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Biblio File: Fine Wine from a Free Mind

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Amotz Asa-El

 

Opinions and Reflections: A Free Mind at Work 1990-2015
Paul Monk, Barralier Books, 483 pp., A$44.95 (A$16.45 as an e-book)

 

The review, the column, and the political analysis, the pillars of a good newspaper, are for publishers what fertiliser is to the farm: a blessing when scattered, a hazard when piled.

The writers themselves are often appalled when reading their old reviews and columns, whether because the emotions they once evoked suddenly seem to them sentimental, or because hindsight shows they made too much of a minor event, or because what they once championed with great zeal they later came to scorn. Understandably, then, bookstores seldom carry anthologies of newspaper articles.

Yet there are exceptions; books like Deadline Artists, which compiled the columns of many writers, from legendary journalists like H.L. Mencken and Ernie Pyle to public figures like Teddy Roosevelt and Orson Wells, or the bestselling Longitudes and Attitudes, which collected some of Tom Friedman's columns from the New York Times.

Such anthologies work because the columns inside them not only fail to age, but, like fine wine, improve with their years. Paul Monk's Opinions and Reflections: A Free Mind at Work 1990-2015 - a quarter-century's worth of select book-reviews and essays that appeared in leading Australian publications (including this one) - belongs in that elite.

One of Australia's most versatile public intellectuals, Monk's unique background as literary critic, China expert, author, poet and founder of the Austhink consultancy, has fed an exceptionally erudite writer's journalistic crop while history journeyed from the Cold War's passage to the Islamist threat's ascendency.

Like a conversation with its writer, this book is first of all breathtaking in the variety of its spheres of interest. Few writers today can so effortlessly glide between, for instance, Oliver Stone's conspiracy theories, Charles de Gaulle's grandeur, Wittgenstein's pessimism regarding the opacity of language, and Noam Chomsky's critique of America's moneyed elite.

Even fewer can discuss with authority, originality, and clarity issues ranging from euthanasia, genocide and the substance of science to geopolitics, economics, Catholic dogma, Chinese politics, and gay marriage. Monk can, and does.

The significance of this book is first of all in the throwbacks to Monk's insights and intuitions while historic transition had yet to mature, or even arrive.

For instance, during the brief period between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1992, Monk already understood that American thinker Francis Fukuyama's impression that the end of history had arrived was made "in a moment of literary extravagance."

Subsequent years, as Monk predicted in 1991, would prove that what began with the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev and his reforms would be recalled as having "marked a great renewal of the vital forces of history."

Looking in 1994 to China's future while Britain prepared to relinquish Hong Kong, Monk dismissed predictions of the colony's impending demise.

Arriving at that juncture as historically equipped as he enters any debate, Monk broadened the lens to Emperor Qianlong's statement in 1793 to King George III rejecting the British request that China open to foreign trade: "We have never valued ingenious articles, nor do we have the slightest need of your country's manufactures."

Viewing the present and the future from that vantage point, Monk noted that underpinning Britain's retreat from Hong Kong would be China's adoption of the values that made Britain wage the Opium Wars in the first place - namely, opening China "to the forces of liberal capitalism."

Moreover, in what subsequent events would vindicate, Monk dismissed a contemporary writer's forecast that by 2017 Hong Kong would cease to be a financial centre, sensing instead that the colony would emerge as "a veritable Trojan Horse of democratisation."

Monk is not a prophet and does not purport to be one. Faced in 1993 with historian Paul Kennedy's and statesman Zbigniew Brzezinski's visions of the coming century, he preferred the former's warnings of demographic and environmental pressures to the latter's warnings of an era beset by American decadence and gaps between rich and poor. A generation later, it seems the statesman's senses were in this case sharper than the historian's.

Even so, Monk's scrutiny of history's march as it unfolded over the decades reads like a roadmap of history's first draft. That is why this book's forays into the Middle Eastern fray are particularly instructive.

Monk's exploration of the Middle East differs remarkably from Western diplomacy's in his search after the local populations' inner voice, and in his eagerness to engage in the ideological duel to which Islamism has been challenging the West.

Realising that the Bomb appeals not only to Iran's clerics, but also to its secular nationalists, Monk called for efforts "to drive a wedge" between these disparate elements of Iranian society. And noting the regime's dwindling popularity as reflected in last decade's elections, he concluded that "the time has passed for seeking to cajole or appease the theocrats" and that "we must address Iran as a nation and bring its better parts to the fore," before asserting: "We must defeat the theocrats in the war of ideas."

Nearly a decade on, this wisdom is both relevant and scarce, and dusting it off could hardly be more urgent.

This same quest for truth and impatience for its circumvention shapes Monk's treatment of the Arab-Israeli conflict and before that, the Zionist idea.

Writing in the context of Jonathan Schneer's The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict (2010), Monk detected a yawning gap between the writer's delving into intra-British dynamics and motivations and his failure to display similar familiarity with, or concern for, the roots of the Arab responses to the British move.

In what comes across as a particularly persuasive passage considering Monk's geographic and social distance from the Middle East, he suggested that, as the founding editor of the Radical History Review, Schneer "tends to accept without too much critical reflection the idea that the Arab rejection of Israel is rooted in justified grievances."

Displaying a quest for impartiality that has yet to take root elsewhere in current discourse concerning the Middle East, Monk both exposed and decried that work's failure to "dig down into the roots of Muslim or Arab anti-Semitism."

Yes, he added, "there had been no Jewish state there [in Palestine] for almost two millennia; but there had never been a Palestinian Arab state." And since there was at the time of the declaration a vast Jewish population in the Islamic world, "why should they not have been a welcome and constructive part of the Semitic world?" asks Monk before noting wryly: "That question takes us into the dark heart of Islam," and "there Schneer does not venture."

Monk emerged with a similar criticism of former New York Times correspondent Patrick Tyler's Fortress Israel, a "passionately argued polemic against the secular sabra elite" which he scolds for failing to even mention Israel's creation of a prosperous democracy "almost from nothing" while its enemies "remained mired in despotism, poverty and bigotry."

Equally irritating is that book's implication that "the Israeli elite were at any given point since 1948 in a position to make peace." The flaws Monk detected in that book are indeed emblematic of conventional wisdom in Western academia, politics, media and the arts.

Monk was not born with his current views on the Middle East. In 1991, while reviewing a book about Israel's nuclear program, he wrote that "the long indulgence of Israel by the highest levels of the American government, under the influence of Jewish money and Jewish lobbying, simply has to be seriously debated." As he explains in a footnote earlier in the book, that was well before the Oslo Accords, September 11, the Palestinian uprisings, the rise of Hamas and the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.

Having followed all these as they unfolded, while delving deep into much of what preceded them, Monk's conclusion is as clear as it is scathing. "I was inclined," he wrote in Quadrant in 2010, "to see the long conflict between it [Israel] and the Palestinians as a tragedy of irreconcilable territorial claims. That is no longer the case."

Recent years' events, many years' reading, and a true scholar's impartiality, honesty, and morality have led Monk to assert that "the tragedy of the Palestinian Arabs is not that Israel was established, but that their benighted leaders insisted on refusing any accommodation with Israel, and betrayed them to defeat and dispossession."

 

This article is featured in this month's Australia/Israel Review, which can be downloaded as a free App: see here for more details.

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