Alex Harvey rightly says that ‘Boofy’ Arran’s key role in launching the Parliamentary campaign for homosexual law reform in the Sixties, and his persistence in making its ultimate success possible, have not been given the recognition they deserve (LRB, 18 September). But he goes astray in thinking that the Homosexual Law Reform Society was bankrolled by David Astor or any other individual or small group. Mr Astor was a generous donor from time to time, as were others – but there was no assured income for the Society throughout my time as its secretary, and raising sufficient funds to keep it going, even during the height of the Parliamentary campaign, was a constant headache. What Mr Astor did do, for which I shall always be grateful to him, was to employ me as a Saturday sub-editor on the Observer (which he then edited) throughout the campaign, so that by working a six-day week I was able to keep my own head (just about) above water, as well as that of the HLRS.
Nor was the HLRS ‘staffed almost entirely by gay volunteers’ while ‘homosexuality was never mentioned.’ It would have been difficult to carry on a campaign if the latter had been the case. For several years, I thought and talked about little else. In fact, the HLRS under my direction had a paid full-time female staff of never less than two, and usually (when we could afford it) more. Our many volunteers were welcome and valuable, but never as central as my loyal and overworked staff, whose huge contribution is also largely forgotten, nowadays, except by me.
In her review of my Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence (LRB, 4 September), Martha Nussbaum notes that I address the reader with the claim that an affluent person, ‘like you and me, must contribute to vitally effective groups, like Oxfam and Unicef, most of the money and property she now has, and most of what comes her way for the foreseeable future’. She refers to this as ‘Unger’s solution’ to the heartbreakingly serious problems plaguing impoverished people in the poorest countries in the world. She tries to reduce this ‘solution’ to absurdity by developing a vision of how the world would be if everyone were to comply with my injunction. Obviously the result would be chaos, as she observes at great length. But this is a bewildering misreading of my work. The injunction she cites was addressed to the conscience of the individual reader in the world as it is – a world in which governments do very little to save dying children in impoverished regions and in which organisations such as Oxfam America, US for Unicef and Care together receive less money from private donations than Harvard University does. The injunction was, of course, conditional on the wholly realistic assumption that even after my book had its full foreseeable effect, this state of affairs would continue: that for the foreseeable future there would be no radical institutional changes, that most affluent individuals would continue to donate next to nothing, or even nothing at all.
My question was: in this actual situation, what should you, a person interested enough to be reading my book, do? My answer: give most of what you have in order to help save children who will otherwise die of preventable disease and malnutrition. The book offers several salient arguments in support of this but not one is so much as mentioned, much less addressed or discussed, in the review.
I never pretended to have articulated a programme for saving dying children by means of co-ordinated collective action at the institutional level. Doubtless it would be vastly more efficient to proceed at that level; and perhaps some day the world will be receptive to rational reforms of the global economic system. But until this Utopian condition prevails, there is much that a single individual can and should do.
Nussbaum also criticises the book for being insufficiently engaged with issues of theory. It doesn’t offer ‘delicate theory-building’, doesn’t explain why we might or might not ‘choose to be utilitarians rather than Kantians’, and fails to say whether our goal should be ‘to maximise the sum of satisfactions … to maximise human functioning and capabilities’ or whatever. But my concern in the book was explicitly not with theory-building, delicate or otherwise. Indeed, the strategy of my work was to avoid drawing my conclusions from all such evidently controversial theories, and instead to show that our own deepest moral beliefs themselves commit us to the costly conclusions for which I argued. It would of course be wonderful to solve all the problems of international distributive justice in a way that is economically rational, culturally sensitive and based on a defensible account of the human good. But my ambitions didn’t extend nearly that far, and it is fantastic that Nussbaum takes me to task for having failed to solve all the relevant problems which, as she notes, many excellent thinkers are working on.
As is indicated in Oxfam America’s latest annual report, Nussbaum and I may well be the two American philosophers who most strongly support that organisation. It’s with considerable sadness, then, that I read her distorted account of my book. Her focus on a fantasy world run by Oxfam is an irrelevant distraction from the serious problems with which Oxfam is concerned.
New York University
As a professional performer herself, Rosalind Cressy (Letters, 31 July) thinks it ‘ill-considered’ of me ‘to speak of audiences waiting for the isolated genius on stage to make a mistake’. Doubtless, but precisely that and a great deal more paranoiac anxiety is what Glenn Gould felt: I was paraphrasing his sentiments, not endorsing them, though I do think Cressy is a bit disingenuous to represent the commercial world of performing musicians and paying audiences so rosily. Timothy Barnard’s complaint (Letters, 4 September) that I ‘mangled a small corner of Canadian history and geography’ by not mentioning Gould’s apartment on St Clair Avenue West derives from an insufficient knowledge of the very history and geography he supposedly defends. The facts are that Gould did have the St Clair Avenue flat, but kept his recording equipment and pianos at the Inn on the Park, and also for a while had a room at the Windsor Arms. In any case, Barnard would never have heard Gould’s playing from the street, since the pianist always kept every window and door tightly shut, as well as soundproofed.
Were I a government inspector charged with assessing the efficacy of the Ideological State Apparatus I should have been delighted to read Wayne Koestenbaum’s review of Audrey Hepburn (LRB, 18 September). Rarely can the phantasmagoria of the Hollywood division have been so completely internalised and subsequently projected as in this article.
Faculty of Social and Political Sciences
Samuel Johnson on Pembroke College poets
Is this what poetry has come to?
Last week’s broadsheets told
That a poet no one has heard of
Stole his lines from another poet
No one has heard of
And the LRB I rest this paper on
Reviews a book about a poet
No one has heard of
Stole his lines from a poet
No one has heard of.
I ponder the motivation.
It can’t raise the payment
Of non-paying magazines.
Your name beneath
The ragged black flag
Of someone else’s lines
Can’t be that ego-invigorating.
Is it to get eccentric women
To put out for them?
The sort of sad-eyed lady
Fumbles clay in Cornwall?
Or worse, some attempt
To boost a CV,
‘I had this poem published.’
You hapless fuck,
‘Poets no one has heard of’
Covers most poets,
Poets no one has heard of
Ripping off poets no one has heard of,
Are, I hope, a perverse minority,
Toe-suckers of the published foot.
Let us not become,
Like PR men and journalists,
‘A nest of thieving turds’.
For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.