Should we have been there?
Perry Anderson yet again excoriates the Western powers’ role in the former Yugoslavia (LRB, 20 September). Anyone who knew nothing of the history of the recent conflict would gather from his account that it was as squalid an exercise in American-led Western imperialism as Iraq. Has he forgotten the appalling situation that Milosevic’s campaign for Serbian hegemony had created in Bosnia-Herzegovina? He piously scolds the US for failing to obtain a Security Council mandate for military intervention, while pointedly refraining from mentioning the automatic Russian veto on any action against the Serbs that was at all likely to be effective. He has yet, to my knowledge, to show that essential US interests were served in any way by military involvement in Yugoslavia, but repeats the canard nonetheless. He characterises the US-led military action in the Balkans as a ‘full-scale military offensive’, a ‘blitz’, an ‘assault’, but averts his eyes from the inconvenient fact that at the time its aim was perceived everywhere other than in Moscow as being solely to rescue beleaguered civilians and thereby to prevent the shedding of more blood. To assert, as Anderson does, that a casus belli was ‘trumped up’, and that ‘a straight line led’ from the intervention in Yugoslavia to the invasion of Iraq is an affront. Moreover, the operation was an unqualified success; in fact, the Americans were promptly criticised for not having saved more lives by intervening earlier. Perhaps it was their success (which threw into even sharper relief the UN’s own failure to protect the victims of Milosevic and Karadzic at Srebrenica, Sarajevo and elsewhere) that Anderson finds unforgivable. He wants us to regret that this military operation was undertaken and so he uses what has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan to discredit American and European motives in the former Yugoslavia.
Unfair to the EU
I wonder whether Perry Anderson’s pessimism about the EU is entirely justified. Employment lawyers who represent workers including Poles and Lithuanians at UK employment tribunals, as I do, know how much positive UK legislation comes directly from the EU. For example, the Working Time Regulations of 1998 provide for statutory rest breaks, and the rule that all workers are entitled to four weeks’ paid holiday a year originates from an EU health directive. The enhancement of the right of part-time workers to claim unfair dismissal resulted from the application by the European Court of Justice of EU equal opportunities law to British law. And so on.
The Conjugal Bed
James Shapiro alludes to the ‘second best bed’ that Shakespeare bequeathed to Ann Hathaway (LRB, 4 October). A lot of nonsense is written about that bed. It was almost certainly occupied by Will and Ann when he returned to Stratford, and she probably used it when giving birth: it was, in other words, the conjugal bed. The best bed would have been kept for guests, just as in many British households today, the best parlour isn’t used every day, but reserved for special occasions such as weddings and funerals.
Disliking the McCanns
I disliked Anne Enright almost as much as the McCanns after reading her article (LRB, 4 October), almost as much as I dislike myself for disliking the McCanns, for disliking Anne Enright, you for publishing Anne Enright’s article, and me for reading it (I didn’t have to do that). Where will it all end?
Anything but Shy
There is one aspect of Fritz Stern’s ‘uneasiness’ that Thomas Laqueur failed to mention in his response to Tony Judt’s testy letter (Letters, 20 September). In November 2004, Stern was presented with the Leo Baeck Medal by Joschka Fischer, then the German foreign secretary, at a ceremony in New York. In his acceptance speech, Stern spoke gloomily about politics in the US, and about ‘the fatality of civic passivity or indifference’. A few weeks later, he told a journalist that while he didn’t believe the US was in danger of turning fascist, the religiosity of the US made him wary. It reminded him of political conditions in Germany before the ascent of Hitler. There was at that time, he said, ‘a longing for a new authoritarianism with some kind of religious orientation and above all a greater communal belongingness. There are some similarities in the mood then and the mood now, although also significant differences.’ There were those who gave up in Germany: they made the Fascists into unassailable monsters, and out of fear and indifference, according to Stern, watched their demons get bigger and more real.
George Bush is made into a monster by liberals such as Stern when they compare the US under his administration to Weimar. But Bush isn’t a dictator, and the religiosity of Americans is hardly a new development. The US is a prosperous and powerful country, very unlike Weimar. Despite appearances to the contrary, its politics are stable; its national elections are contests for succession. The Bush administration is bad enough in its own right not to require comparison with Germany in the 1920s.
A pedant writes
Martin Sanderson dislikes my choice of the word ‘masterful’ – rather than ‘masterly’ – to describe Rosemary Hill’s biography of Pugin (Letters, 4 October). But ‘masterful’ is what I meant. Not only is the book skilful, it is written with force and authority. ‘Masterly’ would have conveyed a different meaning, and not the one I wanted.
University of Liverpool
The Truth about Kadare
Ismail Kadare may well be a contentious figure in the Balkans – with Serbs because of his support for the Kosovar Albanians and with Albanians because of his unexpected move to Paris shortly before the Communist regime collapsed – but Barbara Graziosi surely overstates the case when she describes his ‘treatment of the Slavs’ in The File on H as ‘deadly’ (Letters, 4 October). If, as she claims, his reimagining of Parry and Lord’s researches into Homeric epic in the Balkans is misleading because he has their fictional counterparts recording Albanian rather than Yugoslavian bards, her account of the novel is equally so.
Throughout The File on H, Kadare casts doubt on the reliability of the narrative. It is, as we’re frequently reminded, pieced together from gossip, hearsay and the accounts of variously self-interested witnesses and informers. There is no definitive version of events; everything is skewed, if not wholly thrown out of proportion, by the misperceptions and exaggerations of each individual ‘source’. The circumstances in which the fictional scholars’ tape recorder is destroyed and the motives of the attackers remain unclear, and while it’s true that the monk who appears to lodge the original idea for the attack in the mind of a hermit – who may or may not be one of the perpetrators – is a Serb, the only evidence of his involvement is the account of an enthusiastic though rather dull-witted informer, while the only accusations against him are made by an overheated and clearly biased journalist. To ascribe the opinions and beliefs of any of these characters to Kadare himself and leap to the conclusion that he is a ‘committed anti-Slav nationalist’ is absurd. On the contrary. The File on H is a satire which, like The Concert, The Successor and other Kadare novels, shows precisely how nationalism, parochialism and superstition distort the truth. The Albanians in the novel aren’t duped by a Serb, as Graziosi would have it; they are duped by their own prejudices.
As for Graziosi’s claim that readers of the English translation will come away with the mistaken impression that the real Parry and Lord made their Homeric discoveries in Albania, the translator’s note couldn’t be any clearer: ‘The bulk of the material that Parry and Lord brought back from the Balkans was gathered in Yugoslavia, not Albania.’
Ross McKibbin despairs of Gordon Brown (LRB, 4 October). But he falls into error when he says that Gordon Brown ‘created a category of “non-domiciliary” super-rich’. The curious rules on domicile, part of the British tax system, existed long before Brown became chancellor. Indeed they existed long before he was born. I appreciate this is probably of little interest to your readers. But I have a background in taxation and, like many specialists, get satisfaction from such pedantry.