SIR: Mr Wearne (Letters, 10 December 1987) has unfortunately got the name of my poem wrong. It is in fact titled ‘The Liberated Plague’. This turns out to be on a par with his eager misreading of the text. Literary feuds can be played pretty close to the knuckle in Australia, but I am sorry Mr Wearne has chosen to misrepresent me as having some bias against homosexuals. I have never had any such prejudice, and regard it as silly, as well as vicious. His own attitude of concern for victims or potential victims of Aids is entirely laudable, and I share it, but it is a pity that he seems to have swallowed the ugly myth that Aids is a specifically homosexual disease. I see it as a horrible disease which threatens us all.
I am certain that if the London Review of Books had imagined for a moment that I was out to denigrate any human group in the way Mr Wearne suggests, it would have rightly rejected my poem. Any sensible reading of the poem, though, makes it very clear that I was writing not primarily about Aids but about a different sort of plague. I was memorialising a certain demeaning sexual ethos which has been dominant in Western society for a generation, one which tends to destroy faith, hope and love, and families, and the lives of children. It is a sort of idolatry: Aphrodite as bully and sneering blackmailer, posing as the source of all human value. This ethos is now less seductive than it was, but efforts to keep it going still drive many unfortunates into the grip of Aids. There is nothing new in my attacking this: I have always opposed it quite openly.
Mr Wearne finds that my poem collapses into doggerel. How silly! It is deliberately written in doggerel from the outset, as are most nursery rhymes, most pop songs, as well as thousands of ‘serious’ poems and songs composed over the centuries. With his references to obese gluttons, though, Mr Wearne approaches prejudice himself, and indeed a prejudice which belongs to the ethos I oppose. I am fat, and have always been. It has nothing to do with eating: it is simply my metabolic sentence. It is interesting, though, that Mr Wearne shows us so clearly the sort of attitudes which really underlie the stereotype of the jovial Falstaffian figure.
Finally, Mr Wearne’s charge of incitement to hatred is a dodgy one for him to raise, given the tone of his own letter. My poem in fact does the opposite, in taking issue with an ethos that is full of such incitements. But really, on the matter of body fat and everything else in his letter, I can’t do better than relate my wife’s smiling response when she read it. She merely suggested that I congratulate Mr Wearne on his virtuous metabolism.
Bunyah, New South Wales
SIR: In his ex-cathedra pronouncement on the subject of ‘anti-racism’ (Letters, 26 November 1987), the Chichele Professor of Political Theory quotes the following words about immigration from my book The Meaning of Conservatism: ‘the strength of liberalism … has made it impossible for any but the circumlocutory to utter an illiberal sentiment on this subject and on the subject of race which forms a substantial part of it.’ As Professor Cohen displays, it is easy to read sinister meanings in words quoted out of context, so let me draw attention to the far more pertinent sentence which follows: ‘But while it is a long-standing principle of British law that the fomentation of hatred (and hence of racial hatred) is a serious criminal offence, it is not clear that illiberal sentiments have to be forms of hatred, nor that they should be treated in the high-handed way that is calculated to make them so.’
To continue the thought: there are everyday sentiments which, when unwisely handled or zealously stirred up, may point themselves in a dangerous direction. But does this justify the establishment of an inquisition, designed to ‘stamp out’ those sentiments by accusing people of ‘unconscious racism’ every time they utter them? Cohen’s tone is more pompous than inquisitorial. But it is worth reminding him of historical circumstances which he is sure to have pondered more deeply than I have. Only one evil in the modern world has released the intensity of hatred that has been released by racism, and this is communism – which has fed upon and licensed hatred between classes, and authorised the ruthless ‘liquidation’ of whole sections of mankind. It is impossible, I believe, for a civilised person who knows the facts not to be against communism, and on guard against the bigotry which engenders it and the ideas from which it derives its legitimacy. Yet does this mean that we should interrogate the words and thoughts of all our colleagues for signs that their sentiments are turned, however slightly, and whether they know it or not, in this dangerous direction? Should I denounce Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence – a book which I very much admire – simply because Professor Cohen’s language has been used by others to justify murder, or simply because his sentiments tend, ever so slightly, in a direction which I believe to be dangerous? The experience of McCarthyism reminds us of why it is that people who abhor communism and all its works are nevertheless reluctant to condone any movement which might be described as ‘anti-communist’, and which proceeds by methods of denunciation and inquisition, without due process of law. I suspect, therefore, that Cohen would be ‘anti-anti-communist’ for the same reason that many of the contributors to Frank Palmer’s book are ‘anti-anti-racist’: namely, for justice’s sake.
SIR: Professor G.A. Cohen denounces me for challenging the use of the word ‘black’ in describing British/Asian citizens. He asserts that Afro-Caribbeans are not black, but various shades of brown, and implies, therefore, that there are no ‘blacks’, only ‘browns’. Logically, then, we should call all blacks and Asians ‘browns’. I am not sure what purpose this would serve, apart from upsetting those people who regard themselves as being black. In any case, Cohen’s confused descent into the psychology of perception misses the point. Human beings do not go in for Cohen’s nit-picking in describing their perceptual world: they engage in a consensus based on learning and observation over a period of time. And on that basis people of Afro-Caribbean origin are generally described as ‘black’. Since the people concerned have no objection to this – any more than I do to being called ‘white’, though, strictly speaking, I am more of a cream colour, and, on bad days, positively grey – it appears not unreasonable to use the term in this way.
But attaching the word to Asians is quite a different matter. It is an obvious perceptual distortion, though this is not my primary objection, when used in this way. I chiefly object because it seeks to obliterate profound cultural and historical differences between peoples, diminishes identity, and risks giving offence. In my extensive experience in an Asian neighbourhood it is not acceptable to the vast majority of British/Asian citizens. Think of two contemporary Britons. One is living in Birmingham. He came to this country from Jamaica. He is a bus driver. He speaks patois at home, and worships at the local Evangelical Christian church. The other is living in Bradford. He is elderly. He dresses exactly as he would in his original home, the Mirpur area of northern Pakistan, and his beard is dyed with henna. He speaks no English, and has no particular desire to learn. He is a Moslem, whose whole life is ruled by the laws of the Koran. Does Professor Cohen seriously believe that it is legitimate to suggest they belong to the same group of people? Does he think they feel they do? The answer is obvious. And that answer would apply, not only to the older generation, but to Asian and black children born and bred here – as I know from lengthy experience of teaching such children.
Cohen implies that the word ‘black’ may be understandably misapplied for ‘cultural’ and ‘political’ reasons. I should like him to describe the cultural reasons he refers to. The political reasons are obvious to anyone who has read the gurus of anti-racism, and observed the behaviour of anti-racist agitators – exercises in which I suspect Professor Cohen has never engaged. ‘Black’ is applied by anti-racists to all our non-white citizens for two political reasons: to suggest that there is in this country a uniformly depressed and exploited ethnic under-class, and to generate and maintain a sense of anti-white solidarity. This is a valuable tactic if your ultimate aim is to re-structure society. (Anyone who thinks this observation is New Right paranoia should read the sources for the anti-racist movement in this country – they can usefully begin with Fanon, Mullard, Sivanandan, Sarup.) Unfortunately for the anti-racists, the first is sociological nonsense, whilst the second is a despicable and reckless attempt to enlist race in the class struggle – a policy for which the Left will pay a very heavy price, if they are not already doing so.
It is not pedantic to insist upon the integrity of words. It is highly irresponsible to refuse to do so when the explosive subject of race is involved.
SIR: Those who would call Asians ‘black’ are not simply wrong. They are ignorant and disrespectful. As G.A. Cohen rightly observes in his recent letter, the designation ‘black’ for Afro-Caribbeans, both in this country and North America, is not merely, or even primarily, a reflection of the colour of their skins. It is a descriptive term of political and cultural significance. Moreover, as a universally acceptable definition of a particular ethnic group, it is of relatively recent origin, and is both self-defining and self-respectful. Non-Afro-Caribbeans use the term as a mark of proper respect for the wishes of ‘blacks’ to be so defined. It is therefore very curious that Cohen should argue (or at least appear to argue) that the extension of the term ‘black’ to Asians derives from the same political and cultural reasoning. It does not. To the best of my knowledge, there is no representative body of the (primarily) Indian sub-continent Asian peoples in this country which recognises any of their various ethnicities or cultures under the general characterisation of ‘black’. In my experience, mainly in West Riding and South London Asian communities, the best reason to refrain from calling these citizens ‘black’ is that the substantial majority to which I have been exposed does not wish to be called ‘black’. Moreover, these communities tend neither to see nor to find significant cultural affinity with the Afro-Caribbean populations; or at least they do so to an extent no greater (and often markedly less) than the indigenous population. To call these people ‘black’ is, at best, a form of that ‘unconscious racism’ which Cohen helpfully defines and, at worst, a form of political tendentiousness which pays no respect either to ethnic self-definition or to legitimate cultural difference.
There is a point to these distinctions beyond both pedantry and proper (if formal) respect. That substantial sections of immigrant or non-indigenous populations (both non-white and white) have suffered and continue to suffer various forms of racial discrimination at the hands of the indigenous population is undoubted. But that they suffer, or have suffered, the same kinds of discrimination or even with the same intensity, or even that their responses to both have been similar, is anything but clear. Anti-racism is a perfectly legitimate form of political analysis insofar as it directs attention at those forms of illegitimate discrimination which are variously directed at non-indigenous groups in a population and which represent further and unjust obstacles to their full or desired integration within a community of which they are legally a part. But it serves no useful purpose if it illegitimately and unrespectfully ‘lumps’ non-indigenous populations into categories of homogeneous victims against whom a peculiarly indigenous racism is directed. However ineptly, some of the anti-anti-racists whom Cohen so gleefully berated may have been attempting to make this point. ‘Is Britain really a racist society?’ is a legitimate question to ask, no matter how much Cohen may sneer at its form or the presumed answer. It is certainly not a question which can usefully or intelligibly be answered by citing one example of a racial killing or one example of a racial slur passed by a schoolteacher, both occurring recently in NW3. A ‘racist’ society is a descriptive scholarly generalisation of the same order as the phrase a ‘lawless’ society. It is only established as sociologically meaningful by statistical techniques and a comparative perspective: i.e. by comparing Britain’s record with similarly advanced industrial societies and liberal democracies. By comparison with the USA, Japan, France, or even Germany, it is not obvious that the answer should necessarily be condemnatory.
I do not mean to engage in a fatuous exculpation of the local natives. Far from it. But the question must be placed in a reasonable domestic context. The peoples of this country have traditionally found numerous pretexts or excuses for expressing their violent distrust of one another; racism is but one of these pretexts. It may not even be the most important. Far more people are brutally murdered, intimidated and bullied every year in Great Britain on the grounds of religious differences held by indigenous peoples against each other than by ethnic ‘racism’ waged by an indigenous population against recent arrivals. I refer to Northern Ireland. Those who would dismiss this instance as ‘not part of Britain’ or ‘a special case’ reveal rather more about their own ethnic and religious prejudices than about the existence or otherwise of racism in this country. Overtly racist parties gain relatively little popular support in this country (compare France or Italy). Organised violent racial intimidation does occur, but with less frequency and probably less ‘effectiveness’ (if that is the right word) than football hooliganism – a particular British speciality which, with rare examples to the contrary, is directed more against internally-identified tribes than external ‘races’. It is also rare for non-indigenous peoples to be deprived of access to housing, educational or health resources by jerrymandering. Of course, for a few people in a few situations at occasional moments, British racism has been (and probably will be again) both ‘terrifying’ and ‘lethal’: but in general, a responsible attitude to its incidence drawn from a comparative perspective and placed in a reasonable domestic context eschews such hysterics. Anyone can quote a few emotive examples about anything. This method of expression does not constitute a worthwhile argument. Still less does it constitute evidence for a worthwhile argument. Ironically, in some cases (Tamils in Sri Lanka or Sikhs in certain parts of India), the words ‘lethal’ and ‘terrifying’ better represent the situations from which non-indigenous populations have come rather than that to which they have arrived.
British racism is still a problem which can best be dealt with unheroically and unhysterically by very ordinary people, working out very ordinary agreements in small, insignificant places about relatively fair and reasonably tolerant distributions of local housing, health and educational resources. The work these people do is best followed in local newspapers. Sadly, these people do not, as a rule, write reviews in the LRB. But at least they do appear to be aware that learning to be anti-racist is much more a product of learning about very general forms of tolerance and practising old forms of political accommodation, aware of but unintimidated by legitimate ethnic difference, than it is a peculiar art, learned only by equally peculiar subservience to the received wisdom of the illuminati of NW3.
All Souls College, Oxford
SIR: Mr Palmer’s latest letter (Letters, 10 December 1987) challenges me to reply on several points. He says that the view that ‘Britain is a racist society’ attributes ‘a moral and institutional defect to a whole people’. I do not agree with this definition. A capitalist society is not one where everyone is a capitalist, nor where everyone supports capitalism. It is one where capitalism forms the values and shapes the institutions by which the society, as a whole, functions. It is clearly different from a socialist society, in which – while not everyone is necessarily a socialist – the values and institutions take quite a different shape. Similarly, a racist society is not one where every person or ‘a whole people’ is racist, but one where assumptions about racial differences shape the values and institutions by which the society functions. In this case, I believe Britain has come to be a racist society.
Unlike Frantz Fanon, who thought a society could not be a little bit racist, but must be one thing or the other, I believe there are degrees and differences in the racism to be observed in different societies. Our framework and values are not so crudely racist as those of South Africa; the detailed characteristics of British racism differ from those of French racism, and so on. But the point is that Britain is not a society where race and colour are irrelevant to people’s prospects in life, their attitudes and activities. On the contrary, race and colour make an enormous difference: not to be white greatly increases your chances of meeting violent physical attacks and racial insults, decreases your chance of getting employment, and if you are a candidate for public housing makes you more likely to be offered low-quality accommodation. (Government statistics and independent research support these assertions.) There are many people in this country who are opposed to racism, and there are institutions which are struggling to get rid of racism in their operations: nonetheless, in the sense I have described above, I do not think it inaccurate to call ours a racist society.
I also believe racism should be attacked wherever it occurs: therefore I deplore the citizenship law of Malawi, which makes ‘African race’ a condition of citizenship for children born within the territory, and likewise the law of Brunei, which excludes non-Malays and has left thousands of residents of Chinese descent stateless. People do not acquire a special value or importance by belonging to any particular race: hence, if we had oppression here of whites by blacks, this would be deplorable. But it does not happen to be the present problem.
Mr Palmer thinks that if I have a ‘more modest thesis’ than his definition, it cannot ‘justify overturning the whole of the British education system’. Who is overturning it? Not the anti-racists. But by ‘overturning’ Mr Palmer presumably does not mean the destruction of the universities’ independence and efficiency, the imposition on unwilling teachers of a new, centrally-determined curriculum, and the removal of power from local education authorities. He means educating people about racism, in violation of his principle that ‘education is an end in itself, not an anti-racist instrument.’ It is not clear what he means by calling education an end in itself. Education is a process directed towards certain ends. Whatever ends it serves require it to impart particular knowledge, skills and values: otherwise it would not matter whether schools taught mathematics or astrology, computing or alchemy, honesty or dishonesty.
My view is that schools should promote respect for other human beings, regardless of race; knowledge of the major world religions; a broad view and critical understanding of different countries’ and continents’ histories; skill in the use of English and at least one other language (without a pecking order in which European languages are seen as superior to all others, regardless of the others’ usefulness and intellectual interest); as well as mathematics, the natural sciences, music (not only ‘Western’ classical music), the techniques and appreciation of the visual arts. The ends of such an education are to equip children to understand the world they now live in, behave well towards others and develop their own talents. I do not think the kind of education Mr Palmer’s book defends would serve these ends: it is too narrow, too concerned with an illusion of British self-sufficiency and superiority.
Of course schools need to teach especially about the history, literature and traditions of the country where they are, but the picture they promote must be one which includes all the country’s inhabitants and does not leave any members of the society concerned feeling excluded and relegated to ‘non-belonging’. Thus, for example, the importance of Christianity in our national history has to be described and explained, but not in a way that suggests you cannot be British today if you are not part of a Christian culture. The present mixture of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, Hinduism etc, and of agnosticism and militant unbelief, has to be described and explained if contemporary life is to be understood at all. An education like this is not only a sound basis for understanding what is wrong with racism: it is desirable as a good education, racial considerations apart. I should not call it social engineering, any more than I should call the inculcation of capitalist values and little-Englandism social engineering: this term has to do with the vain attempts made some time ago to overcome the British class structure through changes in the organisation (rather than the curriculum) of schools.
Finally, I am not making Mr Palmer’s point for him when I say there is no common agreement about what a multicultural curriculum may be: I am making my own, which, it must be evident by now, is different from his. As to the Swann Committee’s research, I am certainly guilty of believing that you cannot explain ‘West Indian under-achievement’ by supposing that there is something wrong with West Indian children. This belief is not mere prejudice: it is supported by ample evidence that Caribbean children do perfectly well at school in the Caribbean and better than black Americans as immigrants in the United States, whereas in England, on average, they under-achieve. To seek for reasons for this under-achievement starting at the schools’ end rather than the children’s seems to me therefore reasonable. Perhaps I should add that the Swann Committee commissioned an independent research paper on the IQ question by Professor Mackintosh, and that this is incorporated in the report.
Not Strong on Facts
SIR: I was amused to see that R.W. Johnson disagrees with Labour: A Tale of Two Parties so strongly (LRB, 10 December 1987). But I challenge the charge that the book is ‘not strong on facts’. The ‘facts’ which Johnson uses to make his case do not stand up to investigation. First, Johnson’s facts on the miners’ strike. He makes several inaccurate statements but the two most important are these. 1. One of my omissions, says Johnson, is that I make ‘no mention of the fact that the NUM, though one of the richest unions in the country, refused to give strike pay despite the terrible suffering of miners’ families.’ He is right, I do not make any such mention, for the simple reason that the NUM of the Eighties is not ‘one of the richest unions in the country’. If the NUM had paid strike pay to its 150,000 or so striking members, it would have been bankrupt within six weeks. There has never been any provision in the rules of the NUM for strike pay for a national strike. Even in wealthier days, strike pay for a national strike by an industrial union like the NUM (as distinct from a general union where it is sections rather than the whole membership who are normally involved in a strike) would quickly use up the union’s funds. 2. Johnson goes on to say that the union ‘carried on paying its officials, such as Mr Scargill, quite normally’. In fact, during the first month of the strike, the NUM’s National Executive decided that none of its members nor any NUM full-time official should draw their salaries until the end of the dispute. Mr Scargill’s salary, along with that of other officials, went to the Miners’ Solidarity Fund, a fund for miners’ families in hardship (trustees: David Blunkett and Sheffield MPs Bill Mackie and Richard Caborn).
He is also inaccurate about the GLC. He asserts, confidently, that ‘the collapse of London services constantly predicted by the GLC’ has ‘not taken place’. From the vantage point of an Oxford don, the signs of collapse might not be immediately obvious. But from London’s Underground, London’s bus stops, roads and communities the view is rather different. The latest Annual Report of the London Regional Passengers’ Committee and an earlier report – Counting the cost – of the Association of London Authorities are just two of several accounts of the serious deterioration, at times collapse, of services previously under the control of the GLC.
Finally, Johnson says I support proportional representation and talk ‘blithely of the day when Labour will win an absolute majority under PR’. My own words were: ‘In the long run socialism needs the active support of the overwhelming majority of people; we have nothing to fear from an electoral system which requires us to win such support.’
SIR: Reading Brian Johnston’s intemperate and hectoring letter (Letters, 10 December 1987), it became clear to me that he never read my review of David Shipler’s book beyond its first paragraph. Had he continued to read, he must have noticed that after postulating the analogy with the imaginary book about post-World War Two Germany, I explicitly state that ‘all analogies have their limits, and the Palestinians are obviously not the occupied Germans after World War Two.’ Could I have said it more clearly? But apparently Johnston marches to his own drummer. Similarly, on the more substantive issue of the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations, Johnston conveniently overlooks my explicit statements: that I oppose the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, that I am against putting up Jewish settlements there, and that ‘I look forward to the day when Israelis and Palestinians negotiate an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories … and the Palestinians are able to live under a government of their own choosing.’ On what ground can one deny the Jews the same rights of self-expression and self-identity claimed by every other group aiming at self-determination? Of course the Palestinians are entitled to self-determination: but so are the Jews of Israel, and those two claims have to learn to live with each other, politically expressed in two states, an Israeli and a Palestinian or Palestinian/Jordanian one. I am sure Brian Johnston has a more elegant term by which he would like to cloak his wish to deny the Jews in Israel the same right to which all national groups – be they Irish Catholic, Palestinian Arab or South African Black – are entitled. But the racist undertones of his denial cannot – and should not – be overlooked. Just as Palestinian terrorism (which should be criticised) cannot detract from the Palestinian right of self-determination, so Israeli policies (which I have criticised myself more than once since 1967) cannot detract from the same Jewish right.
Hebrew University, Jerusalem
SIR: I formed the impression, perhaps wrongly, that Marjorie Perloff (Letters, 10 December 1987), in her penetrating critical essay on Robert Lowell (‘Poètex Maudits of the Genteel Tradition’), was contrasting both Lowell and Berryman with a different sort of writer and intellectual in America – one much more aware of current ideas and fashions and more perceptive in responding to them. And very many such intellectuals in America are surely Jewish? – many more than are ‘Mayflower screwballs’.
St Catherine’s College, Oxford
SIR: Others before me have known the dubious privilege of being labelled ‘my friend’ by Craig Raine in the correspondence columns of LRB. I name a hurricane after him; he calls me a pisspot. If this is ‘my friend’ Craig Raine’s grasp of proportionate response, then we should all be glad he hasn’t yet acquired a driving licence. And what is to be done about our uprooted friendship now? I suppose I shall have to agree to edit The Faber Book of Hurricanes.
Sick of the Parrot
SIR: I’m sorry that Julian Barnes failed to win the Booker Prize for Flaubert’s Parrot in 1984. I was then, and I still am. I am also impatient with his tiresome lamentations on the subject, and with the LRB for giving him space to air them yet again (LRB, 12 November 1987). One would hope that Madrid could have distracted him, but I suppose with a new Spanish joke about parrots, and the Diary opportunity coming near the Booker Prize announcement for 1987, old wounds were opened and he seized another occasion to carry on complaining. Please beg him to stop it.
Northwestern University, Illinois
SIR: I was recently debating with a fellow-writer (Nancy Winters, novelist, poète légère and impresaria, who once exhibited in the USA – in connection with a book by Christopher Robin Milne – the veritable Winnie-The-Pooh) whether a better name could not be found for what is now known as Light Verse. We decided that the best overall word would be ‘witverse’; although this invites facetious variants such as ‘titverse’ and ‘shitverse’, it does include the idea of ‘wit’ in the 16th-century sense, as well as the modern associations of humour, epigram, etc. The trouble with ‘light verse’ as a name is that it doesn’t do justice to works of satire or poems that may be light in style but serious in intention (Pope’s ‘The Rape of the Lock’, Swift’s ‘Verses on the Death of Dr Swift’, or even Rochester’s ‘A Ramble in St James’s Park’, which begins as general social satire and ends as bitter personal raillery). A good name will not be limiting, in the way that ‘comic verse’ and ‘humorous verse’ are, or anything that implies frivolity only; nor, naturally, will it have heroic or solemn connotations. If any of your readers have any suggestions, they would be very welcome.
SIR: In the spring of 1989 Chatto and Windus hope to publish the second volume of the New Chatto Poets series. Anyone wishing to have their work considered should send it to me, before 31 March.
30 Bedford Square, London WC2