‘Everyone knows,’ Hazem Kandil writes, ‘that the actual perpetrators of violence are the Brothers’ unruly allies: al-Qaida-style groups such as Ansar beit al-Maqdis and Al-Jama’a al-Islamiya’ (LRB, 20 February). Like many of the things everyone knows in Egypt today, this is totally false. There isn’t a shred of evidence of anything approaching an alliance between the Brothers and Ansar beit al-Maqdis, which has claimed most of the militant attacks since Morsi’s fall. The Brothers have repeatedly condemned the attacks. Their political visions, while both Islamist, are irreconcilably different.
The Brothers are allied to Al-Jama’a al-Islamiya, which was active as a terrorist group during the 1990s (it carried out the attack in Luxor in 1997 which killed 62 people) but has since reformed. After the revolution in 2011 it entered electoral politics as the Construction and Development Party, winning 13 seats in the first parliament. There is no evidence that it has been involved in the recent wave of bombings and gun attacks, mostly against the security services. It is not an ‘al-Qaida-style’ group.
However, whether or not the Brothers have been involved in the scores of mob attacks on churches and other Christian property since 3 July last year, they do bear some political responsibility for the attacks because of the sectarian language they use, and because of their role in hauling religious identity into politics. The same goes for Al-Jama’a al-Islamiya.
It is common for the security establishment to refer, as Kandil does, to ‘the release of thousands of militants by presidential amnesty (to be available to terrorise opponents when needed)’. Yet as an investigation by the leading human rights researcher Hossam Bahgat has shown, Morsi pardoned just 27 Islamists (including 18 former jihadis), while the military council which preceded him released more than eight hundred Islamists, of whom more than a hundred were former jihadis. All four of the former jihadis who, after being freed, have been publicly accused of resuming militant activity were released by the military council. There is no evidence that any of them have been involved in an ‘Islamist mini-emirate at the heart of Sinai’. Morsi did not release these men to terrorise anybody. He did it for the same reason the military council did it: as a result of grassroots political pressure from Islamists.
In December 2012, the Brothers did deploy armed supporters to clear an opposition sit-in outside the Presidential Palace. They didn’t kill ‘dozens’, as Kandil puts it. Eleven were killed during the clashes, and Morsi’s administration is charged with killing three of them; the remaining eight were probably his supporters. They did torture dozens; prisoners were abused on both sides, although the Brothers were the more energetic.
Morsi’s rule did not portend ‘religious fascism’. Aside from two alarming but also very vague clauses in the constitution, the Brothers passed no religious edicts and (although they ought to have been quicker to organise fresh parliamentary elections) showed no sign of attempting to abrogate formal democracy. At no point did they create ‘armed groups to monitor public morality’. This is a fantasy. Similarly, there is no evidence that the Brothers intended to use the security apparatus for ‘policing public piety’.
‘It is possible that a draconian epoch is just beginning,’ Kandil concludes. Indeed. This epoch was inaugurated with a lie: that the Brothers are a terrorist, fascist organisation, so evil that the return of the deep state was a worthwhile price to pay for their removal. On the strength of that lie, more than a thousand people have been killed, and the security services have been emboldened to crack down on secular revolutionaries. There is no sense in accepting the lie and bemoaning its consequences. If the street had been able to remove Morsi without the lie, and the dependence on the security establishment it entailed, that would have been a good thing. It would have meant developing some positive, unified politics.
Incidentally, in his extended essay on ghostwriting Julian Assange, Andrew O’Hagan says in passing that ‘at the time of the Egyptian uprising, Mubarak tried to close down the country’s mobile phone network, a service that came through Canada. Julian and his gang hacked into Nortel and fought against Mubarak’s official hackers to reverse the process’ (LRB, 6 March). Egypt-watchers will be bemused: here, as in other countries, it is possible to close down the networks domestically simply by ordering them to shut down.
Hazem Kandil writes: In politics, perceptions carry a heavier weight than the truth. And in revolution, it usually takes decades to set the record straight. My LRB piece was not an investigation into what the Brothers did, but an attempt to interpret how their words and actions played into Egypt’s power struggle. People do not take to the street after scrupulously examining the ‘evidence’, but on the basis of reasonable doubt. When they hear for themselves (not through the media) the rhetoric of jihad and martyrdom rehearsed on stage during the Brothers’ sit-ins, it becomes reasonable for them to believe that the Brothers have created the ideological context for violence, even if they were not its perpetrators and even if, formally, they condemn it. When they watch a nationally televised congress and see that their president has allowed radical clerics to take the podium and declare jihad against Syrian Shiites and Islam’s enemies at home, and then learn days later that Egyptian Shiites were killed and maimed, it is reasonable for them to suspect that the Brothers are policing faith and setting the country on the road to religious fascism. When they hear their president declare that seven members of the Egyptian security forces kidnapped in Sinai will be released, and when this happens without the culprits being identified or apprehended, it is reasonable for them to suppose that he is somehow engaged with the militants on the peninsula. I agree that most of what Egyptians believe today is blatant lies, but what matters is that they believe them. I have also made it clear that Egypt’s ruthless police state is the net beneficiary of all that has passed. But gallant as it may seem, endorsing the Brothers’ claim that they were the unwitting victims of an evil conspiracy won’t help Egypt or the Brothers.
In It for the Money
Alice Spawls isn’t correct to describe Sherlock Holmes as a ‘gentleman amateur’: he is in fact a paid private professional (LRB, 20 February). This is made unmistakeably clear when he is first introduced in A Study in Scarlet, where the mystery of his profession is posed, over breakfast, to his new roommate, Dr Watson. One of Holmes’s most distinctive features as a detective is that he has paying clients and makes a living at it. Indeed, he starts out as a ‘consulting detective’ to Inspector Lestrade and his police rival at Scotland Yard, Tobias Gregson, who pay him for his help on condition they will be allowed to take the credit for the cases they bring him in to solve.
Holmes was preceded by numerous other private professionals: the semi-fictional, like Pinkerton’s operatives, and the entirely made-up, like the legions of freelance ‘detective’ action heroes appearing in penny dreadfuls on both sides of the Atlantic. What appealed to Conan Doyle’s middle-class readers – especially the young professionals purchasing the Strand at railway station news-stands – was this new detective hero’s ability to make a career out of something he loved doing. In Holmes, Conan Doyle combined the connoisseurship of the amateur with the zeal for justice displayed by Dickens’s Bucket and Collins’s Cuff, added a touch of the Boy’s Own Paper and seasoned it all with a hard-nosed attention to the bottom line. This last detail is something he was initially quite eager to emphasise. In ‘A Scandal in Bohemia,’ the first of the Strand stories, Holmes notices a ‘nice little brougham and a pair of beauties’ pulling up to the door of 221B. ‘A hundred and fifty guineas apiece,’ he muses out loud. ‘There’s money in this case, Watson, if there is nothing else.’
Get off the bus
As a member of the invasive species that Rebecca Solnit has repeatedly singled out, the tech worker, I feel compelled to respond to her description of recent events in San Francisco (LRB, 20 February). Solnit leans heavily on the fact that San Francisco is the densest metropolis in the US after New York, whose supposed building boom hasn’t worked to reduce rents. ‘Meanwhile San Francisco developers are building 48,000 more units of housing in the few cracks and interstices not already filled in.’ Her point is that development won’t cure San Francisco’s woes.
First, neither San Francisco nor New York figures on a list of the world’s fifty most densely populated cities, which is the only true benchmark. Second, New York has added new housing units at a much slower rate per capita than US cities such as Jacksonville, Houston and Atlanta: it is hardly in the midst of a housing boom. Third, San Francisco developers are actively building only 4900 new units, an order of magnitude less than Solnit claims. The remainder of her 48,000 units may be approved, but most are unlikely to be developed for many years because of the sclerotic regulatory process. Anyone who has visited San Francisco knows that outside a few neighbourhoods lining Market – the Financial District, the Tenderloin and northern SoMa – the city is about three storeys tall. Paris, the city I left to come here, is seven storeys high almost across the board. Major Asian cities are much taller. San Francisco could double in height without greatly hurting its open space or aesthetics. The scarcity of shelter in San Francisco is artificially imposed, the result of a decades-long resistance in many parts of the city to any kind of development. That resistance comes from several quarters. A recent high-rise on the waterfront was voted down by a coalition of local wealth and the political left, which is also leading the fight against evictions. San Francisco’s incumbent residents would prefer the postcard life of a low, sparsely populated city to the high-rises of an Asian megalopolis. Fine. But that means homeowners are forcing the burden of adjustment onto tenants. You can fight development or you can fight evictions, but you cannot logically fight both.
Like all American cities, San Francisco is for sale, and its real-estate market speaks through price movements. Rents in San Francisco are shouting at us to build more now. That’s the only way we’ll have enough space to go round. Rather than deal with the fundamental dynamic of supply and demand, Solnit mounts a fairly predictable attack on tech workers, pushing a narrative in which two groups, so unlike in dignity, enter a fight to the death. To read her, one would think that San Francisco’s brave natives face a horde of villainous drones and gold diggers, who have descended on a pristine city to pillage its neighbourhoods and hunt down its idealists. This is not the first time she has tarred the industry. In January, she called the tech business a monoculture (every group looks like a monoculture to outsiders). But if she made the morning commute to Embarcadero, she’d see a lot of Indian and Chinese and Eastern European faces there. In San Francisco’s start-up hostels, you hear half a dozen languages spoken every day. In a previous essay, Solnit compared tech workers to insects, aliens, Prussian invaders and German tourists in the space of a few paragraphs (LRB, 7 February 2013). The implications are clear. Applied to any other group, these attempts to dehumanise would have invited howls of indignation. Let’s be clear: Rebecca Solnit is not from San Francisco. Neither am I. Neither are many of the protesters and tech workers. This is not a battle between the natives and an invading species; it’s a negotiation between two different invading species over shelter and tenants’ rights, stasis and change. Solnit’s parents moved to the Bay Area in the 1960s when she was a girl. She grew up in Novato. I wonder which side of the immigration debate she would have taken when her parents were seeking entry, or when she herself decided San Francisco would be a nice place to live. I wonder who she would have trusted then to assume the mantle of gatekeeper.
There is a basic thread running through American history: economic opportunity draws immigrants. We should manage those migrations, but we shouldn’t stop them, because as soon as they end, we’re dead. Having sold her apartment in 2012, Solnit now suggests the city socialise housing. In an interview published by Businessweek, she said we should socialise Google and Facebook. Modest proposals. Anyone hawking that sort of revolution has never seen what socialism produced in the suburbs of Moscow. Events in San Francisco are symptomatic of the Great Inversion. The city is doomed to prosperity, and there will be many violent side-effects and much grieving as it transforms itself from a queer refuge to a bourgeois fortress. With luck it can be both. If the protesters play their cards right, they may rally the general population to stop evictions. I hope they succeed. If they do, it will be despite Solnit, not because of her.
It was a mistake for the editors to announce my essay about San Francisco on the cover with the words ‘Go back to Palo Alto’. Palo Alto is not where the big tech companies have their headquarters and isn’t mentioned anywhere in the piece.
At some point Andrew O’Hagan must have realised he was trapped at the heart of a classical tragedy (LRB, 6 March). Julian Assange adopts his role with startling precision: ruthlessly egotistical; open to the world (there must be no secrets); childlike, with no mediation between thought and deed, want and action (he eats with his hands!); receptive only to those who urge him on to his fate. The worldly experts, including O’Hagan, are exasperated by his refusal to act in his own best interests (which also coincide with theirs) but he knows that this is not his role. He plays them along, certain they will abandon him.
The most complete tragic heroes are also harbingers of a new world. For Byng, Mehta, Stephens, Michel, Wilmers and O’Hagan validation comes through the publication of a book; a character (O’Hagan’s description of Assange) is not fully shown to the world until published by Canongate or Knopf or Cape or Faber, and reviewed by the New York Review and the LRB. But Assange inhabits another universe; his self-creation is conducted in cyber-space, where publishing contracts, copyright, print journals and national boundaries are meaningless. His is the coming dispensation; the gods of the book world are in panic, the walls of Olympus are being shaken. This transformation is crystallised in the moments when O’Hagan pleads with Assange to read the typescript (please be in my world) while the response shows Assange’s casual contempt for the publishing process. The wonderful irony is that, while O’Hagan gives us his own account, he is actually doing exactly what Assange required of him: not a ghosted autobiography, but a beautifully written study of a man in free fall. Assange, the author and hero of this brilliant drama, now sits in a room, away from people but with the essential ingredients of the new world: a computer screen, a treadmill, and trays of bought-in food. He has arrived at his fate; Sophocles could hardly have done better.
Scarborough, North Yorkshire
Lib Dem Letdown
As Colin Kidd reminds us, after the February 1974 election Edward Heath entered into coalition talks with the Liberal leader, Jeremy Thorpe, which included the offer of a cabinet post (LRB, 6 March). But Kidd omits to mention that the Liberal Party membership swiftly rejected the offer as incompatible with their beliefs and policies. In 2010, although the Liberal Democrat leadership was outmanoeuvred by the Tories in the negotiations, the coalition terms were approved with few reservations by the party faithful at a special meeting. This despite the fact that the coalition and its policies were not endorsed by the electorate, contradicted much of the Liberals’ election campaign pledges, and involved serious constitutional changes without a proper mandate. Since then the apostasy of the Lib Dems has extended far beyond breaking promises on student fees to include the creeping privatisation of universities, secondary education and the health service, and cuts in legal aid and the welfare state, leading to increased poverty, hunger and homelessness. As the next election approaches Britain is becoming an even more unequal and unfair society, a sad memorial to the party of Lloyd George, Keynes and Beveridge, but a salutary lesson about the lure of government office and its perks to power-starved politicians. Well over 50 per cent of Liberal Democrat MPs have held ministerial office since 2010.
Picasso among the Non-Entities
Malcolm Bull paints himself into a corner in his strenuous argument with T.J. Clark about the meaning of Picasso’s Guernica (LRB, 20 February). Preoccupied with the Mediterranean-ness of the artist, he sinks in deep enough to raise the question, ‘Guernica, the greatest masterpiece of fascist art? Maybe not, but how much of it would have to be repainted to fit that description?’ Not much, he implies. Let’s look at the painting again. In a jagged scenery of black and off-white and bluish-grey, a screaming woman displays her dead baby under the jowl of a brutally indifferent bull. A horse bares its dagger-tongue impaled by a spear, and a wound slices its flank. A man drowns in a trap of teeth. A half-naked woman staggers towards the shattered sword of a warrior with a gaping mouth. The bull’s tail is a plume of smoke. The sun whose rays slash the scene is a lightbulb with a serrated aureole.
A more powerful vision of people and animals destroyed is hard to imagine. The picture still fastens onto our minds with terrible force, in this era of Palestine and Bosnia and Congo and Iraq. It is not called ‘Chaos’, or ‘The Triumph of Evil’, or ‘Inferno’. It is unmistakeably named after the blitzing of the Basque city by Hitler’s Heinkels and Junkers, practising for their forthcoming war. Some years ago I could still speak to a woman in Gernika who sheltered with her mother under a tree as their town was ruined, with 1465 people killed and 889 injured.
If you walk slowly along the length of the painting, as I did in Paris in 1956, you feel you are stepping through the debris of all our massacres, our air-raids and putsches and pogroms. Of course the bullfight and the classical bust and the rotten sun of Mithras are all there. What they are used to express is the stark injury and cruelty which stormtroopers, SS, Luftwaffe and panzers had started to inflict on the people of Europe.
T.J. Clark is making it up when he writes that Pound ‘loathed Picasso instinctively’ (Letters, 6 March). Pound more than once referred to Picasso as the ‘father’ of Vorticism, explicitly recognised him as ‘a great artist’, and as art critic in the New Age between 1917 and 1920, consistently invoked him as setting a standard other artists were to be measured by. No sign of instinctive loathing there, or anywhere else in his writing.
Pateley Bridge, North Yorkshire
I recognise the Latin teacher in James Wood’s lecture ‘On Not Going Home’ (LRB, 20 February). He was indeed the headmaster of Durham Chorister School and he also taught me Latin, though some years before James Wood arrived. I remember his complex constructs designed to jog our memories for Latin meanings; I and many of my class failed to grasp either the meaning or the reason for such constructs. Unfortunately the headmaster at this point fell back on a more basic approach to learning: he decided he would beat any boy who failed to get 16 out of 20 in the weekly test. The number of strokes received depended on the degree of failure: a mark of 15 would mean one stroke; 11 would mean five strokes.
The effect of this approach was remarkable and the headmaster would often observe how motivated we had become following the introduction of corporal punishment as a learning aid. What he didn’t know was that we had decided as a class that we would not be beaten. We developed systems of cheating which as far as I can remember went undetected for the entire time he taught us. I like to reflect on this as my first experience of class action in the face of ecclesiastical violence.
Another Death in the Chelsea
Phoebe Neville mentions Moses Soyer’s death in the Chelsea Hotel (Letters, 6 March). In 1969, I was filming Norman Mailer’s bid to become mayor of New York for Thames TV’s programme This Week, and was relieved to find a hotel with ten available rooms (these were the days of ITV union crews): the Chelsea. I was at reception sorting out payment when my assistant cameraman, who had just checked in to his room, returned to the desk and asked to be moved. ‘Any particular reason?’ asked the desk clerk. ‘There’s a dead man in the bed.’ ‘So sorry, sir: we’ll find you another room.’ From the cool demeanour of the clerk, I inferred that this was not the first body to be discovered by a guest.
What Lubitsch Knew
In his letter Charles Turner agrees with Michael Wood that in Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942) the concentration camps ‘just flicker there in the dialogue’ (Letters, 20 February). Such is not the case in Gasbags, a (much) less well known British film, released a year earlier. A lengthy section of this comedy is set in a concentration camp. Its stars, the Crazy Gang, adapted their slapstick stage act to scenes in which they are beaten up and shot at by the camp’s guards. Like To Be or Not to Be, Gasbags includes an actor impersonating Adolf Hitler. It also features a score or more of Hitler lookalikes, all sent to the camp because they refuse to risk their lives by standing in for Hitler.
Hollywood caves in
Jirair Tutunjian tells us that in the mid-1930s Turkey’s ambassador to the US, Mehmed Ertegun, told MGM that if it made The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, the novel about the Armenian genocide, into a film, ‘Turkey would launch a global boycott against MGM’ (Letters, 6 March). If that is indeed the case, the ambassador’s sons Nesuhi and Ahmet made cultural redress by founding Atlantic Records, which nurtured such musicians as Ray Charles, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Big Joe Turner, the Coasters, the Drifters, Aretha Franklin and many more.
Smells of Dog
Daniel Soar wonders if I actually sat in Glenn Greenwald’s red Kia car, which – I wrote – ‘smells of dog’ (LRB, 20 February). I did.
Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire
At the end of Anna Karenina, Anna thinks: ‘The zest is gone, as the English say.’ If anyone has suggestions as to where Tolstoy found the quotation, or why he thought this an English expression, I would be most grateful.
University of Notre Dame