a meal with my New Yorker friend might paint a clearer picture for me as far as US thinking goes. It was coincidence that right above his head at the restaurant were two of the artist’s pictures, adding a surrealist element to proceedings as I had seen them both created during the pandemic.

Talking of sickness, I had a growing kidney pain. My friend was insightful on the US, at least. The pain I kept to myself. How Trump negotiates a third, not a second term, used to be a joke, as everyone knew he could only serve two. Now, according to my friend, more than three is a possibility with one of his sons standing in. The country could become a dictatorship overnight. We are certainly preparing for a possible US withdrawal from Nato over here.

‘American society seems consumed by anxiety,’ says another American I know. ‘Some of it seems driven by cable news and undue political strife. Another part of it, well, I don’t mean this in any way an endorsement of what remains of Britain’s antiquated class system, but in the coastal cities people seem to recalculate their own and others’ status on a daily basis, further feeding that anxiety and producing further distraction.’

Elsewhere, Biden’s week of hell with Gaza, while no match for those actually in Gaza, began with us hearing over here about his ‘instructions’ to negotiators to get a ceasefire deal. He was like some benign faraway ghost with long trailing fingers. Not instructions for his own team, I add, but for the emir of Qatar and the president of Egypt. At the same time, a shocking nearly 70% of all Israelis last week continued to want no aid whatsoever to get through to the Gazans. That is quite extraordinary, whichever side of the ocean you are on. How much longer the US and UK can continue to support such a thing is a moot point. Also, the very moment the UK decided to join the US in the creation of a maritime corridor, people were being killed by airdropped aid. Though these latest deaths were accidental, what we are dealing with here in general is what Martin Amis in Inside Story called ‘selective blindness’. He was actually referring to British Zionist leader and lawyer Herbert Bentwich, who refused to acknowledge the Arabs in 1890s Palestine during a pilgrimage called Ereẓ Israel of the Order of the Ancient Maccabeans. ‘He does not see,’ writes Amis, ‘because if he does see, he will have to turn back.’

‘The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis,’ wrote Dante. Neutrality simply feels no longer possible here. It does not mean there are no hostages. It does not mean Hamas are angels in disguise. It means we are tearing ourselves apart through our own selective blindness. As former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis said to Kamala Harris last week: ‘You are elevating hypocrisy to a new level by arming the hand that you then accuse of killing.’ I can see my New Yorker friend is genuinely stung these days when it comes to the subject of Gaza. Long a believer in Israeli determination to minimise civilian casualties, he looks increasingly disillusioned.

To lighten things up, knowing of course that such things cannot be lightened up, I tell my friend over food I have been watching The Europeans. Which is to say, the 1979 Merchant Ivory production of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s script of the Henry James novel. A perfectly courteous rendition featuring a young Lisa Eichhorn, a guest as it happened at my 30th birthday party at Chateau Marmont thrown by my New Yorker friend, and though always good, her very best work was in Cutter’s Way. What I hadn’t realised until watching it again was that the young cousin, an artist, was an unrecognisably youthful Tim Woodward, whose sad death a few months ago I was acknowledging in these pages. Though no Henry James expert, I am always aware of him seeing himself as advancing the American idea. Now, we wonder, how would he fare today?

Harry Ferguson is an interesting Brit who cuts an uncommon dash on social media. I wonder what the Americans think of him. This dash he cuts by giving regular intelligence updates. They seem in keeping with a retired MI6 intelligence officer recruited during his last year at Oxford. His vignettes are like films on films. I follow from a distance but there is social conscience and warm appeal in there. Last week he was talking about what he called the earlier Russian intelligence services subversion of the Republican Party over the election of Donald Trump. The purpose of this subversion he claimed categorically had two aims. One was to undercut military support for Ukraine. The other was to try and secure the election of Donald Trump, whom he said the Russians felt would be more favorable to Russian interests around the world. He concluded this with a serious update.

Brits peering across the Atlantic last week were certainly scratching their heads over the stepping down of Victoria Nuland, senior official at the State Department and fierce supporter of Ukraine. Another friend wondered speculatively if it was because of the leaked German conversations. All I know is that she was once accused of being one of the people responsible for the 2014 protests in Ukraine which got rid of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, though this may have been the result of protests following Yanukovych’s rejection of a major agreement with the EU, in a bid for tighter relations with Russia.

My kidney pain turned out to be a large kidney stone. I am writing from a yellow and white ward in an NHS hospital where I am about to go under for a stent to be put in — temporarily, I am assured. This should get my kidney up and running before they blast the stone a few weeks later when I have to come in again. No match, for sure, in terms of pain with what still pulsing through the veins of Gaza, Sudan, Yemen, Ukraine. But nor can my own body afford to suffer all this selective blindness.

Peter Bach lives in London.