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Vol. 10 No. 5 · 3 March 1988

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SIR: I apologise for replying late to the letters of Professor Scruton and Messrs Honeyford and Green in your issue of 7 January: I am recovering from an indisposition (which their letters did not cause).

I did not, as Ray Honeyford says, ‘denounce’ him for refusing to call Asians ‘black’. I did criticise the peculiar argument which he offered in defence of his refusal, and which runs as follows: 1. A group of people should not be described by a word which denotes a colour their skin does not literally display. 2. Unlike the skin of Afro-Caribbeans, the skin of Asians is not literally black. Therefore, 3, unlike Afro-Caribbeans, Asians should not be called ‘black’. Honeyford’s conclusion follows from his premisses, both of which are, however, bizarre, since Afro-Caribbeans are mostly (literally) brown, not black (which puts paid to 2.), and, unless they should therefore not be called ‘black’, the same epidermal fact falsifies 1. Without defending his preposterous argument, Honeyford reiterates that it is ‘an obvious perceptual distortion’ (my emphasis) to call Asians ‘black’, without explaining why no similar distortion attends calling other brown-skinned people ‘black’. The truth is that racial nomenclature is, as I originally contended, more political and cultural in character than Honeyford’s chromatological strictures would allow.

According to Honeyford, ‘Cohen implies that the word “black" may be understandably misapplied for “cultural" and “political" reasons.’ Well, whatever Honeyford likes to think I implied, what I said was the stronger and more straightforward thing that ‘Afro-Caribbeans are called “black" for cultural and political reasons,’ and I did not suggest that this terminology embodies a misapplication. Honeyford forgets, if he ever knew, that, until about twenty years ago, people of African descent in the Western world disfavoured, in self-description, the term ‘black’. The big change came – and it is a political, not an optical one – when Stokely Carmichael brilliantly proclaimed that ‘black is beautiful.’ He thereby shattered and re-shaped the language of racial categorisation.

There exist in Britain today left-wing Asians who call Asians ‘black’, to emphasise the oppression they share with Afro-Caribbeans. It is up to future history, and Asians themselves, and not Honeyford or me, whether or not that designation will be accepted: but it will be accepted or rejected as a matter of culture and politics, not physical vision. This is a political struggle about words, and the fact that Honeyford is on a particular side in the struggle blinds him to the truth that it is one.

Simon Green says that I ‘argue (or at least appear to argue) that the extension of the term “black" to Asians derives from the same political and cultural reasoning’ (his emphasis) which grounds its application to Afro-Caribbeans. I argued no such thing, and I can appear to have done so only to somebody who, like Green, misreads the syntax of the pertinent sentence in my letter of 26 November. Green’s extended reflection on the argument I did not advance is, consequently, polemically irrelevant, whatever intrinsic interest it may or may not have. Green also reacts against my endorsement of Ann Dummett’s complaint that the authors of Anti-Racism failed to acknowledge how racist Britain is. Green is, of course, right that ‘Is Britain really a racist society?’ is a legitimate question but, in the book he is defending, formulations like the one just quoted are supposed to answer the question they formulate, which, Green should agree, is not a legitimate procedure. The quoted question should not be dealt with rhetorically, and, in her own letter of 7 January, Ann Dummett specifies a clear sense in which Britain is a racist society: a person’s race makes a massive difference to his or her life chances. That is surely true, notwithstanding Green’s unassailable and irrelevant point that certain other societies are more racist than Britain is. Green says reasonable-sounding things about how British racism should be handled. He fails to say whether he thinks that any form of anti-racism should be taught in schools. Perhaps, like the authors of Anti-Racism, he regards such teaching as ‘an assault on education and value’. As matters stand, we do not know what Green believes about the issue which provoked the controversy in which he decided to intervene.

Roger Scruton claims that I quoted his defence of illiberalism about race and immigration out of context, and he reproduces a sentence less odious than the ones I quoted, which appeared in their vicinity. Now, it is not hard to quote Scruton out of context, since, in his political writing, he practises a brinkmanship rhetoric of withdrawable insinuation, but I do not think the present instance is a case in point: the unpleasant sentences which I quoted do not seem to mean something different from anything I suggested they meant when the sentence Scruton prefers is set beside them. The matter is evidently too minute to pursue here, and the interested reader will have to look at pages 66-69 of The Meaning of Conservatism to judge whether or not I have treated Scruton unfairly.

Scruton’s nicer sentence says, among other things, that ‘it is not clear that illiberal sentiments have to be forms of hatred.’ Maybe so, but it is quite clear that, whether or not they ‘have to be’, they very extensively are forms of contempt, in Britain today. Anti-racism directs itself against the contempt, and its further and sometimes lethal consequences, and the opposition to anti-racism led by Scruton cannot but help to sustain (even if it does not itself express) the contempt anti-racism opposes.

Scruton thinks that it ill becomes an (at least erstwhile) defender of Marxism to accuse him of condoning racial hostility, since, by the same token, I can be accused of condoning class hostility. But I do not find the analogy between race and class telling. The division of society into classes is, arguably, and so I would affirm, a profound injustice, and, hence, a good reason for resentment and anger (if not, indeed, for the liquidation of the Kulaks, which, like Scruton, I deplore). Nothing remotely parallel could be claimed about the division of humanity into races. The past murderous effects of Marxism should no more be associated with me than should the past murderous effects of Christianity with Robert Runcie, or, for that matter, the murderous effects of Nazism with Scruton. I make no such hysterial accusation against him. What I do accuse him and his associates of is an irresponsible unconcern about British racism, here and now.

G.A. Cohen
London NW3

SIR: May I point out the following misrepresentations. No doubt Professor Cohen (Letters, 26 November 1987) would regard it as ‘pedantic’ to point out that the subtitle of my book on anti-racism is ‘An Assault on Education’ – not ‘Culture’ – ‘and Value’, but he appears to have misperceived the contents as well. I did not argue that a non-racist is not opposed to racism, but rather that, unlike the anti racist, he does not enlist in the active opposition of anti-racist campaigns. (Can I not be morally opposed to cowardice without joining in an Anti-Cowardice movement?) Furthermore, in suggesting that ‘the racist mentality’ is as unclear a concept as ‘the criminal mentality’ I was not denying that there are racists or criminals. But if, as Cohen suggests, Hitler had ‘the racist mentality’, and if he is also right that I am guilty of some kind of racism for using the word ‘Chinaman’, it follows that I have the same mentality as Hitler. Would Professor Cohen care to confirm this accusation? It is also utterly false to say that I have claimed that the expression ‘unconscious racism’ should be ‘eschewed’. My actual point is that while one might make some sense of the concept (though not by severing it from ‘intention’ altogether) that in itself does not guarantee the correctness of its application to particular cases. I did advocate more circumspection about ‘unintentional racism’ than Cohen displays in saying that ‘an utterance is unintentionally racist when it carries a social slur of which the author is anaware.’

Finally, may I object vehemently to a serious distortion of the contents of my last letter (Letters, 10 December 1987) by Ann Dummett (Letters, 7 January). I had argued that the Swann Committee’s attempt to prove that racism is responsible for the under-achievement of West Indian pupils was undermined by the suppression of Dr Mortimer’s proposed research into familial circumstances, and I therefore criticised Ms Dummett’s opposition to this research on the grounds that one should not first assume what one is seeking to prove. In other words, one should consider all possible factors. There is nothing controversial in that principle – surely any research should be committed to the disinterested pursuit of truth? Ms Dummett has twisted that point by saying that she is not prepared to ‘suppose’ that ‘there is something wrong with West Indian children.’ With respect, I have not advocated that she ‘suppose’ any such thing. And I do not much care for the implication that I have ‘supposed’ it. It may be of interest that both the Rampton Report and the Swann Report suggest that familial circumstances may be a possible factor in under-achievement (though, as I say, this has not been followed up). Presumably then they are guilty of the racist ‘supposition’ that Ann Dummett proudly announces she is not prepared to make?

Frank Palmer

SIR: Mr Cooper (Letters, 18 February) pours scorn on the idea of trying to impart, in schools, some knowledge of the breadth and variety of human achievement. He does not think this ‘Renaissance man’s curriculum’ would be recognisable as education. Perhaps I could turn his questions round, and ask him just how small the scope of education should be, in his opinion? And to what extent one must narrow down teachers’ training before they are capable of encouraging critical understanding?

Mr Palmer has written yet again, in the present issue, saying I have distorted the contents of his last letter. We seem to be agreed, however, that there is nothing ‘wrong with West Indian children’, and I certainly agree with him that research should pursue the truth. But why should a research programme be incapable of pursuing truth if it starts by looking within schools for the causes of under-achievement? It is undeniable that children in general get on better in some schools than in others: for each child, the parents and family circumstances remain the same but a change of school, or a change of teachers and curriculum within the same school, often produces dramatically different results, for better or worse. While seeking all possible explanations for this observable fact, and without suppressing any facts or shirking any arguments, one would surely be well advised, in constructing a research design on any group’s under-achievement, to look first inside schools.

Ann Dummett

Not strong on facts

SIR: I can’t decide whether R.W. Johnson (Letters, 4 February) is offering himself as a knight come from the people to rescue me from the evil influence of Wicked Barons Scargill and Livingstone; or whether he is a bully hurling himself, rugby style, at me, the besotted little woman, as an easy substitute for doing battle with the Great Leaders themselves. If it is the former, I’m afraid I would have to turn him down. I do not find his populism convincing. He appeals to me in the name of the ‘once-Labour working class of Brent’. But only a few months ago he was arguing that one of Labour’s problems is that it no longer has Oxbridge graduates at its helm (LRB, 10 December 1987). Johnson speaks with a forked tongue: he’s with the working class as voters, potential supporters and when generally behaving as ‘the masses’, but when they have the cheek to take on leading positions, challenge the Government, run London – well, no wonder the Labour Party is in the mess it is.

Anyway, I don’t need rescuing. I supported striking miners and their families and worked for the GLC without believing that their leaders walked on water. Anyone who has read the critical essays I co-edited about the GLC – A Taste of Power: The Politics of Local Economics, reviewed in the London Review (LRB, 17 September 1987) – will know that talk of my ‘devotion to Great Leaders’ is twaddle. Misogynist twaddle, judging by its tone!

The evidence for the bully thesis is more convincing. First, a bully smears the character of his victim so that his ruthlessness appears heroic. In the school playground the taunt is ‘softy’. In the pages of the LRB, too, Johnson’s innuendo is that I am a softy, soft on Scargill, soft on Livingstone – a softness leading to Stalinism. By contrast, Johnson poses as the tough, hard-nosed inside-dopester, prepared to reveal the facts, however unpalatable. But who are the insiders that our sleuth consorts with? If the rumours they pass on to him are based on fact, why didn’t they make their accusations during the election for the NUM President, when every move of the number one national bogeyman was being followed by a pack of hungry industrial reporters? In accusing me of Stalinism, isn’t Johnson relying on exactly the sort of people who enable Stalinist – and Labourist – authoritarianism to flourish: cowardly people who smear their enemies by innuendo rather than risk their own position by engaging in open debate?

My book was not about the NUM, or the miners’ strike; I discussed aspects of the strike to illustrate Labour’s bewildered, unbelieving reaction to the breakdown of the old corporatism on which it so depended. So I do not intend to answer all Johnson’s remarks about the NUM’s finances. But it has to be said that there are certain elementary points on which he misleads LRB readers.

First, on the legal position of donations to striking miners and their families. He complains that there is ‘no trace’ of the money from the Soviet miners in the NUM’s accounts. In doing so, he overlooks the fact that for most of the strike the NUM was not in control of its finances: they were in the hands of the Sequestrator or Official Receiver. Consequently all donations went either into the independent Solidarity Fund, to Women Against Pit Closures or directly to paying the NUM’s creditors. Anything paid to the NUM – and appearing in its accounts – would have gone straight into the hands of the Receiver. People and organisations made their donations through necessarily unofficial channels. If any of these did not reach their intended destination, I would like to see the evidence. None of the arguments in my book or underlying my support for the miners or their families depend on a cover-up.

The most important clue to understanding the finances of the NUM, and just about everything else about the NUM, is its federal character. Johnson discusses its finances as if it was like any other national union, moving from ‘the NUM’ to ‘the leadership’ as if they were one and the same thing. He states that in spite of the NUM’s great wealth, its leadership paid nothing to striking miners and their families. But the NUM’s accounts indicate that Johnson cannot have it both ways: the only basis on which the NUM could be said to be wealthy before the strike was by including the assets of the financially-independent NUM Areas. But the majority of these Area Unions gave millions of pounds to striking miners and their families. They liquidated nearly a quarter of their assets for the purpose. If, on the other hand, Johnson is referring to the national organisation of the NUM, he is right: it did not pay anything to the strikers and their families – for the simple reason that without its normal income from subscriptions, it barely had enough to cover the costs of running the union. The NUM’s accounts are available from the Certification Office, 15-17 Ormond Yard SW1, and are discussed in The Finances of British Trade Unions 1975-85 by Paul Willman and T.J. Morris.

Perhaps the final proof of Johnson’s bullying methods is that by transferring to me his evident hostility to Scargill and accusing me of Stalinism, he tries, with a sideways swipe, to obliterate the purpose of my book: to bring the issue of democracy and the undemocratic character of the British state to the top of the Left’s agenda. I won’t be bullied and I am not in need of rescue, but if R.W. Johnson would like to debate the central arguments of Labour: A Tale of Two Parties, I would be delighted if he took up my publisher’s suggestion of a public debate – at his place or mine?

Hilary Wainwright
London SW11

The Korean War

SIR: Mr Halliday obviously feels strongly about the Korean War (Letters, 18 February), but his odium academicum engenders more heat than light. I can only advise your readers to consult my review and see what I actually wrote about the three books concerned: in particular, the reasons I gave for supporting the judgments of Max Hastings on the merits of the war. Whatever the legal situation, the 38th parallel was certainly seen at the time, by the great majority of members of the United Nations, as de facto ‘an established frontier’: at least as much so as that between the Soviet Union and Western zones of Germany, and one possessing much the same significance. An East German invasion of the West, with Soviet military support, would not have been regarded as an incident in a local war of no concern to anyone except the participants. Nor was a North Korean invasion of the South. Max Hastings in his book performs the essential function of the historian. He makes the past intelligible by re-creating the passions of the time. I am afraid that Mr Halliday only confuses the issue by introducing new, and irrelevant, ones of his own.

Michael Howard
Oriel College, Oxford

Fateful Swerve

SIR: I am sorry that A.J. Ayer (Letters, 18 February) failed to understand my article on Heidegger and Paul de Man. It addressed what I take to be important issues, and attempted to do so in a decently accessible manner. But he might try reading the piece again and suspending some of those fixed ideas which have made it such a high point of principle, among English-speaking philosophers, to profess stupefied astonishment whenever they come across Heidegger’s name. He might also pay a bit more attention to straightforward matters of context and argument. The sentence he cites as a ‘typical passage’ (typical of my own, not Heidegger’s style) was in fact offered by way of critical comment on the mystifying effects of such language.

Christopher Norris
University of Wales

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