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Letters

Vol. 3 No. 20 · 5 November 1981

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SDP and LRB

SIR: Although it was never difficult to assess the political stance of the controllers of the London Review, Vol. 3, No 18 must have caused a wry smile to cross many other faces than my own as it joined the other bourgeois media in publicising the SDP. The review of a book on the party by a party member would not have gone amiss in the SDP’s own periodical – not that the SDP has as yet any need to do its own printing. I am sure that I am not alone in having subscribed to the LRB since its inception with the vague notion that I was helping the arts in difficult times, though realising well that I was helping to provide a platform for many whose ideas and ideology I reject. Many must like myself regret that the Review has opted to abuse their support by helping the careers of a small number of professional political opportunists who rely for electoral success on the bias of media coverage. If the LRB provided a broad political platform then there would be less room for objection. For instance, in LRB, Vol. 3, No 17, the first three pages could have been devoted to a review of Paul Foot’s important new book Red Shelley by a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party. Instead there were only a few paragraphs buried on page 12 by a careerist academic in an Oxford ivory tower. But it was inevitable that this should be so. For my own part, I have decided to let my subscription lapse, and I hope that others will do the same, although it cannot be expected that the editors of the Review will radically alter their position.

Does this fall within the category of speech to which you allow freedom, rather than that to which you do not?

David Ayers
Bradford

This does fall within the category of speech to which we allow freedom. It is a broad category. Mr Ayers will not tolerate the interest we have taken (from before its inception) in the SDP, and we are sorry to lose his wry smile. But he is wrong to suggest that we do not print a wide variety of political opinions, and that the Social Democrats are exceptional in benefiting from the attentions of the media (whose aversion to Neil Kinnock and Eric Heffer has been well disguised). He is wrong, too, to talk darkly of the journal’s ‘controllers’. Our only controllers are the three members of the editorial staff. We think of ourselves as workers, and some of us think of ourselves as socialists. We are not in the power or the pay of the SDP. They have taken no interest in the paper.

Editor, ‘London Review’

SIR: I did not become a subscriber to the London Review of Books in order to read mindless propaganda for the Social Democratic Party (‘a triumph’, ‘a new kind of party’, ‘a credible alternative’, ‘an astonishing force’, ‘another great realignment’, ‘not likely to founder’, etc, etc, etc.) Please in future spare your readership drivel of this kind.

Monica Foot
London NW6

It’s a riot

SIR: In the LRB of 1 October, you published a letter from Mr Gerald Lynn of Liverpool, quoting and endorsing an article from the National Front journal Spearhead. The article stated that the underlying cause of urban riots in Britain and the United States is the constitutional inferiority of ‘the negro’, since this causes him to fail in a racially mixed society and this failure generates resentment and a sense of injustice. In commenting on this letter, you briefly repudiated these views, while justifying your having published it by appeal to the principle of free speech. I do not believe that there is any valid principle justifying you in printing matter of this kind, let alone obliging you to do so: I should be interested if you would formulate, rather than merely naming, the principle which you take so to justify or oblige you. I should also be interested to learn whether you would regard that principle as applying equally to a similar letter describing ‘the jew’ either as constitutionally inferior or, say, as congenitally avaricious; if so, whether you would think that there were any circumstances, say those prevailing in Germany in 1932, which would cancel that justification or obligation; and whether you would agree that somewhat comparable circumstances prevail in Britain today with respect to black people.

It is nevertheless imaginable that the publication of such a letter might do some good: namely, if those, such as Professor Eysenck and the scientific correspondent of the Times, who propagate alleged scientific ‘proof’ of the intellectual inferiority of black people would read it and manifest a decent human reaction to the uses to which their conclusions, professedly motivated by the pure love of scientific truth, are inevitably put.

Michael Dummett
New College, Oxford

I sympathise with Professor Dummett’s protest, and will do my best to answer his questions. In relation to the activities of an editor, the principle of free speech embodies the recognition of a need to print objections to the material in his paper – a recognition which will always be qualified by his estimate of whether or not the letters in question are likely to do serious harm. We did not think this was the case here. Nor do I think we are in a situation ‘somewhat comparable’ to that of Germany in 1932. I am unable to believe we are on a road which is likely to lead to the destruction of the black community. Their interests need to be defended and considered, however, no less if no more than those of the Jewish community, and, as I hope I have made clear, we do not recognise an unqualified need to print offensive or inflammatory opinions which are hostile to those expressed in the paper. My previous, necessarily brief statement implied an element of qualification, and it did not, of course, speak of any obligation to exercise tolerance in this respect. I am not entirely confident that we took the right course: it is not inconceivable that some harm might follow. But it is also conceivable that harm might be done by a principled exclusion from print of all views arising from intolerance, ill-will and sectional self-interest. I agree that the outlook is bad in Britain now, but it would have to get worse before it would be right to attempt such an exclusion.

Editor, ‘London Review’

SIR: According to Gerald Lynn, what can’t be said about the recent riots is that they are an expression of black people’s frustration at their ‘inherent inability’ to succeed according to white standards of achievement. He wishes to know whether I am ‘concerned’ that exponents of views such as his have had difficulty in securing access to television and ‘respected literary reviews’. The question at issue here is not whether such views should be allowed rights of utterance in general. They do enjoy such rights and can be published in Spearhead and other neo-Nazi publications, provided that they do not infringe the terms of the Race Relations Act. Since I support this right, the issue between us turns on whether such a right could be said to include right of access to media of national circulation and influence. Now the grounds by which opinions do gain access to our most powerful media are dubious indeed, but if we were asked what these grounds ought to be, Mr Lynn and I would likely agree that on issues of major public controversy access should be granted only to opinions sustained by argument and supported by evidence. Mr. Lynn’s opinions fail this test of principle. They are sustained entirely by rhetorical invocations to the ‘testimony of History’.

I must say it is not clear to me what form of scientific evidence could possibly create valid grounds for a legitimate public discussion of the ‘inherent inability’ of any race. As Mr Lynn must know, the question of inherent differences in aptitude among races has been a matter of serious scientific speculation for at least a century. If he wishes to know whether I would support the right to undertake such research, however uncomfortable its implications might be for the idea of natural human equality, I would say that I would. To the best of my knowledge, however, none of this research (Schockley, Jensen et al.) has provided an iota of plausibility for the contention that blacks have inherent inabilities in comparison to whites. If this is the case, what rights of utterance can be accorded to statements which continue to assert as true what research patently fails to verify? In the case of Mr Lynn’s opinions on race, we are dealing with something more than foolish persistence in error: we are dealing with a contention which, by asserting that a generic class of human beings lack the ability to realise full human potential, gives grounds for an abuse of their dignity as members of our species.

The right, therefore, which Mr Lynn would wish me to defend amounts to the right to insult fellow human beings, not merely in a publication like Spearhead which can be ignored or avoided, but in those media whose reach is too pervasive and influential to escape. This is not a right which I am prepared to defend. I can see no obligation whatever, within the meaning of the right of free speech, to allow television time or national media coverage to those asserting without proof that any category of human beings is unequally endowed with human potential.

Now it so happens that both Mr Lynn and I have a quarrel with the current limits of national debate on race. His quarrel is that a multiracialist consensus, imposed by a bien-pensant élite of liberal editors, TV directors and politicians, is stifling seekers after harsh truths like himself. I see the state of public opinion rather differently. Discourse on race in Britain does not appear to me to be exactly muffled by multiracialist common sense. Certain periphrastic decencies have to be observed, of course, but the Prime Minister’s remarks about the dangers of being swamped by immigrants, Enoch Powell’s cunning public invocations of the race war to come, and the mean fine print of the new Nationality Law, hardly suggest that either discourse or policy is constrained by liberal pieties. The pervasive use in public debate of the term ‘immigrant’ to designate men and women who have worked and raised families in this country for two generations is just one of many signs that much of public opinion continues to regard the evidently multiracial character of this society as a problem to cope with rather than as a common future to be enjoyed together.

As I write, the Commission for Racial Equality has brought to light the circumstances in which management and shop-stewards at a British Leyland plant connived together to allow workers in one section to refuse to work with a qualified man they saw fit to call a coon. Doubtless it is difficult to know how extensive such practices are, and doubtless there are union members everywhere, conscious of the traditions of their movement, who are shamed and angered by the conduct of ‘brothers’ such as these. I cannot help thinking, however, that the case indicates the degree to which the multiracial consensus which Mr Lynn believes to be stifling true debate has, in fact, still to be fought for and won in every single institution in this country. Mr Lynn’s implicit self-portrait as lonely seeker for truth in a fog of liberal tolerance is ludicrously incorrect. His kind are baying the length and breadth of the country. He merits reply in these columns only because his views do not represent a lunatic fringe, but make up the dark end of a spectrum which extends to what we are often pleased to call ‘respectable’ opinion. This is why his scurrilous exploitation of hard-won rights of free speech is not merely contemptible but dangerous. Such views as his cannot be banned, but they deserve no quarter.

Michael Ignatieff
King’s College, Cambridge

SIR: You deserve to be congratulated both for printing the letter from Gerald Lynn in which he commends the National Front’s assertion that blacks are inferior, and for your terse note of dissent. It is useful to realise that apparently intelligent and literate people such as Mr Lynn actually believe the bigoted nonsense about non-whites that is circulated by extremist groups. I wonder is Mr Lynn aware that recently (30 March – 3 April) Unesco brought together in Athens 23 scientists from 17 countries to examine ‘the present state of scientific knowledge on the racial question’? The Athens group subsequently issued a notable Declaration on Racism. This begins by pointing out that genetic complexities make the concept of race, as applied to human beings, virtually meaningless. The following clauses may instruct Mr Lynn and those with similar prejudices:

6. Whatever the differences observed, biology can in no way serve as the basis for a hierarchy between individuals or population groups, since no human group possesses a consistent genetic inheritance. In any event, one is never justified in proceeding from observation of a difference to the affirmation of a superiority-inferiority relationship.

13. The complexity of the interaction between biological and cultural factors makes any attempts to establish the relative importance of innate and acquired characteristics completely meaningless.

15. The social sciences provide no support for the view that racism is a collective form of behaviour that inevitably arises when certain kinds of social relationship predominate between different ethnic groups. On the other hand, the plurality and co-existence of cultures and races that characterise many societies constitute the most felicitous form of mutual enrichment between peoples.

17. Racism is generally a tool used by certain groups to reinforce their political and economic power …

18. Racism also takes the form of denying that certain peoples have a history and of underrating their contribution to the progress of mankind.

A.M. Healy
University of Wollongong, New South Wales

Molly Keane

SIR: John Sutherland is wrong in his account of the publication of Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour (LRB, 15 October), of which he says: ‘It was published in propria persona and became a bestseller in America and Ireland. In early autumn the novel was published in Britain.’ We signed the contract for this novel in April 1980. Alfred Knopf bought it in September 1980. To keep the price down, we collaborated to the extent that there was one printing, done in the United States, for both publishers. Knopf’s publication date was earlier than ours because our books had to be shipped and there were delays in the shipping. Although the book received excellent notices in the USA, it did not, alas, become a best-seller there. Knopf has not yet had to reprint, as we have just done (using, this time, a British printer). In Ireland the book was non-existent until we published it on 3 September, giving a launching party in Dublin. If Mr Sutherland did indeed hope that Good Behaviour would ‘win its prize’ it was perverse of him to invent ‘facts’ for it to ‘have to combat’.

Diana Athill
André Deutsch, London WC1

John Sutherland writes: I am grateful for Miss Athill’s corrections. Good Behaviour was physically produced in the US. It was published, and thoroughly reviewed, in America several weeks before it was available to British readers, having been published slightly earlier in Ireland. All of which would surely make us the third port of call in the successful passage of Molly Keane’s novel. That it had, in fact, achieved prior success was insisted on by publicity material accompanying review copies.

Good Books

SIR: Marghanita Laski simultaneously demands and disarms criticism of her generalisations about children’s books (LRB, 1 October), by first making such wide claims and then adding so many exceptions and qualifications. She says that children’s books are or should be good for children – whether in encouraging some kind of ethics or in triggering some kind of ecstasy – though she also seems to say the opposite. But aren’t books written for and read by children much as they are for and by adults – for profit and pleasure – and isn’t art or literature which tries or claims to do good the worst kind there is?

She says that there was ‘a doldrums’ in children’s books for about forty years until the 1950s, though she mentions some good work (Noel Streatfeild, Dr Dolittle, Orlando and The Borrowers). But what about Arthur Ransome, Eleanor Farjeon, A.A. Milne, Henry Williamson, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pollyanna and Oz? Some doldrums!

She says that children’s books ignore the life of the artist, though she mentions Noel Streatfeild (who may be neglected by critics, but surely not by readers). But what about K.M. Peyton? And isn’t the same generally true of adult fiction? She says that children’s books ignore religion, and she ‘can’t offhand think of any modern children’s novel predicated upon religion’ except one by Meriol Trevor. But what about the Narnia books of C.S. Lewis or the Earthsea books of Ursula Le Guin, and what about The Lord of the Rings, which Tolkien himself said was based on religion? Anyway the point is that children’s books belong to a primitive world in which morality and the supernatural are much simpler than in the real world and are often quite separate. Again, isn’t the same generally true of adult fiction?

Nicolas Walter
London N1

Objections to Chomsky

SIR: I owe Professor Dummett a public apology if I have in any way misrepresented his views about Chomsky. But I don’t think I have. It would have been not only presumptuous of me but also – as I already knew – quite foolish to profess myself an ally of Professor Dummett on the basis of his ‘Objections to Chomsky’ (Letters, 1 October). I was rather careful not to make any such profession, either overtly or otherwise, for the very good reason that I do not share his view of the ‘deep issues’ of linguistic knowledge, about which he and some generativists are alike concerned. These are not, in my view, deep issues but bogus issues. (To say this implies no intellectual disrespect. I have great respect for Plato as a thinker: but that does not stop me from holding the view that he worried about far more bogus problems than Chomsky and Dummett put together.)

A reviewer who demands so much more of a theory than the theory manifestly has to offer, and then ‘designedly leaves it open whether such supplementation is to be had’, has no cause for complaint if his readers take him to be questioning whether indeed there is any likelihood that the supplementation demanded could be forthcoming.

Professor Dummett now says (LRB, 3 September) that his quarrel with Chomsky is just over whether linguistic knowledge is unconscious, as distinct from unverbalised. To me, this is like listening to two medieval theologians debating the correct interpretation of the nature of sin.

Roy Harris
Worcester College, Oxford

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