Vol. 2 No. 17 · 4 September 1980

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SIR: Your reviewer, Geoffrey Hawthorn, in reviewing Elitism, which appeared under our joint authorship, and also Elites in Australia (LRB, 3 July), was careless enough in reading our book and free enough with derogatory words in comment to entitle the authors to some room to reply.

Although the reviewer does not seem to take a drastically different view of the problems and difficulties of advanced industrial society from our own, he characterises us as fools for supposing that the prescriptions that we advance might be helpful in reducing these problems. Speaking of the manifold varieties of opinion which Pareto, late in life, conceded could never be totally suppressed (a manifestly sentimental notion if the brutal possibilities of history are taken seriously), Hawthorn says we are fools to think that we can ‘at once preserve’ such ideas and ‘render them inconsequential’ with ‘something called “élitism "’. We never thought of élitism as a cause, movement or ideology, but only as a handy classification of certain recently neglected ideas. Such a reification of such a notion would, indeed, be foolish. We merely point to the factual predominance of élites in most political decision-making and suggest that élites might make a better job of what they do if they had a clearer conception of their position.

Dropping ‘merely’ from one key quotation and similarly dropping ‘in such matters’ from another, Hawthorn makes us read somewhat more ‘élitist’ than is actually the case. Then he spends some words chiding the straw man of our alleged intention to curtail democratic rights of free expression. Yet it remains the case that recognising that the outcomes of many matters depend more on them than on shadowy ‘popular forces’ might well lead élites to take better care of the public business.

Hawthorn’s brief references to Elites in Australia are nearly all factually incorrect. Whereas he asserts that the 370 national leaders interviewed agreed only that ‘whoever was in the élite they were not,’ in fact they mainly agreed that no single élite group runs Australia; three-quarters of them felt that they, as individuals, had significant influence on national policies and were in this sense part of the élite. Hawthorn asserts that the ‘central circle’ of 418 leaders did not include trade-unionists: in fact, 9 per cent were trade-union leaders and another 12 per cent were closely affiliated Labour Party leaders. He implies that the authors were eventually led to doubt the utility of their survey method: in fact, at the cited page (261) they say that, like any method, survey research ‘provides only rough approximations of social phenomena’. If Hawthorn knows another method which would yield a more accurate cross-sectional picture of a large national élite, there are many researchers waiting to learn it from him.

G. Lowell Field, John Higley
Storrs, Connecticut

Geoffrey Hawthorn writes: Professors Field and Higley accuse me of misrepresenting their views, misreading their facts, and misunderstanding their remarks about method. I do remain puzzled as well as annoyed by their views. I still do not see how a recommendation to élites to realise their position and act accordingly, although in ways that these authors never explain, is self-evidently compatible with preserving such democratic virtues as we now have. And I certainly do not see how such a recommendation can blandly be called ‘a handy classification of certain recently neglected ideas’. Either Field and Higley believe what they say or they do not. When I said that none of those interviewed in the Australian study thought that they ran Australia, I had in front of me the authors’ repeated remarks to this effect. Many of these people conceded that they might have some influence, but that is a different matter. When I said that the central circle of 418 identified by Higley excluded union leaders, I was, I agree, oversimplifying. It did not. But such leaders seemed to be disproportionately under-represented in it, and, most surprisingly for Australia, scarcely figured at all in an inner 100 which I decided, for reasons of space, not to discuss apart from the 418. I remain convinced that a survey which identifies an élite solely from replies to questions about who the élite are and from replies to questions about whom the respondent talked to about a particular issue is worse than a ‘rough approximation’. It presupposes in the decision about whom to ask in the first place who is likely to be in the élite, and it says absolutely nothing about who actually does what how with whom to what effect. As Field and Higley must surely know, such an approach was effectively discredited by Dahl and others more than twenty years ago. No political historian would for a moment consider relying on it.

Unfair to gays

SIR: When I read Simon Raven’s review, I assumed that the gay community would speak up for itself, which it did. But his subsequent reply (Letters, 7 August) has made me realise, suddenly, just how responsible our passive complacency must be in creating problems for homosexuals in our society, and, indeed, in provoking the very behaviour that he finds objectionable. They, he says, are ‘obsessed’. Does he really not know that most of the rest of us are constantly aware of our heterosexuality? That our literature, cinema, theatre, music are dominated by aspects of relationships between men and women? That poster hoardings, glossy magazines, TV advertising, assume that visual titillation of our heterosexual appetites will sell us almost anything? That we gossip interminably about each other’s marriages and affairs (preferably unhappy)?

Our sexuality is the most celebrated aspect of our nature. If we are heterosexual, we display it, flaunt it, evaluate ourselves by it. We make an enormous ‘production’ of ‘the whole business’. Our culture tyrannises those who prefer celibacy by making them feel incomplete and inadequate. And, I now realise, it tyrannises homosexuals. But they are fighting back. That is understandable. But just what is Simon Raven getting so hysterical about?

Gloria Cigman

War and Peace

SIR: Claire Bruyère (Letters, 7 August) blames me for omitting to mention, in my review of Freeman Dyson’s book the Vietnam War or Dyson’s participation in JASON. I was not trying to sit in judgment on Dyson, I was only reviewing his book. More seriously, she blames Dyson for belonging to JASON, and quotes, with evident disapproval, his justification for continuing discussions with people holding what are, in her opinion, wrong views. In the McCarthy era, the idea was not uncommon that Marxist views were an infectious disease which one could contract by being exposed to it: I hope Claire Bruyère will not apply this idea in reverse.

I see no reason to withdraw, or qualify, my statement that Dyson has thought deeply and seriously about the ethical problems of war and peace. This process does not necessarily produce all the answers (as Freeman Dyson points out in his reply), nor would any answers he arrives at necessarily agree with my conclusions or even with his own views at a later date. But it is essential to think about these issues seriously and without prejudice – an exercise I would recommend to Claire Bruyère.

Rudolf Peierls

‘Thy Neighbour’s Wife’

SIR: May I congratulate Alan Coren, as writer, and you, sir, as publisher, on the outspoken and uncompromising strictures directed at Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbour’s Wife (LRB, 17 July). It is something that has needed to be said, loudly and clearly, about this vulgar and ubiquitous category of modern writing these many years past, and it is to be hoped that Mr Coren’s fearless example will be followed in an equally forthright manner by other reviewers writing for the serious literary journals, who, nowadays, all too often lower their standards and pander to the latest, and usually basest, tastes. One assumes, charitably, that this is done in a misguided attempt to maintain popularity (and therefore circulation), or, less charitably, that it is done in order to avoid the taint of prudery or puritanism.

If I were to take issue with Mr Coren at all, it would be on the grounds that he is somewhat unfair to American men. I am an Englishman and I recognise, regretfully, that my latterday countrymen are far from blameless in the encouragement given to this tawdry commerce. While it is true that a large proportion of new mores and habits, good and bad, have their roots in America and spread eastwards, it is equally true that no self-respecting Englishman (or Frenchman or German or Italian, for that matter) is denied the opportunity of exercising his powers of discrimination.

Raymond Mason
The Lion Bookshop, Rome


SIR: It is distressing to see in a review by Professor Christopher Ricks (LRB, 7 August) a horrible grammatical error in French, quoted without relevant comment from Angus Wilson’s new novel. The sentence is supposed to be spoken by a ‘French master’, who might perhaps have done better to confine himself to broken English, like the Italian chàracter in the same novel whose diction Professor Ricks complains of. At many universities, students – and teachers – of English are expected to have a passive or reading knowledge of a foreign language; literary texts are set for them to translate from or comment on. The line that separates this from ‘active’ knowledge has never been traced. Shouldn’t the ability to spot a howler be cultivated in anyone aspiring to discuss literature in a foreign language? Other and subtler deviations from the norm may be essential to an intended effect.

Sheila Stern

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