Vol. 13 No. 5 · 7 March 1991

Search by issue:

‘Bye Bye Baghdad’

Paul Foot was right to refer to the invasion of East Timor as an example of UN hypocrisy (LRB, 7 February), but wrong to say that East Timor has no oil. In December 1989, Indonesia and Australia signed the Timor Gap Treaty, giving Australia access to one of the richest reserves of oil in the world, lying off East Timor’s south coast. A 1977 study of the area’s oil potential by the French petroleum company Elf Aquitaine spoke about hopes for ‘an extremely large discovery’, with forecasts of between one and seven billion barrels of oil. In 1972, Australia had talks with Portugal, then in control of East Timor, on a sea-bed boundary as the preliminary to joint exploitation of the oil. When East Timor was on the threshold of independence in 1975 and Indonesian designs were obvious, the Australian Ambassador in Jakarta cabled Canberra saying that the Department of Minerals and Energy ‘might well have an interest in closing the present gap in the agreed sea border and this could be much more readily negotiated with Indonesia than with Portugal or independent Portuguese Timor. I know I am recommending a pragmatic rather than a principled stand but that is what national interest and foreign policy is all about.’

Less than a year after the invasion, the first sea-bed negotiations began. In 1979, Canberra gave de jure recognition to Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor. Canberra does not deny either that the annexation was illegal or that East Timor was acquired by force. Foreign Minister Gareth Evans told the Senate: ‘We have taken the view since 1979 that whatever the unhappy circumstances and indeed, possible illegality, surrounding Indonesia’s acquisition of East Timor in the 1970s, Indonesian sovereignty over the territory should be accepted not only on a de facto basis but on a de jure basis. There is no binding legal obligation not to recognise acquisition of territory that was acquired by force.’ So much for law-abiding Australia’s respect for international law. Unlike Kuwait, for East Timor, the oil factor was a crucial reason for the West to back the invader against the victim.

Carmel Budiardjo
Indonesia Human

Like Paul Foot I am opposed to the war in the Gulf and like him I am nauseated by the sight of journalists playing the military buffoon in spotted parka and outsize helmet. But Foot goes very much further. He would not even support the sanctions that might with time have worked against Saddam. All he shows is that the expedient of inverting what the Sun and the Mail say does not provide an adequate platform for a view of anything – as the ultra-left rump of English socialism should long ago have discovered.

Lurking in the top-soil of Foot’s elegant prose is the seed that bursts into the manic mantras of thousands of SWP members: ‘US, Britain, Out of the Gulf!’ Of Saddam’s terror state, barely a critical word, in Foot’s text or in theirs. There’s a litany to explain this: criticism of Iraq plays into the hands of imperialism; Kuwait was only an artificial entity, an undemocratic oil receptacle for the Western powers; the Ba’ath regime is really no worse than those of Israel or South Africa. Foot might dissent from some of these arguments, but he provides careful variations on all of them. For those of us in what SWP intellectuals like to call ‘the swamp’ – living without benefit of party – it is possible to disagree more vehemently. Saddam was not a creation of Western imperialism; the Ba’ath has organised what must now be the worst state in the world; and this vicious indigenous fascism has benefited from an almost complete absence of attention on the part of Western liberals, conservatives and leftists for over twenty years.

Some other simple things need to he said (and if the semi-state UK press is saying them too, then tough – because the bourgeoisie say the Earth is round does not mean it must be flat). States should not be allowed to annex other states, and national sovereignty is a value worth defending. It matters to millions of people that their borders should be secure, despite the considered opinion of think-tankers, generals and dialecticians that their community is ‘artificial’ and the state in which they live ‘unviable’. Kuwait was, among Arab states, relatively liberal and tolerant and its people are much worse-off under Saddam than they were under the al-Sabahs. The UN position on the invasion is the correct one, for it implicitly recognises the truth of these statements. The outrageous double standards of the USA can’t be used to negate them; many on the left supported calls for action against Indonesia in the mid-Seventies after its brutal invasion of East Timor. The fact that the UN did nothing then does not mean its hands should be tied now.

Neil Belton
London SW1

In his latest denunciation of non-leftist opinion, Paul Foot, conceding that the Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait might be rather a bad thing, drags in various cases of unpunished aggression, including the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. How convenient to omit mentioning that this was immediately preceded by a Greek Cypriot declaration of Enosis and the overthrow of the internationally-agreed constitution of the island and (incidentally) of the Greek Cypriot President, Makarios, by Nikos Sampson in collusion with the Generals in Athens. I doubt if it is memory that fails him; or that he does not also remember that prior to launching their invasion the Turks appealed to the two other powers which had guaranteed the constitution to come to the help of the threatened Turkish minority. Nor that they received no comfort in this – predictably from the military junta in Athens, shabbily in the case of James Callaghan. I am sure also that Foot does not require to have his attention drawn to the fact that, prior to the Greek seizure of Crete in 1912, that island had a Turkish population approximately proportionate to that of the Turks in Cyprus in 1974; nor that this proportion was subsequently very quickly reduced to zero. But if it is not memory that fails him, then what? Surely not integrity?

John Christopher
Rye, East Sussex

When Abyssinia attacks Eritrea, the world community perceives no threat to world stability. When Hitler remilitarised the Rhineland, the European nations perceived no threat to Europe – but they should have perceived one, for this was their last chance to stop Hitler without major warfare. When Saddam occupied Kuwait, he was perceived to be menacing Saudi Arabia, Oman, Syria, and then Lebanon and Jordan and Palestine, as Hitler went on to menace Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland. Thank goodness our affairs are not controlled by Paul Foot.

P. Crowson
Adderbury, Oxfordshire

Eating animals

Colin McGinn’s uncritical adulation of Peter Singer’s revised treatise on ‘animal rights’ (LRB, 24 January) reminds me of G.B. Shaw’s dismissal of someone who sounded ‘like a hysterical woman fawning on a fiddler’. Consider those tear-splattered, indignant lines on fur coats: ‘I must be very important because my coat took ten tormented rare wild animals to make it … Why, it’s the next best thing to being God!’ For wild fur, I recommend beaver or raccoon: warm, light, good for twenty or thirty years, biodegradable afterwards. Beavers are now more abundant in Canada than in the days of the first explorers; my farmer friend’s trees are being mown down, his fields are flooded. He has beavers like a dog has fleas. Raccoons are hardly rare: coming home at 4 a.m. a year or so ago, I counted 11 of them between my office and home (both in the middle of this small town).

A vegetarian diet and dress is possible in the tropics of New Jersey, but not in the North. Our native peoples cannot raise cotton or citrus fruits – not even apples grow up there. A brief season of berries, then it’s grass and hark and the flesh of those who can survive on that diet. If the world stops eating fish, what happens to the Icelanders? Their chief crop is hay; Iceland isn’t even self-sufficient in potatoes. The sale of fish makes possible the purchase of equipment and materials to drill the earth for heat (from volcanic action) and the purchase of vegetables and fruit from abroad (expensive luxuries). Meat, fish and dairy products are the staple items of diet.

Peter Singer thinks children are coerced from a ‘sound moral sense’ that rejects meat. Some urban children get a shock when they find steak comes from killed cows, milk from live ones. But children who grow up on farms – or in hunting and gathering cultures – know the truth from the first; their ‘sound moral sense’ accepts the death of animals like the death of plants. What is this moral nonsense that rejects killing an oyster but accepts uprooting a carrot? To claim that conscious creatures have rights unconscious ones have not is another speciesism. Buy a beaver coat and save a grove of trees; the dryads will bless you. So will the trapper. Do Singer and McGinn swat flies, crush mosquitoes, exterminate termites and squash spiders? Are they at peace with the death-watch beetle? Do they apply poisons to their roses?

George Clark
Kingston, Ontario

Colin McGinn failed to emphasise the vast difference between rearing animals intensively and non-intensively. What matters, according to Peter Singer, is how well the lives of animals go for them. The life of a non-intensively-reared animal, I think, is almost certainly better than no life at all. But that of an intensively-reared chicken, pig or veal calf will be much worse than nothing. Asking people to boycott intensively-reared meat is asking them to become ‘demi-vegetarians’, and I have found it much easier so to convert others than to persuade them into full vegetarianism. Colin McGinn is no longer in the UK. But those of us still here, if we are demi-vegetarians keen on chicken and other meats usually produced intensively, can now buy ‘real meat’ – from humanely-reared and slaughtered animals. Anyone interested should contact the Real Meat Co Ltd, East Hill Farm, Heytesbury, Warminster, Wiltshire BA 12 OHR.

Roger Crisp
University College, Oxford

Colin McGinn’s vigorous advocacy of the case for vegetarianism fatally simplifies the issues and underestimates the difficulty of reform. Horror at the cruelties licensed by an immoral speciesism does not necessarily entail giving up eating meat. It is equally consistent with a resolution only to use free-range produce (although I acknowledge that there are difficulties of definition and availability in such a stance). The case for vegetarianism needs an argument to show that we should not use animal products at all, no matter what the conditions of their lives. Even if a convincing, non-mystical, argument of this sort were available, however, animal liberationists would still need to confront the loss in some aspects of human lives which would result from the abandonment of meat. Eating, including conventions about what is eaten, is part of a nexus of traditions, rituals, memories, folk knowledge, family and communal pleasures which many people would not give up without a great deal of regret, even while they might acknowledge the benefits of vegetarianism. This dimension is entirely absent from McGinn’s polemic and leads him to treat the issue as a much more straightforward one than it actually is. Unless these wider moral issues arc tackled, his optimism about the prospects for a thorough revolution in our attitudes to animals will seem naive indeed.

John Green


Lawrence Beyer, writing from the ivory (or, as I recollect them, granite) towers of Yale Law School (Letters, 7 February), tells your readers not to swallow uncritically my account of a corporate takeover (LRB, 22 November 1990). His strictures don’t, as it happens, apply in practice to the particular instance which I described. But they raise some interesting points which deserve a rejoinder.

1. Does a takeover mean that the previous management was incompetent? Yes, sometimes. But as Mr Beyer implicitly recognises, it’s all about perceptions. A predator who thinks he can do better may persuade himself that the target company is undervalued and other investors that they would do well to take a short-term gain. But that doesn’t make it true. My first predator, whom we saw off in 1988, has just resigned from the company in question, leaving it to write off £21 million of non-core investments he took them into. My second predator won by the simple tactic of paying the asking price for the controlling stake: it was a bad deal on realisable (by him) values, even apart from the subsequent economic downturn, but some people have to learn caveat emptor the hard way.

2. Do executive directors who lose their jobs after a takeover deserve any sympathy? No, not always. But the critical variable here is age. In my case, the two people who suffered were both in their fifties, and the consultants they went to were unanimous in telling them how easily they could move into similar positions, given their track record, if only they were ten years younger (and they also lose out badly in terms of pension rights).

3. Do the employees lower down suffer more? It depends. The chances are that some will gain and some lose. But on Mr Beyer’s view, anyone made redundant by a new management must be presumed lucky to have been featherbedded by the old. In my case, those who have done worse are in a division of the company where they were already at risk for reasons which would have held for its old just as much as its new directors.

4. Is the ‘business élite’ too ‘chummy’? Perhaps its members are more polite to each other in Britain than the United States, but we’re all playing hardball. No doubt Mr Beyer will regard it as a symptom of ‘chumminess’ that I have, since I wrote my piece, been offered the chairmanship of a company four times the size of my old one. But (if he will allow me to switch from a baseball to a cricketing metaphor) I reminded my new employers when I met them that a batsman who scores a century in the first innings can score a duck in his second; and if I do, I shall undoubtedly meet the fate which Mr Beyer seems to think I deserve already.

W.G. Runciman
London W11

Hit and Run

James Lund rebukes me (Letters, 10 January) for having described Heidegger as a sage, rather than as a philosopher. In the encyclopedia article from which he cites this judgment, I go on to say that an individual writer can be a sage at one time, a philosopher at another. If Mr Lund consults the second edition of my A Hundred Years of Philosophy, he will find there a relatively full account of Heidegger’s earlier, more philosophical writings. Since in his later Holzwege Heidegger explicitly describes philosophy as ‘the enemy of thinking’, he could scarcely be displeased with the judgment that he is in such writings ‘not a philosopher at all’. That does not automatically imply that he has nothing of any consequence to say; there are writings of my own that I should not describe as contributions to philosophy. To say that is not to denigrate them. Simply, they do not reach their conclusions by close reasoning of a philosophical kind. James Lund thinks of this attitude as typical of analytical-empirical philosophy. But I do not think that Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Kant would reject my judgment. Incidentally, in the article from which James Lund quotes I reject the view that the practice of analysis is the distinguishing mark of philosophy, and no reader of my book on Hume could see in me a defender of classical empiricism; indeed, on this point I find myself in agreement with Heidegger. I stand by, however, the tradition of free, rational discussion as Heidegger most certainly did not. In retrospect, I worry about calling him a ‘sage’, since it is not easy to ascribe wisdom to anyone who was at any point taken in by Herr Hitler. (I speak not from hindsight but as a younger contemporary.) But whether their name is Carlyle or Heidegger, sages tend to combine a capacity for making occasional perceptive remarks with a strong leaning towards that authoritarianism to which those who defend the principles of critical discussion are by no means inclined.

John Passmore
Australian National University,

In Ontario

While extremely glad that Alice Munro should get the serious consideration she deserves, I must take issue with Carol Shields (LRB, 7 February) over her interpretation of ‘Meneteseung’, one of the stories in Friend of My Youth. It is not a case of a middle-aged spinster and a middle-aged bachelor failing ‘to connect’: rather, all the indications, from the outset of the story, are that the main protagonist, Almeda Roth, poetess, is a writer, however flaccid and feeble quotations from her verses seem to be. She bypasses the highly visible outing to church with her suitor because of her need to turn the ugly events of the previous night into words. ‘Almeda is a long way now from human sympathy’: in other words, she is sitting indoors refusing an offer of marriage (and she is not in her first youth), because she is nourishing a poem, and not because she is the victim of ‘a microcircuitry of lost opportunities, missed connections’. See Colette’s La Vagabonde for a first-hand account of a parallel experience.

Alison Weir
London NW 1


What was Anthony Pratt’s bland and confused mockery for (Letters, 7 February)? He says I have been looking for an enemy, as if it was wrong of me to write objecting to, and attempting to correct, James Wood’s unprovoked misrepresentations of cultural materialists. I had thought that just the kind of thing the letters page of an intellectual paper is for. And why do the same misconceptions keep churning on through, month after month? For instance, why does Pratt elide cultural materialism and post-structuralism?

Professor Graham Martin asked (Letters, 28 June 1990): ‘Why is it that Shakespeare’s plays (not Jonson’s, Dekker’s, Greene’s, Massinger’s etc) command the attention of successive generations of interpreters?’ He agreed that the different interpretations drawn from Shakespeare through the centuries, from 18th-century ‘Verdi-without-music’ through to Charter 77 signatories, ‘are the result of different “discourses" ’ –accepting, I believe, that all these interpretations cannot be attributed to Shakespeare’s intention. But he argued that we still need to explain ‘the “something" about those texts which, rather than Jonson’s etc, makes them such a peculiarly fertile site for the production of “meanings". Or more bluntly, what is there in the texts that makes everybody want to get “Shakespeare" on their side?’ Martin proposed two answers: ‘that the written texts are so riven with ideological contradictions … that no unifying account can ever be proposed,’ and ‘that “Shakespeare" was a dazzlingly accomplished writer in such a variety of styles’ that ‘his texts energetically resist interpreters in the same degree that they feed a passion for appropriating them.’ This, Martin concluded, might he a way of ‘tackling the “value" question which, so far as I know, the cultural materialist rarely, if ever, discusses’.

There is much to agree with in Graham Martin’s thoughtful discussion of the persistence of Shakespeare and the question of value. May I suggest nevertheless a few complicating questions? The reason why people want to get Shakespeare on their side, or else to repudiate him, need not have a lot to do with Shakespeare as such. He is thus regarded because he is what I call a powerful cultural token: he is already where meaning is produced, and people therefore want to appropriate him – as they do the Pope or Madonna. Getting Sejanus on one’s side seems rather like getting, say, Merlyn Rees – very worthwhile but not likely to move people strongly. Everyone knows that it’s easier to draw a crowd with the Pope or Madonna than with Merlyn Rees. Similarly, publishers like books with Shakespeare in the title (examiners set him, the Arts Council funds him). Once such a cultural token is up and running, it gains a momentum which is sustained by multifarious cultural activity. I do not rule out factors intrinsic to Shakespeare, but given that there are innumerable people devoted to explaining why Shakespeare is so special, it seems odd that materialists are denounced for not joining in. That is one consequence of his being a cultural token – he is anxiously policed.

The simple diversity of critical opinion seems to ratify Martin’s thought that Shakespearean texts are riven with ideological contradictions and resist a unified account. One problem with this is that it seems dangerously close to being a description of what has been happening rather than an explanation of it. Further, I am happy to agree that Shakespeare’s writing is dazzlingly accomplished and in a variety of styles, but whether that would account for the plays resisting interpretation while stimulating appropriation is another matter: in fact, it is going to be pretty difficult to demonstrate any intrinsic textual characteristics that do that. In any event, I think most cultural materialists now would expect to find ideological contradiction in all texts, or perhaps all texts of any length and ambition. Sejanus, for instance. For contradiction is a characteristic of ideology and hence a condition of cultural production. So we may still not have reached a distinctive marker of Shakespeare’s value.

I’m surprised, finally, that Graham Martin thinks cultural materialists don’t address value. It seems to me that they say all the time that value is, at once, crucial and historically, culturally specific. This does not, of course, mean that there are no values: only that they cannot be expected to find adherence beyond their customary context. (Our recent history seems in permanent crisis because of refusal to confront the fact of cultural difference.) And of course we know that by very many people Shakespeare is not valued, even within our own culture. Indeed, cultural materialists have been criticised for being unusually straightforward about their values, instead of deploying the traditional critical strategy of mystifying them as natural or human or Shakespeare’s. Above all, the historical contingency of values seems demonstrated by Martin’s thought that the prominence of Shakespeare derives from the way he resists interpretation while stimulating appropriation. This strikes me as not what would have appealed to the Verdi-without-music people, or even the Charter 77 people: but it is exactly the kind of value you would expect to find proposed by people like us at the present time and place.

Alan Sinfield
University of Sussex


A German historian noted that the moralising radical ethos, popular in Germany, is seen elsewhere as ‘an invasion of the often tormenting alternatives of political action’. Christopher Hitchens’s loftily scornful Britwit is amusing (LRB, 7 February), but it has no place for such torment. As my philosophy teacher in college used to say, ‘you cannot stand on a platform outside the universe and take pot-shots at it.’ Pundits ought to write that down and pin it in their hats.

Cushing Strout
Ithaca, New York

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.

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