Entry from April 22, 2003

Professor Lionel Tiger, writing in the Wall Street Journal says of the death of Dr. Robert Atkins that “No one can say ‘we told you so’ as they did when Jim Fixx the jogger guru died young or Adele Davis the diet autocrat died at all.” Look again, Prof. In the same day’s London Daily Telegraph, Adam Nicolson does his best to draw a moral lesson from the passing of Dr Atkins, noting that, as he had slipped on the ice and hit his head, a kind of hubris may be diagnosed in the following way. “A life devoted to the cheating of the stomach was brought to an end by a combination of foot failure and skull failure. He had attended for so long to the middle (he suffered at one stage from a triple chin); but it was the extremities that let him down.”

I’m all for smug moralizing at the expense of the health nuts, but isn’t this pushing things just a little too far? You’d have to use far more interpretative ingenuity than could possibly be good for you to conclude that in slimming the Atkins way there was any promise, express or implied, of being protected from icy sidewalks. Nor does Nicolson stop there. He goes on to make the connection between Atkins and Fixx (though not Miss Davis) — and Thomas Midgely, the American inventor of the guided missile, which he is said to have called a “robot bomb” — though he can hardly have done so, as the bomb dates from the First World War and the word “Robot” from Karel Capek’s play R.U.R. of 1920 — as well as leaded gasoline for cars and refrigerants using chlorofluorocarbons.

Midgely, says Nicolson, “wreaked more damage upon this planet than any human being, or any single organism, who has ever lived,” by these inventions — which may just be the howlingest hyperbole ever penned by human hand. The alleged “robot bomb” is said to be “the first guided missile, from which every smart weapon is lineally descended.” But of course that means that Midgely is a huge benefactor of human kind, since the bombs that kill people en masse are of the dumb, unguided variety. By putting lead in our petrol, Midgely is said to have been guilty of poisoning the world”s children and destroying the earth”s atmosphere,” though both the words “poisoning” and “destroying” may be just a tad excessive, especially as the chlorofluorocarbons are subsequently said to have been responsible for “destroying still more” of the atmosphere, which thus could hardly have been destroyed by the lead. Nor can it be destroyed even now, as we’re still breathing it.

But the logic of Midgely’s disastrousness for humankind is clearly a secondary, or tertiary, consideration here. Nicolson has other fish to fry. For after his triumphs as a chemist and inventor, poor Mr Midgely contracted polio and subsequently strangled himself in the clever arrangement of ropes and pulleys he had set up to get himself into and out of bed. Serves him right, thinks Nicolson for poisoning all those children and destroying all that atmosphere. Again, you might be inclined to think this rather a harsh judgment. Did his inventions, however unwittingly harmful, imply any claim of immunity either from polio or from accidental strangulation? These are misfortunes that might, or might at that date, have happened to anybody.

Nicolson can’t be bothered with such details, as he has now at last got his real target in his sights: the United States of America, whose “governing mentality” is said to be either “You can have it all” or “Hang the consequences.”

Atkins, Fixx, Midgely: it is unfair to label America with these men, but there is something profoundly American about their stories. This country is now more deeply in bed with America than at any time since the heyday of Margaret Thatcher’s love affair with Ronald Reagan.

The core of Thatcherism — no compromise, do what your instincts tell you and deal with the consequences later, don’t pussyfoot with middle-roadism when you can see your own path clearly ahead — was, in its way, as American as the Atkins, Fixx and Midgely stories are. It, too, became tangled in its own ropes and pulleys, tripping up on the pavement, collapsing when out for its all too usual jog.

This is not a European habit of mind and the American path which Blair has taken over Iraq bears all the marks of Midgely-type thinking: turn to the simple and powerful idea; transform that idea into a powerful force; apply that force with uncompromising vigour; and only then look for collateral damage.

The number of errors, both of fact and of inference, in that little passage, makes the proposal of Midgely’s unique villainy look like a model of logic. Let’s list them:

(1) Mrs Thatcher had no “love affair” with Ronald Reagan, but her alliance with the U.S. during his administration was the norm and not the exception for post-war British governments, and was consistent with some harsh criticisms, for example at the time of the invasion of Grenada.

(2) It would be news to Mrs Thatcher that part of what made up “the core” of Thatcherism was “do what your instincts tell you and deal with the consequences later.” Mrs Thatcher was a stout Whig rationalist and would have had no truck with “instincts,” whereas consequences were of immense concern to her, particularly the consequences of inaction.

(3) There is no guessing what he means by saying that Thatcherism “became tangled in its own ropes and pulleys” or the rest of it. Mrs Thatcher herself was forced out of the premiership by a cabal of her parliamentary colleagues while the doctrines associated with her name — fiscal and monetary discipline, industrial retrenchment, taming the trades unions — have remained in place, even under a Labour government, at least up until Mr Brown’s most recent budget.

(4) To imply that making war — for what else is “the American path which Blair has taken over Iraq”? — is more characteristic of Americans than Europeans is just laughable. Who started the really big wars of the last century, anyway? You know, the ones America had to bail her European friends out of?

(5) Never in the history of warfare has any combatant taken more care to look for in advance and to try to forestall collateral damage than the U.S. has in Iraq. If Mr Nicolson knows of a counter-example, I should be glad to hear of it.

But then, Nicolson didn’t even know that smart bombs save lives. That his piece of shoddy reasoning and hysterical anti-Americanism should appear in Britain’s leading conservative paper is profoundly depressing.

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