With a few exceptions, your 11 September roundtable (LRB, 4 October) is agreed on one central point: what happened in New York and Washington can be directly blamed on US policies and actions from the 1960s to the present, with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians as the last straw. Fredric Jameson reminds us that the recent ‘events’, as he calls the horrific attacks that killed thousands, provide us with ‘a textbook example of dialectical reversal’. Others – Tariq Ali, for instance – warn us not to incense Arab nations even further, as if a mea culpa on our part could now end the threat of further attacks, this time quite possibly ones of biological warfare.
But what I wish principally to address here is part of Mary Beard’s contribution. ‘When the shock had faded,’ she writes, ‘more hard-headed reaction set in. This wasn’t just the feeling that, however tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming. That is, of course, what many people openly or privately think. World bullies, even if their heart is in the right place, will in the end pay the price.’
On 11 September, according to the latest figures as I write, 6333 Americans and 2593 foreign citizens died in New York. That’s approximately 9000 people. (I am not counting those who died at the Pentagon.) Most of us know someone or know of someone who has died in the WTC debacle. And most of the people who died had relatives, including thousands of now orphaned children. If you multiply 9000 by, say, four you have 36,000 innocent people whose lives have been destroyed in one way or another. The victims, incidentally, included a high proportion of Latinos and blacks as well as a good number of Muslims. And, contrary to the cliché about the WTC and the Pentagon being emblems of US imperial power, the victims held a great variety of jobs: they worked for travel agencies, restaurants, public relations firms, TV networks, insurance companies, law firms, art supply manufacturers. In short, they were a cross-section of America.
But Mary Beard, writing from Cambridge, surely one of the most idyllic safe havens in the world, tells us that ‘the United States had it coming’ and that this is ‘of course’ what many people ‘openly or privately think’. In the circles in which Beard travels, perhaps many people do think this. Certainly most of the LRB’s contributors seem to. Perhaps this is why academics are now so poorly regarded by the rest of the population and why there are so few academic jobs for recent Humanities PhDs, either in the US or the UK. Outside the ivory gates, 95 per cent of the US population evidently disagree with Beard’s assessment. But of course we know how spurious this ‘fact’ is. As Jameson tells us, the people ‘are united by the fear of saying anything that contradicts this completely spurious media consensus’.
Fear, one wonders, of what? Has Jameson ever been silenced for his views? Beard, in any case, goes on to complain about our ‘glib definitions of “terrorism"’ and our ‘refusal to listen to what the “terrorists" have to say’. ‘There are,’ she continues, ‘very few people on the planet who devise carnage for the sheer hell of it.’
Well, I suppose it depends on what one means by ‘the sheer hell of it’. By analogy to terrorism, perhaps we should not have bothered with definitions of Nazism or Fascism, but should have listened to what Hitler and his friends had to say. I seem to recall that Neville Chamberlain tried just that; he even had ‘a piece of paper from Herr Hitler’. But as Churchill knew, ‘an appeaser is one who feeds the crocodile thinking it will eat him last.’ As it turned out, after all that ‘listening’ at Berchtesgaden, there were quite a few people on the planet who were quite happy to devise carnage ‘for the sheer hell of it’, taking that phrase quite literally. Hell is, in any case, what transpired.
It is true that the US has committed some atrocities in the Middle East and that, say, Clinton’s bombing of the wrong target – a beautiful new hospital – in the Sudan was a major crime. Does it therefore follow that ‘the US had it coming’? And which of us in the US are included?
I have been a subscriber to LRB since the journal’s inception some twenty-five years ago. But I hereby cancel my subscription and shall urge my Stanford students and colleagues to boycott the journal. Let me end, however, on an upbeat note that speaks to Beard’s ‘of course’. The man who takes care of our garden in Pacific Palisades, Ruben Vargas, was here the other day. A Latino who came to California from Mexico not all that long ago, Vargas has a daughter who is a freshman at UCLA. Some of us like to think that such upward mobility is what makes the US unique. I asked Ruben what he thought of the attack. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘at least now we’re all in it together.’ I responded: ‘But Ruben, many of my friends think it’s all America’s fault.’ He smiled and said: ‘Excuse me, Marjorie’ – yes, in California, one has only a first name – ‘but isn’t that a minuscule part of the population?’ Of course!
Being a teacher, I tend to get very behind on my reading of the LRB during term time. I catch up in the holidays, reading issues as they come to hand. That is why I was reading, this sunny Sunday morning, Stephen Holmes’s fascinating analysis of Post-Communist Russia (LRB, 19 April). His concluding sentence: ‘Clandestine groups, capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction with no return address, may turn out to be the most unforgettable beneficiaries of those politically unregulated markets on which the West’s stupefying prosperity currently rests.’ Security services must read the wrong papers.
When I visit England sometime I'm going to stop by your offices and shove your loony leftist faces into some dog shit.
One of the chief strengths of the LRB has always been the sober and considered examination of the kind of political and social issues which are mangled or misrepresented in the daily or weekly press. Your response to the events of 11 September, however, was exceptional. The sanity, compassion and clarity displayed by your contributors was a crucial reminder that there is still some value to be attached to that much abused term ‘civilised’.
Rory Stewart’s account of his walk across Iran (LRB, 6 September) prompts me to a complementary reflection on my own recent experience of that country. Whereas his Iran was rural and rejecting, mine was urban and accepting. I spent last summer term on sabbatical, teaching in Ferdowsi University in Mashhad but also visiting and lecturing in a number of other university towns. I was always welcomed with a mixture of enthusiasm, appreciation and respect that made me feel almost bogus, revelling in what Philip Larkin calls ‘success so huge and wholly farcical’.
The Iranians I met – intelligent, middle-class English speakers – wanted direct contact with the West. In the more provincial universities, I was the first Westerner to visit since the Revolution in 1979. Things seem to be changing, however, and now that a British Council representative is working in Tehran, there is no reason why others should not follow a similar path to mine.
Anglo-Iranian relations are beset by problems of image. I was often asked whether we see them as terrorists, extremists, fanatics. Equally frequently, I was asked what we knew of their culture and, particularly, of their poetry. The two questions reflect the West’s split identification of that rich and rooted civilisation: ‘Persia’ and ‘Iran’, one connoting Eastern sophistication, luxury, ceramics, carpets and long-haired cats, the other a grim business of fanaticism and terrorism – both images, of course, are wide of the mark.
It is annoying when people assume that professional philosophers, just because they are philosophers, are especially wise. Equally annoying is when people assume that professional philosophers, just because they ask questions about apparently obvious things, are especially stupid. Does George Hornby (Letters, 4 October) really think that Thomas Nagel and Barry Stroud have never heard of the electromagnetic spectrum?
Neither Thomas Nagel's piece nor George Hornby's letter considers the yellowness of the lemon from the point of view of the lemon tree, which might reasonably be considered to have more interest in the matter than we have. The bright colour of its fruit is essential to its reproductive strategy, ensuring that the animals it needs to distribute its seeds notice it has selected from the variety of metabolites present in the skin of the fruit those that reflect the light of a wavelength attractive to any animal that relishes its flavour and will carry it away, eat it and sow the seedling where it has a chance of developing out of the shadow of its parent. Colour in nature has nothing to do with human perceptions or sensibilities, except in so far as we, too, are fruit-eating animals and like to pick out from among the leaves these attractive signals of edibility.
Sixteen years ago, my daughter was of Barbie-buying age, and we found a ‘News-Room Barbie’, complete with studio set. The broadcaster’s desk had a page of copy lying on it, with Barbie-sized text. Suspicious, I blew it up on the copier: it was Latin, which, lacking Mary Beard’s expertise (LRB, 23 August), and with the help of a colleague’s son, I eventually traced to Caesar’s Gallic Wars.
Here are some statistics from the issue of the London Review which included Jenny Diski's review of David Gilmore's Misogyny (LRB, 6 September). On the cover two of the seven articles listed were by women. The table of contents revealed that five of the 19 contributions were by women. But the most interesting statistic jumped out of a glance at the Letters page. Not one letter was by a woman.
I notice that the overwhelming number of responses in papers such as the LRB come from men. Whether editors select these male opinions because they receive more of them, because they are better written, out of prejudice, or a combination of the above might be a subject for study.
Woodland Hills, California
I succeeded David Sylvester at 78 Teignmouth Road, NW2 as a child from 1947 to 1956 and the house was then exactly as he described it (LRB, 5 July). I even recognised the garden in the photograph. I, too, played in Gladstone Park, went to Lords and the Hippodrome at Golders Green and could get to Marble Arch by foot and trolley bus in fifteen minutes. The devout faithful still paraded past the house en route to Brondesbury Synagogue. Dr Lazarus Goldschmidt still lived next door, though he had by the 1950s developed the unfortunate habit of playing the piano, loudly and badly, for three hours every day, the Sabbath excluded. Finally, Sylvester's parents expected him to qualify as a lawyer. Fortunately for art criticism he did not; but I did.