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Letters

Vol. 22 No. 19 · 5 October 2000

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Me Generation

I am another anorak in remission who noticed – oh, all right, the word is ‘spotted’ – Tom Paulin’s Messerschmitt error and, like Marcus Short (Letters, 21 September), I bought the Airfix model of the 109. The biggest and best thing in my little air force, though, was the British Lancaster bomber. The metal one was, of course, the prime instrument of the destruction of Hamburg and Dresden, so notched up two out of five in Thomas Powers’s list of ‘the truly horrific events of the war’. I was gluing my plastic one together – and oh, the happy hours of painting it – barely 15 years after the firestorm and the night the gutters ran with melted human fat. ‘Nice boys’, we were, we who glued Airfix then, with many a swot in our number. They were ‘nice chaps’, no doubt, the men who ran Airfix, with many among them who must have ‘done their bit’. If Marcus Short wants to peer into attics, then perhaps the juxtaposition of his letter and Powers’s indispensable review of Victor Klemperer’s diaries throws a certain sickly light to peer in by. How could ordinary Germans possibly not have known the true extent of the evil? Perhaps they were too proudly engrossed in painting the Swastikas on their little Messerschmitts as the dust was rising, just as little Marcus and I were before it had begun to settle.

Julian Roach
Welshpool, Powys

Sensitivity isn’t enough

Peter Berkowitz’s review of my book Virtue, Reason and Toleration (LRB, 7 September) charges that it is a ‘dense, abstract and resolutely technical’ volume which is likely to be caviar to the general. The general, alas, seems to include Berkowitz himself, whose frustration at my failure to preach the value of toleration leads him astray at numerous points. As he alleges, I do refrain from telling everyone what to tolerate. To cite his examples, I don’t say whether toleration requires us to give free rein to ‘hate speech’, or to allow parents to force their religion on their offspring. Does Berkowitz know the answer to these questions? One of the major arguments of the book is that the answers can’t be known or that if they can that won’t make them politically useful. Does Berkowitz have a theory of political justification which will show why my answers or his would be privileged? The problems facing philosophical arguments for toleration lie in the justification of liberal democracy itself. Matters aren’t improved by getting him (or me) to tell everyone the answers, foisting them on a perhaps sceptical, apathetic or reluctant public, and then congratulating ourselves on our tolerance. His protests are in fact doubly baffling, as he earlier endorses my objection to the ‘conceit’ that philosophical reflection ‘can decide political issues’.

No doubt ‘we’ democratic citizens still enjoy the odd Voltairean moment. But more politically relevant is the fact that, faced with objectionable conduct by others, we either can’t make them do what we want, or can’t be bothered to. ‘Controversial empirical claims and debatable speculation about right and wrong’, in Berkowitz’s apt phrase, are what give rise to political conflicts over toleration, but he doesn’t see that its beleaguered state, which he bemoans, has the selfsame source as what makes it politically urgent. Platitudes about how ‘we’ are all committed to toleration by the happy fact of living in a regime of ‘freedom and equality’ (are we supposed to have signed up to this?) yield no specific conclusions about toleration, as becomes clear when the values themselves generate political conflict. If we do live in such a regime, Berkowitz might pause to wonder why toleration is, as he believes, in such a bad way.

According to Berkowitz I don’t provide ‘even a smidgen of empirical evidence’ for my passing comment, drawn from Aristotle’s Topics, that ta endoxa, the opinions of ‘the many or the wise’, suggest that toleration is a moral value. Few readers of Aristotle apart from Berkowitz take him to have thought that moral philosophy should be done by Mori-style polling, rather than that the basis for ascribing certain views to the many or the wise varies with the solidity of the institutions themselves. Berkowitz doesn’t give any empirical evidence against the view that toleration is such a value – indeed he implicitly endorses it elsewhere in the review. And in fact a good many smidgens of evidence appear in the book, which cites a range of writers who express the endoxon, and others who regard toleration as a moral value because its justification is a moral one (value-pluralists, rights-theorists, autonomists etc).

Glen Newey
University Center for Human Values
Princeton

Unfair to Carr (again)

Far from suggesting that E.H. Carr’s observations on the interwar period were worthless, as Michael Cox suggests (Letters, 7 September), I spent much of my essay pointing out that aspects of them are of great and indeed increasing value.

On Carr’s character, I was careful to say that his love affairs ‘aren’t so very shocking sixty years later’, and that what stands out from his personal life is not sexual voracity, but its deeply depressing character. As to the connection between emotional coldness and evasiveness in Carr’s character and aspects of his work, I am no friend to pop psychologising, but any biographer worth their salt must make some attempt to draw a picture of their subject as a whole person, and to look for some of the roots of their work in their character and upbringing.

Carr’s personal distance from the subjects of his writing is not open to dispute. Yes, he made very brief visits to both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, but his experience of these countries was wholly inadequate to give him any real understanding; and even more culpably, he also failed to draw on the accounts of people who had experienced these systems at first hand.

Cox writes that, ‘Carr was not an apologist for the Soviet system.’ For many years that is exactly what he was. It’s true that his views evolved over time, and The Russian Revolution from Lenin to Stalin, published at the end of his life, is a great improvement on his earlier work when it comes to a recognition of Stalin’s crimes. But this change was made slowly, unwillingly and in response to both well grounded criticism and the increasingly obvious failures of the Soviet system. It may be true that he recognised these failures sooner than some left-wing analysts, but is that great cause for congratulation? Rather than a ‘most punctilious and fair-minded observer’, Carr was a polemicist through and through, and a brilliant one. It’s what made him such a natural leader writer, and it is what makes many of his writings such fun to read even when you profoundly disagree with them.

Anatol Lieven
Washington DC

Saddie (not Zadie)

Zadie Smith is certainly guilty of pressing the fast forward button, as Daniel Soar says (LRB, 21 September), and anachronism is the result. At one point early on in White Teeth, she has the handsome waiter Shiva say to Samad Iqbal, ‘You are such a sad little man’ – ‘sad’ here used in its modern sense of being a real loser. ‘Sad’ surely wasn’t used in this way in the 1970s, when the relevant part of the novel takes place, though it’s about the most withering thing you can say to someone these days. The definitions of ‘sad’ listed in my dictionary include ‘sorrowful’ and ‘mournful’ (these you would expect), and the far more complimentary ‘steadfast’, ‘dignified’, ‘strong’, even ‘profoundly learned’. ‘Deplorable’ and ‘unfortunate’ are mentioned, but nothing worse than that. Perhaps ‘sad’ is now such a popular put-down because of the pressure under the great McDisney dispensation to be cheery and carefree – ‘good value’, as they say. I prefer the old-fashioned use, but then I’m just an old saddie.

Jamie Wetherall
Leeds

We do not presume

Daniel Karlin (LRB, 24 August) makes it sound as if the members of the Dickinson Editing Collective are opposed to R.W. Franklin's edition of Emily Dickinson's poetry. Though we may disagree with some of Franklin's decisions, and though our philosophy of scholarly editing and adhering to the highest standards possible may differ from Franklin's, we are not his opponents. Rather, we are offering different and complementary editorial praxes that make more elements of Dickinson's manuscripts visible than do Franklin's new variorum and reading editions of her poems. Indeed, had he bothered to read our work rather than rely on Domhnall Mitchell's selective quotations, Karlin might have realised that we do not presume to be recovering Emily Dickinson's intentions nor offering a purer understanding of them. Though Mitchell's may be, our critical understanding of authorial intentions is not so simplistic that we assume we can know and recover Dickinson's.

Martha Nell Smith
Dickinson Electronic Archives Projects
University of Maryland

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