Poor Man’s Crime
It would be a terrible shame if Ian Gilmour’s review of Peter Linebaugh’s The London Hanged (LRB, 5 December 1991) was to deter potential readers. Whilst there is some grudging acknowledgment of the author’s scholarship, the general tone is one of slightly weary cynicism over the book’s Marxist (Stalinist?) framework, which, we are assured, retains only ‘a period charm’ in the light of recent events in Eastern Europe. Curiously perhaps, Gilmour sees ‘common ground’ with Linebaugh in his contention that ‘most of the hanged were poor, most had committed minor property crimes, and the rich were content with the system,’ while offering us no alternative explanation to the one he rubbishes.
Peter Linebaugh’s is a fine achievement and his central analytical mode is both indispensable and credible. His picture is of a society in an earth-shattering process of change. Here are the birthpangs of capitalism, an infant impatient to impose its will upon traditional society. Here are the Africans ripped from their homes and transported in chains to the plantations of the New World to produce sugar, cotton, tobacco. Here are the peasants arriving in droves from a countryside disrupted by enclosure, from a country, Ireland, dominated by rapacious landlords. Here are the craft workers, their customary rights criminalised. And here are the great ideologues, modernisers like Jeremy Bentham (against capital punishment), who could send his servant of five years to the gallows for taking two silver spoons. It is these different worlds, and a number of others, that Linebaugh re-creates and integrates with enormous verve and excitement, and not a little appropriate rage. Here is a book fit to stand next to The Making of the English Working Class. Finally, it is perhaps more than a little careless for Ian Gilmour to imply a Stalinist analysis in a pupil of Edward Thompson’s, but we can no doubt leave it to the author to answer that particular slur.
It is not for me to say whether Professor Pulzer is correct in describing me as an elderly Whig (LRB, 5 December 1991), but to prevent confusion may I say that my preference for Parliament over an appointed unaccountable cabal of senior lawyers as the ultimate arbiter of citizens’ rights is based on the hope that one day a socialist government will, through Parliament, deprive large numbers of the plutocracy of the ‘rights’ they presently enjoy. I doubt if that is Whiggish.
Return of the Male
With regard to Martin Amis’s review of Iron John (LRB, 5 December 1991), I wonder why it is that so many reviewers of the book find it easier to be snide rather than perceptive. I have read the book, and have even attended a workshop run by Robert Bly and Michael Mead in Dorset recently. Bly is addressing a real problem which Amis’s flippancy does its best to overlook. Maybe Martin Amis feels that the role of men in society is satisfactorily settled, that men cause no problems, that there are enlightened role models for boys and young men to emulate, but I don’t. I don’t find traditional images of men as suit-wearing, money-controlling patriarchs very helpful, but neither do I think that feminism, for all its achievements, has provided any very appropriate position for men, except as apologetic hangers-on. The women I know do not want men to apologise for being male. What they would like, and so would I, is for men to find out what being male entails and develop their own strength and integrity so that they can live alongside strong women in equality, balance and co-operation, with healthy conflict as it occurs.
There are very few men out in the world whom I can look to and say: yes, that’s what I would like to be, or would like my son to be. In fact, I can’t think of one, Robert Bly included. But give the guy credit for addressing the issue and trying to look at it in a way that gets people’s attention. Yes, it’s true that he uses fairy-tales, and talks in terms of myths and archetypes. Would it have been better if he had written an academic treatise, or a step-by-step ‘how to be a man’ book? Amis is distorting the book to present it as about male domination; it is not aimed at women, so it does not address them, any more than The Female Eunuch was written for men. In fact, Germaine Greer’s book received a similarly hostile reception when it was first published over here. Perhaps I should be grateful that Martin Amis did not descend to the level of a woman critic in the Observer who managed to blame Bly for the Gulf War. Bly is not a messiah or a guru, but he does seem to have touched a nerve somewhere. On the one hand, he has won a tremendous audience in the States – and judging by the attendance at the workshop, there is a similar enthusiasm here – and on the other hand, he has inspired the hatred, derision and contempt of every media person in this country for daring to write such a book. For that reason if no other, he must be doing something right.
It’s a while since I’ve come across an example of that fine old genre, the Glowing Review that is also a narrative of mastery. But it’s made a major comeback in Richard Rorty’s piece on Dennett’s Consciousness Explained (LRB, 21 November 1991). Who better than Rorty to stage it, with its all-star dramatis personae: Aristotle, Descartes, Hegel, Hume, Kant, Orwell, Stalin, Ryle – with Roger Penrose, John Searle and Thomas Nagel appropriately designated walk-on roles. And it’s stirring stuff. Dennett, student of a great master who ‘toppled settled philosophical convictions like ninepins’ in a work that ‘was rightly taken as the show-piece of post-war British philosophy’, has pulled off a remarkable feat. He has produced a work to equal it in boldness, originality and panache, full of ‘seminal’ arguments, which also display ‘an idiosyncratic mastery of metaphor’ etc, etc.
Well, this is all fine and for those who like that sort of thing it is most definitely the sort of thing they like. I don’t mind a good Helden-sage myself if I’m in the mood, as a matter of fact but that’s strictly provided they leave me – that is ‘she’ – out of it. I do object to being inscribed in the text when the roles for women are so lousy. What do I get here? ‘Aristotle, Ryle thought, had sensibly seen that to talk about someone’s mind is to talk about the features of her intellect and character …’ Penrose & Co agree that there are right answers to the question ‘ “What is immediately given to consciousness?”, where “given” is construed in such a way that the subject herself may be quite wrong about what is given to her consciousness’. ‘Even a reader who has never looked into a psychology book, or taken an interest in computers, will find herself absorbed in summaries of complicated psychological and physiological experiments, and in brief but clear accounts of curious computer programs.’ ‘Anyone sufficiently intrigued by this book to want a better understanding of this model will get what she wants from Andy Clark’s clear, helpful …’
After Aristotle has given my mind the once over and some of his distant descendants have surmised that I am wrong in the head, I get to be a B-stream reader who is to be offered brief, clear and helpful explanations about what goes on in the realms of seminal thought. Gee, thanks.
Bolton Point, New South Wales
Richard Rorty is obviously of the opinion that Daniel Dennett has shouted ‘fire’ in a crowded Cartesian Theatre. If so, many will be expected to make a beeline to the nearest available exit. But on reflection (whatever that may be), Dennett is not convinced there is a Cartesian Theatre – no theatre, no exit – perhaps no fire either. In any event, I suspect John Searle and Thomas Nagel, regardless of where they are now seated, will indeed be hanging around for the second feature.
Red Bank, New Jersey
Sweden’s Turn for the Worse
Abroad when it was printed, I have only just seen Göran Bengtson’s long letter (Letters, 21 November 1991) concerning my piece on the Swedish General Election (LRB, 10 October 1991). Mr Bengtson says he cannot recognise his Sweden in my report. I barely recognise my report in his letter. He does spot one slip: the New Democrat MP Bert Karlsson indeed spells his name with a ‘K’ and not a ‘C’. Mea culpa. I’d seen it tediously often during the campaign and I still mistyped it. But mostly Bengtson is using my article as a peg on which to hang one of his own, a straightforward alternative slant on the election events.
That’s fair, and we’ve all done it. But he sinews his thesis with some fairly disagreeable asides and purple passages which render his arguments steadily less attractive. ‘Smug’ and ‘superficial’ are allowable snorts against an article one dislikes, but is it just ‘demonic’ to feel anxious, in view of the resurfacing of the Far Right in several European countries, about the New Democrats’ views on race and immigration? I cited what I heard from the lips of party spokesmen and party workers. I could have quoted uglier statements. Bengtson himself makes one when he writes of ‘immigrants and refugees … adding their own piquant strands to our lush homegrown repertoire of criminality, corruption and sloth’. I do find that, with its implication that immigrants introduce new and different varieties of problem that are somehow intrinsic to their foreignness, quite remarkably unpleasant. Elsewhere, he applauds the spectacle of the newly-elected Mr Karlsson gaining admittance to the Riksdag building and getting himself snapped for the front page of Expressen, grinning with his feet up in an empty chamber. This was a small incident, yet the outgoing Speaker, Mr Thage Peterson (famously unassuming and respected, not simply ‘pompous’), was surely right to rebuke the culprit. I would have thought that disrespect for legislatures from the populist Right (imagine the same behaviour from British or German party equivalents in Westminster or Bonn) would carry a slightly sour taste for someone of Bengtson’s generation, which is also my own generation. But he believes that ‘it’s about all the place seems to be good for. A dose of coarseness would be morally preferable.’
His purplest passage is reserved for the problems Sweden’s welfare state now faces (would face under any government). Swedes were certainly worried about the future of their welfare provision (some were particularly anxious about creeping privatisation), but I found no one who offered Bengtson’s nightmare vision. First I had to pinch myself to realise this was Sweden rather than, say, Ceausescu’s Romania; then recognised a bad case of the Doomsday rhetoric employed by some on the Swedish right to lump together the social democratic model and the broken tyrannies of Eastern Europe. This is coarser stuff than Mr Karlsson’s clowning, and no contribution at all to a debate which deserves calm and logic if economic priorities are to be settled in a period of political confusion.
On a more personally serious note Bengtson (‘b. 1934’) maintains that ‘the funds are just not going to be there’ for welfare provision by the time he retires. Nothing is less predictable than European politics in the Nineties, and the best actuarial calculations can be shaken by events. All the same, I find this scenario of bankruptcy and destitution (written and rewritten by the Swedish Right since the Thirties) very hard to take.
Michael Howard writes in your issue of 5 December: ‘there have to be odds of some kind to distinguish war from a simple massacre. This was what made the destruction of an undefended Dresden troubling in a way that earlier attacks on German cities were not.’ I spent the winter of 1945-6 as a British Army officer in Dortmund. The inner city was said to have been 98 per cent destroyed. Whether that figure was accurate or not I had no means of knowing, but there was very little standing above ground. The Germans with whom I worked said that most of the damage had been caused in the last three weeks of the war, when Dortmund had no defences against air attack. There was a belief among the occupiers at that time that those responsible for bombing strategy wished the ground troops to find the greatest possible amount of destruction, to demonstrate the decisive role of bombing in the defeat of Germany. I found, and find, that thought troubling.
A recent controversy has shown that the question is still delicate. I well remember the atmosphere in Britain from 1940 onwards; I remember watching with satisfaction and gratitude the massive formations flying overhead to carry out what were called the thousand-bomber raids on Germany. How much were we all inspired by a sentiment Michael Howard does not mention: a burning and unreasoning desire for vengeance? Living afterwards amidst the rubble, I could not help wondering how effective the mass bombing of cities was, such as the fire raids on Hamburg. The moral question is profoundly difficult and cannot be resolved, but the practical assessment is still worth making, in order to convince future warlords, while hoping that they will never exist, that what is not sporting is not useful either.