Call it xenophobia
Jeremy Harding rightly draws attention to the origins of the row over the Danish cartoons: the difficulty encountered by the author of a Danish children’s book on the Prophet Muhammad in finding illustrators, because they feared that they might be on the receiving end of reprisals (LRB, 23 February). No one seems to have made the point that, if the editors of Jyllands-Posten were truly exercised by the issue of freedom of expression, surely the correct thing to have done would have been to publish in their own name illustrations suitable for a children’s book. Instead, they ran a series of cartoons, none of which would ever appear in a children’s book. The question then has to be asked: why print a cartoon representing the Prophet as an Islamic terrorist? When pressed in the course of an interview on BBC’s Hard Talk, the editor came up with an interpretive gloss that the offending cartoon was designed not as a representation of the Prophet but as a comment on terrorists who act in the name of the Prophet. Even the interviewer, the impeccably polite Stephen Sackur, visibly squirmed at this point. The term ‘gratuitous’ has been much invoked in connection with the decision to run the cartoons, and in many respects it was precisely this – gratuitously offensive. On the other hand, it is also important to highlight what a Danish professor of theology at the University of Copenhagen, in an interview on the BBC World Service, has maintained: that the true context for understanding this otherwise gratuitous gesture has little to do with freedom of expression, the traditions of satire or indeed blasphemy, and everything to do with the politics of immigration. Denmark has moved from a long and honourable tradition of opening its doors to asylum seekers to a rather nasty form of xenophobia. The Parliamentary majority of the current right-wing government depends on the support of the far-right Danish People’s Party. One of the most depressing aspects of the whole story is that in the past few weeks applications to join the latter have gone up by 17 per cent. The most useful thing the prime minister could do, for both the political health of Denmark and its reputation in the Muslim world, would be to break that alliance.
University of Copenhagen
James Wood suggests that one reason the 17th-century scholars who translated the King James Bible made the odd mistake was that ‘no Jew was involved’ on the committees supervising the translation from Hebrew (LRB, 23 February). The fact is that the Jewish population had been expelled from Britain by Edward I’s Edict of Expulsion in 1290. In 1655, Rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel from the synagogue in Amsterdam arrived in London to negotiate their return with Oliver Cromwell. Ben Israel’s absence from Amsterdam was much regretted by his star pupil, Baruch Spinoza, who was at the same time tried for blasphemy and excommunicated from the Jewish community. It might all have been avoided, he said, had Ben Israel not been in London.
Don’t get mad, get even
Malcolm Bull grossly distorts John Rawls’s view in The Law of Peoples (LRB, 9 February). Rawls plainly rejects the thought that it is morally legitimate in our circumstances to ‘threaten to use nuclear weapons against civilian populations, committing … genocide in the process’. Neither the doctrine of double effect nor the supreme emergency exemption provides grounds for any such thing. Indeed, Rawls explicitly rejects the line of thought that Bull attempts to pin on him in the particular cases of the fire bombing of Dresden and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Bull also misrepresents Rawls on intervention with respect to outlaw states. In the case of something like a contemporary version of Aztec society featuring slave labour and human sacrifice, Rawls does not argue that since sanctions would surely fail, a liberal crusader state is morally justified in exterminating the recalcitrant population. His suggestion is that, first, such a society should be approached, through reason, by the community of nations. Where such overtures fail, the community would have a case for economic sanctions; if the sanctions and continuing appeals to reason fail, the community would have a prima facie case for some kind of forceful intervention. Genocide is not justified on any careful interpretation of what Rawls writes, and Rawls would never attempt to justify it. In particular, the mere failure ‘to develop a “well-ordered” society’ is not good grounds for intervention, on Rawls’s view, never mind for invasion and extermination. Bull’s suggestion is that we should give up on Anglo-liberal philosophy with its talk of rights and contracts, and turn to the notion of duties as it is spelled out – a bit opaquely – in Jacques Rancière. The opposition is surely false; we should not be willing to cede liberal political thought entirely to the neo-conservatives, their stooges and allies.
University of Pittsburgh
How do we do it?
While I find many things to be more ‘appalled’ by in the world than mistaken word-breaks in the LRB, I agree with John Leath’s complaint about carelessness in this matter (Letters, 9 February). One of his examples may be wrong, though: ‘Victor-ians’, while split incorrectly according to United States syllabification (it should be ‘Victo-rians’), is correct by British standards (I’m going by my Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary). But the LRB can do much worse than the examples Leath lists. Mistakes such as ‘entertain-ed’ are common, as I have noticed with mild annoyance ever since I first subscribed. What surprises me is not that these get by the editorial staff, but that there is no technology to automatically divide words in the right way. Or is it a perverse editorial choice?
Somewhere (undisclosed) in Italy
John Sturrock (LRB, 9 February) doesn’t mention Jules Vallès’s contact with Emile Zola. While many on the French left had a low view of L’Assommoir, Vallès hailed Zola as ‘un Communard de la plume’. Zola helped Vallès get work while in exile and encouraged him to write his trilogy. In 1884, shortly before Vallès’s death, when Zola was working on Germinal during his summer holiday at Mont-Dore, he spent hours talking to Vallès. Such direct contact with a Communard may have helped Zola to a more favourable view of the Commune than he would have later when he came to write La Débâcle. At the end of Germinal, Etienne, the strike-leader, is seen on his way to Paris, where he is to become an organiser for the First International. It would have been clear to contemporary readers that he was heading for the Paris Commune and that Zola was suggesting a positive conclusion to this great novel of class struggle.
Fritz Haber, whose life and work were discussed by Steven Shapin (LRB, 26 January), was not the first to propose the use of noxious chemicals as weapons. The 17th-century German chemist and alchemist Johann Glauber urged that his preparation of ‘fiery waters’ (hydrochloric and nitric acids) be showered on the Ottoman Turk invaders of Christian Hungary. The new weapons would be non-lethal: they were designed instead to make the enemy more vulnerable to conventional attack. It is unlikely that the idea was ever implemented.
Rimbaud, Verlaine, the Fish and the House
For a few months during the summer of 1873 Rimbaud and Verlaine lodged in a rooming house in Great College Street, Camden Town. This building, now known as 8 Royal College Street, NW1, is their only surviving home in London, and it was here that some of Rimbaud’s finest poetry was written.
They lived here at a time when their now fragile relationship was going through tortured and sometimes violent moments. It nearly came to an end with an incident that might in other circumstances have been almost trivial, but was enough to make Verlaine leave in haste for the next packet boat from St Katherine’s Dock. ‘I was approaching the house,’ he noted later, ‘when I saw Rimbaud observing me through an open window. For no good reason he started to snigger. I climbed the stairs anyway and went in. “Have you any idea how ridiculous you look, with your bottle of oil in one hand and your fish in the other?” said Rimbaud. I retaliated, because I can assure you that I definitely did not look ridiculous.”’ The retaliation took the form of a swipe across Rimbaud’s face with the fish, after which Verlaine immediately departed for the Dock. Rimbaud pawned Verlaine’s clothes and met him in Brussels a week later, where Verlaine shot him with a pistol, wounding him in the wrist.
A campaign is now underway, with the support of the French government and many artists, writers and academics, both British and French, to save this 1820s building, which is now about to be sold. The vendor has, however, offered it, along with those on either side, to the campaign to try to find a prospective purchaser who will honour their architecture and historical associations. The search is now on for an academic or literary institution which might be looking for a Central London base that will include a seminar room, study centre or archive, with accommodation on either side. As campaign co-ordinator, I am receiving inquiries from potential purchasers with this in mind. I can be contacted by email on email@example.com.
Backed by Gold
Martin Rollo says that South Africa obtained its independence in 1961 (Letters, 26 January). That was the year South Africa left the Commonwealth, but it had been independent for a long time. The Union of South Africa was formed in 1910. The old Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek, formed with the permission of Britain in 1852, included the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. When gold was discovered at the Witwatersrand (rand meaning ‘reef’) in the Transvaal in 1886, the republic minted gold coins, which, because of their origin, were referred to as ‘rands’.
Britain forced the union of the Afrikaner states with the Cape Colonies after the discovery of gold, and the pound was used as the official currency until the Afrikaners rebelled and restored the old republic and its currency. This led to the Boer War, after which Britain imposed its rule and renamed the currency the ‘pound’; it was convertible into gold until 1932, when British devaluation drove up the price of the precious metal. Once South Africa had declared itself a republic, it readopted the rand (ZAR).
Sag Harbor, New York
Bendy is best
Andrew Saint has allowed nostalgia to influence his judgment (LRB, 26 January). Routemaster buses were not ‘sleek’ machines but angular, noisy, smelly, cumbersome, obstructive, draughty and uncomfortable behemoths that made no concessions to their users. Modern buses have wider doors, and many can lower their suspension at stops and extrude ramps to help mothers with prams, the old and the disabled. They are also more environmentally friendly and economical to operate.
Pace Mr Saint, having the stairway of a double-decker bus immediately behind the driver of a front-entry vehicle is not impossible. The ones I drove in the area covering Bath, Bristol, Chippenham and their hinterlands during the 1980s and 1990s functioned perfectly well with this design. It is just a matter of getting used to it.