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Letters


In Search of Monsters

Stephen Smith is uncharacteristically ambiguous in his description of the French decision to intervene militarily in Mali (LRB, 7 February). He describes how a wave of international jihadists arrived in Mali in 2012 after the success of a Tuareg uprising in the north of the country, but suggests that the French intervention was motivated at least in part by François Hollande’s wish to bolster his government’s standing in domestic opinion polls. He goes on to assert that jihadists have been finding it harder than ever to operate in North Africa since the Arab Spring of 2011. The implication is that the French intervention was unjustified and unwise in the sense that it may stimulate the very jihad it purports to be eliminating. The bigger question, he suggests, is why the US has decided not to intervene in spite of its ten-year-long commitment to combating Islamism in the Sahara.

Yet the Islamist threat to West Africa is real enough. During its brief hold on power in Timbuktu the Islamist regime ran a military training centre where substantial numbers of Boko Haram militants from Nigeria were trained. If the Islamist groups in northern Mali had been allowed to advance southwards towards the capital city of Bamako, they would have taken control of airstrips large enough to bring in transport aircraft, turning Mali into a significant Islamist bridgehead. Nigeria, whose home-grown Islamist movement has killed thousands of people, would have been directly threatened, along with other governments in West Africa. Consolidation of Islamist rule in Mali would have been even more detrimental to French and European interests than the current situation.

None of this is to deny the complexity of the problems now facing the French in Mali, where the formal state is close to collapse, or that of politics throughout the Sahara, where tribal and national relationships have unravelled since the Arab Spring and, especially, since the fall of Colonel Gaddafi. Perhaps the biggest questions now concern Algeria, which Smith barely mentions. The core of the Islamists who were recently in control of northern Mali were Algerian, survivors of the civil war of the 1990s who were driven into Mali ten years ago. Under pressure in Mali, they may now turn their attention back towards their home country. In Algiers itself, an ageing and unreformed military government is losing its influence over Saharan politics and risks facing the sorts of problem that have affected its neighbours to the east.

Stephen Ellis
Amsterdam

Stephen Smith wonders why President Obama would ‘order more drone strikes than his predecessor against the leaders of Somalia’s al-Shabaab, a group with relatively weak links to international terrorism, but not lift a finger to stop AQIM from taking over Mali’. He might have considered the fact that, like Djibouti (the tiny state which serves as the African base of operations for the United States Africa Command), Somalia is located directly across the Gulf of Aden from the Arabian Peninsula, specifically Yemen.

Scott Brodie
Beeston, Nottinghamshire


Go and get killed, comrade

Gideon Lewis-Kraus makes a few errors in his piece about the Spanish Civil War (LRB, 21 February). The Germans didn’t ‘perfect the Blitzkrieg in Spain’. The ‘lightning war’ required a good road system, which is why it worked in France but not in Russia. Lewis-Kraus is presumably thinking of the term ‘blitz’, which was misapplied to the air attacks on London in 1940, but which could be applied, retrospectively, to the German and Italian attack on Guernica of 26 April 1937.

Messerschmitt fighter-bombers played only a small part in the German Condor Legion. Some prototype models arrived in 1936, but most got there in 1939, too late to be used in the fighting. The seven hundred or so Italian aircraft were mainly Fiat CR.32 fighters and Savoia-Marchetti bombers. The archetypal Nazi attack aircraft was the Stuka, as Lewis-Kraus says, but with its single bomb and ‘Jericho trumpet’ siren, it was more effective as a terror weapon. Deployed where it did not have undefended airspace, it was very vulnerable to fighter attack.

Karl Dallas
Bradford, West Yorkshire

Editor, ‘London Review’ : The reference to an International Labour Party – a mistake pointed out by several readers – was a lapse on our part. (We do know what the ILP was.)


Where class is a different issue

Colin Kidd, discussing Ulster’s failure to develop the same class-based politics as the rest of the UK, mentions the role of the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) and states that ‘just as it had emerged as the official opposition in Stormont it was overwhelmed by the onset of the Troubles’ (LRB, 7 February). In fact it became the official opposition after the Stormont elections in 1958 when it won four seats in the 52-seat parliament with about 16 per cent of the popular vote (thanks mainly to defections of Protestant workers from the Unionist Party). After an increase in its share of the popular vote in 1962 (though it didn’t gain any seats), it slumped in November 1965 and ended up with just two seats. In February 1965, the Nationalist Party had agreed to become the official opposition. In the February 1969 elections, on the cusp of the Troubles, Paddy Devlin won the Falls seat for the NILP in West Belfast, but defected to become a founding member of the SDLP the following year.

In fact, the NILP’s fortunes as a genuinely non-sectarian party had already begun to decline in 1949 following its decision to back partition, resulting in widespread desertion by Catholic voters.

James Grainger
Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire


You got me wrong, Jerry

The positions that Jerry Fodor criticises in his review of my Philosophy in an Age of Science, and that he ascribes to the supposed fact that I have it ‘in mind to add a dash of Wittgenstein to the mix’ (‘the mix’ being several good ideas I am admitted to share with Quine and Fodor), are not positions I hold or that I defend in my book (LRB, 24 January).

First, one of the ‘Wittgensteinian’ views ascribed to me is that to have a ‘full grasp’ of the concept chair is ‘to know that things like this count as chairs. Accordingly, anyone who is sceptical that there even are such things as chairs, or that we can know that there are, has something less than a full grasp of the word or concept.’ I do not defend that view, and in Philosophy in an Age of Science, I argue that Wittgenstein didn’t hold it either. I say that on my view and on Wittgenstein’s, ‘one cannot show that the sceptic is talking nonsense by suggesting that our words may not apply to the world although the criteria for applying them are manifestly fulfilled.

Second, I express approval of a certain interpretation of the Wittgensteinian notion of grammar, in particular of the ‘grammar’ of intentional explanation; but that approval is accompanied by an explicit rejection of the ‘suggestion that constructive philosophical work and grammatical investigation must be incompatible, that is, that philosophy must consist merely of “therapy”’. (The whole of Chapter 28 is a criticism of Wittgenstein’s idea of philosophy as therapy.)

Third, Fodor writes that ‘Wittgenstein thought that meaning is somehow a matter of use; Putnam raises the ante by understanding “use” anthropologically, as the totality of a word’s (concept’s) “entanglements” with how we speak, think and live,’ and adds: ‘you can’t show that there isn’t [any distinction between one’s understanding of the concept of justice and understanding justice] by appealing to the “use theory of meaning”, because there isn’t, in fact, any such theory.’ I emphatically agree that there is no such theory, and would not be caught dead presupposing such a ‘theory’. My reference to ‘improving one’s understanding of a concept like “bravery” or “justice”’ was supposed to be made clear by the illustration of someone coming to see that mere rashness or foolhardiness do not amount to bravery; this was not an appeal to a ‘use theory of meaning’ or any other theory of meaning. As for whether this is improving one’s understanding of bravery as opposed to improving one’s understanding of ‘bravery’, I don’t have a hound in that race.

Fourth, my notion of ‘entanglement’ was supposed to be based on ‘anthropological semantics’. My usage of that term, as I explain in the book, has two related senses. First, ‘factual judgments, even in physics, depend on and presuppose epistemic values’ (as examples of epistemic values, I mention ‘coherence’, ‘simplicity’, ‘beauty’ and ‘naturalness’). This is an epistemological claim, not a semantical one, and Fodor does not discuss it. The second way in which facts and values are entangled, in my view, is that although terms like cruel and brave can be used to state matters of fact, to use them with any discrimination one has to be able to understand an evaluative point of view. And I do describe this form of entanglement as ‘logical’ or ‘grammatical’. If this is the evidence that leads Fodor to accuse me of ‘anthropological semantics’ and ‘a use theory of meaning’, he is guilty of a simple mistake: this is indeed evidence that I think some terms are such that to understand them one has to understand an evaluative point of view (which perhaps requires an empathetic understanding of a form of life), but I did not say, and do not believe, that every term has that property.

It seems that Fodor was seized by what seemed to him to be the ‘key’ to all my views: Wittgensteinian semantics! You got me wrong, Jerry, I am no ‘Wittgensteinian’.

Hilary Putnam
Harvard University


In Defence of Rights

Of course a parliamentary statute is not ‘equivalent’ to a bill of rights, though Alex Bailin seems to think I said it was (Letters, 21 February). But no more is the Human Rights Act. Indeed no UK bill of rights would be under our constitution; so long as Parliament is supreme Parliament can retract as easily as enact. As my letter of 7 February made clear I am a staunch supporter of the ECHR, despite its limitations, and was an advocate of its incorporation into our domestic law in the early 1970s, when such ideas were unfashionable.

Benedict Birnberg
London SE3


You’ve been Googled

Rebecca Solnit laments that economic competition from young technocrats has made it hard for ‘dissidents, queers, pacifists and experimentalists … writers, artists, activists, environmentalists [and] eccentrics’ to find homes in San Francisco (LRB, 7 February). What she doesn’t mention is how difficult living there has become for families with children. Of all major American cities, San Francisco has the lowest percentage of people under 18 years old. In the 2010 census, just 13.4 per cent of residents were children (down from 25 per cent in the 1960 census).

Peter Weverka
San Francisco


What a State Might Do

Count Dmitri Tolstoy may have encouraged peasants to be teachers, as Mark Etherton argues, but in 1877, 11 years into Tolstoy’s educational ministry, only one in 77 Russians was in education of any institutional kind (Letters, 7 February).

Robert Buckeye
Middlebury, Vermont


Royal Bodies

Hilary Mantel urged the media, when dealing with royal stories, not to ‘behave like spectators at Bedlam’ (LRB, 21 February). They have behaved like the inmates instead.

Walter Hemmens
Knockholt, Kent

Will the duchess be given a right of reply?

Yvonne Smith
Leura, New South Wales