Vol. 9 No. 21 · 26 November 1987

Search by issue:

Wrong Analogy

SIR: When he complains of David Shipler’s ahistorical and acontextual attitude to the Palestinian-Zionist conflict. Shlomo Avineri (LRB, 1 October) himself requires a historical and contextual gloss. He first asks us to imagine an analogous book written in 1945 by an American journalist about the poor defeated Germans, who, he hints, would be a preposterous object of sympathy. In other words, the Palestinians today are like the defeated Nazis. He then marches on to show how Shipler has no grasp of the context of Palestinian terrorism. True, he says, the Palestinians did have their Deir Yassin, but don’t forget that the great secret of Palestinian history is that the largest number of Palestinians killed was during 1936-39, when ‘thousands’ of moderates were murdered by the Mufti’s gangs. So not only are we to suppose that Palestinians and defeated Germans are equivalent, but that the real destruction of Palestinian society – the subsequent dispossession and displacement of the people, their continuing occupation by the Israeli military – is the responsibility of the Palestinians more or less totally.

Avineri writes as if we all live in a world constructed by Israeli propaganda. There is by now an ample library of Israeli historical scholarship which makes it plain that the Zionists never wanted to compromise with the Palestinians, or any of the Arabs for that matter. Moreover, this scholarship (by Beni Morris, Tom Segev, Simcha Flapan and others) shows that the Zionists pursued a course of terror and forced exodus with regard to the Palestinians, who, so far as conscripted regulars were concerned, were far outnumbered by the Zionists, who had considerable outside support. So much, then, for Israeli innocence and Palestinian guilt.

I find it outrageous, but typical, that Avineri makes his allegation about Palestinian gangs and moderates without a shred of evidence to support his point. The notion of thousands of Palestinians being killed by their compatriots is entirely made up by Avineri. The leading Israeli authority on the Palestinians, Yehoshua Porath, refers to the various killings that took place during the great Palestinian General Strike and Revolt, but there is no talk of ‘thousands’. Every Palestinian historian of note quite openly mentions these political killings – surely common during every colonial war, regrettable though it may be – but never is the figure anything more than a few, perhaps a few hundred. See, for example, Kayyali’s Palestine: A Modern History, or the more recent critical study by Philip Mattar, Mufti of Jerusalem. The Survey of Palestine for the period lists 3,074 killed, most of them by the British and by Zionists. See the best Palestinian analysis of the period in Walid Khalidi, From Haven to Conquest, Appendix IV, ‘Note on Arab Casualties in the 1936-39 Rebellion’.

Doubtless Avineri’s preferred history is that which allows us also to forget that in 1982 he was not only fully in support of the Israeli invasion, but was actually briefing the Army on the desirability of entering West Beirut as a way of destroying the PLO in order to set up a compliant leadership inside Lebanon: (For more details see the open letter to Avineri by Meron Benvenisti, Ha-Aretz, 22 July 1982.) Are we to view his approbation of Hanna Siniora and of Palestinian rights in the same way, or is there another context he would prefer us to use?

Edward Said
Columbia University, New York


SIR: A minute’s walk from where I write a Bangladeshi waiter was recently murdered by two white youths. His assailants did not knife him because he was carrying a fat wallet or because of some personal conflict: they killed him because he was Asian. In a nearby school a boy of mixed race has been called a ‘scalliwog’, not by his mates, but by one of his teachers, in class. And white adolescents in the area who have black friends testify that policemen label them ‘nigger-lovers’.

The area is not a particularly rough patch of Britain. This is London NW3, and there is not only racism here, but anti-racism too: a multi-ethnic march through Camden in the aftermath of the waiter’s murder, and daily steadfast opposition to racial prejudice by teachers in schools, hospital administrators, and council and community workers. Across the road, in the state primary attended by my daughter, the headmistress assembles the entire school and warns that racist remarks could be cause for suspension. Children are shocked by the size of the penalty for imitating what many of their elders casually do. The penalty reduces their propensity to imitate those elders: it gives the children something to think about.

Not everyone approves of militant anti-racism. The authors of Anti-Racism regard it as ‘an assault on culture and value’, which is the subtitle of the book edited by Frank Palmer, reviewed here by Ann Dummett on 9 July, and now generating a polemical correspondence in these columns. From the opening question on its flyleaf (‘Is Britain really a “racist society"?’: note the emphasis and the scare-quotes, and guess what answer is implied) to its closing unintelligible sentence (check it out), Anti-Racism fails to acknowledge, as Ann Dummett rightly protested, the extent of ‘racial violence and daily discrimination’ in Britain today.

The 14 essays in the book range from poor to mediocre in quality. Their purpose is to snipe at and score points against the (supposed) errors and misdeeds which anti-racists have committed in their struggle against what they and I perceive to be a terrifying and lethal enemy. One supposed pervasive error of anti-racists is a wayward use of language. For Palmer (pp. 153-4), the very word ‘anti-racism’ is an example of it. He thinks ‘that any moral claim upon our attitudes should have to do with non-racism’ only, since ‘ “we ought not to be racists" is by no means equivalent to “we ought to be anti-racists." ’ Palmer’s premise is correct: those sentences really do mean different things. But how could it follow that we should merely refrain from racism ourselves (be non-racist) and not also oppose it in others (be anti- too)? Does not concern for social justice commit one (not only not to but) against racism? But Palmer dismisses ‘social justice’ as a ‘solecism’.

He also says that he can find ‘no more clarity in the idea of “the racist mentality" than’ he ‘can in the notion of “the criminal mentality" ’. Perhaps I find clarity too easily, but it strikes me as pretty clear that Hitler had the first mentality, whether or not he also had the second. Other phrases which Palmer tells us to eschew are ‘unconscious racism’ and ‘unintentional racism’: he produces rococo philosophical arguments for the conclusion that neither phrase coherently refers. But here’s a good and familiar meaning for one of them: an utterance is unintentionally racist when it carries a racial slur of which its author is unaware. One example of unintentional racism might be this sentence of Palmer’s: ‘If it is true that I hate Chinamen, it by no means follows that my scorn for cowardice, expressed in the term “yellow-bellied", is an expression of my dislike of Chinamen.’ I’m not sure about Britain, but, in my native Canada, ‘Chinamen’, when used by a person who doesn’t know better, is a piece of unintentional racism.

Antony Flew and Ray Honeyford also devote effort to the rectification of names. In the course of ‘Clarifying the Concepts’, Flew judiciously warns against the ‘slimy euphemism – “positive discrimination" ’ and advises us that ‘to any genuine and consistent opponent of racism positive discrimination must be as repugnant as negative.’ As repugnant, despite the profound motivational difference between the two (on which see the writings of Ronald Dworkin, who defends positive discrimination, and whose opposition to racism is neither ingenuine nor, I would judge, inconsistent)? According to Honeyford, we should not call Asians ‘black’, because, he has noticed, that is not their hue, but it is reasonable to ‘describe people of Afro-Caribbean origin as “black", since the vast majority have black skins’. In fact, though, they don’t have black skins, in the literal sense of ‘black’ on which Honeyford insists when he denies that Asians are. The skins of the ‘vast majority’ of Honeyford’s ‘blacks’ are various shades of brown. Afro-Caribbeans are called ‘black’ for cultural and political reasons, and some think that reasons of that order also justify calling Asians ‘black’ in contemporary Britain. Perhaps they are wrong, but that is not established by the fatuous procedure of opening one’s eyes and looking: especially when your observation is as unreliable as Honeyford’s apparently is.

Activated by his sensitivity to words, Palmer complained (Letters, 3 September) that Dummett said that Roger Scruton attacked ‘pluralism’ in Anti-Racism, whereas he had in fact attacked ‘relativism’. Dummett accepted Palmer’s correction, and she graciously refrained from pointing out how pedantic it was (Letters, 17 September). For Scruton meant by ‘moral relativism’ in Anti-Racism exactly what he meant by ‘moral pluralism’ in his Meaning of Conservatism (p. 79), where he objects to it on similar grounds.

It was Scruton, Palmer tells us, who inspired him to edit the book under discussion here. Nevertheless, and as Dummett, indicated in her review, Scruton did not himself address anti-racism in his contribution to the book: he left that task to others. Still, the others might have been guided by what Scruton says about anti-racism in The Meaning of Conservatism. There he regrets that ‘the strength of liberalism … has made it impossible for any but the circumlocutory to utter an illiberal sentiment on this subject [immigration] and on the subject of race which forms a substantial part of it.’ Against such liberalism, Scruton invokes ‘natural prejudice, and a desire for the company of one’s kind’ (Meaning, p.68. Compare Honeyford, who suggests, at p.52 of Anti-Racism, that ‘prejudice’ is fine, when it means ‘no more than a preference for one’s kind’: Honeyford’s topic is ‘Anti-Racist Rhetoric’, and his preference is for rhetoric of the Scruton kind. But Dennis O’Keeffee, who also contributes to Anti-Racism, contrasts prejudice – which he thinks bad – with preference, which he prefers. Somebody seems to be misusing the word ‘prejudice’: there’s a job of clarification for Flew and/or Palmer to undertake here.)

I do not know whether Scruton would regard Anti-Racism as an exercise in illiberal circumlocution or as a courageous attempt to propound illiberalism in a more up-front way. However that may be, what should we say about his claim that prejudice is natural ? Well, ‘natural’ is, as Scruton must know (why otherwise would he have used it here?), a treacherously ambiguous word, and this is not the place to discuss its various meanings. It will suffice to say that we can agree with Scruton that prejudice is natural in that it is not, in its origin, an artifact of, for example, ruling-class manipulation. It has deep psychological roots, which is why when it is encouraged to flourish, it has enormous power, including the power to insult, maim and kill. It shows perverse judgment about priorities to marshal intellectual energy in defence of such a dangerous thing and against the excesses of (largely) well intentioned opposition to it. A humane intellectual will desire to improve the anti-racist case, not focus on its weakest forms, and we should be grateful for the enormous work which Ann Dummett has done under the motivation of that desire.

According to Frank Palmer, ‘to make a song and a dance about racial bullying and name-calling and not to lay equal stress upon other kinds of intimidation is a defect in moral integrity.’ But it was no defect in moral integrity which caused my daughter’s headmistress to concentrate on racial bullying. Racial bullying needs special stress in schools because grown-ups condone it to a degree that they would not condone bullying of other kinds. The nature of the adult environment means that children have to learn to be non-racist, from those who teach and practise uncompromising anti-racism.

G.A. Cohen
Chichele Professor of Political

Language Writing

SIR: America is justly famous for casting its great writers into outer darkness. The first to make a really big stink about this was, I believe, Poe, even before 1830. A little bit of education, however, reveals that the issue is more a question of timing, and has a lot more to do with post-revolutionary (Industrial, French, etc) patterns of ‘democratic’ society. America, it must be admitted, has consistently shown up worst in this particular kind of uncivilised behaviour. The great American expatriates had to leave, of course – we can understand why – but their very decision to flourish elsewhere has only reinforced the myth. (I use ‘myth’ not in its current American-Orwellian sense of ‘lie’, but in its real and original meaning, i.e. ‘truth’. There is no better word.) The purpose of this introductory harangue is merely to hint that America’s cultural sterility has complex roots. I say ‘sterility’, but I could as easily say ‘myth of sterility’: here I am apparently using ‘myth’ in both its ancient and modern meanings. I don’t quite contradict myself.

Does my ‘discourse’ abuse you? Yes, it does. It’s an agented event of definite arbitrariness; it distances you. Somewhere in the middle of the first paragraph I decided to stop caring about you, but my self-absorption carried me on. But I’m tired of it now; I’ll not make a living of it like Ron Silliman, Bruce Andrews, and the thousands upon thousands of other ‘poets’, publishing themselves all over the USA, that Jerome McGann (LRB, 15 October) doesn’t mention. He wouldn’t want you to know that they’re a dime a dozen, as we say over here. Each proclaims sterility via sterility, on purpose. As a phenomenon, they represent the current (actually a bit passé, now that they’ve been tagged and caged) manifestation of a recurring nightmare in American culture: that of the outcast survivor self-condemned to a closed and narrowing circle of emotion, calling the cruel limits of his or her prison by the name of ‘freedom’, spiralling ever deeper into a lost world of fragments and echoes and crying out that it is reality. T.S. Eliot, that great American (they even put him on a postage stamp this year!), dealt with this nightmare more definitively than anybody else. Since The Waste Land, culture has advanced, hearts and minds have grown and learned to accept previously unimaginable kinds of love and hate. Even in America itself, this ghastly desert of the modern mind, there have been stirrings, even among poets. Finding themselves in the desert, poets strike the rock; the good ones can still make the water flow. but such cultural commitment does not enter the discussion among the phonemic – nay, graphemic – spectres of ‘language’ poetry (excuse me, poetries). In fact, ‘the incapacity, in the cultural centre, to speak the language of poetry’ that McGann mentions is in large measure due to these grisly jokers; their arcane and ugly product has helped to make the very word ‘poetry’ abhorrent. The phrase ‘they kill the thing they love’ would be appropriate, if love could be conceived of in connection with these smug wordmongers.

Terence Hegarty
Melrose, New York

Helluva Book

SIR: Many things arrive here in Tuscany long after they are current elsewhere, but they do find their way, and sometimes, as in the case of Mark Lawson’s uncommon review of my book Love is colder than death: The Life and Times of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (LRB, 3 September), they can still make your day. Rarely does a critic who has acted in bad faith permit himself to stand so naked, so open, so defenceless to the response of the author whose work and reputation he has sought to defame. Why, there is not a publication in the world, having run the review in question, that would not allow me a generous space merely to respond to the ad hominem charges he has hurled against me from head to toe, but mostly between my legs. I suspect that Lawson is very much like the poet manqué Walter Kranz in Fassbinder’s Satan’s Brew, who when he is humiliated and physically beaten discovers that he has enjoyed the pain. So I won’t go as far as to give him that satisfaction. But there is an author’s job here that needs doing.

Let’s start with the bad faith part. The first sentence ought to do it. Here we find him speaking, rather like Dr Goebbels, of my ‘initial meeting’ with Fassbinder, moving it up to only weeks before his death, and reducing me to a pushy ‘investigative hack and would-be screenwriter’. Yet even as he is decking out this impugn-his-credentials opening, he knows from the book, if from no other source, that a. the initial meeting had taken place two years earlier and I had worked with Fassbinder during the writing and filming of the screenplay I had done for him; b. I have written screenplays for a number of major films; and c. at least one of my several books of investigative reporting has earned significant praise. Lawson has every right still to regard me lowly as a writer, but now we all know what kind of writer he is. I offer no comment on being called a ‘jerk’, a ‘wimp’ and a ‘slob’, since I have been all of these things at one time or another: but he won’t get his way with putting his own dirty words in the mind of one of my friends, Juliane Lorenz, and having her think of me as a ‘prick’.

Although further into his ‘review’ I am portrayed as a ‘nonagenarian hick’, at the outset he likens me – again, knowing that none of this is true – to an ‘ascetic … yuppy’. This characterisation is central to his ostensible thesis – the handle on it all meant to impress his friends. ‘A vital element in such a project,’ he writes to them of a genre he alone has detected, ‘is the contrast between subject and biographer.’ I am made to be the ascetic yuppy (‘probably jogging’), struck with awe in having met my antithesis: the ‘fluid-spilling and abuse-fluent wreck’. But Lawson makes it quite clear that he is the one who is enthralled with fluxes and with the extravagant outpouring of abuse. His own abuse of the yuppy-nonagenarian is what his piece of work is made of, and if one takes the trouble to consider the abundant references to images like spitting sausages, beer swilling in a cauldron, variously greased gherkins, spilled beans, relinquished loads, poured wine, as well the metaphor of Fassbinder’s having ‘spewed out movies like fluids … in violent, purgative bursts’, one gets the queasy feeling that down deep, somewhere under that transparent skin he wears to work, Lawson was peculiarly transfixed by Love is colder than death. Add to this the spectacle in print of the critic relishing the same juicy details, to which he brings along his own mayonnaise and baby lotion, and the sensation is heightened. The giveaway is a phrase that has somehow (unintentionally, I’ll bet) slipped in with the flush of effluvia, my ‘remarkable achievement’: the book made him feel sorry for Fassbinder.

Thus his gripe, the hydraulic pump setting his bile sloshing, must surely be that a Better Person didn’t write it (‘he deserves better’); that fate had not called on the Better Person to circle in that marvellous circle and then summon him anew to pen Rainer Werner the right way; no, instead, the magnificent labour fell to one of them – the bone-dry ascetics. And who might this Better Person be? I would not be overly surprised if it were the scatophilic critic himself. But such a biography is by now beyond the reach of the Better Person. Sadly, all too many of the primary sources, the director’s intimates to whom Love is colder than death is so indebted, have since died. Lawson will have to reconcile himself to the sorrowful reality and be content with his effusive criticism of the biography that exists. To help him along, I intend – by virtue of his claim that I possess the patent – to reveal to him ‘the secret of the one striking idea’. I refer to what Lawson calls the ‘new-fashioned hard-on’, which so caught his fancy and caused him first to wonder and later speculate as to what it might be like. The new-fashioned hard-on, Lawson, is a little squirt like you.

Robert Katz
Pieve a Presciano, Italy

‘Lenin: The Novel’

D.A.N. Jones
London NW10

Spitting on Wilde

SIR: Frank Kermode (LRB, 29 October) persuasively justifies his correction of a few errors of detail in Richard Ellmann’s biography of Wilde on the grounds that the book is bound to be reprinted. Since, I imagine, Kermode’s own review stands a good chance of being collected, it is worth reminding him that it was not at Twyford station, where Wilde was taken after his release from prison, that he was famously spat at, but – as indeed Ellmann tells us – on the platform at Clapham Junction, where the handcuffed Wilde, in convict’s clothes, spent a half-hour waiting for the train to Reading.

Mark Hearne


SIR: Professor V.G. Kiernan, who was at Trinity College, Cambridge with Klugman, the Communist recruiter, disassociates himself from King’s (Letters, 17 September). In a letter which reached me before the LRB in question, Professor Sir Edmund Leach, who was at Clare, is anxious that I should keep the reputation of King’s unsullied and directs my attention to Trinity. It was not my intention to provoke an unseemly contest between the Cambridge colleges about which harboured the most homosexuals and other perverts, Communists and other potential traitors. The purpose of my letter was to protect the reputation of Herbert Norman (who got a Second at Trinity), whose brief, unsatisfactory stay at Cambridge blighted his life. Professor Kiernan’s sensitivity is understandable – many people, I am sure, regret having gone up to Cambridge at that time – but he is not entitled to begin his letter to you with the remark that because I wrote a biography of Charles George Gordon, dedicated to Mrs Thatcher, ‘from this the rest of his thinking may easily be deduced.’ My next book is a life of Nell Gwyn, dedicated to all royal bastards. What on earth will he make of that?

Roy MacGregor-Hastie
Osaka Gakuin University College, Japan

Taking stock

SIR: I am dismayed to read in this morning’s newspaper that the Russians are considering introducing a Soviet Stock Exchange. The one irrefutable Marxist tenet, taught at the Mechanics Institute in Mortlake where I was learning to be a Communist nearly sixty years ago, remains with me: money as a means of exchange is useful; money as a commodity is useless – and boundlessly destructive both to self and the community at large. Seriously, do we need a Stock Exchange? Take my own experience. I put my savings into several Government Stocks, bonds or whatever, which I bought over the Post Office counter. (I was particularly urged to buy Savings Certificates, 24th issue, by Roy Fuller, the poet, whom I had been taken to visit as a birthday treat: ‘Don’t delay,’ he cried, ‘it’s too good to last!’) I bought some Marks and Spencer shares, not only safe but ethically sound, for which I needed a broker. For fun, I bought six hundred shares in a local brewery, and much enjoyed offering the family a pint of my beer in the pub next door. (They have gone up alarmingly ever since.) Broker again. Finally – a crisis of conscience here, since in theory I don’t believe in inherited income – I invested a smallish sum of family money in the Stewardship Trust, run by Quakers, and guaranteed not to be invested in armaments but also not to be run at a loss. My conscientious objection to inheriting this money was reasoned away thus: either give it away or respect and use it wisely, a conclusion arrived at under the joint influence of my grandfather’s memory and my analyst. (Inconsistent? Of course. But money is as emotionally disturbing as sex.) I’m not against people having a gamble, but there are institutions to deal with the universal desire to make a quick buck. If I was a real, big capitalist I should seek out small businesses and take a gamble on supporting the technical and inventive genius of the British, which, since the Industrial Revolution, has been exploited abroad owing to the pusillanimity and stupidity of capitalists. I shouldn’t need a Stock Exchange for that.

Jean MacGibbon
Manningtree, Essex

Narrow Places

SIR: Brad Leithauser (LRB, 15 October) considers it prudent to alert British readers to the wide esteem in which the poetry of James Merrill is held in the USA. This is a laudable enough motive, but he should be informed that the term ‘pararhyme’ is an unnecessary concession to the backward Brits. Most of us who bought the Knopf Merrills in the Fifties have preferred the American usage of ‘slant rhyme’ for longer than Mr Leithauser has lived.

Bill Turner


SIR: I have noticed with quiet bemusement your increasingly idiosyncratic approach to the division of syllables of words between lines. However, I must protest at the now common splitting of the word ‘analysis’ and its derivatives between the fourth and fifth letters. Such remnants of a Classical education as still lurk within me cry out in horror whenever I see the unfortunate word analised in this manner.

Allan Turner
Basle University

‘The Roman Empire’

SIR: Thank you for your review of The Roman Empire: Economy, Society and Culture by Peter Garnsey and Richard Saller (LRB, 15 October), which you list as available in hardcover at £24. May your readers please know that it can be bought also in paperback at £9.95.

Colin Haycraft
Duckworth, London NW1

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Read More

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences