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Letters

Vol. 19 No. 17 · 4 September 1997

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‘Nicole?’ ‘Papa’

John Sutherland’s wonderful sketch of the faltering development of the electric car (LRB, 21 August) arrived on my doorstep shortly after the purring milk-float had glided down the road at a serene 20 mph. As I write, the Paris authorities have had to halve the cost of a ride on the Métro, as the summer’s car pollution is choking the capital. Hayfever sufferers are overdosing on antihistamines in a bid to ward off the hazy cloud of carbon monoxide that hovers over London. More and more people cycle to work (icons of the common man like Jon Snow or Mr Justice Scott), but now have to wear ‘respos’ to avoid instant lung cancer.

This same week John Prescott, the Deputy PM, took the bus to Broadcasting House to outline his attempt to integrate government policy on transport. Tony Blair of course has converted his family vehicle to natural gas. This in sharp contrast to the former Tory Minister for Transport who suggested that only losers get the bus. But for all the rhetoric, the Government has only cancelled one road-building plan, and has promised that the car stays ‘at the heart of transport policy’.

All of which goes to show that the car is still assumed to be the liberating, virile machine of decades ago, driven by Kerouac and his ilk across the continents; ads sell them as romantic and exotic (‘Nicole?’ ‘Papa’) rather than the dirty, dangerous executioners they really are. The furore over Cronenberg’s Crash doubtless had much to do with resentment at the portrayal of car-love as rather depraved, not to say demented. We absolve our consciences by recycling a few random objects, but express any reservations about the car and you’re thought to be a wild, un American green.

There are very simple solutions: anyone driving alone within the area circled by the M25 should be subjected to a prohibitive tax (the ‘inner sanctum’ levy which has worked so well in Singapore). Motorways should have fast lanes, as in much of LA, where only cars with passengers can travel (it was this innovative policy which led to a theft of mannequins in California in the early Nineties, such was the solitary road-user’s mania for speed). As an antidote to 18 years of hunger for the privatised and personal, a new petrol tax and road tolls should penalise the car, and persuade people into the calmer, more democratic modes of public transport.

Kenneth Blake
London NW5

Why he tattled

In his analysis of Whittaker Chamber’s testimony against Alger Hiss, Christopher Hitchens implies that it arose ex nihilo amid the hysterias of the early Cold War (LRB, 31 July). Not so. As my biography of Chambers clearly states, in summer 1939, within days of the Soviet-Nazi Non-Aggression Pact, Chambers met with Adolf Berle (Franklin Roosevelt’s chief intelligence officer) and confessed his secret Communist activity in 1932-38, naming many New Deal contacts, including Hiss, and making it very clear they were espionage agents. His reason for tattling was his fear – encouraged by his fellow defector Walter Krivitsky – that intelligence data sent from Washington to Moscow would now also find its way to Berlin. After hearing Chambers out, Berle, no alarmist, promptly put the White House and the FBI on alert. But to Berle’s dismay and Chambers’s astonishment, no meaningful steps were taken. The spies remained in place; indeed some, principally Hiss, soared ever higher up the State Department ladder. Chambers concluded, not unreasonably, that the Government was more interested in protecting spies than in prosecuting them and might choose to settle the problem by punishing informers like himself. No wonder he later toned down his allegations, releasing only bits of the story – until, of course, Hiss, after a delay that proved embarrassing to his supporters, at last lodged a slander suit in response to Chambers’s testimony to Nixon’s committee in 1948. Thereupon Chambers produced incriminating documents whose authenticity was conceded by the Hiss defence in the first perjury trial.

Hitchens compliments me on making ‘the demented sequence and evolution of Chambers’s actions into something intelligible’ but, as he grudgingly concedes, the sequence was not ‘demented’ at all. At each stage, Chambers reacted plausibly to events as they dizzily piled up. Sometimes he overdid it, but not irrationally. Even his celebrated formulation ‘that the Communists were on the winning side of history’ was not inconsistent with the prevailing wisdom of the day, at least to judge from the public statements of Dean Acheson and George Kennan, the chief architects of the ‘containment policy’ adopted by the United States in the late Forties, when it looked as if Stalin might be set on a course of empire-building in imitation of Hitler’s prior efforts. If Chambers was crazy, then so were many others. Hitchens mentions Chambers’s influence on Koestler and Milosz. He might also have mentioned those who expressed their admiration for Chambers’s literary and intellectual gifts, and who shared his intense anti-Communism: Lionel Trilling, Sidney Hook, Meyer Schapiro, Rebecca West, Murray Kempton. Not one of these doubted the truth of Chambers’s testimony against Hiss.

It is true, as Hitchens says, that Chambers lived ‘a series of lies for almost a decade’. But what about Hiss, whose duplicities were sustained for more than sixty years, from the time he joined the CP in 1934 (at the latest) until his death last year, aged 92? Through it all, he remained impenitent, insouciant, arrogant – to the detriment of his own credibility and of the reputation of such distinguished supporters as Acheson and Felix Frankfurter. Worse still, Hiss badly damaged, and at a crucial time, the larger cause of New Deal liberalism, an offence not lightly forgiven by a much younger liberal (not ‘neo-conservative’) such as myself.

According to Hitchens, ‘Tanenhaus simply makes the assumption … that Hiss was lying and Chambers was telling the truth.’ This is absurd. Nearly half of a very long book, with 77 pages of closely printed notes, is given over to the complex evidential questions of the Hiss case, including the issues raised by new documents from Budapest, Moscow and Washington. This research underlies my conclusion that Hiss was guilty as charged. It is Hitchens, not I, who remains impervious to the claims of evidence.

Incidentally, it was a novel by Heinrich Mann, not Thomas, which Chambers brought into English.

Sam Tanenhaus
Tarrytown, New York

Christopher Hitchens’s salute to Murray Kempton recalls an ‘encounter’ I once had with the great journalist. Kempton inspired my newspaper years, as he did those of many novices. In a manner that would have amused him, he was also instrumental in my dismissal from the editorship of the Catholic Review published by the Baltimore Catholic archdiocese. The year was, I think, 1960, and national health insurance was a red flag to the defenders of privilege and of a doctor’s right to unlimited prosperity. Borrowing Kempton’s arguments for my editorial one week, I said poor and underpaid Americans should have necessary medical treatment even if they could not afford it and that help from the Government was long overdue. The Baltimore establishment, with the help of affluent local John Birchers and other ilk, rolled out a few heavyweight patriots to call me a ‘Communist’. The Archbishop, deciding such thinking was out of place in the archdiocese, fired me. My citing Murray Kempton as a witness for the pertinence of my editorial position was not applauded by the Archbishop’s minions. In my spectacular ignorance, I had not realised that establishments elsewhere were busy maligning Kempton with the same label.

Robert Ostermann
Chandler, Arizona

Late on a Summer’s Night

Now it is Edward Said’s turn (LRB, 17 July) to have mangled a small corner of Canadian history and geography: Glenn Gould did not live in a Toronto hotel, as Said recounts, but in a modest postwar apartment block, on St Clair Avenue West. A plaque on the street commemorates the fact. I have often walked by late on a summer’s night and wondered what it would have been like, in the still staid and provincial Toronto of the Sixties, to hear Gould’s piano playing drifting out to the street in the wee hours of the morning.

Timothy Barnard
Iowa City

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Having read Michael Ignatieff’s review of Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture (LRB, 17 July), I wouldn’t threaten Professor Showalter with death; or even, as a long-term sufferer, wish Chronic Fatigue Syndrome on her. But to use a hand-me-down theory (i.e. the depressive origins of CFS) to fit a thesis without bothering to check the by now considerable body of international medical research which disproves it is hardly serious. I doubt that the former Tory Government would have accepted CFS as an illness qualifying for social security assistance if they could have thrown it out on Showalter’s depression-based theory, which, incidentally, seems to have been around as long as the illness.

Ronald Fraser
Valencia, Spain

Farewell to the Hetch Hetchy

David Craig, in his otherwise careful review of my edition of John Muir: The Life and Letters and Other Writings (LRB, 17 July), takes Muir’s reservations about Ruskin at face value. In this he follows Muir’s loyal literary executor, Bade, his biographer Frederick Turner and the usually sceptical critic Michael Cohen. In fact, Muir misrepresents Ruskin in his three references to him in Bade’s selection of the letters. Ruskin’s views are notoriously contradictory, but Muir seems to be referring to Modern Painters IV when he says that Ruskin believes that ‘Nature is the joint work of God and the devil.’ To Muir ‘Mountain Gloom’ is an oxymoron. But Ruskin’s observation of ‘gloom’ in the mountains is actually located in human culture. In that chapter Ruskin moves from considering natural destructive forces, to perceived gloom, to the popular ‘love of horror’, to Catholicism, evil, the blameless suffering of a cab-horse and to moral choice. He makes the point that ‘it is not an evil inherent in the hills themselves.’ Muir’s reaction to an upbringing of morbid Protestantism blinds him to Ruskin’s critique of morbid Catholicism.

Like Muir, Ruskin saw nature as a counterbalance of dynamic forces. Some of Ruskin’s sentences might almost be Muir’s: ‘As we pass beneath the hills which have been shaken by earthquake and torn by convulsion, we find that periods of perfect repose succeed those of destruction.’ But Ruskin saw that choices of good or evil were open to those who had management of the hills, as in the flooding of Yosemite National Park’s Hetch Hetchy valley to provide water for San Francisco, the lost battle which hung over Muir’s last years. What Ruskin addressed anthropocentrically, and Muir biocentrically, was the dilemma of human influence and responsibility for the earth.

Muir read some volumes of Ruskin at least twice and was closer to Ruskin’s thinking than he liked his correspondents to perceive. It was Ruskin, following Carlyle, who wrote: ‘God has lent us the earth for our life; it is a great entail.’ Muir’s development of the National Park idea surely springs from this source.

Terry Gifford
Bretton Hall College

Tie me currency down, sport

There is one aspect of the euro which has gone unnoticed by James Buchan and many others (LRB, 31 July). EMU (Economic and Monetary Union) and the euro (one of the original names for a kind of kangaroo) together represent the two supporters of the Australian coat of arms.

L.G. Norman
Naremburn, New South Wales

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