The Dangers of John le Carré’s Moral Sophistication

January 8, 2021 | Melanie Phillips
About the author:

Near the end of last year, the famed British author of spy novels David Cornwell—known by the pen name John le Carré—died at the age of eighty-nine. In his fiction, and to a much greater extent in his public pronouncements, le Carré indulged in fashionable anti-Americanism, and, at the beginning of this century, blamed “neoconservatives” for “appointing the state of Israel as the purpose of all [U.S.] Middle Eastern and practically all global policy.” He also claimed that that “the Jewish lobby in America” tried to “claw him apart” following the publication of his 1983 novel on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, The Little Drummer Girl. Yet in 2019 he signed an open letter vowing not to vote for the Labor party on account of Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-Semitism. And he gave a long interview in 1998 in which he professed an admiration for Jews dating back to his childhood, boasted of his sensitivity toward the “repulsive . . . anti-Semitism” of the British “chattering classes,” and spoke of Israel in glowing terms.

“So where,” asks Melanie Phillips, “lay the truth about John le Carré?

He wrote The Little Drummer Girl, he said, to educate himself about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. To that end, he visited the Middle East to learn about it firsthand from both sides. However, from his description of this visit in his memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel, it was the Palestinians who entranced himHe writes of being embraced by their terrorist leader, Yasir Arafat, who placed le Carré’s hand on Arafat’s “Palestinian heart.”

He was clearly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Yet that cause is the destruction of Israel. Ignoring this, he invested both sides with moral equivalence which he appeared to think was a fair and just approach. Such equivalence was also the hallmark of his fiction, in which he presented Western intelligence services as just as amoral, cynical, and squalid as those of the Communist world.

But in any battle between good and evil, moral equivalence is neither fair nor just. Instead, it actually gives victory to the forces of evil. That’s because creating a morally level playing field inescapably makes the bad guys better than they actually are and the good guys worse. So injustice is inevitably done to the good guys, who lose out while the bad guys get rewarded.

In Britain, a number of people who eulogized le Carré after his death praised him for the moral sense they claimed illuminated his fiction. They did not mean by that his contempt for Soviet Communism. They meant instead his contempt for the West.

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