: Natalie Solent has already posted below about the BBC’s characterisation of one of its old-time greats, the late Alistair Cooke, as having ‘particular dislike of the shallow flag-waving of the Reagan presidency’. Let me add my testimony.
For several years, from the very end of the seventies though the early eighties, my Sunday schedule let me hear Cooke’s ‘Letter from America’ week after week. Unlike the obituarist, so cocksure that Cooke thought and felt what left-thinking BBC people should, I enjoyed learning from what he actually thought.
The Cooke I heard in those years had insights of the kind that come to someone who prefers to take a genial approach to his subject, thinking first and judging after. If he was, as Natalie sensibly speculates, more naturally a Democrat than a Republican, he was never blind to the faults of the left. Often in those years, I recall him offering not the damning indictment of Reagan that the news online obit would have you think, but penetrating critiques of the kind that that both the American Left and the BBC elite desperately need. I have no book of Cooke’s broadcasts to hand but I don’t need it; thoughts of the quality he sometimes reached stay in the mind.
One ‘Letter from America’ described the U.S. reviews of a new edition of Vera Britain’s ‘Testament of Youth’, which all talked of it in feminist categories. Alistair contrasted them with the British reviews written when it was first published (which he quoted); they talked rather of the author’s attitude to the first world war. More gently and persuasively than this bald summary can suggest, he asked whether the modern reviewers’ fashionable attitudes gave them more insight than the contemporary reviewers or, on the contrary, less. He invited listeners to think about the way in which a reviewer’s mindset can get in the way of their hearing what a book is saying.
Another ‘Letter’ examined a supreme court ruling that laws limiting how one could display the U.S. flag were unconstitutional. In the U.S., such laws were common before the ruling; in Britain, we’ve never had them – you can use the Union Jack as an advertising logo if you want to. Cooke made me smile describing how some world war two British merchants, more eager to promote anglo-american relations (and their sales) than to uphold good taste, found american G.I.s were more often shocked than amused to find the stars and stripes displayed in some unusual product locations.
By the time, he reached the meat of this letter, the listener was in no doubt that Cooke saw no actual need for such laws (and as a fellow Briton, neither do I). Yet he was disturbed by the Supreme Court’s ruling. What does it mean that such laws can be voted by legislators and supported by constitution-proud Americans for 200 years, and yet can be declared already unconstitutional; not able to be made so by some future constitutional amendment but always so? Does it mean that the judges simply described their prejudices as the constitution? Perhaps more alarmingly, does it mean they see nothing alarming in the idea that the constitution is beyond the comprehension of U.S. voters and their elected representatives? What becomes of the constitution as ‘the act of a people constituting a government’ if the court thinks the people cannot understand their act? My bald summary does not do justice to Cooke’s gentler and subtler raising of his concern. Even so, it does not seem a concern that a ‘particular dislike’ of Reagan then or of Bush now would prompt. Now, as then, such radical reinterpretations seem rather the hallmark of those who do particularly dislike them.
As the eighties wore on, I was less and less able to listen to weekly letters from America; my loss. No doubt,Cooke said plenty about Reagan and the Bushes. But the recent letter that Natalie links to reminds me vividly of many I heard; a critique gently offered not to the right but to the left – a thought he thinks they need to ponder. It is a kind of left-leaning regard to be sure, a kind Orwell might have recognised, but far from the dismissive BBC obituarist’s description. And that is what makes such remarks so sad. To ignore hostile criticism is human nature, if human nature not at its best. But I can’t imagine a kinder, gentler, more sympathetic analysis of the failings of political correctness than that sometimes offered by Alistair Cooke, a BBC insider and very much of the breed that gave the BBC such reputation as it has. If his thoughts are beyond the current elite’s grasp, what hope is there for reform at the beeb?