interview, conducted by Jamie Glazov, originally appeared in
David is currently working on Living in the Valley of Shmoon.
David Solway, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
SOLWAY: Thanks, Jamie. Nice to be back.
Let’s begin with the invasive threat of Islam. You refer
to it often in your writing. Tell us what you suggest we do
SOLWAY: Know the enemy. Nothing can be done without informed
understanding. The Islamic upsurge—note that I don’t
say “Islamist,” the politically correct way of avoiding
the issue—which severely threatens our way of life, thrives
upon Western ignorance, especially of the Koran. The larger,
Medinese portion of the Koran prescribes rather definitively
against the non-believer, the infidel and the heretic. Its proscriptions
cannot easily be moderated, ignored or merely wished away, just
as the history of Islam cannot be scumbled under a palimpsest
of readerly good intentions or ostensible scholarly impartiality.
Very few of us, for example, have ever bothered to study the
Koran, a sine qua non in the world we now inhabit.
At best, this leads only to embarrassing moments, as when so
prominent a writer and intellectual as Jorge Luis Borges lays
it down that there are no references to camels in the Koran—he
obviously skipped surah 88:18. At worst, camels or no camels,
we sign our own death warrants. It is equally important, as
it should go without saying, to consult knowledgeable authorities
on the subject of Islam, of whom Eric Ormsby, Martin Kramer,
Emmanuel Sivan, Efraim Karsh, Robert Irwin and Bernard Lewis
are among the most reliable.
So lack of knowledge of Islam puts us at a distinct disadvantage?
SOLWAY: Yes. Regrettably, our illiteracy in this field is truly
enormous, especially among our political elites, intelligentsia
and media types who seem to have no awareness whatsoever, for
example, of the Islamic doctrine of Mukawama (perpetual
war), in which Muslims may sign truces and cease-fires with
their enemies in order to attack at a later date when conditions
are ripe, and treaties are considered as valid only for a maximum
of ten years. Innumerable such instances of treaty violation,
both great and small, have been recorded dating back to the
source event, the ten-year Treaty of Hudabiyah in 628, broken
by Muhammad two years later. This tactic has been long embedded
in Islamic tradition—and, indeed, was referenced by Yasser
Arafat in an Arabic speech dealing with the Oslo Accords. The
Egyptian breach of diplomatic agreements with Israel in December
2007 to keep the Rafah crossing closed to Palestinians in order
to prevent terrorists from travelling to Iran and Lebanon for
military training is only the latest illustration of such institutional
bad faith. We now see where that has led to.
OK, point taken. What other obstacles do you see that prevent
us from responding effectively to the challenge?
SOLWAY: Well, one thing is for sure. If we are to have any chance
of surviving this “war of the worlds,” we must also
learn to know ourselves. While Islam is and will continue to
be a major problem for the West—to put it mildly—far
more dangerous than our misunderstanding of Islam is the pervasive
ignorance and misprision of our own civilization, which I fear
may be undergoing its precipitous denouement as it prepares
for terminal breakup.
let us not deceive ourselves, the peril is great indeed. In
a time of moral inversion, one might say, if I can put it this
way, that a vacuum abhors nature, and the vacuum of the Western
intellect in the reductive era in which we live refuses to be
filled by facts, by the logic of events, by palpable realities,
by common sense or by the obvious nature of things.
the contrary, the spiritual vacancy which has become our home
is replete with phantoms and delusions that substitute for the
genuine values that have sustained the best part of our civilization:
for pragmatic and laborious national progress, the chimera of
transnational supremacy which implies a new kind of statist
imperium; for negotiating the Hobbesian world in which we must
somehow find our way, Martha Nussbaum’s utopian fantasy
of the “community of human beings in the entire world”;
for the inalienable rights of man, a multicultural solicitude
for barbaric ideas and backward practices; for the concept of
truth, the acid of postmodern relativity; for authentic faith,
crude ideologies; for meaningful civil arbitration, an activist
judiciary which strives to supersede the legislative branch
of government; for the belief in institutional probity, the
corrupt United Nations and the politically-motivated International
Court of Justice in the Hague; for the free marketplace of ideas,
the decadent, agenda-driven modern university; for an impartial
press, a largely bigoted media network with a distinct political
mission; for candid and scrupulous language, the lip-salve of
political correctness; for the manly virtues of heroism and
steadfastness, cowardice masking as reasonable accommodation;
for schooled thought, febrile emotionalism, and for stoic maturity,
indulgent sentimentality; for entrepreneurial innovation, the
dead hand of bureaucratic stagnation; for the patient study
of history, the figments of received opinion; for men and women
of real substance and courage, a jaundiced and appeasement-prone
crowd of politicians, artists and intellectuals; and for the
ideal of tolerance, a rampant and never-dying anti-semitism.
no longer abide in W.H. Auden’s “low dishonest decade”
but, far more extensively, in a low dishonest epoch, as “waves
of anger and fear/Circulate over the bright/And darkened lands
of the earth.” Auden’s poem is entitled “
September 1, 1939 .” After September 11, 2001 , Auden’s
pronouncement bodes truer than ever: “Mismanagement and
grief:/We must suffer them all again.”
But what about moderate or West-leaning Muslims? Can they not
be recruited into the struggle?
SOLWAY: One would like to think so, but thus far they have been
spectacularly ineffective, so one must really wonder. Martin
Amis and Ayaan Hirsi Ali plainly aren’t holding their
breath in their writings on the Islamic issue. As Philip Hitti
remarked in his masterful History of the Arabs, with
respect to the entrenching of the faith in Medina, “Then
and there, Islam came to be what the world has ever recognized
it to be—a militant polity.” I suspect that Hitti
is right and that Islam will, of necessity, remain in a relation
of confrontation with the Western mode of existence: violence
against the heathen is built into its sacraments and hermeneutics.
Both moderate Muslims and Western liberals, looking at the world
through rose-tinted cataracts, have, in a sense, bundled with
the terrorists, but the bed they share is mined with explosives.
In trying to demonstrate their good will and liberal open-mindedness,
they cannot bring themselves to confront the reality of a faith
that nourishes terror in its textual heartland. We need to understand
the kinetics in play here. Most moderate Muslims and their Western
supporters have largely decided to ignore or to downplay the
call for the eradication of enemies that is embedded in sacred
book and auxiliary text—a call which can be revived and
amplified at any time. And this is one of those times.
In your poetry, you are now also developing a new persona, an
Israeli poet you’ve named Israel ben Haim. Can you tell
us more about him? Explain this clearly to our readers.
SOLWAY: I’ve long maintained that politics and poetry
generally don’t mix, which I believe the recent poetic
tradition well exemplifies. There are exceptions, of course—Horace
and Martial in the classical age, W.H. Auden and George Seferis
in our own—but these are of the kind that prove the rule.
I suspect there is something of the fascist in the poet’s
soul, which makes sense when it comes to imposing strict hegemony
over words on the page, but is usually disastrous when it comes
to imposing strict control over people in the world.
danger is extrapolation, from the imaginative realm of poetry
to the pragmatic sociopolitical world, always a temptation.
This caveat applies both to the Left and the Right. Modernist
poets, even among the illuminati, those like Eliot, Pound, Yeats
and Stevens, travelled toward the Far Right: their politics
were corrupt and their poetry also tended to suffer when treating
of political subjects.
But not only toward the Right, you say.
SOLWAY: No. In the contemporary moment, poets have mainly reversed
the direction, moving to the Left and endorsing positions along
a spectrum from outright anti-semitism to pro-Islamic infatuations
to strident anti-Americanism to slanderous diatribes against
the Conservative outlook and tradition. And their verse has
been irreparably damaged as a result. Look at the execrable
trash Harold Pinter has produced in his poetry. Sniff the garbage
that Amir Baraka, Poet Laureate of New Jersey, is churning out.
Read and wince at the sentimental drivel we find in Maya Angelou.
Consult what I’ve elsewhere called the most embarrassingly
weak and egomaniacal poetry anthology ever brought out by a
reputable publisher—I mean Sam Hamill’s cabaret-light
and melodrama-heavy Poets Against the War volume. Read
So how do you handle this dilemma in your own poetry?
SOLWAY: As you know from my prose writings, I am deeply engaged
in the political affairs of the day and have taken a strong
stance against the Leftist ideology that is bringing us ever
closer to cultural ruin and civilizational decline. It is almost
impossible, if not disingenuous, to keep these convictions out
of the poetry I write; but at the same time, as I’ve just
pointed out, I recognize the risk of contamination.
solution to this dilemma seemed to me to project a “new”
personality, this fellow I call Israel ben Haim, and write not
only out of myself but through the mental lens of another poet,
hoping to acquire a prophylactic distance in the process, to
interpose a linguistic and conceptual filter between “his”
work and mine, and to monitor “his” poems via a
critical telescopic sight, so to speak. At any rate, it’s
an effort to keep myself honest and my poetry clean.
the balagan (disorder, shambles) of the Israeli poetry
scene, Israel ben Haim represents a special case. Neither an
outright Zionist singing the virtues of kibbutz and moshav,
nor a religious enthusiast flourishing a biblical warrant for
a Greater Israel, nor a messianic radical lobbying for the dissolution
of the body politic, nor a Left-wing sympathizer sharing a common
platform with his revanchist Palestinian counterparts, I see
ben Haim as perhaps the most stubbornly individual of the country’s
poets. His work is actuated by two major themes or impulses
which may, at first reading, seem rigorously incompatible: a
strong political passion which manifests as militant patriotism
for the state of Israel and a lyrical prepossession expressed
as a romantic engagement with a mysterious Muse figure named
Rosa . Perhaps the best comparison of his style and range of
themes is with the Hebrew laureate and national poet Chaim Nachman
Bialik, who wrote “engaged” political poems in a
neo-prophetic mode while at the same time composing private
love lyrics and semi-mystical effusions.
ben Haim (and for me), the poet’s task is synthesis, the
striving to achieve an ever-elusive integrity, in both senses
of the word: singleness of intention and moral rectitude, volatile
as these may be. Whether he addresses the political realm or
the romantic, the emphasis is always on harmony, on a vision
of oneness, steadfastness and fidelity to a higher purpose.
In this sense, a woman called Rosa is also a country called
Israel , and both are embodiments of the Shekinah, the female
emanation of the Divine who, in ben Haim’s poetic cosmology,
has gone astray and needs to be reminded of a prior mission
by a trick of serendipity, the two coalesce in his proper name,
the etymology of which is “he (or one) who wrestles with
God.” (Ben Haim is fond of quoting the famous line of
Friedrich Hölderlin: “But where the danger is, grows
the saving power also.”) The struggle is to realize a
preordained selfhood. The woman must learn to be true to her
essential nature as wife, mother and companion, as archaic and
patriarchal as this may sound; the country must come to resemble
its archetype as the site of redemptive peoplehood. The love
of one is, in the last analysis, identical to the love of the
other—the love of origins. Ben Haim’s is clearly
a conservative project, but for this poet the conservative disposition
is about as radical as it can get in a centrifugal world that
has lost its bearings and its memory. The impetus here is very
different from that which animates my just-released volume,
The Properties of Things: from the Poems of Bartholomew
the Englishman, where my primary concern was with language.
Israel ben Haim is preoccupied with the nature of the self in
a socially and politically disintegrating world.
The title of your political work-in-progress Living in the
Valley of Shmoon prompts the obvious question about what
"shmoon" could possibly signify. And this is central
to our understanding of the terror war. Please explain.
SOLWAY: Reflecting on our post-Enlightenment condition, I recalled
the cartoonist Al Capp, creator of the L’il Abner comic
strip and inventor of a species of roly-poly, pure-minded, eleemosynary
critters called shmoos, denizens of the Valley of Shmoon, who
were able and willing to transform themselves into chicken dinners
and other delectables to satisfy the appetites of the hungry
folk around them. Shmoos, unfortunately, do not constitute a
finite resource set, but proliferate in such numbers as to undermine
the welfare of society, rendering hard work unnecessary and
the reality principle obsolete. They are not, strictly speaking,
bad, but as one of the comic strip’s characters, Ol’
Man Mose, warned, they are bad for humanity “because they
are so good.”
recognize no enemies and, even as they are about to be exterminated,
offer no resistance. “All that is necessary for the triumph
of evil is that good men do nothing,” as Edmund Burke
is reputed to have said. One recalls, too, C. S. Lewis’
remark in Mere Christianity: “Of all tyrannies,
a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most
oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than
under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s
cruelty may sometimes sleep…but those who torment us for
our own good will torment us without end for they do so with
the approval of their own conscience.” So much for the
Nanny state! But the current situation has been infernally compounded,
for the ideological shmoos of the day seem determined to feed
a hungry and insatiable enemy. When “good men” actively
conspire with those who would undo them, when the missionaries
eagerly jump into the bubbling pot, the end is surely in the
to our contemporary shmoos, there are two cognate approaches
for dealing with the Islamic terrorists at the door. The first
is to run down our culture and assume the blame for what has
been inflicted on us—maybe the killers will forgive us.
The second is to talk to our assailants, to respect their motives,
to understand their resentments and to improve their economic
prospects: fine words, empathy and a flow of dollars will do
the trick. Although this strategy has failed miserably with
Western-style dictatorships and terror regimes, and although
many of the terrorists and their supporters hail from backgrounds
of affluence and privilege, the Left insists against all the
evidence that its policies and recommendations will succeed
with the jihadis and their host governments, who must be relishing
the free pass they have been given. Be nice, the theory goes,
and they will be nice back.
understanding, and they will respond, not with violence but
with gratitude. One remembers Einstein’s definition of
insanity as repeating the same experiments and expecting different
results. And, of course, as we extend the hand of supplication,
we must not forget to keep inveighing against the moral cretinism
and venality of the West, in the hope of gaining the respect
of our adversaries while fumigating our own history. We must
enroll our students in Peace Studies programs and teach them
the subtleties of the “deep culture” approach, enabling
them to see that our “enemies” are only expressing
the fundamental traditions and postulates of their cultures,
which are generally understood to be benign or at least neutral.
For the professional temporizers of the Left, it is our own
culture which is warped and depraved and therefore a licit object
of the rest of the world’s hatred. Terrorism is not terrorism
but justified vengeance. Plainly, this is not a good time for
sense and substance as the rhetoric of vacancy gusts to windy
that is where we find ourselves today. Not in the Valley of
Kidron where idols are burned, but in the Valley of Shmoon where
they are worshipped. Not in the Valley of Salt where King David
won great victories, but in the Valley of Shmoon where we will
suffer great losses.
Could you name some of those you regard as shmoos?
SOLWAY: They would fill an entire telephone directory. I’ll
content myself with a particular bête noir of
mine, Karen Armstrong. In her Islam: A Short History,
she speaks of the “fear and despair” at the heart
of fundamentalist irruptions that need to be met—not with
the “power” or “force” that aims at
defeating or containing an enemy but with the “liberating”
influence of “understanding” that, in effect, allows
that enemy to vitiate the very ideals and institutions that
are the social as well as spiritual bulwarks of Western civilization.
“Western people must become aware that it is in their
interests…that Islam remains healthy and strong,”
she avers. We must refrain from viewing Islam as “the
enemy of democracy and decent values” and welcome this
dignified and cultivated faith into the moral edifice of the
West. This is a prescription for disaster and speaks more to
the sanitizing naiveté of much Western scholarship and
thought than to the real dilemma which confounds us. As she
pedals her bicycle over the moon, it seems the passage of time
has done nothing to temper Armstrong’s enthusiasm. Her
more recent panegyric, Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time,
gives the impression of having been written by someone looking
at history through the eye-grille of a burqa. It is not only
the bombers who are suicidal.
Overall, in much of your writing, it appears that the West is
quite unprepared to fight our enemy. Is there, in your view,
any hope in this conflict we face?
SOLWAY: Well, there’s always hope, or otherwise why go
on struggling, turning tragedy into farce? But one would not
be candid or realistic if one failed to note that the situation
is pretty dismal. We are in the midst of a real war with an
implacable adversary and that war is gradually and inexorably
approaching our shores again. 9/11 was only the opening salvo.
We need to understand that, although the moon may be waning
on diverse Islamic national flags, Islam’s star, also
represented on many of these flags, is clearly rising.
need to see that our very civilization is threatened and that,
for too many years now, as I argued in The Big Lie,
we have practiced the rites of evasion, craving asylum in conciliation,
sophistry and equivocation. The macular degeneration of the
Western mind is well advanced. We have succumbed to that peculiar
form of intellectual myopia that Richard Wolin in The Seduction
of Unreason describes as a “subconscious ‘will
to non-knowledge’: a desire to keep at bay an awareness
of unsettling historical complicities, facts, and events.”
So crystallize where the hope is. The picture you paint is certainly
a bleak one.
SOLWAY: A few maverick thinkers may be our last hope toward
the recovery of the genuinely Liberal vision of individual autonomy,
historical filiation, moral courage and the rule of common sense.
These represent one of the few encouraging signs that we, or
some of us, may be beginning to rethink ourselves, installing
a kind of intellectual Symantec network or ideological V-chip
to protect against the conceptual virus of the Left: books like
Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism, Oriana Fallaci’s
The Force of Reason, Mark Steyn’s America
Alone, Nick Cohen’s What’s Left: How Liberals
Lost Their Way, Paul Edward Gottfied’s After
Liberalism, Mary Habek’s Knowing the Enemy,
David Horowitz’s Radical Son, Robert Spencer’s
Religion of Peace?, Dinesh D’Souza’s Letters
to a Young Conservative, Lee Harris’ The Suicide
of Reason, Walid Phares’ The War of Ideas: Jihadism
Against Democracy, Ibn Warraq’s Defending the West, Rachel
Ehrenfeld’s Funding Evil, Norman Podhoretz’s
World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofacism, Jonah
Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism and John Bolton’s
Surrender Is Not An Option.
are some of the writers who presently occupy the Siege Perilous
at the Round Table of international debate. And then we have
the 2006 Euston Manifesto, sponsored by a group of British “socialist”
intellectuals, with its call for “a progressive realignment”
on the Left. While the Manifesto is weak in its understanding
of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, does not come to terms
with the fact that the Right is consistently defamed for the
failures of the Left, and is rather too reliant on the abstractions
and platitudes which seem to go with universalist ideation,
its brief for a “fresh political realignment” and
its principled opposition to “those on the Left who have
actively spoken in support of the gangs of jihadists”
offer a trickle of hope. It at least makes the attempt to pin
the fantasies of the Left to the corkboard of the real world.
I’m hoping is that it’s not too late to reassemble
the task force of the Western mind. Thank the Lord for that
cohort of excellent writers and thinkers like those I mentioned
above who may—just may—succeed in countering such
self-serving and ostentatious groups as Nelson Mandela’s
Council of Elders which foregrounds a camarilla of professional
appeasers of an anti-American and anti-Israeli stamp like Jimmy
Carter, Desmond Tutu, Mary Robinson and Kofi Annan. Of course,
the minions of the Left are legion. Their representatives are
everywhere, but if I had to choose an emblematic figure—not
necessarily the most potent or influential but one whose, let’s
say, physical embodiment sums up the constituency—I would
select that blowhard Ted Kennedy. He looks the part. He acts
the part. He has the history. If we follow his lead, it’ll
be Chappaquiddick all over again, only this time the rest of
us will drown too. But, fortunately, there are still some wise
heads, brave thinkers and powerful swimmers among us.
FP: A concluding word?
SOLWAY: Let’s give it to Wallace Stevens from his poem
“No Possum, No Sop, No Taters”:
is here, in this bad, that we reach
The last purity of the knowledge of good.