Vol. 20 No. 20 · 15 October 1998

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After Monica

At first it seemed to me, as an American in Britain, that English people apologised all the time. ‘Sorry, how stupid of me.’ Were these the people who almost owned the earth and were first-rate pirates in the 16th century? Yet none of the people saying sorry or that they had been stupid either appeared sorry by American standards or stupid by any other. Could it be, I began to wonder, that people apologised in order to continue doing what they wanted to do? That they did not have to put on a mask of rectitude about everything all the time, but knew they were not perfect – and neither was anyone else.

What I like about this country is that inside each Englishman a Roundhead and a Cavalier are living side by side, if sometimes acrimoniously. Law is taken very seriously, yet so is enjoyment, and no one thinks anything is wrong with that. In the States, alas, we had no Restoration. (It is true that some Puritans found the religious tone of Massachusetts under John Winthrop too much: his son, John Winthrop Jr, founded Connecticut to get away.) The members of the early communities had to be right all the time because they had to pretend that they had been saved by God. They could not even vote in town elections unless they were members of their church; and to be members of their church they had to swear in church that they had been saved. This notion of being right because you are saved still informs American life. We had never lost a war until Vietnam and that caused a national nervous breakdown. We never said we were sorry to the Vietnamese but have become paralysed in foreign policy because we are afraid we may be wrong again. No sane German, Englishman or Japanese would ever say that their country had always been right. But it is just as unlikely for an American to say that their country had been wrong as for them to say they themselves had been wrong. It would be close to admitting that they were, well, almost damned.

American Presidents are caught up in this myth. So here is poor Clinton, caught doing something rather silly, but he never thought simply to say: ‘Oh, that was stupid. I lost my head – I was a foolish middle-aged man. Sorry. Now let’s deal with the global economy.’ No, he had to deny that he had done anything that wasn’t right. When it was discovered that he had lied, he had to get his lawyers to say that, given certain legal definitions of the term ‘sex’, he had not lied. And when he had finally to admit to having lied, who did he confess to? A gathering of religious leaders. Might it not be better if Americans were to learn the English meaning of the word ‘sorry’?

Constance Blackwell
Centre for Intellectual History, London NW1

Hot Chile

‘Chile,’ Richard Gott observes (LRB, 17 September), ‘is a country that has almost entirely disappeared from the screen.’ In my world, that is far from true. The Chilean economic renaissance of the Eighties, led by Chicago School monetarists, remains an interesting case-study. More recently, Chilean privatisation of the social security system has been copied in many other countries. And Chilean-style capital controls are a hot topic wherever the East Asian economic crisis is discussed. There is less revolutionary poetry, perhaps, less glamorous socialist rhetoric, but it is hard to think of a small country which has exerted more intellectual influence on economic and social policy-making in the last two decades.

While I cannot share Gott’s interpretation of Chile today, I can support his observation that our Ambassador, Reginald Secondé, was ‘a solid supporter of the coup’. I recall meeting him in 1975, when he was asked by an ambassadorial colleague what sort of people the Junta generals were. ‘They are all dear, nice chaps,’ he said, ‘but they make every political mistake in the book.’ Ethical foreign policy, Seventies style.

Howard Davies
Chairman, Financial Services Authority, London E14

Sonic Boom

It was good of Don Miller (Letters, 1 October) to read what I wrote about W.G. Grace as a disguised riposte to the claque whose variously abusive recriminations had earlier been launched against what I wrote about its heroes, Sokal and Bricmont, whose book I’m confident few of them have read. Since I don’t feel that the ‘W.G.’ piece quite confronted any of the arguments arising, I’d like to come briefly out from the pavilion and take up what James Wood says (LRB, 1 October), his letter having raised the real point at issue. Wood rightly distinguishes between scientific representations and other types of representation, inasmuch as scientific representations represent what we accept to be the true state of things in Nature, whereas other representations do not. Scientific representations, however, can and do enter other discourses than the scientific, and no such representation has done so more dramatically than E=mc2. Because of its nuclear implications, this physical formula has achieved a status such that it has come to stand for both the profound insights of physics and the dangers inherent in the human mastery of natural processes.

To argue, as Irigaray has, that E=mc2 is a gendered equation is not to deny its truth in science, it is simply to draw attention to the multiple ways in which the formula has been used outside a strictly scientific context, one such way having been, I take Irigaray’s case to be, to support the masculinist bias in the practice and exploitation of science which she is far from alone in criticising. As an admirer of Roland Barthes, James Wood could have asked himself what Barthes might have written about the ‘mythology’ of E=mc2 – there’s a splendid essay on ‘Einstein’s Brain’ in his Mythologies; he would indeed have exaggerated but to very good purpose, in refusing to allow the Sokals and Bricmonts to pretend that they deal exclusively in scientific facts, even when, as in their book, they are putting those facts to an extra-scientific use.

John Sturrock
Lindfield, West Sussex

An article by Martin Amis in the Guardian earlier this year touches on John Sturrock’s review of Sokal and Bricmont (LRB, 16 July). After observing the relationship between the speed of a car and the damage inflicted on a body struck by that car, Amis claims that he ‘finally understood’ E=mc2. His remarkable failure to understand Einstein’s equation and apparent ignorance of the considerably simpler concept F=ma admirably demonstrate the kind of thing that Sokal and Bricmont find so infuriating.

Thomas Jones

James Wood is breathtakingly confident about his grasp of the notion of metaphor; but his grasp of the relationship between representations and reality is tenuous in the extreme at least, if his own analogies are anything to go by.

He manages to ruin the perfectly good point that claims made with words might nonetheless refer to realities independent of language by comparing the relation of words and facts to that between performances of music and the music performed. We need not buy into the idea that music can be reduced to its performances in order to appreciate that the existence of Beethoven’s Ninth is importantly (if complicatedly) dependent on the existence of a variety of cultural practices of performance, notation and composition. Is this the kind of reality Wood wants us to attribute to atoms? Sokal and Bricmont would not approve; but Terence Hawkes would salivate.

Stephen Mulhall
Cumnor Hill, Oxford

Crosland Aloft

My review of David Reisman’s books on Tony Crosland was intended to save a political hero from the myth-makers. Christopher Price (Letters, 1 October) misinterprets the piece and adds to the obfuscating myth. It also caricatures what I wrote. In particular, I did not conclude that the auth or of The Future of Socialism was a ‘hopeless minister’, as Price suggests. On the con trary, I presented him as a good and successful one, who missed some catches.

Price takes me up on Crosland’s role in the development of post-school learning, implying that I did not give him enough credit for widening access to degree courses. In fact, I stressed that, as education minister, Crosland ‘presided over a heroic expansion of higher education, establishing a proudly innovative tier of “new polytechnics"’.

Price also takes me up on schools, and my criticism of the half-cock way in which Labour launched the comprehensives. This is a matter of opinion. He writes with direct knowledge of the obstacles in the way of a more fundamental reform. Nevertheless, I do not believe that a policy of pushing state grammar schools into the comprehensive scheme without doing any thing about the private sector was the best or only available way of going about it.

The issue was not ‘abolishing the public schools’, but finding a method of bringing good independent schools into the national mainstream – something Labour had long promised, and many teachers and parents wished for. Then it was a widely discussed option: now it would be much harder, if not impossible. Price’s excuse for government paralysis (’Neither local councils nor the public schools themselves wanted any truck with integration’ – i.e. vested interests might have got cross) scarcely disposes of my argument that an opportunity was missed.

But what surprises me most is that Price should think Crosland’s memory needs earnest defending. As I indicated, Crosland was one of the postwar giants, whose writings reflect a deep understanding of politics and society, based on practical participation as much as theory. It detracts from his achievement to paint him as a lost messiah who never made a mistake.

Ben Pimlott
Goldsmiths’ College, London

Terminological Illness

Simon Wessely (Letters, 17 September) now claims that he sees a distinction between ME and CFS, two years after his instrumental role in the Royal Colleges committee whose final report specifically (and, many felt, inappropriately) recommended that ‘ME’ should be renamed ‘CFS’. Even if he now makes a distinction between the two terms, he certainly did not do so in his Guardian article, on which I based my assumption that he disagreed with the position Elaine Showalter took on CFS and class in Hystories.

In that book Showalter suggested that, CFS, like neurasthenia, ‘was most commonly seen among the upper social classes’. In the Guardian, using the same historical parallel, Simon Wessely said that in Victorian times CFS was, ‘oddly enough’,

thought to be an illness that predominantly affected the upper echelons of society. So is it yuppie flu, then? The Victorians gradually learnt that it wasn’t, and we are slowly finding the same. My clinics do contain rather more teachers, doctors and nurses than one would expect, but when we extended our studies to general practice and the community we found that CFS was common in all social classes.

In his letter Wessely suggests that in his Guardian article he was writing about CFS, and that Elaine Showalter had been giving an account of ME. In his article, however, he uses the two terms as though they were interchangeable, and writes under the title ‘No-name illness’. The only distinction he made between them was this: ‘ME is the term that dominates the clinic and the media, but doctors talk and write about CFS. Encephalomyelitis … is a misnomer while chronic fatigue syndrome is instead neutral … but is it, whatever we call it, new?’ The implication must surely be that he sees (or then saw) the two terms as different names for the same thing, not as ‘different constructs and concepts’, as he now claims.

In her book Showalter also used the two terms as though they were synonymous, noting that ‘ME’ is the name ‘used in the UK’. ‘Whatever the official definition or name of the syndrome,’ she went on to say, ‘doctors use it in lax and general ways.’ This last point certainly seems to be true, and it’s the reason for the British ME charities’ aversion to the term ‘CFS’, which they see as a large and unspecific category, consisting of many sub-groups with different causes and symptoms. Their point has usually been that as it is already widely used in Britain, the term ‘ME’ should continue to be used here until a more satisfactory alternative can be agreed on. However, neither Showalter nor Wessely mentioned sub-groups in what they wrote. The symptoms Showalter described, as well as her historical account of the illness, clearly indicate that she was writing about CFS as a whole and was not making the distinction Simon Wessely now makes in his letter. In print, if not necessarily in intention, there can be no doubt that Wessely did contradict Showalter’s views on this issue.

Sarah Rigby

Living Apart

Timothy Garton Ash’s review of Dark Continent by Mark Mazower (LRB, 17 September) evokes a wry smile from this Serb. Reviewer and reviewed agree that the post-Communist failure of multi-ethnic states ‘has to do with democracy itself’. No mention here that the great and the good of Europe instinctively sided with ‘democratic’ Croats and Slovenes against ‘Communist’ Serbs; that they proceeded to cheer on the break-up of multi-ethnic and multi national Yugoslavia and yet became wedded to a mini-Yugoslavia called Bosnia. The peoples of Bosnia were expected to accomplish, in a flash, a giant leap from an explicitly multinational administrative unit to a sovereign multi-ethnic citizens’ state. It never crossed the minds of these outsiders that the integrity of Bosnia may have been conditional on it remaining part of a greater multinational whole.

Then there is the statement that domestic constitution-makers ‘have failed to work out’ how to ‘reconcile the rights and aspirations of minorities with rule by the majority’ when that minority is large and of a different nationality. Indeed, but the obvious recent example of this failure goes unmentioned: namely, Croatia, which, as it happens, was godfathered by the European Community. Zagreb wanted to leave Yugoslavia with all of bi-national Croatia including the Krajina Serb lands, but not through the constitutional procedure of negotiations. These would have been based on the federal Constitution whose first sentence referred to the right of secession for the six constituent nations (those whose only home was within Yugoslavia), not for federal units nor minorities such as the Kosovo Albanians. The federal Constitution reflected the fact that the original Yugoslavia, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, was a coming together of nations not states. Secession was clearly meant to be a matter of give and take. Zagreb suggested confederation, which would have amounted to unilateral secession in stages, but prevaricated on this in any case and later sparked off full-scale war by first demoting the status of its Serbs from a constituent nation to a minority (imagine Ottawa doing the same to its French Canadians) and then seceding in the wake of mono-national Slovenia.

When the EC stepped in, it should have advised Croatia to negotiate its departure in good faith. Instead, it decreed in superpower fashion that Yugoslavia’s Constitution was null and void, and that each of the federal units would have the right to secede on the basis of a crude winner-take-all referendum. It was a destabilising pre cedent: unilateral secessionists are handsomely rewarded at the expense of unionists; internal boundaries matter, constitutions don’t. Worse still, the EC had laid down the law but was unwilling to enforce it, protracting the ethnic strife which subsequently engulfed tri-national Bosnia. The results speak for themselves: an ethnically pure Croatia, Bosnia under indefinite Nato occupation and the Serbs more determined than ever to retain Kosovo.

Misha Simic

A Belated Encounter

May I take the opportunity provided by Andrew Hillier’s letter (Letters, 3 September) to remind, or inform, readers of the LRB that there already exists a National Register of Archives, maintained by this Commission. The NRA offers exactly the service which Mr Hillier suggests – namely, to direct scholars and other users of archives to relevant source material for British history. Last year more than 120,000 users accessed our website and we plan in the near-future to offer direct access to the NRA database via the World Wide Web. If any of your readers wish to trace sur viving archives, they are welcome to visit our search room, open Monday-Friday 9.30-5 p.m. Alternatively, they may write, fax (0171 831 3550) or e-mail (nra@hmc.gov.uk) their enquiries to us.

Dick Sargent
Director, National Register of Archives
Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts
London WC2A 1HP


One of the least pardonable depredations of the Franco censorship was that no one saw fit to prohibit the publication of ¡Hola! and its fellow-offenders, Lecturas, Diez Minutos etc, most of which have been littering the minds of Spaniards, as well as their dentists’ and other waiting rooms, since they were legally approved in 1958. It was a nice try by Jacqueline Rose (LRB, 20 August) to link such rubbish with Franco, but it is simply a non-starter.

Kenneth Collier

Editors note

In a fit of editorial enthusiasm, a reference in Michael Rogin’s article on Beauvoir and Nelson Algren (LRB, 17 September) to Conversations with Nelson Algren (1964) – H.E.F. Donohue’s – was changed to Conversations with Sartre (1981) – Beauvoir’s. Apologies to our contributor, our readers and the august conversationalists.

Editors, ‘London Review’

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