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Letters

Vol. 12 No. 20 · 25 October 1990

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Film-Star Chief Ministers

Karl Miller wonders what the ‘film-star corruption of the South’ is, in his review of V.S. Naipaul’s new book on India (LRB, 27 September). It is a reference to long years of sluggish misrule and corruption by the filmstar chief ministers of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. The two states were run by two ex-film stars, M.G. Ramachandran and N.T. Ramarao, both adored by the unsophisticated and credulous masses of South India for their cinematic representations of Hindu gods. Indeed, a great many people were too simple to understand that their heroes were not incarnations of the gods in question. These politicians lived like minor potentates during the Seventies and early Eighties. Their henchmen secured their power-base through the use of mafia-style tactics.

Naipaul’s reference to the ‘racial politics’ of South India is about the long political domination of Tamil Nadu by the DMK, the ruling party, whose raison d’ être is the social uplift of non-Brahmins – an aim achieved through the practice of systematic discrimination against Brahmins in public life. Whilst being a Brahmin in other parts of India may still be a plus factor, it is a positive disadvantage in Madras.

An Area of Darkness, Naipaul’s first book on India, aroused an understandably hostile response in India, for, although factually true, its lack of compassionate humanity and the self-distancing tone irritated Indians who expected special sympathy and understanding from a fellow Indian however far removed. Naipaul is a good example of an Indian who has become a brown Englishman as a result of his youthful exposure to a typical colonial education, transmitted out of context to uncritical and passive clients, victims of unrecognised and much-prized Imperial propaganda. Many recipients of such an education internalised Imperial, British values underpinned by belief in the inherent superiority of European civilisation. Such cultural hybrids, whose mental landscapes were permanently colonised by the English language and English literary culture, would almost inevitably feel themselves to be misfits in their indigenous culture, distanced and alienated by a superimposed sensibility.

When Naipaul wrote his first book on India, he was seeing India through Western eyes, although it must be said that there is also a Western perception of India that celebrates its incomplete industrialisation and retention of ways of life that evoke a nostalgia for Europe’s rural past. The more sympathetic and less censorious tone of Naipaul’s third book on India may well reflect a greater maturity. His long sojourn in Wiltshire seems to have deepened his understanding of himself in relation to India the loved and hated country of his ancestors. The Enigma of Arrival bears witness to his slow and painful realisation of the inauthenticity of his early education – even at its best, a second-hand and even second-rate education. Ironically, such self-realisation by the culturally dispossessed of former colonies seems possible only after long years spent in the ‘mother’ country, whose cultural mores bear little resemblance, it begins to seem, to the ideas embedded in the illustrated pages of long-distant but vitally influential colonial textbooks.

Malathy Sitaram
Swindon, Wiltshire

White Man’s Burden

J. Arch Getty’s review of Soviet Disunion (LRB, 30 August) is seriously flawed because his premises are wrong. Most of the nationalities within the Soviet Union do not hate each other and military necessities and economics are not the only factors which led to the creation and continued existence of the Soviet empire. He points out that the Soviet Union has 102 officially recognised nationalities. He then asserts that ‘most of the constituent nationalities hate each other.’ As proof of this, he refers to five nationalities which have been the subject of inter-ethnic violence. He presumably believes that, but for Soviet power, a majority of the remaining 97 nationalities would also be at each other’s throats. Mr Getty’s assertion ignores the recent history of co-operation between many of the nationalities. For example, he seems unaware of the co-operative efforts between Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians and the national leaders from Soviet Central Asia and the Ukraine. He makes no reference to one of the few positive by-products of the gulags – the camaraderie which developed between the various imprisoned national leaders. Furthermore, no reference is made to the co-operative effort of the nearly two million citizens of the Baltic states who formed a human chain stretching across all three countries in a joint, peaceful protest against Soviet rule. On what facts does Mr Getty base his hyperbolic conclusion that the Soviet nationalities are filled with hate for each other, and his equally frail corollary that ‘all the nationalities are blaming each other for their current problems’? Most blame the Soviet system. Only a few blame each other.

Mr Getty suggests that assimilation is preferable to rampant nationalism. His suggestion may be correct as an abstract proposition, but his analysis assumes facts which simply do not describe Soviet reality. ‘Assimilation’ implies a voluntary adoption of a different culture. The voluntary element has been, and largely continues to be, missing in Soviet nationalities policy. When Russian culture is imposed by force and native culture is destroyed, when native populations are exterminated and Russians are brought in as replacements, when Russian is mandated as the language, when street signs are changed to Russian by Moscow’s edict, when all official and scholarly communications must be in Russian – what kind of moral imperative does such assimilation by fiat carry? In this context, perhaps the nationalism of the non-Russians, used as a vehicle for maintaining traditions and freedom of choice, is not such an unsavoury concept.

Finally, while economic and military considerations have certainly influenced the formation of the Russian empire, Mr Getty ignores the impact of Russian chauvinism. The thrust of the Soviet empire has been at least influenced by the Russian version of Kipling’s ‘White Man’s Burden’, just as it has been fuelled by a belief that more territory is better for its own sake. Mahaylo and Swoboda recognise this. Getty does not. If Tsarist Russia and its successors had given people the choice of deciding their own destiny, most of the Soviet nationalities problems would not exist. Mr Getty’s image of the Soviet Union as a boiling, hate-filled cauldron of nationalities which only Soviet power can keep from spilling over reflects a blind acceptance of Moscow’s political rhetoric.

Imperialism, whether couched in economic terms, in military terms or in terms of bringing ‘civilisation’ to those who are ‘less enlightened’, is the antithesis of respecting the basic right of human beings to be free to make their own decisions. Why are we so scared to see democracy given a chance? Would removal of Soviet power from its ethnic colonies result in self-annihilation by those nationalities? I submit that the answer is no – not if democratic institutions are permitted to replace Soviet power. When was the last time that democratic nations went to war with each other?

Jack Treiman
Consulate of Estonia,

Prisoner Policy

In F.H. Hinsley’s attempt (LRB, 30 August) to denigrate the evidence produced in my book Other Losses, he makes a number of serious misjudgments. He finds that, on the whole, the dreadful conditions in the US and French camps, which he more or less admits occurred, resulted from misjudgment or miscalculation, rather than from deliberate policy. Oh? Does he think it was by misjudgment that the American State Department and the War Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the US Army co-ordinated their efforts to prevent the International Committee of the Red Cross from visiting US prison camps, and prevented the ICRC as well from helping German civilians? Was it by miscalculation that the same US organisations kept out the Quakers, the YMCA and other charitable groups? Will Mr Hinsley contend that it was by a slip that the US Army refused to allow shipments of Red Cross food to land at Augsburg and Mannheim? That they kept in storage 13,500,000 food parcels, intended for prisoners of war, for seven months, while men starved to death in the foetid muck behind barbed wire? That the highest officers ordered lower officers not to supply shelter in the camps, although tents were readily available? This will hardly be believed by the families of those men who died of exposure, which was the principal cause of death in a survey of corpses conducted by the US Army Medical Corps. It will not be accepted by the survivors of the prisoners who suffered agonies of thirst while only a hundred metres away, according to a US Army report, ‘the Rhine flowed bank-full.’ Mr Hinsley better not try to propagate this thesis in front of those German civilians still alive who came to the American camps with food for their relatives and were turned away. All this is documented in the book.

The British and Canadians, who had a much higher prisoner load in proportion to their armies, managed to keep their prisoners alive in fair health without spoiling them. I think Mr Hinsley will find himself lonely in the belief that the British and Canadian Armies were so much better organised than the Americans that they signally succeeded where the Americans dismally failed.

The American guard Martin Brech, now a professor of philosophy in New York, has come forward to testify that when he attempted to feed the starving prisoners from his army unit’s plentiful stocks, he was ordered to stop because it was Army policy that the men die. Since the book was published in Canada, Professor Hans Hoch of the University of York in England and Professor Peter Hoffman of McGill University in Montreal have both stated that they saw Americans pour gasoline over, then set fire to, piles of food before the eyes of hungry Germans.

James Bacque
Toronto

On the Stamboul train

With delay I notice a letter in your issue of 13 September that calls for a few words. Your correspondent, writing as a student of Romania, upbraids me for not having written about Romania when reviewing for you a book about wartime Macedonia. He should continue his studies: there was no Romanian presence in Macedonia, one of the great blessings upon which that usually unfortunate country has been able to congratulate itself. Though apparently a modest learner himself, he appeals ‘to your readers, old-fashioned Marxists and Communists like Davidson’, to learn more. I have to disappoint him again, for I have never been either of those things. I went to fight in Yugoslavia against an enemy coalition, which included Romania’s Army, as a serving British soldier, because I was sent to do so. I remain very glad that I was able to do that, though even more that, unlike no few of my British and Yugoslav companions, I survived. Maybe the history of the Second World War should also figure in your correspondent’s studies.

Basil Davidson
North Wootton, Somerset

Turpitudes

I would like to take up a point made by Basil Davidson, who, in his review, ‘Righteous Turpitudes’, of British Intelligence in the Second World War: Strategic Deception by Michael Howard (LRB, 27 September), says that ‘the only reasonable complaint against him’ – the author – ‘is that he has allowed himself only 270 pages.’ I have no more information than any other member of the general public, but I can’t believe it is a case of the author confining himself to 270 pages any more than I imagine it was his decision to postpone publication for ten years. Also, it is significant – I think – that the author felt obliged to make certain reservations in his Preface with regard to the book’s contents. I am working purely on a hunch: but it is that Michael Howard’s original text was probably more extensive, and comprehensive, than this volume which has finally reached us, and that it was leaned on very heavily by the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office during the years since the text was completed in 1980.

D.A. Slade
Manchester

Tearfulness

N.W. Pirie in his interesting review of A Very Decided Preference: Life with Peter Medawar by Jean Medawar (LRB, 27 September) seemed surprised by Peter Medawar’s tendency to become tearful: ‘for example, when using particularly felicitous phrases – either his own or in a quotation’. Emotional lability of this kind is a recognised feature of organic brain disease. As Peter Medawar suffered a number of strokes during the last 18 years of his life, this would be the most likely cause of his tearfulness.

Paul Crichton
Charing Cross Hospital,

Manworthy

In his review (LRB, 30 August) of my edition of Nietzsche’s Unmodern Observations, J.P. Stern snidely affects to be unfamiliar with the word manworthy, which he claims he cannot find in OED1 and OED2. What he terms my ‘howler’ is emphatically his, a ‘howler’ compounded by lazy or inexpert lexigraphy and captious zeal. Manworthy is attested by both OED1 and OED2, and handsomely exampled by Coleridge and Emerson. No less objectionable was the editors’ decision to assign the review to the presumably partial contributor of an Introduction to Hollingdale’s version of the same Nietzschean work.

William Arrowsmith
Boston University

J.P. Stern writes: I welcome Professor Arrowsmith to the company of lazy and inexpert users of OED: I failed to find manworthy, he doesn’t know the meaning of lexigraphy. However, I will not accept his un ‘exampled’ accusation of being ‘presumably partial’.

Seeing my etchings

Barbara Everett (Letters, 13 September) says that the dog licking its wedding tackle in the Rembrandt etching acts like a clock: Washing equals Morning. I have to point out that my dog Thumper tongues his valve-trumpet morning, noon and night. One might as well conclude (from what he is washing) that the beast is preparing for bed.

Bruno Nightingale
London SE22

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