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Wan more mouth

Reading Paul Kennedy’s Preparing for the 21st Century on a small Pacific island is obviously more stimulating than reading it in Cambridge. In commenting on Kennedy, Geoffrey Hawthorn (LRB, 13 May) makes no reference to the islands of Polynesia or Melanesia, presumably because their populations are so small. Yet these fragile island communities are some of the first to suffer the effects of rapid population growth. The population of the two towns in Vanuatu is doubling every ten years, that of the country every twenty-five years. It is certainly not the case that ‘more hands mean more output’, as Hawthorn puts it. You are more likely to hear the phrase ‘Wan more mouth blong feedim.’ One ni-Vanuatu friend in town with a job supports at least 15 people from his home island, all of them living on a small piece of land. When his sister had her third child, none of them particularly wanted and each one with a different father, he cut a mark on a mango tree and said, ‘One more, one more and I’ll hang you from that tree.’ So far it has proved an effective method of family planning.

Not one though that we recommend in our community theatre group, which tackles a number of reproductive health issues. Whilst ‘capital flight’ and increasing inequities in the international system are undeniable realities, they are not things which people at village level can do much about. They see lagoons silted up with waste or the one main street in Port Vila needing policemen to direct the expanding volume of traffic at, don’t laugh, rush hour, Pacific style. Or they see increasing numbers of young people in towns with no work in a country which has no chance of having a manufacturing base.

I do not pretend that everybody is motivated to do something about it but none of our plays provokes such lively discussion as our family planning piece. There is a new willingness to discuss many previously taboo topics. As the actors display various methods of contraception by the light of a hurricane lamp, grandmothers crossly hush the titters of the teenagers, ‘Yu lisen gud. Smating ia nao yu should save.’ With good reason, for it is the grandmothers who often have to bring up the ‘accidents’ of young couples in town, and they’re getting tired of it. From the viewpoint of Cambridge the priority might be to harangue developed nations but from here that seems like waiting until ‘team we fowl i gat tooth.’ For the grandmother developed nations don’t enter into it. It’s a matter of decreasing ‘graon’ and increasing ‘picannini blong rod’ – children of the road.

Lastly, without wishing to dampen Mr Hawthorn’s enthusiasm for the generosity of Japan’s and South-East Asia’s aid, is he aware of the speed with which they are destroying the Melanesian rain forests?

Peter Walker
Vanuatu


Morgie

Frank Kermode (LRB, 13 May) objects to my biography of E.M. Forster principally because, in his words, ‘it offers lots of intuitions.’

One of his examples is that I dismiss P.N. Furbank’s ‘account of the long relationship between Forster and the policeman Bob Buckingham as a cover-up’. This is not an ‘intuition’ but is supported by evidence (on page 350 of my book) that their relationship was not ‘natural’; my account was subsequently confirmed by Francis King in the Evening Standard of 29 April when he frankly stated that he and Furbank had been ‘deliberately equivocal’ on this subject and that ‘Beauman comes out with the truth’.

There are, it is true, a number of ‘intuitions’ in my book unsupported, so far, by hard evidence. For example, I suggest that it was not coincidental that the Forsters’ only trip abroad in 21 years was during the month of the first Oscar Wilde trial. This particular suggestion may never be proved; but I expect some or all of the others to be confirmed eventually – in the Evening Standard or elsewhere.

Nicola Beauman
London NW3


Hue and Cry

I don’t feel rash about developing a debate about Jürgen Habermas’s latest work (which I haven’t read) from Peter Dews’s review (LRB, 13 May), given Professor Dews’s record as the UK’s most sensitive Habermas-watcher. But there’s a big hole at the end of his piece which everyone interested in advanced social theory should jump into urgently.

To recap briefly: Dews’s critique of Habermas’s new, more law-based theory of social development finds a ‘philosophical space’ in his argument that must be filled. This would connect individual ‘justice’ (which a more sophisticated and Habermasian rule-of-law would bring) with collective ‘solidarity’ (needed to prevent excessive atomisation and social fragmentation).

This space should be filled, says Dews, with ‘enquiries into the fundamental structures of the human form of life’ – the ‘archaic, binding energies’, in Habermas’s words, which might sustain ‘expanded, cosmopolitan solidarity’ (in Dews’s words). We are further urged by Dews to ‘explore what is essential to the integrity of human life-forms in general’. This exploration might help us to say more about why we should be aiming for more social solidarity, without tying Habermas’s ‘steadfast, subtle universalism’ down to any too specific determination.

This is a very tricky operation. Isn’t science – biological, psychological, cognitive – rather than philosophy, the obvious foundation for ‘fundamental’ ‘essential’ structures of humanity? This whistling gap in social thinking has long been recognised by Noam Chomsky. As yet, there is no scientifically authoritative version of ‘human nature’ which we can potentially ascertain from our invariant physical structures (although Chomsky’s anthropocentric rules of grammar are a stab at this). Until we get this – a long way off – then Chomsky’s presumption of an ‘instinct for freedom’ is as valid about the fundamentals of specics-humanness as anyone else’s (and, incidentally, provides an inexhaustible fuel for his critique of all present systems of power and money). Dews’s comment about Habermas’s notion of the solidarity-enhancing ‘lifeworld’ being at core an ‘anarchistic’ notion is a distant echo of Chomsky’s position.

But appealing to science, in these relativist times, as an anchor for one’s social theory, is like shopping in Safeway’s. So many plausible tastes on display! Some sweet and conducive to processes of solidarity (Dennett, Searle, Penrose, etc); some not so sweet in their implications for notions of ‘human nature’ (Eysenck, some socio-biologists, some MIT ‘meat-machine’ pronouncements). Habermas hasn’t been slow in the past to lean on the findings of experimental scientists, particularly Kohlberg and Piaget in developmental psychology. That’s OK – but should we see this as anything other than a social theorist’s opportunistic grab (no ignominy: they all do it) at a scientific brick for that pesky hole in the conceptual wall?

And isn’t this a space we should be wary of filling anyway? Habermas the German would need no reminding of how science has been employed to justify dreadful ‘fundamentals’ about humanity. Yes, those on the Left could employ such scientific knowledge tactically, as a component of an argument to help shift the consensus of our public spheres. But others could invoke other sciences, underpinning different sets of ‘archaic’ energies – aimed at unbinding rather than ‘binding’, fascist rather than socialist.

Perhaps nothing more dangerous than the next few turns of philosophical discourse will be needed to complete Habermas’s inspiring scheme. But I think we need to dwell on Jürgen’s old Sixties saw – science as ideology, science or ideology? – a little longer. Neo-Nazis may be waiting for a convincing chunk of scientism, defining the ‘essential human forms of life’, as ardently as we are. This is a dangerous space for social theory to gaze into hopefully. It could snarl back.

Pat Kane
Glasgow


What’s fair?

Reading Bernard Williams’s review of John Rawls (LRB, 13 May), one cannot help reflecting that our present electoral system – polarised into two parties which might properly be called those of Greed and Envy – militates against out preserving or creating a just society. Perhaps we ought not to vote for those professing particular policies but for the man or woman who best seems to represent our aspirations – leaving it to them to choose what party they support once they get to Westminster, as indeed was once the case. Such an arrangement would render proportional representation unnecessary, especially if the voter were allowed to order his preferences A, B, C, D, etc, with each letter given an appropriate numerical weighting for the count. The value of party allegiances is not that they provide a label for lazy voters, but that they enable the monarch to choose which set of MPs will be able to generate a stable administration.

John A. Davis
Cambridge


If you say so

I find it sad that such an accomplished writer as Helga Graham should indulge in few hard facts, but much stale fiction and warm gossip (LRB, 22 April). She tells us nothing which a Western visitor with reasonably good Saudi contacts does not hear and cannot discuss when visiting Saudi Arabia. Her renderings of familiar fiction and gossip are variations of themes common in expatriate society in Saudi Arabia and the Arabic scandal sheets published in London.

Her misleading views on the Succession and the Armed Forces are, perhaps, not surprising. But she also repeats old myths, embellishing some, and inventing new ones: ‘women and children shot in front of open graves’, ‘tortured by being buried in burning sand’ etc. She demonstrates ignorance of the Al Saud family by describing the Governor of the Eastern Province (a son) and the commander of the key base of Tabuk (a nephew) as being full brothers of King Fahd! Her direct quotation of Article 39 – on freedom of expression – is inaccurate and incomplete. She attributes qualities to three ‘new religious intellectuals’ (two of whom she misnames), presumably because their names have been reported by Human Rights Watch and in other media. But to suggest that they are ‘most alarming to the Government’ is to misjudge the nature of the potential threat which is miscalled ‘fundamentalist’.

The specific quotations from her discussions with a Saudi banker, a member of King Fahd’s entourage, a Madina doctor and a senior Saudi are interesting, but they are brief and waste away in the bulk of her article which is a re-hash of previous general rumour and report. As for the opinion of the ‘old British Saudi hand’, I would suggest that he might not be old but merely living in the past to state that ‘Bedouin evangelical fervour is only sporadically aroused and even then plunder and paradise seem to merge in their minds.’

H.StJ.B. Armitage
Wells, Somerset


Bad

I was delighted to read the funny and touching letter from Angus Calder (Letters, 13 May), who occupies an influential post in the nation’s educational affairs as ‘Reader in Cultural Studies’ at the Open University. I am sure that John Selwyn Gummer and other fruitcakes on the right will have been gratified to see the quaint old argument about original sin paraded, and on this occasion coupled with Mr Calder’s ideas of abolishing compulsory education.

When Mr Calder got onto more serious ground, he was a bit lost. It is true that D.H. Lawrence taught, unhappily, in Croydon for a little while. I doubt, however, he ever advocated the abolition of compulsory education, since he had been a beneficiary of it.

As to the other literary references, does anyone take R.L. Stevenson to be more than a superior historical novelist? Would any child think that an 18th-century pirate accommodating a parrot on the left shoulder, and having only one leg and one eye, is a real role model? Richmal Crompton (certainly in this context an eclectic choice) wrote second-rate books about a suburban childhood. William lived a cossetted, middle-class life next door to the gravelled driveway and tree-filled garden of the Boot family and his parents ‘took tea’ and owned a car. His gang’s ‘violence’ was wholly unlike what Andrew O’Hagan described. If anyone can show me in any of the books a case of William killing pet animals, setting fire to buildings, stealing money, sexually assaulting girls and committing serious criminal damage, I should feel obliged to eat the entire canon.

David Townsend
Director of Social Services, London Borough of Croydon


Dry

In his review of E.O. Wilson’s book The Diversity of Life, Steve Jones (LRB, 22 April) comments on the strangely large number of cichlid fish species in Lake Victoria. He appears to dismiss what he calls the conventional explanation that they arose in a multiplicity of small lakes left when the major body dried up. Perhaps it would be wise here to recall the now well-founded proposition that some 5 to 6 million years ago the Mediterranean basin was a salt desert some 3000m below sea level. The data was established by the Deep Sea Drilling Programme. Have comparable investigations been attempted in Lake Victoria? The discovery of the drying out of the Mediterranean allowed biologists to understand why the land plants and freshwater faunas of its islands seemed to have dispersed from a common origin within it.

Robin Nicholson
Stockport


Irrumation

I resisted the temptation to pass on this information to Jenny Diski before this, because I was rather ashamed of my own curiosity, but since Mr Burrows (Letters, 27 May) didn’t bother to translate his quotation from Catullus, I thought I’d better add my findings. The only dictionary on our shelves which helps is Smith’s Latin-English Dictionary (1868):

irrumator, one who practises a kind of obscenity. irrumo, to extend the breast to give suck; hence to practise a kind of filthy obscenity.

I think Mr Smith is being coy. Incidentally, the ex libris plate in the book is that of Eric Gill. Trust him to have such definitions to hand.

Linnett Nuttgens
High Wycombe