Margaret Drabble’s Incoherent, Superficial, Overwrought Style of Argumentation

‘My anti-Americanism has become almost uncontrollable. It has possessed me, like a disease’

Margaret Drabble’s writings include this gem: ‘I now loathe the United States and what it has done to Iraq and the rest of the helpless world.’

Margaret Drabble has been back in the news this summer. The dame of the British Empire and author of A Summer Bird-Cage, The Garrick Year, The Millstone, The Waterfall, The Ice Age, and many other acclaimed novels is the subject of a fawning article by Mary Leland published in the Irish Times on July 14. The piece is a retrospective on Drabble’s literary career, highlighting her early struggles, her thirst for success, her marital ups and downs, and her relationship with her mother. In contrast to much past coverage of Drabble, Leland’s article is relatively free of political content. Readers who are blissfully unaware of Drabble’s past lunges for attention might imagine Drabble to be a relatively apolitical person devoted to crafting the finest prose and telling the most captivating stories she can. Unfortunately, Drabble has all too often made clear her ambitions to be far more than a fiction writer, to be a spokesperson for grand political causes. Her indiscretions are symbolic of broad tendencies in the literary culture no less than the popular culture of the West.

When asked by a reporter what he thought about the war in Vietnam, W.H. Auden is said to have replied, “Why writers should be canvassed for their opinions about politics I have no idea.”

How one wishes that people had listened to Auden. The simple wisdom communicated here—that poets and fiction writers are not always particularly well informed about economics, global trade, international treaties, diplomacy, national security, and all the other stuff of politics, and there is no self-evident reason to approach them first for insight on these matters—is obviously lost on many writers. And not just on writers, of course, but also pop musicians, actors, models, athletes, the Hollywood elite, and all the others in our day and age who tend to weigh in on big issues in a sanctimonious voice. Auden’s wisdom has clearly been lost on many and on one individual in particular, Margaret Drabble.

To get a sense of just how opinionated and outspoken Drabble can be on political matters, it is helpful to go back to May 2003. That’s when Drabble published an essay, or to put it more precisely, a rant in the Telegraph in which she proclaimed her loathing, not just for then-President George W. Bush or for Dick Cheney or for war hawks, but for America. “I now loathe the United States and what it has done to Iraq and the rest of the helpless world,” Drabble proclaims.

Wystan Hugh Auden said, ‘Why writers should be canvassed for their opinions about politics I have no idea.’

One would expect writers living after the Second World War to be particularly wary of any statement or sentiment that might be construed to assign collective guilt to a people or nation, but Drabble’s target in her Telegraph piece is, indeed, America as she understands the country, rather than a given leader, cabinet official, or political category.

“My anti-Americanism has become almost uncontrollable. It has possessed me, like a disease,” Drabble writes. Her choice of words is apt, because the Telegraph piece reads like the product of a diseased mind.

It is worth re-examining and re-evaluating some of the points Drabble makes. Fifteen years may have passed, but it would be a surprise to hear that Drabble does not still despise America, for the same fundamental reasons.

In an arbitrary manner, never offering more than vignette-level evidence, Drabble’s piece raises a few primary objections concerning America’s conduct on the world stage.

Point one: A country that allows members of its air force to paint frivolous images like happy, grinning cartoon faces on its warplanes must be “insane.”

Drabble takes offense at such cavalier, sarcastic artwork appearing on warplanes. But it hardly seems necessary to point out that warfare, by its very nature, has a psychological component, and has always involved efforts to discomfit and disorient the enemy. Drabble gives no more than a single, vignette-level example here, one that is hardly unique to America.

Does Drabble think the Allied cause in World War II was less noble because Allied soldiers liked to mock the enemy by singing “We’re Going to Hang Out the Washing on the Sigfried Line” with great bravado?

Besides is the alternative any better? One has to wonder whether Drabble truly thinks it would be a step up if soldiers went about their work of destruction with a veneer of politeness, refraining from any bravado, sarcasm, or attempt to mock the enemy. If that were the current reality, then Drabble might well condemn the hypocrisy of soldiers who pretend that warfare is somehow more palatable with a thin patina of courtesy. At least the soldiers who paint offensive or obnoxious images on their planes acknowledge that in war, nobody is a gentleman, and that it is the most naked self-deception to imagine otherwise.

Point two: America’s “nervous soldiers gun down Iraqi civilians when they try to hold street demonstrations.” Plus, America has held prisoners at Guantanamo without trial. Drabble notes that she has written passionate letters to Home Secretary Jack Straw about this outrage, and will continue doggedly to do so.

So, do we take it that Drabble, a dame of the British empire, prides herself on living in a country whose soldiers have never infringed on the rights of native populations and have never gunned down protestors? Drabble doesn’t offer a specific example of American soldiers doing this. But a parallel example, on her side of the Atlantic, comes readily to mind. One wonders whether Drabble would write letters to Jack Straw concerning the failure ever to prosecute anyone, anywhere, for the murder of thirteen unarmed protestors in County Derry on Bloody Sunday in 1972. Out there in Drabble’s part of the world, there are graying ex-soldiers who took part in the Bloody Sunday massacre and who live in comfortable retirement, never having faced justice for the lives they took and the families they traumatized. Yet Drabble doesn’t refrain from sanctimony toward America.

Point three: Drabble, a progressive on criminal justice matters, chides America for “executing minors,” or keeping them locked away on death row until they are old enough to execute. Drabble strives to evoke sympathy for these poor “minors,” without giving the reader any sense of what they did or why they are being punished.

Yes, Texas, Florida, Ohio, and a few other states (not “America”) do execute first-degree murderers with some regularity. But the number of executions, a dozen or two per year in recent years, is positively minuscule compared to the number of homicides that occur annually in the U.S., and the number of minors or even former minors who face execution is tinier still. If inmates sit on death row for years, it is to allow due process and appeals to run their full course, which Drabble surely must think is preferable to summary executions.

In the interest of fairness, Drabble might have made some effort to acknowledge the rationale for capital punishment and the reasons why death row inmates are where they are. Instead, she childishly evokes the image of a beastly ogre that swallows poor innocent “minors” who’ve never done anything to deserve the stiffest punishment available under the law—never pulled the trigger on a defenseless victim while ignoring the victim’s pleas, for example, or committed any other horrific crime. Surely murder, and murder combined with rape, of which many of these minors are guilty, are worse crimes than the detention without trial that gets Drabble’s blood up.

Drabble does her best to paint America as the great foe and predator of small struggling nations, but people in Iraq, Kuwait, Vietnam, and the large Vietnamese diaspora in the United States, to give just a few examples, are openly and vocally grateful to the Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice to liberate them from tyranny.

Decent and intelligent people should loathe Margaret Drabble and her incoherent, superficial, hysterical style of argumentation. Let Auden’s words resonate, and let thoughtful, informed commentators of all political persuasions prevail over Margaret Drabble.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

One thought on “Margaret Drabble’s Incoherent, Superficial, Overwrought Style of Argumentation

  • September 3, 2018 at 9:38 am

    This is a very strong and stirring piece!


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