What have we done?
None of the contributors to the round table on Brexit mentioned any positive reasons for remaining in the EU (LRB, 14 July). Funny that, though hardly surprising. Even though we’re not involved in the Eurozone, one of history’s most disastrous economic projects, it must have been difficult, verging on impossible, to applaud an institution presided over by a former prime minister of Luxembourg, Europe’s answer to the Cayman Islands as a tax haven, where a couple of whistleblowers have just been sent to jail.
But there are more fundamental reasons for the lack of enthusiasm. Is it not likely that the EU, like so many other such international groupings, will be seen in the not so distant future as a noble venture which lost its raison d’être and degenerated into an inefficient, bureaucratic, undemocratic and ultimately pointless monster? The negotiations over the terms of Brexit will reveal how limited the so-called single market, supposedly a major triumph for ‘Europe’, is by national industrial policies, and the exclusion of the ever more important service sector.
The EU referendum is the latest instance of a democratic election in which entertainment value, and comedy in particular, has trumped common sense, party loyalty and everything else. What could be more boring than the European Union? Until a few months ago, just hearing those two words would have been enough to make people’s eyes glaze over. That all changed when Boris Johnson threw his hat in the ring. The referendum was dominated by Johnson and Farage, the Laurel and Hardy of the Leave campaign. The voters unwittingly accepted the implicit idea that leaving the European Union was all a bit of a laugh. Not least, it provided the spoonful of sugar that made the racism and xenophobia go down. As the result sank in, the comedians left the stage and the smile died on the nation’s lips.
The move to comedy in politics is further along in the US, especially among those who spend a lot of time online compared to those still watching TV. A generation of young Americans has watched no political news except the Daily Show, and Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher in particular have achieved a kind of parallel politics of the left in which it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got a grin. John Oliver now gives them a weekly dose of the same stuff, first on cable and then uploaded to general acclaim and millions of hits. The right, from the hysterical Fox establishment to the far-out YouTube channels of the paranoid and the God-bothered, is so detached from reality it makes your head spin. Our own David Icke is an expert practitioner of this brand of humour.
So far it is only Beppe Grillo in Italy who has successfully made the crossover from professional comedian to political leader, with mixed results, it must be said: but it isn’t as if this trend is dying. For now it looks as if the suits will manage to stamp out the laughter and do their best to re-establish the fiction that they know what they are doing. But it’s just a lull – Boris is already back. The next act in the psychodrama will play out in America, where comedy is king, and where Krazy Kat will do his best to come up Trumps.
La Chapelle, Burgundy
Part of the problem is that too many people have cried wolf. In 1992 we were told that if the pound fell out of the ERM the heavens would fall, the City would lose its central role etc. The pound fell out, and in the event the City and the country prospered. A few years later much the same people warned of dire results if Britain didn’t join the Eurozone: the City would lose its position etc. Britain stayed out, the City prospered and the country did better than the Eurozone countries. In 2016 very much the same people (including the leaders of the three main political parties) made the same predictions yet again.
Far too much commentary centres on the Leave vote of poorer Northern voters. Yet only a third of Labour voters voted Leave while more than half of Tory voters did. The Leave majority came from the comfortable shires. Why do prosperous Londoners blame the poor when their side loses? In effect the metropolitan elite has just had its face smacked by the rest of the country. Hence this immense welling up of rage and indignation, this feeling that the natural order has been inverted.
T.J. Clark claims that the ‘relevant point of comparison for the 17 million Leave votes is the No to “austerity” registered by the Greeks … in the face of all respectable opinion, a year ago.’ He is right, though probably not in the way he thinks. Brexit was largely decided by an orchestrated campaign of attractive falsehoods which successfully obscured the highly complex issues lying behind British membership of the EU – issues which could by no stretch of the imagination be reduced to a simplistic ‘in’ or ‘out’. Similarly, the referendum dreamed up by Tsipras, in a fit of panic not unlike Cameron’s, ludicrously required of the Greek electorate that they respond to a 73-word question concerning two highly technical documents, written in English, which between them stretched to 32 A4 pages – documents that would have stumped many economics graduates. What’s more, the Greek people voted as they did because Tsipras lied to them, in so many words, by claiming that a No vote would strengthen his negotiating hand with the Eurogroup.
While I am happy to accept Clark’s comparison, it does little to recommend referendums as a rational tool of governance.
The Australian constitution, which is essentially an Act of the UK Parliament, makes provision for the holding of referendums but explicitly states that not only must a majority of voters approve the subject of any referendum, but so must a majority of voters in a majority of states – these being the constituent polities of the Australian federation. Might it not be possible for British lawyers to take the Australian example as a kind of precedent, an item, so to speak, of constitutional case law indicating the direction in which British thinking might evolve? In 1900 the members of the UK Parliament insisted that both sets of Australian interests – the general electorate’s and the separate states’ – must be respected in any referendum. By the Australian standard of fairness, the EU referendum failed, as two of its four constituent polities, namely, Scotland and Northern Ireland, could not supply majorities in favour.
Leura, New South Wales
Beatrix Campbell and Victoria Dutchman-Smith both criticise points I did not in fact make (Letters, 14 July). I didn’t even attempt to describe my own experience of gender, although I did suggest a possible explanation for why my experience demonstrably differs from that of others with the same XY karyotype. I would not presume to know how anyone else experiences their identity. That unknowability was implicit in my letter, as Dutchman-Smith acknowledges.
Campbell asks whether I want to be part of a movement that aims to shut women up. I am puzzled by this. As far as I know, I am not part of any movement. But it’s possible she and I differ in our understanding of Jacqueline Rose’s ‘share a platform’. As Campbell notes, the ‘platform’ is a public space, over which I have no control other than in exercising judgment as to where and when to participate. When I choose not to share, I choose not to speak; not to exclude.
Campbell also asks whether I want to participate in reducing students’ participation in democratic debate. My full statement opposing the no-platforming of Germaine Greer at the Cambridge Union can be found in an article published online by Varsity on 22 January 2015. As a member of the University Council, I was very pleased last month to approve our strong restatement of support of free speech. The facts speak for themselves.
Newnham College, Cambridge
It is unclear who is being addressed in Beatrix Campbell’s second letter on trans. Rachael Padman, Jay Prosser and myself have all stated that we do not condone no-platforming as general policy. Nor is it clear why she sees this as the most important issue to pursue in her engagement with trans. That trans people might feel defensive about what is said about them surely needs to be understood in context. As Susan Stryker has pointed out, things are said about trans people which, if said about many other minorities, would see print only in the most hate-riddled, white supremacist, Christian fascist rags.
Both Campbell and Victoria Dutchman-Smith seem intent on ignoring or downplaying the violence to which trans people are subjected. Campbell’s portrayal of feminism as the victim of trans in her first letter – ‘the bullying that flays feminism’ – is telling (Letters, 2 June). By requiring us to take sides, it repeats the violence it ostensibly laments. Competitions over victimhood are never politically helpful. In the words of Edward Said, in a very different context: ‘There is suffering and injustice enough for everyone.’
Arguments about whether trans women and men reinforce or disrupt conventional gender categories, or whether trans women experience themselves the same way as non-trans feminists, are futile. In the complex realm of human sexual life, no one should be deciding these matters for anyone else. You can – we should – liberalise the law on behalf of oppressed groups, but you cannot legislate the unconscious.
Birkbeck, University of London
Before or After?
‘In relativity,’ John Banville writes, ‘there is no before and after’ (LRB, 14 July). That is not so. If you could reverse the two by changing the reference system you could murder your grandmother, which would have some remarkable consequences.
Would Dante be sued?
Tim Parks begins his piece on Dante by asking how the Divine Comedy would have fared these days, when if you ‘put real people in a work of fiction … you immediately face libel and privacy issues’ (LRB, 14 July). That reminded me of the time when in a pleasant Chester-le-Street bookshop (no longer in existence) I was offered a paperback translation of Inferno which assured me that it was a work of fiction containing no reference to actual persons living or dead. Some time later I bought Ciaran Carson’s translation of Inferno on the basis of a killer sales pitch that it was ‘the first ever version by an Irish poet’.
Not the National Trust
Rodmarton Manor in Gloucestershire is not owned by the Historic Houses Association, as Rosemary Hill states in her review of The Long Weekend (LRB, 14 July). Indeed, the HHA (of which I am director general) does not itself own any such properties. Rather, we represent more than 1600 independent owners of country houses across the UK. Given that the National Trust has largely given up acquiring country houses, the work of the owners we represent is crucial to ensuring that this vital part of our cultural heritage survives intact.
Who is Satoshi?
Craig Wright tells Andrew O’Hagan that in Japanese satoshi means ‘ash’ (LRB, 30 June). In fact the Japanese word for ‘ash’ is hai. ‘Satoshi’ is a name given to a boy, signifying cleverness and quick wittedness.