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Whose hubris?

John Lloyd’s account of the 1984 miners’ strike (LRB, 10 March) is excessively fatalistic. His uncomplicated determinism stands in sharp contrast to his book, written in the immediate aftermath, where the evident motivation was to investigate how events had taken what most people at the time considered to be a bizarre turn. Distance, both temporal and spatial, has made Lloyd more selective in his memories. The underlying assumption in his bleak account of the strike is that, once Scargill had become president of the NUM, an all-out national strike was inevitable. It seems that it was Scargill’s overweening will, excessive vanity and extraordinary ambition that enabled him to thwart the attempts of his more humane and pragmatic colleagues like Mick McGahey.

It would be difficult to find a practising British historian who subscribed to the view that Hitler’s psyche was primarily responsible for the triumph of Fascism in Germany or that it was Stalin’s character which mainly determined the fate of the USSR after Lenin’s death. Why should Scargill’s personality be any more important in deciding the outcome of events than the two most notorious megalomaniacs of the mid-20th century? British contemporary historians have been notably less objective about their indigenous demoniac figures, be they Scargill or Thatcher. Like Lloyd, they consign the 1984 miners’ strike to the realm of great tragedy, the outcome of which is predetermined by the gods’ inexorable revenge on human hubris. Analysing the social and political currents in the strike is evidently too painful.

The 1984 miners’ strike was lost through hubris, but it was not Scargill’s – though he undoubtedly possessed abundant amounts of this quality. It was a collective hubris exhibited poignantly, stubbornly and unhesitatingly by the entire cohort of British trade-union leadership and their ‘brains’, the intellectuals and putative strategists inside their research departments. They had ample evidence before March 1984 that Scargill intended to embark on an all-out confrontation with the Government and that this time the Government intended to resist with equal tenacity. John Lloyd will have witnessed them commiserating in private about Scargill and his lack of judgment. Publicly they kept up the appearance of unity and they signally failed to embark on essential damage limitation to distance the rest of the trade-union movement from Scargill’s total war.

Had the TUC General Council and the Labour shadow cabinet been prepared to cajole, wheedle and threaten, it is possible that the pragmatic opposition to Scargill inside the NUM would have been able to outflank him. There were significant numbers of branch and lodge officials leading their members in an all-out strike while recognising Scargill’s dogmatic refusal to compromise. Their moral predicament was not unlike that of officers in the trenches in World War One. John Lloyd met many of these officials at the time. He has evidently forgotten that outside Yorkshire there were activists who were waiting for an opportunity to push the NUM away from collective suicide. Their ‘comrades’ in the movement never gave them the chance.

John Lloyd has also forgotten that the great British public was highly ambivalent about the NUM’s defeat in 1984-5. The inspired attempts of government and press to portray Scargill as the devil incarnate and to magnify the set-piece battles in which he continued in vain to deploy his forces had a great deal of evidence to draw on and distort. But ordinary people still felt sympathy and respect for the miners. Their sentiment may have been anachronistic and uncapitalist. It was genuine nonetheless.

The normally mild and unextreme British, for whom compromise is habitual, have always felt admiration for people of principle. Nevertheless, the unyielding Ian McGregor never found his way into the public’s affections. On the other hand, Scargill’s intransigence was even viewed by many as admirable because he was ‘standing up for what he believed’. Throughout the summer and autumn of 1984, the public’s expectation was that a compromise would be reached. If the TUC leaders and/or Neil Kinnock and his shadow cabinet had been prepared to bang NUM heads in the privacy of the General Council chamber and Walworth Road, they might have presided over a change in the NUM’s internal balance sufficient to produce a conciliatory acquiescence to one of the many schemes in the air at the time. There were schemes thought up by the great and good – assorted bishops and experts. There was also a substantial anti-McGregor faction at the top of the NCB with whom the General Council could have conspired. The outcome of the strike could have been different.

Nina Fishman
London N5


What’s best

There is one important difference between Robert Nozick and myself (Letters, 10 March). He speculates that rationality might be an evolutionary adaptation. He calls it a ‘trait’. I think of it as cultural. I do not conceive of it as a trait at all (trait meaning ‘a genetically determined characteristic or condition’ – The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, third edition, 1992). Hence not only are the four theses that Nozick calls ‘Hacking’s theses’ not mine, but the first one, about traits, is also not in my opinion relevant. I cannot find any reason for holding that rationality, in the sense of the earlier parts of the book, can be an evolutionary adaptation – although I’m sure that only our species could develop that idea of rationality. It is a social product of a very powerful sort, admirably expounded by Nozick himself. But it is not a trait that individuals have in varying degrees. People in a society that values rationality may reason better or worse, by the current standards of that society, but one is not thereby more rational than another. Other communities may not value the same forms of rationality, at least in the very theoretical version favoured by Nozick. It is a group thing, as are all cultural artifacts, and Nozick is offering a sophisticated philosophical analysis of a concept of rationality expressed in a large and relatively homogeneous group to which both of us belong. There may be an underlying sense in which humans have a capacity to reason. Nozick’s rationality, however, is not something inherited but a particular social form that is acquired.

The differences between us matter – they are differences between a philosopher who feels closer to evolutionary biology and cognitive science, and another who feels closer to cultural anthropology. Because of the time-honoured Western connection between rationality and humanity, these differences have political and social meanings, and your readers need to see how things look from the two distinct perspectives. Hence although my review was, as Nozick notes, ‘generally positive’, I was critical at the end. I welcome his clarifications and the overall stance expressed in his letter.

Ian Hacking
University of Toronto


Born in Bombay

The sprightly defence of Salman Rushdie in Christopher Hitchens’s Diary (LRB, 24 February) is admirable, but it contains one puzzling statement. He refers to Rushdie’s father having chosen a family surname ‘in what is now Pakistan’. Now, everyone knows that Salman Rushdie was born in Bombay – all his work is shot through with love of that city’s vibrant secular culture. It was after his birth that the family, in his view misguidedly, moved to Pakistan. Is Hitchens right in his location of that momentous choice?

Gerald Moore
Udine, Italy


For Azazel

In his illuminating review of Norman Cohn (LRB, 10 March) Malcolm Bull seems to make unnecessary difficulties for himself by persistently identifying the Scapegoat with he Sacrifice. Unless things have changed since I went to Sunday school, the whole point about the Scapegoat is that it isn’t sacrificed, and it isn’t killed: it is expelled.

‘The Sacrificed’ has its twin and opposite in ‘The Expelled’. Two goats are brought before the Lord. By lot, one, the sacrifice, is given to the Lord, and killed; the other is sent away, ‘for Azazel’, into the desert: ‘the scapegoat’. (The Lancashire joke about this used to be that it were better to be the scapegoat than to be found acceptable to the Lord, since he desert to a goat is like a briar-patch to Brer Rabbit.) I’d have thought this observation ought to strengthen Malcolm Bull’s observations about such founding twins as Cain and Abel, and Romulus and Remus. What has confused the issue, I think, has been the glib identification of Jesus with the scapegoat. Jesus may have been the acceptable sin-offering, but then he ought to have had a twin, who was simply ‘sent away’.

The charming paradox about the tale is that he mentally recycled sacrifice is actually lost, while the scapegoat, mentally cast out to endless loss, is actually left alive and might turn up any day, like the proverbial Clegg Hall Boggart, or bad penny. Politically, too, there has always been a difference between the figure killed and the figure expelled. For one thing, it’s generally been easier for the figure expelled, one way or another, to return.

Michael Haslam
Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire


Something to upholster

Janette Turner Hospital’s review of my book, The Shipping News (LRB, 10 February), is built on her personal opinions, as are many book reviews, and she is entitled to them. What she is not entitled to is the free-wheeling imputation that ‘it seems certain The Outport People lies behind The Shipping News, a shape seen through fog, as it were,’ and her printed suspicion that I wrote The Shipping News dependent on ‘a submerged memory of Mowat’ is erroneous and insulting. I have never read Claire Mowat’s The Outport People.

I did, however, read scores and scores of first-hand accounts and sociological studies of outport life, made eight trips to Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula over a period of years, listening and observing, and have good friends in several outports. The Newfoundland described in The Shipping News is based on those sources, and those sources only. The protagonist’s name, Quoyle, is an archaic spelling for ‘coil’, as a coil of rope, and I first saw this spelling on page 602 of the 1944 edition of The Ashley Book of Knots. I chose the word ‘Quoyle’ for its symbolic meaning and for its relation to the knot lore (bows to Ashley) that threads the book, not because someone else had once written a book about characters named Quayle and I was too dim-witted to come up with anything but a variation of this name. If Hospital sees ‘startling correspondences’ between The Shipping News and The Outport People, the likely reason is because both books accurately reflect outport life and temper.

The startling correspondences she ticks off were fairly common events of old outport life – though they strike outsiders as dramatic and even unique. Dragging a house over the ice has been described many times by outporters and depicted in photographs and lithographs. Houses were floated and towed astern as well. Both were practical ways to move shoreside houses in a place with few roads. Boats were sometimes smashed and houses burned: Newfoundlanders can have a quick hand at getting rid of what is no longer wanted. (I was in Newfoundland a month ago and discovered that three sturdy old houses still standing two years ago, one of them something of a physical model for the Quoyle house in The Shipping News, had been deliberately burned.) Houses set apart from others can be found in every outport because of the vagaries of shoreline indentation. There are Scotch-drinking yacht-owners the world over; they were in The Shipping News with their boat simply to give the aunt something to upholster. I want to be clear about this – The Shipping News is neither related to nor modelled on The Outport People in any way, standing or sitting, conscious or unconscious. And imaginative speculation is not the best book reviewing tool.

E. Annie Proulx
Vershire, Vermont


Homing in

Lord Runciman asks (Letters, 10 March) whether I would seriously dispute that in 20th as in 15th-century England there are ‘systematically observable inequalities of economic, ideological and political power to which the contemporary rhetoric relates in all sorts of still understudied ways’. The answer is that I certainly would not – how could I? To be honest, I do not understand why he asks, and wish he would explain.

P.N. Furbank
London NW5


Dark Knight

Tom Shippey’s description (LRB, 24 February) of Malory’s bravura escapes from Coleshill and Colchester smack of what might be called medieval special pleading. To read Early Chancery Petitions in the Public Record Office is to wallow in the formulae of violence: ‘and men of werre cam to the place of youre seid besecher atte Trewonwell in the same Counte with force and armez that is to sey with bowys Arous Jakkez Salettez Cures Haberiouns Longedebefas atte Middenyght in the mooste riotes wise that kouth be thought bryngynge with them Gunnys Crossbowes Speres Paveys with many othir ablementez of werre.’ French petitions are equally fertile: ‘les ditz Hugh et Johan ove cc hommes darmes after de guerre arraiez deconuz … viendront a dite ville de Barowe ove force et armes cestassavoir ove haubergeons et paletz de fere arkes setes espees bastone et bokelers.’

In another petition our poor Besecher is sitting quietly at dinner with his good friend when the evil ‘mysdoer’ attacks him and he ‘eschuyng bodely harme trustyng in thair fayth and promisse come un to theym and thayre sayde promisses and faythes not withstandyng they hym there and then with grete violence dyspoyled of his bowe arrowes swerde bokeler and dagger.’ Dinner? Fourteenth and 15th-century England would appear filled with ‘grete mysdoers’ armed to the teeth and incessantly beating half to death people of all sizes, shapes, ages and sex: ‘the seid mysdoers with Gunshott and othir engynes broke the gates and doores … and there the servantez … bette wounded and evyll entretyd takynge his norys and his iiii younge children beynge naked in bed keste tham oute into the fore withoute pitee or mercy betynge the seid norys soo that she was in despeir of hir lyff.’ The charge sheet on Malory’s escapes looks like an attempt on the part of lackadaisical or suborned (or both) keepers to make the best of a tricky situation. To me, the detail itself is a dead give-away. How else was he to cross the moat? Fly?

That said, the rape rap sheet looks good. I suppose that rapere might conceivably be ambiguous in medieval Latin (even legal Latin) as it certainly is in Classical Latin. But carnaliter concubuit is not at all. If he got nailed on this one, he fucked her, not once, but twice. Tom Shippey (last paragraph) might agree: it’s too bad she wasn’t named Guinevere.

Robert Ross
London NW6


Getting it wrong

Misha Glenny’s review of Timothy Garton Ash’s book, In Europe’s Name, was intriguing (LRB, 24 February). However, the debate sparked by Garton Ash’s book – about whether the Social Democrats’ policy stabilised the Communist regime in East Germany and thus made reunification less likely – is the wrong debate by the wrong people at the wrong time. One point that Glenny makes most forcefully is that nobody in the West really believed we would win the Cold War – not even Reagan and Thatcher. On the morning after the Wall came down, I took my daughter along to be among the thousands at the Brandenburg Gate. ‘History is being made,’ I told her, ‘and we’ve got to be there.’ But even then, if someone had told me reunification was less than a year away, I would have laughed in their face.

On the other hand, it is not quite right to say that reunification as an issue was a ‘heinous thought crime’ in the East and a matter of public indifference in the West from the latter part of the Fifties onwards. In the East, Stalin’s strategy of German reunification as a step on the way to socialism was replaced by the tenet that socialism in the West was a precondition for reunification. In the West, the building of the Berlin Wall created an immense outpouring of national feeling; but, paradoxically, the origins of the SPD’s Ostpolitik can be clearly traced to President Kennedy’s attempt in the years 1961-63 to dampen this feeling and, more specifically, to provide West Berlin’s then Mayor Brandt with an alternative to the dangerously militant gestures Brandt had suggested the United States undertake. This is the context and content of the famous ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech.

Brandt realised that the USA was committed to containing (and possibly rolling back) Communism in Vietnam and maintaining the status quo in Europe. A weak man, and an opportunist by nature, the later Nobel Peace Prize winner re-aligned and became the only European statesman to host South Vietnam’s dictator Ky, while at the same time cultivating a relationship with Russia’s dictator Brezhnev which developed into personal friendship. Ky’s reception in Bonn led to the occupation of the city and its town hall by anti-war demonstrators. When Brezhnev visited West Germany, Brandt suspended civil rights in the whole Ruhr area, and had police erect road blocks and detain thousands in specially prepared bunkers and barracks in order to prevent the peace of Brezhnev’s visit from being disturbed by (left-wing) demonstrators.

More important than the broken crowns of the demonstrators (of whom I was one, as I had been in Bonn, I’m proud to say) were the ideological implications of Brandt’s Ostpolitik. Egon Bahr’s policy of Wandel durch Annäherung – change through rapprochement – sounded good, but, since nobody really believed in reunification, it really meant Annäherung, period. And this, again paradoxically, or rather dialectically, meant change in the intellectual structure of West Germany – or the mental structure of West German intellectuals, most of whom had been strictly anti-Communist in the Fifties. Up till 1989 it was almost a given in wide circles of the intelligentsia that East Germany, however disappointing in detail, was somehow ‘the better Germany’, or at least representative of that ‘better Germany’. Being morally correct – always a German preoccupation – engendered political correctness, which was defined as being vaguely anti-capitalist and somehow subscribing to socialist ideals. Of course, this was true of British intellectuals of the period, too, but in Germany, given the fact that one-third of the country was Communist, the implications were and are more disturbing.

The collapse of East Germany and the subsequent release of documents showing that the regime was just as bad as the ‘reactionaries’ always said it was – worse, in fact – has led to a profound crisis, almost a form of collective depression, among West German intellectuals, similar to the collective depression among the East German working class who now realise that capitalism is just as bad as their leaders always said it was. We don’t hear much about this crisis in the context of the debate sparked by Garton Ash’s book, partly because Garton Ash himself wasn’t concerned with this aspect of Ostpolitik, partly because the politicians are too busy mudslinging to bother about it, mainly because the intellectuals who control the discourse in the media are nursing their bad consciences and repressing their symptoms.

However, the repressed has a nasty habit of returning. The problem about German anti-capitalism is that it has always had an explicitly or implicitly anti-American (in the 19th century, anti-British), anti-semitic, and anti-democratic twist to it. All these elements were very much in evidence during the Left’s last big fling in Germany, the huge demonstrations against the Gulf War (or rather, against America, Britain and Israel; there was no demonstration against the annexation of Kuwait, and there have been hardly any demonstrations against the war in Yugoslavia). Glenny is surely being rather too complacent when he describes the main danger in Germany as coming from the radical Right. This could mean getting it wrong again. Of course the neo-Nazis are dangerous. But the alliance forged by Gysi of the ex-Communist PDS and Diestel, an East German member of the far right wing of the CDU, in the ‘Committees for Justice’, is reminiscent of what is happening in Russia. Throughout German history, from Luther via Wagner to Goebbels, we have seen disaffected revolutionaries become virulent anti-democratic, anti-semitic, nationalist reactionaries. Interestingly, the German intelligentsia, while not engaged in seriously reviewing its relationship to Communism (the discussion has basically been reduced to the question of who denounced whom to the East German Secret Police, i.e. a moral question), is at present involved in a debate over ‘1968’, the democratic revolution in West Germany. And the voices condemning the ‘excesses’ of 1968 and calling for a return to conservative cultural values seem to be louder than those defending ‘the achievements of 1968’. The Wohngemeinschaft Glenny lived in during his stay here was one of those achievements – so, with his contacts, Glenny should have been able to feel the pulse of the city’s intellectuals more closely.

Alan Posener
Berlin


My Peirce

In his fine review of Joseph Brent’s biography of Charles Sanders Peirce, John Sturrock (LRB, 10 February) corrects those who persist in pronouncing ‘Peirce’ as one does ‘Pierce’, by rhyming the great philosopher’s name, appropriately, with ‘perverse’. I like still better the mnemonic device generations of philosophy teachers have used to introduce their students to this genius. According to legend, when some small work by Peirce had been adopted as a class text – we may imagine by William James or Josiah Royce – a disgruntled Harvard undergraduate inscribed the inside cover of his copy with the laconic comment: ‘Who steals my Peirce steals trash.’

I might seize this occasion also to remark that whether or not Peirce was the ‘foremost’, as he was surely the first, Pragmatist – a label he explicitly foreswore in favour of ‘Pragmaticist’, which he felt certain was ‘ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers’ – another of this general breed, John Dewey, who was a graduate student at Hopkins when Peirce taught there, was unstinting in his praise for this marvellous crank.

James Jarrett
University of California, Berkeley


Shop Talk

I am grateful to Arthur Johnston and Edward Wilson (Letters, 24 February) for denying Sir-Robert-now-Lord Armstrong the credit that Professor Nash and I wrongly gave him for coining the phrase ‘economical with the truth’: and I am sorry to have missed the latter’s letter to the Times and the replies it provoked. It is salutary to be reminded that the forms of veracious economy include both plagiarism and sloth. In the meantime I have been informed privately (but with no reference) that the real credit should go neither to Cardinal Newman nor to Edmund Burke, but to Francis Bacon (Sr). Can any reader supply that reference, or any other earlier than 1796?

John Lennard
Trinity Hall, Cambridge


Fault-Finders

Just for Brian Vickers’s own benefit (Letters, 24 February) let me hereby go on record as stating that Appropriating Shakespeare, so far from confining its attentions to books less notable than itself, is as epic in its punitive ambitions as The Dunciad – a work, indeed, with which its whole mind-set (if not its entertainment value) constantly invites comparison.

As I understand it, Vickers thinks that a substantial majority of the Shakespearean criticism published over the last twenty years – shall we say, 80 per cent? – is derivative and conformist, plodding away (with greater or lesser degrees of zeal, dogmatism and competence) along intellectual routes established by more original critics. Here we are in perfect agreement. We differ, however, in that Vickers thinks that this is an unprecedented state of affairs, and that it can be wholly blamed on the influence of certain wicked and novel heresies, such as deconstruction, feminism and cultural materialism. I myself am inclined to think that about 80 per cent of the Shakespearean criticism produced in any given period tends to be no less derivative or doctrinaire – whether the buzzword of the moment is ‘subversive’, ‘elegant’, ‘sublime’ or ‘ambiguous’ – and am moreover of the opinion that some of the freshest, most scholarly and most eloquent writing on Shakespeare of the last two decades has been inflected by the intellectual movements which Vickers identifies as the root of all evil. So, of course, has some of the bottom 80 per cent of recent Shakespearean criticism, but then there’s all sorts of stuff down there.

I am flattered that Vickers should conclude by suggesting that if I would only think further about what he regards as the real issues, I might yet attain the impressive level of anxiety on the Bard’s behalf to which Appropriating Shakespeare is a monument. But I do hope that he is wrong. It would surely be hard to think of any writer less in need of rescue, from whatever quarter, than William Shakespeare.

Michael Dobson
University of Chicago