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Letters

Vol. 17 No. 23 · 30 November 1995

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Mistake

R.W. Johnson (Letters, 16 November) was at pains to correct the mistake in his review of Jill Wentzel’s The Liberal Slideaway which rendered his original sentence meaningless. Maybe now some attention could be paid to another sentence in the same article – ‘In South Africa it often seems that almost everyone who can, steals.’ Presumably this timid unsubstantiated generalisation was a similar error.

Min Wild
Crediton, Devon

End-Time

Alan Ryan’s understandably bemused attempt to get to the bottom of the meaning of Fascism (LRB, 21 September) underestimates, I think, the character and potential of the US millenarian movement in such statements as ‘most have simple, devout Christian attachments, completely at odds with the secular mythology of Fascism,’ and ‘it is religious separatism that provokes the bulk of such outrages’ as the Oklahoma bombing. This makes these groups sound more like Amish or Baptist cells gone awry than the frightening and powerful forces they actually are. David Koresh’s Branch Davidians saw themselves as an ‘end-time church’to gather up the righteous before Armageddon, but many of the militias have no problem with the ‘secularmythology of Fascism’. The Oklahoma bomber invoked the talismanic name of Waco but was neither acting in the name of religion nor avenging the FBI’s carnage alone. Most of the visitors to Waco are not religious zealots, but ‘constitutional activists’. According to an article by Peter Boyer in the New Yorker they are ‘members of that portion of the American extreme fringe which believes the FBI raid on the Davidian compound exemplified a government at war with its citizens’.

The militias may find common cause with religious groups like the Christian Coalition, which advocates a curious blend of anarchism and constitutional reform, but also with MIA conspiracy theorists and small farmers who faced bankruptcy in the Seventies. All the terms Ryan uses to characterise Fascist movements apply to these groups – ‘defensive ultra-nationalism’, racism, domestic illiberalism, belief in the superiority of action over thought, will over intellect and blood rather than brain. To write that these ‘elements of classical Fascism’ will be ‘less visible when conservative governments are in power’ is fatuous when the mainstream Republican Party is now firmly in the millenarians’ camp.

Many people in the US found the FBI’s tactics at Waco ill-advised and brutal, but to the paranoid fringe they revealed the designs of a ‘rotten’ and adversarial government. ‘Sceptical’ about government rescuing them? The government is the enemy. The militias brandish rifles, or grenade-launchers, instead of fasces, but do not lack social radicalism, nor Eat-well’s ‘form of thought which preaches the need for social rebirth in order to forge a holistic national radical Third Way’ (Ryan’s italics). Why is Ryan so sure that ‘whatever inspires Neo-Fascists it is not the desire for a radical third way’? That is precisely the platform of the apocalyptic fringe in the US. The very name of one of the groups, ‘Aryan Nation’, gives the lie to Ryan’s comforting assertion that the militias mostly ‘want to preserve a chosen remnant rather than reconstitute a nation’.

Wendy Hammond
Batticaloa, Sri Lanka

Down with the Constitution

Conor Gearty (LRB, 16 November) suggests that the British Constitution, characterised by the absolute sovereignty of the Crown in Parliament, should be ‘reinvigorated’. But it is past such resuscitation. Any pluralist alternative to our single, absolutist power structure means a constitutional court. It is absurd, therefore, to suggest that the need for a Bill of Rights has ‘sneaked’ onto the reform agenda. However, Gearty’s warnings about the dangers of simply incorporating the European Convention and the possible consequences of judicial activism are well made. This is why reform must be taken further, to a fully democratic settlement sustained by popular support. It is a great pity that Gearty does not join reformers in this project instead of rehearsing a futile endorsement of a swiftly crumbling status quo. Not least because the cumulative effect of his arguments is likely to encourage passivity, resignation and the belief that a Bill of Rights can only shift the balance of advantage towards big money.

Anthony Barnett
Charter 88

Bugger the reader

In the course of taking James Davidson to task for thinking that the ancient Greeks did not share our present use of phallocratic expletives (Letters, 2 November), D.M. Bain quotes some abusive graffiti and the Greek equivalent of the nicety ‘accept a cock down your throat.’ Now one understands why Liddell and Scott evaded a literal translation, calling it simply a ‘vulgar form of execration’, and also why Michael Heseltine, when confronted with the same expression in Petronius, lets the cold go to the devil and nowhere else in his Loeb translation of 1913. But an interesting question remains. Why is it that such phallocratic expletives can never be traced to the ancient Greeks? They all seem to belong to a period of Romanised Greeks and Graecised Romans who lived much later and compensated for their distance from the ancient Greeks with what one could call experimental sensationalism in sexualibus, a field then as widely exploited by (quasi) literary means as it is again nowadays.

J.R. Evenhuis
Scheveningen

Who’s quaint?

David Apter (Letters, 16 November) is quite right in insisting that the Committee for the Comparative Study of New Nations was founded in the late Eisenhower rather than the Kennedy era. He may well be right in claiming to have thought the Committee up, although its first chairman and major spokesman was the late Edward Shils. In all other respects, I think Apter has worked himself up into a needless tizz by not reading carefully what I wrote. It is nice to learn from him that the Committee’s start-up capital was $250,000 – something over a million pounds sterling today, and definitely not chicken feed – but I used the word ‘grandiose’ to describe not the Committee’s bank balance but its amusing programme. I did not say that the Committee as a whole was a ‘Cold Warrior’ shop (I certainly do not think of Clifford Geertz as a scholar of this type), I simply described Shils’s foundational essay as ‘Cold War-imperial’. Since his old friend Apter describes Shils as ‘politically reactionary’, as well as ‘cranky, fussy, perverse’, I think that in a calmer mood he might agree with me. It might refresh his memory to look at such typical Committee-era Shilsean texts as his hilarious ‘Asian Intellectuals’, which is full of such ‘quaint’ Cold War dicta as: ‘Fellow-travelling is certainly common among Asian intellectuals – it is in a sense the “natural" political outlook of the Asian intellectual.’ At no point did I say, or even imply, that Apter was a spy for his country or on his colleagues.

Apter finds my shorthand description of Shils as Parsons-derived ‘laughable’. In fact, the old reactionary is described as a ‘wayward Parsonian’ in a standard account of his career by an admiring fellow sociologist. In any case, the intent of my shorthand was to indicate that Shils became nationally prominent in the United States only after Talcott Parsons brought him to Harvard in 1949 to assist in the production of the huge tome Towards a General Theory of Action (1951). Parsons was a man of commanding intellect and broad culture, who profoundly influenced American sociological thinking between the late Thirties and the end of the Fifties; by comparison Shils was a very minor figure.

Finally, Apter insists that ‘neither Geertz nor any other scholar except graduate students and visitors were financed by the Committee.’ Geertz himself says that ‘for the first five years at the University [of Chicago], I was wholly on the Committee budget.’

Benedict Anderson
Cornell University

Late Call

It was never my intention to imply, nor does Sally Festing suggest in her book, that Barbara Hepworth committed suicide. In contrasting her posthumous reputation with that of Wood – who did kill himself – I wrote a sentence that lent itself to this construction. It was careless and I apologise. Of Festing’s accuracy it is difficult in many instances to judge, without, as Alan Bowness points out (Letters, 16 November), his own advantages of personal knowledge and access to the archives. As I said, a better, more sympathetic biography could and should be written. I hope he will write it.

Rosemary Hill
London SE5

Sister-Sister

Now that the homoerotic aspects of Jane Austen’s novels have been explored exhaustively in your columns, is it possible that Terry Castle could be persuaded to cast her penetrating gaze on The Archers? For your many overseas readers it should perhaps be explained that this is an ‘everyday story of country folk’ that has gone out on BBC radio for many years and has acquired successive generations of addicts whose week is incomplete without their daily fix (with a quintuple dose on Sundays). In recent times, however, there has crept into the storyline an increasing element of the kind of ‘women’s interest’ popular in certain tabloids. The male characters are being steadily extruded or, what is worse, perverted, so that the listeners are treated to the audio-picture of some horny-handed son of the soil hurrying anxiously to the village pub so as to be in time to catch a glimpse of the landlord’s new baby. Or of two tractor-drivers (Ruth and Debbie) discussing details of a forthcoming ploughing match. Each episode formerly ended with a juicy murder, or the revelation of a bit of skulduggery in order to keep the listener on tenterhooks; now it’s a rash on Shula’s baby’s bottom. Come on, Terry!

Bernard Cashman
Bedford

Starchy

John Bayley, in reviewing A La Pym (LRB, 19 October), questions the instructions for making the famous dish Pommes Anna, in which apparently the slices of potato should be dried on paper towels before cooking in order to remove the starch. The reason for wiping the potatoes before cooking is not to remove the starch (essential for the success of this dish) but to remove the surplus liquid. This makes it easier for the potatoes to mass easily into a cake. In Mastering the Art of French Cooking Simone Beck and Julia Child give a detailed recipe for making this dish, which many people consider one of the best potato dishes ever invented. Beck and Child even recommend that the potatoes should not be washed even after peeling in order to keep them as starchy as possible.

Ruth Murr
Tomar, Portugal

Who cares about the NBA?

Has it occurred to Messrs Bowyer and Hayes (Letters, 2 November) that books need to be produced? The ending of the Net Book Agreement is a disaster for the publishing industry, for libraries and for readers. Books which students need will go up in price to offset the discounts on a very few books. A free market in books no more meets readers’ needs than a free market in health.

Will Podmore
Chief Librarian

The authors’ likenesses featured on Barnes and Noble shopping bags, posters and coffee mugs are not, pace John Sutherland (LRB, 19 October), caricatures by the New York Review of Books’ David Levine, but faux-engraving portraits by Mark Summers, whose work is often featured in Opera News and the New York Times Book Review. Living in a region where the nearest bookseller (Bibles aside) is forty miles away, I would welcome any such imperialist outlet colonising Our Town.

Warren Keith Wright
Arbyrd, Missouri

My Nirvana

Duncan Campbell’s review of The Autobiography of a Thief (LRB, 19 October) convinces me that it must have been Bruce Reynolds who delivered one of the great utterances of the 20th century, one that should not be lost to posterity. He was being interviewed on Radio 4 about the possibilty of Biggs returning to England and was asked what people like Biggs and himself hoped to get out of big robberies. ‘Well,’ he replied in a gravelly voice and accent that made him seem a rough toff, ‘for myself I always hoped it would bring me my Nirvana. But when we brought off the Great Train Robbery, I knew that this was going to be not only my Nirvana, but my Sistine Chapel!’

Boris Ford
Bristol

Libris has it

Readers of Ritchie Robertson’s article on Georg Büchner (LRB, 19 October), in which he discusses Lukács’s essay ‘The Real Georg Büchner and his Fascist Misrepresentation’, may like to know that it is available in a recent English translation in Lukács’s German Realists in the 19th Century, published by Libris.

Nicholas Jacobs
Libris, London NW5

Reading ‘LRB’, 7 September 1995, Page 8

Let me tell you about John Ashbery.
Grumbling if not the first, it comes
pernickity over the garnished brown-specked hill,
not unlike ‘Ash Wednesday’. ‘John, John,’
it seems to be saying, over and over,
as if there is nothing for us to do
but to be spelt on by those old witches,
icy in diaphicity. Yes, I did say that.
you heard it right, gloomy in the corner.
‘John Horner?’ And now at this point you should know
it’s Jack we’re talking beneath. Way, way down,
down, down, down. And surely right.

Robert Sargent
Washington DC

‘Madness and Modernism’

I would like to point out that the English version of Madness and Modernism by Louis Sass, reviewed by Iain McGilchrist (LRB, 2 November), was published in paperback by Harvard (£11.95, 6 September 1994, 0 674 54137 5).

Jean Heffernan
Harvard University Press

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