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Letters

Vol. 23 No. 1 · 4 January 2001

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The Great Lie

The two recent articles in the LRB on Israel and the Palestinians, by Charles Glass (LRB, 30 November 2000) and Edward Said (LRB, 14 December 2000), both propose that Israel officially admit its ‘great lie’ – the denial of Palestinian nationhood – preferably at Said’s fantasy seminar on Historical Truth and Political Justice, presided over by academics like himself. Said suggests that this ‘might reveal a way out of the present impasse’. Can he be serious?

At no time in the last fifty years has there been greater recognition in Israel of Palestinian nationhood and right to sovereignty than there is today. If anything, this has only increased the fear of large sections of the Israeli electorate that a Palestinian state, on a territorial base free of Israeli control, and with help from outside (Iran, Iraq, Islamic terrorists on the Bin Laden model), might constitute an irredentist threat. Said points out that the land offered the Palestinians today is only a fraction of what they owned before 1948 and warns that Israel is surrounded by three hundred million Arabs and even more hostile Muslims – precisely the kind of rhetoric which alarms those Israelis. His demonisation of the Israelis – the ‘malign genius’ behind the Oslo Accords, their ‘reliance’ on a subservient American press (can he really believe that the New Republic determines US policy?) – is absurd. The Israelis do not lack their own futile rhetoric – the ‘eternal unity’ of Jerusalem under Israeli rule, for example, when the city is so clearly divided – but the tenor of the negotiations so far makes nonsense of the idea that it is the incompatibility of ‘discourses’ or ‘narratives’, or even ‘ideological’ support for the settlers, which perpetuates the Israeli occupation and the undeniable injustice and suffering experienced by those living under Israeli rule. Negotiations broke down because there is still a gap between Israel’s minimal security demands and Palestinian minimal sovereignty requirements, though this gap had been substantially narrowed. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, if this is the model for Said’s seminar, did not precede black African independence but followed it, and the only practical consequence of a similar Israeli/Palestinian commission might be the payment of reparations to Palestinian refugees – something already proposed by Israel at Camp David, but explicitly offered without any admission of guilt.

There has indeed been much controversy in Israel over the historical record, and not only among academics, as Charles Glass’s article suggests. The education committee of the Knesset is currently arguing over proposed changes to the (secular) school history curriculum – a reflection of the impact of the ‘revisionist’ historians. An Israeli district court is shortly to hear a libel case brought against a researcher who investigated a massacre of Palestinian villagers during the 1948 war. The long neglected rights of Israel’s Arab minority have never been more in the public eye. Meron Benvenisti, whom Said attacks, is one of the most outspoken critics of Israeli policy. In Sacred Landscape, published last year, he documents Israel’s systematic annihilation of the hundreds of Arab villages whose inhabitants were driven out or fled in 1948. Israelis and Palestinians have never held a closer dialogue than in the post-Oslo period (including countless seminars with participants from both sides). But all this has little or no political resonance.

Said’s rubbishing of the Oslo Accords dismisses both the optimism they first aroused in the Palestinians living under Israeli rule and the degree of co-operation which was in fact achieved. The problem with Oslo was not that it was a ‘gigantic fraud’ on Israel’s side, connived at by a corrupt and inept Palestinian leadership, as Said argues. Oslo represented a genuine step towards a settlement, but to be successful it had to be rapidly and honestly implemented, so that the benefits of compromise could be demonstrated to both sides before extremists on both sides could impede further progress. That this did not happen was largely Israel’s responsibility (three lost years under Netanyahu). But to present the Palestinians solely as victims, as Said does, it to deny them the strength of their weaknesses. Said’s proposition that Arafat’s volte face after Camp David – the immediate cause of the present impasse – was dictated by failure of nerve, rather than the calculation that an uprising would serve his purposes better than an agreement, is unconvincing.

Naomi Shepherd
Jerusalem

I’d have thought that any discussion on the Middle East should mention the half-million or so Jews who had to leave the Arab countries which are now ‘Judenrein’.

J. Spencer
Oxford

I mistakenly wrote that the father of Gaby Aldor left Vienna for Palestine in 1938. In fact, he emigrated in 1934. I also wrote that her play Lane of White Chairs was produced again at the Acre Theatre Festival last year, but it was the play on the torture of Palestinians that was revived.

Charles Glass
London W11

Feedback

Hugh Pennington’s account of the Phillips Report on BSE (LRB, 14 December 2000) doesn’t identify the firms that first put the suspect cattle feed on the market and then went on selling it outside the UK after it was banned here. No account of Phillips that I have seen has mentioned them, and perhaps Phillips himself did not. Are they not at least as blameworthy as the civil servants? Did they not provide the research information on the basis of which officials approved their product? Did they have any patents out on their product? Did they not actively profit from the pre-ban sales in this country, and have they not profited from the post-ban sales abroad? After the ban here, they must have known their product was suspect: did they inform their foreign customers? If not, should these customers now sue them? Above all, why are the costs of this commercially-driven disaster being met by the taxpayer? shouldn’t ‘the polluter’ pay?

Elizabeth Young
London W2

Consider the Cleavages

‘What is this country that elected this man as its President?’ Hal Foster asks (LRB, 30 November 2000). I’ll explain.

Foster says a map of the result ‘looks like the Civil War resumed’ because the South went Republican. This ignores the fact that the Plains states, which Bush also won, were the heartland of Lincoln’s support in 1860. The real point is different. Ever since 1968 Republican hopes have depended on an alliance of the South and the West. It is wrong to suggest, as Foster does, that the Bush vote demonstrates a ‘geographic divide that reflects an awful racial divide’, or at least this is no more true now than it was in 1972, 1980, 1984 and 1988.

Much of the toing and froing which has followed the election is simply the result of an electoral dead-heat – in a country of over quarter of a billion people, this is an extraordinary outcome. The result of all previous elections during a similar economic boom suggested that Gore couldn’t lose, while the fact that the Republicans controlled the House, Senate and 36 of the 50 state governorships suggested that Bush couldn’t lose.

The GOP was obviously trying to repeat the strategy which worked so well in 1980 and 1984: put up a dumb but likable candidate who makes no secret of the fact that he will be laid-back. Quite clearly the idea is for Cheney, Baker, Powell, Perle etc to run the country much as an overlapping group did in 1981-88.

Foster congratulates Hillary Clinton for her ‘nice’ victory in New York without taking account of the fact that Gore actually ran well ahead of her and ‘coat-tailed’ her in, though it was George W. who handed New York to her by announcing that he wouldn’t bother to campaign there. The striking phenomenon was the large number of Gore voters who went out of their way to vote against Hillary.

Foster says the result shows ‘a more dramatic gulf between rich and poor’. But the opposite is true. In 1980 62 per cent of upper-income voters sided with the Republicans. In 2000, 55 per cent of voters with incomes over $100,ooo voted Republican. This declining class cleavage was just what might have been expected. Lots of wealthy voters expressed their gratitude to the Clinton Administration, which was indeed the basis of the Gore campaign.

Consider some of the key cleavages of the election. No less than 58 per cent of GOP voters had guns at home compared to 38 per cent of Democrats. A large majority of Democrats (76 per cent) favoured gun control laws while a 52 per cent GOP majority opposed them. Compared to 59 per cent of Democrats, 72 per cent of GOP voters were married – and they were much keener on ‘family values’; 56 per cent of GOP voters thought abortion should most often or always be illegal while 71 per cent of Democrats thought the opposite. And GOP voters were more rural than ever: in 1980, 52 per cent of rural voters backed Reagan; in 2000 59 per cent voted for George W. These correlations are far more dramatic than Foster’s gender divide. it’s true that 57 per cent of women voted Democrat, and 52 per cent of men voted for Bush. It used to be the other way about, but the key to this is the rise of social issue politics, rather than gender itself.

Ideology is more important than ever. In 1980 72 per cent of those describing themselves as liberals went Democrat; the figure for 2000 was 81 per cent. Similarly in 1980 67 per cent of conservatives went for Reagan; in 2000 80 per cent went for Bush. What defines a conservative or liberal has changed and now has far more to do with social issues than with the old class divide or even the inheritance of the Civil War which saw Southern conservatives vote Democrat for generations. Those were the years when the racial divide was at its height – not now. The decline of both class and race as vote indicators has allowed religion to become more important: 50 per cent of GOP voters go to church at least once a week, but only 39 per cent of Democrats (47 per cent of Democrat voters never go or only a few times a year). Once you subtract the huge Jewish, Muslim and Catholic blocs from the Democrat vote there is a very striking contrast between practising Republican Protestants and secular Democrats.

R.W. Johnson
Johannesburg

Hal Foster repeats the myth that Ralph Nader cost Al Gore votes, and therefore the election. It seems perverse to accuse voters of failing politicians rather than to acknowledge the failure of mainstream politicians to meet voters’ needs.

Gavin Lewis
London SW2

Self-Obsessed

Mary Wollstonecraft, if Susan Eilenberg is to be believed (LRB, 30 November 2000), was an exceptionally feminine feminist, a woman positively overflowing with stock female attributes. Silly, egotistical, histrionic, narcissistic, envious, rancorous, petty-minded, meddling, intellectually mediocre: this Wollstonecraft is a misogynist’s pin-up. The portrait, Eilenberg insists, is Janet Todd’s own, unsoftened by the biographer’s natural partiality for her subject. This is nonsense. Where Todd is careful and balanced – seeking, as she said in her letter (Letters, 14 December 2000), to reveal a woman of everyday complexity – Eilenberg rushes to pop-Freudian interpretations. Wollstonecraft, we are told, was so egotistical that other people, even lovers, existed for her only as mirrors, opportunities for self-display. A ‘rancorous’ solipsism coloured everything. The tone in which Eilenberg delivers these verdicts may be intended to be dryly humorous, but what it most closely resembles – eerily echoes – is Wollstonecraft’s own harshly satirical censure of her fellow women who, according to A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, are silly, ungenerous, ‘brimful of false sentiment’ and, above all, selfishly indifferent to others.

Wollstonecraft regarded these female follies as products of oppression, and thus remediable. Eilenberg, on the other hand, sees Wollstonecraft as a pretty hopeless case. Expecting to meet a feminist heroine – an ‘electrifying prophet’ – she encounters instead a ‘manipulative whinger’ whose ‘power to dismay’ overwhelms her ‘greatness’. The terms are depressingly familiar. For over two hundred years Wollstonecraft has been bouncing on and off her pedestal. Ever since Godwin’s Memoirs revealed her stormy emotional history she has attracted constant criticism from those who insist that famous women intellectuals must be more than ordinarily human. Other interpreters, Wollstonecraft’s ‘defenders’, as Eilenberg dubs them, rush in to explain, exonerate, idealise. Her icon rating rises, falls, rises again.

Can we now come at her differently? Because if not – if the only options really are Silly Woman or Heroine – then Wollstonecraft is in trouble. For she certainly could be silly, and she was neither an intellectual giant nor a great prophet. She was instead a troubled, determined woman who, in the late 1780s, became a type of thinker unique to the late Enlightenment: a radical philosophe, one of a small group of left-wing Protestant aufklärer who, inspired by the American and French Revolutions, sought to turn the ‘liberty of reason’ to libertarian political ends. Self-educated in advanced thought and also deeply pious, Wollstonecraft was preoccupied with issues that still resonate politically – individual rights; material and cultural inequalities; the social consequences of sexual difference – as well as with others that require some stretch of historical imagination for their significance to be grasped: theodicy and the workings of Providence; the Christian-Platonic ideal of erotic transcendence (with which she hoped to remodel female sexuality); the Rousseauist critique of civilisation. To all these matters, Wollstonecraft brought an enormous appetite for innovation and disputation – leading impulses behind her feminism – while to her career as a revolutionary propagandist she brought a passionate utopianism, an absolute faith in the eventual arrival of a ‘perfect age’ of universal freedom.

What, then, are we to make of Eilenberg’s claim that Wollstonecraft’s ‘once offensive radicalism now appears a disturbing conservatism’? Is this a reference to Wollstonecraft’s proto-socialist critique of commerce (which led her to speak favourably of Babeuf, and prompted Robert Owen to claim her as ideological soulmate)? Or her fierce attack on the sexual double standard? Or her opposition to slavery? Or her exploration (in her final novel, Maria) of the interrelation of class and gender inequalities? Wollstonecraft’s times are not ours; her attitudes are often alien, her prejudices frequently grate. Her prescriptions for women (in common with those proffered by virtually all progressive moralists of her day, including other feminists) are dauntingly stern. But if we want to understand her these are differences to explore, not to deplore or to ridicule.

Wollstonecraft, I think it is safe to say, was not a Nice Woman (although many people of both sexes liked her very much). But she was undeniably a person to reckon with, both in her lifetime and after.

Barbara Taylor
London N7

Spite and Trivia

It could be – indeed, as far as we know, it is so – that in the huge depths of space and time, we are the only existent beings with the moral, intellectual and aesthetic capacity to be conscious of the almost infinite size, beauty and complexity of the universe: it is therefore profoundly depressing that your correspondence columns are so preoccupied with spiteful and pedantic literary gossip rather than with the courteous exchange of more interesting information and ideas. One has to turn to your sister jounal Nature for serious appreciation of the awesome realities of the human situation, which is surely what literature ought to be concerned with. Mixing with both, I find that scientists are much more interested in the arts than vice versa and that sadly the two remain as far apart as when C.P. Snow first drew attention to their dissociation – a situation not to be mended by writers mugging up the laws of thermodynamics but by changing a system of education that makes us choose in early adolescence to what use we will put our intelligence and sensibility.

John A. Davis
Cambridge

The Face of Agamemnon

I cannot agree with Mary Beard (LRB, 30 November 2000) that most visitors do not realise that ‘those distinctively primitive, stumpy red columns, which are the trademark of the site of Knossos, are built wholly of modern concrete and are part of the “rebuilding" by Evans.’ This is in fact painfully obvious (especially to those who have also visited the site of Zakros, whose ruins have not been reconstructed in such a horrible way). However, Evans was at least trying to reconstruct the palace and not vandalise it and take it home with him. He was forgiven everything by the Cretans when it was learnt that he died of a heart attack at the news that the Germans were bombing Crete.

As to R.G. Collingwood’s comment that a visitor would think Knossian architecture consisted of ‘public lavatories’, I don’t think this is a slur at all. In the late 1950s, my father, who was bored by museums and ancient sites, was told to take a group of Belgians around the ruins as a bit of PR since they were thinking about opening a shipyard on Crete – my father, an engineer, was in charge of the project. He ended up having to be dragged away from the palace. What so impressed him? Neither Evans’s concrete columns nor the ‘Prince of the Lilies’, but the sewage system. He thought this was the most fantastic thing he had ever seen and wanted to inspect every aspect of this impressive feat of hydraulic engineering.

Parina Douzina Stiakaki
Athens

Long-Lasting Sobriety

John Sutherland (LRB, 30 November 2000) asks how successful Alcoholics Anonymous really is. I have been a member of AA in five countries for over twenty years, and my guess is that 40 per cent of newcomers hang around long enough (6-12 months) for their heads to clear and for them to get an idea of how AA works. Of that 40 per cent, perhaps 20 per cent achieve long-lasting sobriety. This suggests an 8 per cent success rate. Nobody finds it easy to accept that his/her life is an unmanageable balls-up and that he/she must start afresh. Considering the intractable nature of addiction, and the mental state of most newcomers, I think an 8 per cent success rate is astounding.

Brian Pringle
Margaret River, Western Australia

Me Generation

John Widdop
Poza Rica, Mexico

tarry easty

Roy Foster (LRB, 30 November 2000) writes of Rapallo: ‘though there are plaques on all the apartments that housed the resident luminaries, nothing adorns 12 via Marsala, where the embarrassing Pound held court and praised Mussolini.’ If you approach 12 via Marsala from the seafront you go through a marble archway on which Pound’s residence there is recorded and several lines from one of the late Cantos are inscribed. Far from finding him an embarrassment (though one could argue that they should) the Rapallo authorities have also named a seafront piazzetta Giardino Ezra Pound. At Sant’ Ambrogio, in the hills directly above the town, his name and dates and the reasons for his fame are commemorated on a large and very visible plaque attached to the house once occupied by his mistress, Olga Rudge. There is also a via Ezra Pound up there.

C.K. Stead
Auckland

Tanked up

Peter Wollen quotes from Sieg Heil! The War Letters of Tank Gunner Karl Fuchs, 1937-41 in his review of Patrick Wright’s Tank (LRB, 16 November 2000), and mentions that one book Fuchs read during the Wehrmacht’s drive towards Moscow and Leningrad was ‘a fictionalised story of the struggle of the Teutonic Knights against Ivan the Terrible’. The novel in question is Wolter – not Waltervon Plettenberg by the first President of the Nazi Chamber of Literature or Reichsschrifttumskammer, Hans Friedrich Blunck. This historical tale was published in 1938 and intended to suggest a successful defence of Western Europe by Hitler’s regime against the Asiatic hordes of Bolshevism. As German scholars have pointed out, Blunck falsified history by systematically confusing the true opponent of the Knights, Tsar Ivan III, with his grandson Ivan IV, to whom the infamous nickname grozny, meaning ‘terrible’, ‘dreaded’, was given. This enabled Blunck to suggest to readers ignorant of the historical facts that the Russian enemy of the Germans at the turn of the 16th century was a figure comparable to Stalin. The book was clearly perceived to have contemporary relevance: sales reached a quarter of a million copies in the aftermath of Germany’s invasion of the USSR.

Lawrence Stokes
Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia

Ditch the beard

It is a sad reflection of the world we live in that much criticism of Richard Branson is sparked by the fact that many people can't live with a well-known person having a beard. That aside, Jenny Diski (LRB, 16 November 2000) only touches on what Branson is all about. He stands for those who dislike actually existing capitalism, but believe that it can be operated more nicely and trendily. As Tom Bowers's book shows, Branson is a living example that this isn't possible. He should ditch the beard and get a top hat and cigar instead.

Keith Flett
London N17

We do not presume

It was with some dismay that I read D.A. Reichardt’s letter (Letters, 16 November 2000) claiming that she had ‘failed to find a way in’ to the Dickinson Electronic Archives and that ‘an e-mail to the collective remains unanswered.’ I cannot say when her request for access was first forwarded to us, but I can say that I answered her on 12 November. We are eager to get as much feedback as possible: if you do not hear from us within a couple of days, please contact us again.

Martha Nell Smith
Dickinson Electronic Archives Projects, University of Maryland

Good Old Days

My letter about Alexander Hamilton (Letters, 16 November 2000) originally stated that Hamilton would not be eligible for the post of President were he alive today. It is not correct to say – and I did not say – that he ‘was not strictly eligible for the post’ during his lifetime. The passage that followed made it clear that Hamilton (born in Nevis) was eligible for the Presidency, but naturalised citizens after his time were not.

Ron Haggart
Toronto

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