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Letters

Vol. 13 No. 12 · 27 June 1991

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Unfair to Latin America

‘Too far from God and too close to the United States.’ Whenever I read that remark, I know that I am in for a parade of worn-out received ideas about Latin America. Anthony Pagden’s review (LRB, 13 June) is just that.

Barely a sentence in it is reliable. It is not true that ‘no serious efforts to produce political destabilisation, whether from without or within, have been made in Mexico since the Revolution,’ nor that Mexican politics for more than half a century have been a matter of ‘barely perceptible movements’. It is not true that the nations of Central America and the Caribbean ‘have been ever since their creation in a state of near-anarchy or civil war’. It is far too sweeping to say that most Latin American staples were in the hands of foreigners, usually North Americans, until the Sixties – Dr Pagden’s ideas on the economic development of the region are so crude that one must seriously doubt that he has read the volume of the Cambridge History of Latin America that he is ostensibly reviewing.

‘Certainly the United States has never taken a benevolent or a sophisticated view of the political processes in Latin America (or, indeed, anywhere else in the world) …’ What arrogant rubbish. Certainly? Never? Anywhere else in the world? Would you have printed that sentence in a review about ‘anywhere else in the world’? I think not.

Was Allende’s Chile really just an ‘attempt to bring about social democracy through “normal" – that is, European and North American – democratic procedures’? I suggest you ask a ‘normal’ Chilean. The ‘élite’ of no Latin American nation I know speaks ‘that hideous hybrid known as Spanglish’, and why the hell shouldn’t they drink Coca-Cola and eat cornflakes if they want to? What do they have for breakfast in King’s College, Cambridge? Swan stuffed with widgeon?

‘Few Latin American states possess established political parties, or sophisticated political classes … Few Latin American élites observe the rules of the political game, complex and promethean, which goes under the name of “democracy", or few of them have even so much as a clear sense of what such rules might be.’ Why not just call them poor benighted dagoes and have done? He gets little things wrong as well. Bolivar certainly didn’t dream very resolutely about a ‘European liberal republic based on a wide suffrage’.

It is a pity that Roger Garfitt’s much more enlightening piece on Colombia in the same issue also contains errors of historical fact: the Sixties and most of the Seventies were not ‘years of tortures and disappearances’; it was certainly possible to discuss Colombia’s glaring social inequalities and the shortcomings of its two-party system without being ‘branded as an agitator’ – it was rare to find a Colombian politician or intellectual who didn’t; the Colombian Army is nowhere near 200,000 strong; pajaros were not horsemen; they went by car … Perhaps it doesn’t matter about the pajaros, but to misrepresent two decades of any country’s history surely does.

You also failed to understand your own cover. It is part drug-baron – the left-hand side is a caricature of Pablo Escobar – but the other half is not a ‘strongman’, as you put it, but a caricature of President Cesar Gaviria. It isn’t very funny, but you have missed the point entirely. Perhaps you consulted Dr Pagden.

Malcolm Deas
St Antony’s College, Oxford

National Identity

As a historian of ideas of national character, who is based in American Studies, I would like to comment on what Perry Anderson says about these ideas (LRB, 9 May). Anderson usefully illuminates the path of European contentions about national character up to the early 20th century, but he is quite wrong to assert that serious work on the subject ceased after the Twenties. He does not, it seems, confine this assertion to Europe: yet even in Britain he overlooks, for example, the wide-ranging analysis by Morris Ginsberg, published in the British Journal of Psychology in 1942. Nor do I agree that George Orwell’s essay ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ (published the year before) can be written off as patriotic guff. Of course it was coloured by wartime patriotism, but it was far from complacent about the ability of collective attitudes and values to cross the lines of class, region and political ideology.

Anderson’s main omission, however, is the contribution of ‘culture and personality’ anthropologists led by Margaret Mead (the group included her British protégé Geoffrey Gorer) in the Thirties and Forties, and the subsequent post-war boom in American-character studies – generating an output which the Sixties revolt against ‘consensus’ interrupted only temporarily. It is true that some of this writing, from The Lonely Crowd by David Riesman et al (1950) to The Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch (1979), presented new American character types as the harbingers of something that was happening more generally in the modern world. This is in line with Anderson’s reference to a ‘homogenised’ and permissive culture of international capitalism, a subject explored back in 1977 by Daniel Snowman’s book, Kissing Cousins, which portrays a convergence of American and British values and culture since World War Two. On the other hand, the notion of a distinctive American character still has powerful voices, including the political sociologist, Seymour Martin Lipset, author of several comparative studies (including Europe) since the early Sixties, and the team of scholars led by Robert Bellah, whose Habits of the Heart (1985) identifies four traditions of American individualism. Anderson manages to avoid a single reference to America or American thinking, even though the American sociologist, Daniel Bell, addresses much the same issue in the late Sixties. In a way, this is understandable since the main focus of Anderson’s essay was continental Western Europe. But it would have been better if his comments on the literature of national character and national identity had either kept explicitly to this terrain, or had widened their scope and modified their claims.

Rupert Wilkinson
University of Sussex

Blaming Israel

Lawrence Goldman’s span of appreciation is too short to support the generalisations he advances in his letter (9 May) concerning Israelis and Palestinians. The life of Israel as a state is shorter than my own and maybe also that of Mr Goldman, so we might as well use all the facts that we both know. In determining rights of tenure it is reasonable to examine the initial status of those claiming rights and to compare this status with their present position.

Today three million Jews inside the State of Israel control the lives of four million Muslims, most of whom are outside Israel in territories under military occupation. The rights and manner of life conceded by the government of Israel to these groupings are not identical to that offered to their own people. The reversal within a life-span of the demographic and cultural character of a large inhabited territory cannot be other than violent; when it is attempted by brute force it does not succeed, as all surviving Jews from Eastern Europe can bear witness. Mr Goldman, were he to be translated by magic carpet from his present Oxford address to a comparable Islamic institution within the occupied territories, would have been constrained by his intelligence and his conscience to have written you a very different letter. Here in Morocco, where the leaders of the three great religions pray that the children of Abraham shall become as one, we can see the Palestine question in all the perspectives which somehow seem to be denied to the tunnel vision demonstrated in Mr Goldman’s letter.

K. Sinclair-Loutit
Rabat-Mechouar, Morocco

Bushed

Tam Dalyell asks in moving rhetoric (LRB, 25 April) whether the bereaved, deprived, ailing, wounded, dispossessed victims of the Gulf War should thank Mr Bush. Let us just guess: Dalyell hints broadly at his correct answer. No.

His rhetoric is moving, but like the desert at noon in the summer, it is full of hot air. Let us not forget that, although it was led by the US, Britain, France and Saudi Arabia, a coalition of about twenty-eight nations fought with UN approval. To win a war you pursue it: if military targets and civilian installations sit side by side, and if both civilians and soldiers use the same roads and bridges and communication systems and water and electric lines, civilian lives are going to be affected. The coalition had no quarrel with the Iraqi people; they were not being punished for being shown dancing after Saddam’s success or burning US flags or other war propaganda antics for television.

For decades, Palestinians have allowed themselves to be used by Jordan, Syria and other Arab nations as pawns in the Arabs’ implacable hostility toward Israel. The question of basic wrong, who shed the first blood, no longer matters. The PLO cannot allow itself to make a meaningful peace with Israel, for it thereby would lose a weapon against Israel. Turning to Saddam was foolish. Now Mr Bush alone is trying, against almost insurmountable odds, to arrange a Mideast peace.

Dalyell says (parenthetically) that Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait – in the first months – was not as brutal as portrayed. How nice. How very nice. How very comforting. The rest of the occupation certainly made up for that weakness. Dalyell allows some blame for the torching of five hundred oil wells and the befouling of the Gulf to fall on Saddam, but ties the Iraqi dictator’s unconscionable behaviour to the fact that the West sold him arms. A weird linkage. Dalyell seems to think that commercial and diplomatic talk are equivalent, that if an arms dealer could sell Saddam weapons an ambassador could sell him on the idea of leaving Kuwait.

Dalyell’s only mention of oil concerns pollution in the Gulf. He ignores the fact that in over-running Kuwait – a UN member, or is destruction of a sovereign state to be dismissed as merely a legalism? – Saddam gained control of 40 per cent of Mideast oil; in remaining poised to over-run Saudi Arabia he stood to gain control of 20 per cent more. The West deemed such power in the hands of one greedy, unstable person to be intolerable.

Thomas Scott
San Francisco

Submission

You might have mentioned in your note on the drawing by Bruno Schulz for his story ‘Spring’ which appeared on the cover of the London Review (25 April) that he achieved literary resurrection of a kind a few years ago: the central character of Cynthia Ozick’s brilliant novel The Messiah of Stockholm (1987), a book-reviewer for a morning newspaper, alleges he is the son of Bruno Schulz. Fifty years after the supposed murder of Schulz by the Nazis, the ‘fantasies of submission’ your note alludes to, the painful poignancy of the drawings, are vividly re-created in Ozick’s picture of refugees squabbling over the authenticity of a manuscript of his last, missing work, The Messiah. The novel carries a strongly-drawn self-portrait by Schulz as frontispiece, staring somewhat askance at the potential reader of Ozick’s disturbing fable of dispossession, as central still to our times as the background evoked. Particularly so, given this country’s decision (if that’s the right word) to look for survivors among the Nazis allowed to hide here after the war.

Rodney Pybus
Sudbury, Suffolk

The Messiah of Stockholm was reviewed in these pages on 4 February 1988.

Editor, ‘London Review’

Defending the indefensible

Isn’t it a little odd to publish a small sermon (Letters, 9 May) against cunning, duplicity, insensitivity and legalism when it comes from the Yale Law School and is written, presumably, by an American lawyer? Of course, Lawrence Beyer may be being ironic; with his views and his address, he could be little else. Or perhaps he is arguing, from the vantage-point conferred by his admirable income, for yet another source of fees: a contract between interviewer and interviewee which could be endlessly disputed to the profit of the likes of Beyer. There are recorded instances of lawyers thinking like that.

The fact is that there is already a quite clear understanding in any contact between a working journalist and someone who knows they are speaking to a working journalist. You only have to realise that journalism is a proper job. Journalists observe, record and try to find out interesting things. The purpose of an ‘interview’, which is a very formal kind of contact, is at least as clear as a dentist’s appointment or a reservation at Bibendum. This being so, and assuming that the interviewee has not somehow been brutalised into eating lunch, then Beyer’s language seems to be buckling a bit under its load. ‘Anything they say can and will be used against them,’ he complains. But they’re not under arrest. Anything they do or say is being offered freely, specifically so that the journalist can use it. Interviewees expect an advantage – even American lawyers pause on the courthouse steps to boost their clients to the camera. Beyer must realise by now that despite the ‘signal virtue of a voluntary economic transaction’ and the notion that ‘ethical issues permeate business life,’ sometimes the car you buy is a lemon.

All this fancy talk about procedure and contract is hiding the real issues in the two current cases. Masson’s case against Malcolm is that she invented quotes, not that she enticed them (she admits this). Malcolm, being a psychoanalytic insider, attacked Masson when his decent edition of the Freud-Fleiss letters and his account of the abandonment of the seduction theory were embarrassing that establishment; the effect of her faking was to help people resist truth. These are worse offences than smiling while you ask a question. And in the McGinnis-MacDonald case, has everyone forgotten the evidence that MacDonald did indeed slaughter his entire family? Should McGinnis have honoured a contract which required him to lie? Beyerites seem to think so. They think the person interviewed has the right to control what is asked and written – journalism as advertisement. On their argument, it would be unethical to ask that nice Mr Hitler difficult questions, when he only wants the world to know about the catering at the upcoming Olympics. I can’t see that this serves any public interest, but it will wonderfully serve any number of private, privileged ones. Mr Beyer thinks just like a lawyer.

Michael Pye
New York

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