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Letters

Vol. 14 No. 4 · 27 February 1992

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Changing places

Vernon Bogdanor (Letters, 13 February) is right to point out that in my article on the Madrid Peace Conference I give the Palestinians the benefit of the doubt while judging Israel harshly. This is because I see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a conflict between occupiers and occupied, oppressors and oppressed, and my sympathies here, as always, are with the underdog. Bogdanor seems to regard terrorism as the central issue in this conflict; I regard terrorism as a symptom of the underlying political problem, which is Israel’s absolute denial of the right of self-determination to the Palestinians.

Bogdanor claims that at its meeting in Algiers in November 1988 the Palestine National Council ‘reaffirmed the PLO Charter, which calls for Israel’s destruction in over half of its articles’. This is the opposite of the truth. The Charter rejected the principle of partition, whereas the PNC accepts it as the basis for a settlement. Article Two of the Charter states: ‘Palestine with the boundaries it had during the British mandate is an indivisible territorial unit.’ The PNC abandoned this claim and adopted a two-states solution. The difference between the PNC resolutions and the PLO Charter is not one of nuance but one of principle and substance. Yasser Arafat, portrayed by Bogdanor as a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde on the subject of terrorism, was the architect of this Copernican revolution in the political thinking of the PLO.

It is Mr Shamir who plays Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in relation to the Palestinians. To the Americans Shamir pretends that he wants to move forward towards an agreement with the Palestinians. To his extremist right-wing partners he pretends the exact opposite. Why on earth should one give Mr Shamir the benefit of the doubt when all his actions are so transparently directed at avoiding substantive peace talks with the Palestinians?

Shamir can no longer maintain, as his predecessors did, that there is no one to talk to on the other side. Golda Meir used to reiterate with such monotonous regularity her readiness to meet any Arab leader at any time and in any place to discuss peace that even her own officials began to joke about Golda’s launderette, open 24 hours a day. At Madrid, however, the moment of truth finally arrived. Mr Shamir should either negotiate with the Palestinians on the generally accepted basis of land for peace or put up a notice on his door to announce that Golda’s launderette is closed until further notice.

Avi Shlaim
St Antony’s College, Oxford

Wilde Shot

In her review of Elaine Showalter’s Sexual Anarchy (LRB, 30 January) Maria Tippett notes that Showalter ‘underscores the sexual ambiguity inherent in the play by exhibiting a photograph of a bejewelled and wigged Wilde performing the part of Salome, a character with whom he identified more strongly than any other’. This, of course, is the now well-known photograph that Richard Ellmann published in his biography of Wilde, along with other photos of the writer in unusual costume presumably intended to support Ellmann’s thesis that Wilde was a man of many guises. It’s the photograph, too, that accompanied the TLS review when Ellmann’s book first appeared. Clearly it speaks directly to our current preoccupation with gender in general and cross-dressing in particular.

The problem is that the photograph almost certainly isn’t of Wilde. In the H. Roger Viollet photo-library in Paris it is filed with another picture, obviously of the same person and taken at the same session, labelled Leonora Sengera dans le rôle de Salomé à Leipzig; it’s undated though the photographer is identified as Carl Bellach of Leipzig. The photo seems to have come to the library from the collection of the late Guillot de Saix, a French devotee who had a sizeable hoard of Wildeana, much of it of dubious authenticity. An expert in the unexpected ways that pictures can reveal truths, a keen student of the links between theatrical and sexual identity, Wilde would have much appreciated the pleasure so many have derived from the illusion that they were seeing him as Salome.

John Stokes
University of Warwick

Libertyville

I don’t understand why constructive criticism makes defenders of the Bill of Rights orthodoxy so aggressive. Neither Paul Hirst (Letters, 30 January) nor Anthony Lewis (Letters, 13 February) contests my account of the shortcomings in practice of instruments like the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I have not argued from these, nor from the enhanced role they give to judges, that such instruments are worthless. My argument is that they are dangerous, but that in the light of experience there is a good deal that can be done to deflect these dangers, and to meet new needs, without forfeiting advantages to which I also drew attention. Why then does Anthony Lewis need to describe my argument as ‘sneering’, which it is not, and Paul Hirst describe my approach as ‘a sham’ and my logic as that of the Mad Hatter? Are they actually interested in doing more for each of their favoured rights instruments than their opponents do for our rights-free constitution – namely, defending it against all comers?

Anthony Lewis leads with his right: I ascribe the US Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in favour of desegregation in schools to ‘the potency of the civil rights movement’ when, he says, ‘the civil rights movement and its “great political swell" came after the 1954 Supreme Court decision.’ It may be good journalism to allocate a single convenient date to the start of such a movement, but it is poor history. Although it is true that the greatest swell of the civil rights movement followed the events of 1954, the movement was considerably older than that. By the later 1940s the new awareness which war service and a measure of prosperity had generated in black Americans had shifted into active resistance to segregation. The NAACP had become influential enough for Truman to address one of its conventions, and the report of his commission, To secure these rights, is credited with having substituted ‘civil rights’ for ‘the Negro question’ in political parlance. The desegregation of the US Army during the Korean war was a further effect and a further cause of resistance.

To take one concrete example of what was forcing these issues onto the post-war agenda, in 1948 a group of blacks and whites broke a colour bar at the Highland Park swimming-pool in Pittsburgh. One of them was gaoled for 18 months for inciting the riot which followed (whites throwing stones and bottles at the swimmers). The campaign continued for a year, attacked by racists while the Police watched, until it succeeded. Rosa Parks’s famous refusal to ride at the back of the bus in Montgomery in 1955, from which Anthony Lewis would like to date it all, was itself not a spontaneous act of rebellion: Rosa Parks was an active NAACP member who had attended the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, where for twenty years inter-racial ‘social gospel’ workshops were run. The Brown case itself started with a strike of black students in 1951 in Farmville, Virginia, against segregated schooling, and the supporting lawsuit brought by the NAACP’s lawyers was the culmination of a high-profile campaign that reached the Supreme Court as five consolidated cases. By 1954 the message from America’s black people was already very loud and very clear. It was to all this that the Supreme Court in 1954 was responding. It was not initiating, but it was legitimising, and that, as I wrote, is also important.

When, therefore, Anthony Lewis defends constitutional judicial review by pointing to the Supreme Court’s ability to bring its jurisprudence into line with social and moral change, I agree with him, though not with his view of how and why it happens. But what then was the political agenda of Nixon and Reagan in setting out to pack the Court with judges who would be loyal, not to social change, but to the supposed original intentions of the framers of the Bill of Rights and its amendments? I accept the role of judicial review in a democracy, as I said, because governments themselves aren’t too democratic. But will Anthony Lewis accept that judges, too, are risky surrogates for the rest of us?

‘The relevant question’, says Paul Hirst finally and rightly in his letter, is whether a Bill of Rights ‘will protect citizens who are neither rich nor powerful against both state abuse and harm done to their civil rights by others’. Yes: that’s the question I was not only asking but attempting (as Paul Hirst does not) to answer concretely from modern experience. (Anthony Lewis’s answer, that the recent American record on freedom of speech and press is strikingly better than Britain’s, deserves a pot-and-kettle debate to itself.) The probable answer, which I have yet to see refuted, is that it won’t deliver these vital protections unless it’s fireproofed in a way that neither the European Convention nor the US Bill of Rights is. Will Charter 88 (with whose overall constitutional project I have few quarrels) now start seriously to think about reconstructing the European Convention as an effective and principled UK Bill of Rights instead of defending it as a dog defends a bone?

Stephen Sedley
London EC4

The Director of Charter 88’s Constitutional Convention, Mr Paul Hirst, writes that his organisation is ‘the one place where a creative dialogue can take place between the different protagonists of change’. He then replies to arguments against a Bill of Rights from a distinguished civil libertarian, Mr Stephen Sedley QC, by imputing to him a mental disease. Is this Charter 88’s idea of dialogue? If I were a signatory of Charter 88, I would expect Mr Hirst to resign his directorship forthwith.

John Griffith
Marlow, Bucks

Vile Doings on the Cam

What a pity that Colin Richmond’s absorbing Diary (LRB, 13 February) about recent publications relating to the holocaust was marred by the crass remarks about Wittgenstein in the penultimate paragraph. At the age of 23, Wittgenstein said to Russell that watching a boat race had been a ‘vile’ way to spend the afternoon: ‘We might as well have looked on at a bull fight.’ (Mr Richmond omitted to mention that Russell, who recorded the incident, added: ‘I had that feeling myself.’) ‘If Wittgenstein could think like this.’ Mr Richmond commented, ‘is it any wonder that other Austrians, other Germans put everything back to front?’ Has he, I wonder, ever come across the phrase, coined by another distinguished philosopher, ‘a non-sequitur of numbing grossness’? If Mr Richmond wants to find the holocaust prefigured in the obiter dicta of an Austrian or German philosopher, Frege’s correspondence might be a better place to look than Wittgenstein’s intemperate comments about sculling on the Cam.

John Hyman
Queen’s College, Oxford

Limbotomy

A.N. Wilson makes good money these days by denigrating the Christianity he formerly espoused and his especial virulence towards Catholicism is apparent in his review of David Willey’s book (LRB, 30 January). It is surprising to note his reference to Limbo, a theological notion that has been generally abandoned by mainstream Christianity since at least the time of Vatican II and by most educated Catholics for a long time before that. It was never more than a soteriological expedient to account for the fate of deceased, unbaptised infants in the light of a too strict understanding of the doctrine salus extra ecclesia non est. Happily, the Church has since developed a wider vision of its founder’s designs for mankind’s ultimate destiny and the idea of Limbo has been consigned to the theological scrap-heap. A.N. Wilson would have been told this when he was formally instructed in the Catholic faith and his jibe about Limbo therefore seems dishonest: but in any case is off the mark and cheap into the bargain.

Liam Archer
Maidstone, Kent

Not even a member

R.W. Johnson claims (LRB, 24 October 1991) that ‘to a degree which is seldom recognised’, the South African Communist Party ‘held together because its leading cadres belonged to an extended Jewish family, bound together by ties of marriage and descent’ and that its ‘extraordinary continuity was enhanced by the powerful kinship networks which knit the party together’. ‘Take Gillian Slovo,’ he continues, citing the fact that her grandfather was the party treasurer, and her parents leading party members – a three-generation dynasty. Except for the fact that her grandfather was never party treasurer, and although a supporter, probably not even a member; and she is not a member. Nor are her two sisters members; nor any of the children in the Wolpe and Goldberg families (also mentioned); nor my own children, for that matter. Nor have I been able to find any evidence of that family continuity among the leading black families of that period – Kotane, Marks, Nokwe, Mofuntsanyana. I do not see any great significance in refuting the Jewish-dynasty theory, except that it does make the SACP sound like a mafia. And because R.W. Johnson still owes Gillian Slovo an apology for doing precisely what he subsequently tried to deny – determining who she is by her father and grandfather.

Hilda Bernstein
Dorstone, Herefordshire

Teaching happily

In a moment of mental aberration I said Randall Jarrell spent much of his life teaching happily at the University of South Carolina (LRB, 5 December 1991). Wrong. It was at the Women’s College of the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, though ‘teaching happily’ is correct. My apologies to his shade.

Julian Symons
Deal, Kent

Connectionism

Richard Rorty’s review of Dennett’s Consciousness Explained was lucid and helpful (LRB, 21 November 1991). I wish to refer those interested in its themes to Edward Hundert’s Philosophy, Psychiatry and Neuroscience, where similar ideas are developed.

Leston Havens
Harvard Medical School

Terrible Truth

Pace Stan Smith’s review of my slim volume of poetry, Spilt Milk (LRB, 9 January): I’m an Irish bastard, not an Irish orphan.

Sarah Maguire
London W11

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