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Letters

Vol. 11 No. 22 · 23 November 1989

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New Lefts

Apart from the political and moral objections that could be made to it, Mary Beard’s review of Paul Hirst’s After Thatcher (LRB, 26 October) contains some very questionable assertions. Dr Beard speculates that under a system of proportional representation Britain would never have had ‘any semblance of the Welfare State’. This is a very peculiar claim, not only because of the existence of welfare states in all Western European countries regardless of electoral system (and also the weakness of the welfare systems of the two countries that follow the British electoral system – the USA and South Africa), but also because the historical evidence suggests otherwise.

The Welfare State in Britain was largely the creation of two governments, the Liberal Government elected in 1906 and the Labour Government elected in 1945. In 1906 the Liberals won 49 per cent of the vote: admittedly not an absolute majority, but we can assume that their welfare legislation would have been safe, since it was supported by the Labour Party, who had received 6 per cent. In 1945 Labour got 48 per cent. The Liberals, whose main electoral asset was William Beveridge himself, won 9 per cent. Even without Liberal support, Labour’s programme would still have passed the House of Commons, since Labour would have been able to rely on the smaller Left parties, such as Common Wealth and the Communists, who had the support of 2 per cent of the voters.

Dr Beard is also wrong about how proportional systems work. It is not true, for example, that PR would prevent Dr Beard from supporting a woman candidate. Even list systems, such as the Italian, can allow for votes for individual candidates on the party list. Under the system supported by many British electoral reformers – namely, the single transferable vote – Dr Beard would be far better placed to support women candidates than she is now. First, because of multi-member constituencies, she would have a much better chance of having a woman to vote for, especially a woman of her own party. Secondly, she would be able to express a preference for other parties’ female candidates over their male candidates, and could even, if she wanted to, prefer women from other parties to men from her own party.

One last point. Dr Beard implies that democratic reform must always take second place to economic redistribution. Does she really believe this? One should note that women in Britain have generally been more likely to vote Conservative than men. Are we to conclude that Dr Beard opposes women’s suffrage?

David Howarth
Clare College, Cambridge

Mary Beard writes: Maybe it is predictable that as an opponent of Proportional Representation I should be unmoved by percentages. But I am surprised at David Howarth’s certainty in assuring a retrospective safe passage to social reforms under a proportional system. Practical coalitions do not follow simply from the figures – as the experience of many recent European governments shows. Besides, who could say that the Labour Party in 1945 would still have achieved its 48 per cent if the voting had been conducted under a proportional system? Is it not partly the point of electoral reform that it changes voting habits and allegiances as well as the system of counting? David Howarth is, of course, correct in stating that some list systems (‘open lists’) allow the individual voter considerable choice of candidate within the overall party slate, or even across slates. But this is not the case with the so-called ‘closed-list’ system (such as Norway’s), where the voter must opt for a party and all its candidates en bloc. It is in fact this system that seems to have most effectivley advanced the political careers of women. Why? Because (as I said in my review) the ‘closed list’ prevents voters from following their prejudices and not voting for the female candidates on the list. To advocate PR means more than simply offering the voter greater freedom to vote for a woman candidate. It raises the far more uncomfortable question of how far a democratic voting system should erode the ‘freedom’ not to vote for a woman – or anyone else, for that matter.

Siding with Rushdie

Your reviewer’s faith in the justness of his cause (LRB, 26 October) is quite touching: so is his understandable eagerness to defend his hero at all costs. But naked enthusiasm is no substitute for truth and accuracy. Had Mr Christopher Hitchens been a little less enthusiastic, a little more scrupulous, just a little less mocking and jeering (the ‘Peace Be Upon Him’ of his opening paragraph is downright gratuitous and infantile) – in short, had he paid due attention to what he was supposed to be doing – reading the books carefully and reporting on them – he would not have exposed his credibility quite so disastrously. The following – just one of several similar instances – is offered to the innocent reader of the London Review:

Shift the scene to Karachi, where the Jamaat-Islami Party [sic] had just gone down to humiliating defeat in an election which, if the Jamaat Islami [sic] had had any say in the matter, would never have taken place. Casting about for a salve to emulsify the injury of defeat by a Jewish-backed female socialist (as they both thought and wrote of Ms Bhutto), the fundamentalists took their prompting from South Africa and England. Ungratefully marching on the very US Embassy that had until recently been the prop and stay of their patron General Zia, they managed to draw the first blood. It was the day after the deaths in Karachi that the Ayatollah, several months after the publication of the novel, decided to remind people that nobody – nobody – could trump him when it came to defending the faith.

Every segment of this whole paragraph, every insinuation, every bit of information, every turn of phrase, reeks of intellectual arrogance and irresponsibility. No, Mr Hitchens, please, I beg you, don’t ‘shift’ your wretched ‘scene to Karachi’, for you won’t find any ‘US Embassy’ there in 1988-1989: Karachi ceased to be the capital of Pakistan two decades before the publication of The Satanic Verses. The day of ‘the deaths’ was 12 February 1989: this information about the date as well as the location was right under your nose, on page ix of the principal work you were supposed to be reviewing, The Rushdie File. Armed with the date, you could have gone to the Times for 13 February 1989. The account there would have revealed the following to you: 1. the tragic deaths did not take place in Karachi, but 1100 miles south of that city, in Islamabad; 2. there was no march on the US Embassy anywhere; 3. the Islamabad rally of protest went out of control in front of the United States Information Centre and the American Express offices; 4. the rally was not organised by the electorally defeated Jamaat-i-Islami (not Jamaat-Islami Party – the word jamaat means ‘party’), but by the duly elected opposition parties in the parliament under the banner of the Islami Jamhoori Ittehaad; 5. far from being friends of the late little-lamented General, several leaders of the ill-fated rally had opposed him for years, and had fought with the present prime minister under the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy. At least one keynote speaker at the rally was a former, senior minister in the socialist cabinet of Z.A. Bhutto. So many grotesque errors of fact in a single paragraph! Like Ms Fay Weldon, who has produced a little booklet with only monumental ignorance to support her views, you took it for granted that you knew it all and couldn’t care less.

Maqbool Aziz
Hertford College, Oxford

American Manscape

Richard Poirier’s review of Manhood and the American Renaissance (LRB, 12 October) misquotes my book so many times that his Emersonian play of mind starts to look like Jaffrey Pyncheon’s malice. He has me citing Sam Shepard as ‘Sam Shepherd’ – that’s him, not me. He says I argue that Emerson’s father bullied him ‘when the boy was eight’ – a macabre impossibility, since the father was dead by then. Another quotation looks ‘not at all clear’ and ‘fumbling’, partly because I’m raising an issue that vexes me, and partly because he changes two of the words, notably ‘presume upon’ to ‘presume from’. Later, quoting me on Ahab’s queenly personality, Poirier makes three mistakes in seven words, including an elision of ‘almost’ that lets him mock me for overlooking the infidel queen of death three chapters earlier. Yet I give her a paragraph, just a page before.

Hasty reading? Or cavalier misreading, a new post-Bloomian critical mode, to license his cheap shots? Poirier also misrepresents my book by high-lighting only my negatives. My ambivalence about the authors shows that I’m out to get them; my non-combative notes show that I’m avoiding my manhood. A double bind. Still more egregiously, he depicts me, seemingly in my own words, as an uptight heterosexual afraid of being seduced and dominated by male texts. I make such self-consciousness a mid-point in my progress toward appreciating how Whitman plays with male uprightness in Song of Myself. But Poirier has no patience with my complexities. He wants to make me one of ‘them’, the new historicists, who all look alike however much they disagree. Get to the back of the bus, he announces. Lump yourselves together with the FDA and the social historians, and leave American literature to those who can appreciate it, in all its refracted English glory.

Poirier nicely links Ahab to Cleopatra – I wish I’d thought of that – and deftly complicates a key Emerson passage. He also makes two important arguments. For him, manhood is for ever, as natural as testosterone. The only interesting issue is how writers play with their urge toward rivalrous self-display. For me, manhood is a social fiction, born of humiliation, and changing ideologically in relation to class conflicts. Secondly, for Poirier literature is intertextual, a play of voices beyond social fetters. For me, history can empower as well as constrain literary voices. Manhood and literature: not of an age but for all time, or steeped in the age they work in, like the dyer’s hand. These are real arguments. But Poirier dismisses the dyer’s hand side as ‘social brainwashing and psychic trauma’.

He says I don’t understand the stakes, implies I should have written about upscale English literary connections, insists I delight only in ideological cleansings, and twice declares I must have a deep, secret resentment of literature, like all my ilk. Others can decide whether that represents the book I wrote or Poirier’s apocalyptic vision of current critical contamination. Meanwhile, he really should have checked those quotations.

David Leverenz
Gainesville, Florida

Reckless

Your comment on Richard Murphy’s letter (Letters, 26 October) startled me a little. Mr Murphy explained and defended his use of the words ‘exuviate’ and ‘rupestral’ on the grounds that they convey exactly what he meant. You riposted that these words are ‘virtually nonsensical so far as his readers are concerned’. Long ago, when I was a schoolboy, I was very puzzled by ‘anfractuous’, ‘pistillate’, ‘staminate’, ‘sutler’, above all by ‘polyphiloprogenitive’. But before denouncing Eliot’s use of these words as virtually nonsensical – a verdict which, I suspect, would have been applauded by some of the more elderly English masters of my school – I looked them up in a dictionary.

Charles Monteith
London W9

We take the point made in Charles Monteith’s interesting letter. Our sense of the matter is that ‘polyphiloprogenitive’ is likely to have meant something to readers of Eliot’s verse who first came upon his use of the word at a time when they were unable to consult a dictionary, and that dictionaries have sometimes proved a doubtful aid to the reading of modern poetry.

Editors, ‘London Review’

Conrad and Eliot and Prejudice

I’m a bit surprised that my old sparring-partner, Craig Raine, should be defending Joseph Conrad against Chinua Achebe (LRB, 22 June). Take Conrad’s The Secret Agent, where there’s a sinister anarchist called Ossipon who is described like this: ‘ … Comrade Ossipon, ex-medical student, the principal writer of the FP leaflets, stretched out his robust legs, keeping the soles of his boots turned up to the glow in the grate. A bush of crinkly yellow hair topped his red, freckled face, with a flattened nose and prominent mouth cast in the rough mould of the Negro type. His almond-shaped eyes leered languidly over the high cheek-bones.’ Ossipon, I take it, is of mixed race – African, Irish, Chinese. Conrad expresses Ossipon’s negative – his evil – characteristics visually in terms of certain racial stereotypes. Sun-style racism, isn’t it?

Tom Paulin
University of Nottingham

Reach for your spears

The late Professor A.J. Ayer asked – to simplify a little – how A addressed B by means of signs S with reference to object O can understand S if there were no previous agreement between A and B that S did so refer, and he offered this as a ‘fatal objection to the social interpretation of Wittgenstein’s theory of language’ (Letters, 22 June). If a non-philosopher can join the argument, this one would like to know how human infants learn the crucial distinction between a noise and a verbal sign. Like animals, infants learn to use noises (crying, gurgling) as signs because their mothers, in responding to the noise, teach them its significations. How, though, do they learn that ‘dada’ is not such a sign-noise, but a rudimentary verbal sign with specific reference? And then, how do they learn the conceptual difference between nouns (for objects) and verbs, whose range of reference is more complex? As to sentences, it is usually said that they learn to construct their own by imitating parental use. But that glosses over the way infants differ from, say, parrots, which learn a sentence (‘there’s a pretty boy’) as a string of noises. Whereas an infant manages to work out that the noise ‘is’ operates as a verbal sign in a variety of sentences radically different from what I suppose might be an initial learning model (‘that-mine’ developing into ‘that is mine’). Can philosophers explain this very mysterious achievement? That would make it easier to decide on the merits of the argument for/against the Wittgensteinian theory of language.

Graham Martin
Open University, Milton Keynes

OED2

Much of Charlotte Brewer’s criticism of OED2 (LRB, 31 August) is founded on statements made by Jürgen Schäfer that question documentation of data from reading ‘a selection of the sources read by the OED’ and deducing that about ‘one-third of the potential first citations in any corpus examined for the OED was normally overlooked.’ Schäfer, however, read against a specific corpus already gathered – a very different task from a first reading – and found 37 per cent of missed first citations that are antedatings of only fifty to a hundred years. Of course the earliest quotation is not tantamount to first use but represents the time about which a word or meaning is shown by available evidence to have become current in English. Available evidence was and remains a recurring problem for dictionary editors, and particularly the time before 1500 for the OED editors because the Early English Text Society had not yet produced the wealth of material that is accessible now in the Middle English Dictionary. An interesting example (from the review) is the verb mirror, which occurs in the work of Nashe some 227 years earlier than in OED’s first citation from Keats. In fact, mirror occurred as early as 1410 (adding nearly two hundred more years to its story). The sources of OED1 were what was available to the editors at the time. The same is true of OED2, which also had access to the Barnhart file and the Merriam file. Both are based on a wide reading of magazines and newspapers, which accounts for some of the shift in evidence from the OED1 sources before 1800. Systematic citation of usage is usually considered sufficient evidence for users to make their own decisions, a logical editorial policy but difficult to execute evenly. Hopefully, cited by the reviewer, is a case where quotes show that though the usage is not universally acceptable, it appears without exception in many standard sources of contemporary English. Of more significance is that the 1932 quote shows that hopefully (’in the sense of it is to be hoped that’) was a natural use in English before the post-war era of daily contact between English and German – which suggests that it is not a loan translation.

The criticism of entries ‘whose last illustrative quotation is dated pre-1850 – i.e. 150-odd years before the date of publication’ – is valid and significant. The record should be brought up to date, perhaps as a feature of the electronic OED2. But despite the severe constraints of time and money imposed by the Press, the OED remains the greatest record in existence of any language.

Robert Barnhart
Barnhart Books, New York

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