Vol. 23 No. 21 · 1 November 2001

Search by issue:

11 September

Marjorie Perloff (Letters, 18 October) is moderately well known as an academic literary critic particularly gifted in the skills of close reading. Her comprehensively illiterate comments on the round-table ‘Reflections on the Present Crisis’ suggest that this time round she must have been reading with her eyes shut. The premise of her intervention (that, ‘with a few exceptions’, the round-table ‘is agreed on one central point: what happened in New York and Washington can be directly blamed on US policies and actions’) does not match the facts. She is right to round on Mary Beard’s worse than tactless suggestion that ‘America had it coming,’ but to say this view is shared by most of the other contributors is an irresponsible travesty. Many of them are concerned with quite different aspects of what happened on 11 September and its likely aftermath. Others are indeed concerned with the consequences of US foreign policy, but not in terms of the direct causation Perloff attributes to them. Thus, to take only one of the examples Perloff cites, Fredric Jameson’s remarks about ‘dialectical reversal’ were addressed to a specific point which no reasonable person should ignore: the black irony that the machines of terror and destruction forged in Afghanistan and Iraq were supplied by the US at a time when the Mujahidin (in Afghanistan’s war with the Soviet occupiers) and Iraq (in the war with Iran) were deemed to be the good guys. Good and evil, it would seem, are mutable, shifting according to the fluctuating priorities of international realpolitik.

Even Mary Beard’s intervention is traduced. Her reference to ‘glib definitions’ of ‘terrorism’ is tendentiously elided to an evasion of definition as such, and, ‘by analogy’, extended to a counterfactual speculation on what might have happened if we had not ‘bothered with definitions of Nazism or Fascism’. Perloff seems to be implying that anyone raising such questions must be motivated by a desire to exempt the New York and Washington atrocities from the definition (a manifest absurdity). But it is no good including some things while self-servingly leaving out others. Beard’s point – again entirely reasonable – concerns not defining as such but defining glibly. Politically motivated glibness is endemic, with all manner of hypocrisy and double standards. Hence the failure of the UN to agree on a definition, in a context where one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter (indeed often the same man’s as perceptions of self-interest change). Perhaps Perloff could enlighten us with a workable definition, sufficiently watertight to justify her manifest contempt for those who draw attention to the hitherto opportunistic manipulations of the term.

There is of course always the risk of qui s’explique s’excuse, and we need to be on our guard against logical drift of this sort. But avoiding the language of excuse is itself no excuse for evading the language of explanation; we do not justify what, in his contribution, Terry Eagleton rightly calls a ‘moral obscenity’ when we try and understand the full complex of factors that spawned and sustained it. Explanations will vary and be the object of fierce debate, but attempting to close down the debate (by encouraging one’s students to boycott the LRB) will not do. What also will not do are facile ‘analogies’ with appeasement in the 1930s. Is it mere coincidence that this analogy follows hot on the heels of an identical piece of sleight of hand by Ariel Sharon? The grim ironies here are endless. Perloff seems hell-bent on exacerbating them.

Furthermore, the charge of appeasement is not only disreputable but menacing. According to Perloff, the professional academic, appeasement seems to have had another effect: on academic jobs (‘perhaps this is why there are so few academic jobs for recent Humanities PhDs, either in the US or the UK’). As an explanation of underfunding in the Humanities, this is, to say the least, intellectually dim and makes one wonder whether Perloff herself has chosen the right line of work (coincidentally, a more plausible account of underfunding is to be found in Steven Shapin’s piece, which begins the issue of the LRB in which Perloff’s letter appears). But, beyond the spectacle of intellectual disarray, there is a more threatening implication in the link she makes between opinion and jobs. Is employment in universities and colleges to be made conditional on a loyalty test? There is a distinct whiff of McCarthyism here: indeed, we have already seen some signs of it in the US. What will Perloff do to ensure that the ‘civilised’ values in the name of which the ‘war’ is being prosecuted are secured against the enemy within as well as the enemy without (exactly what her Stanford colleague Richard Rorty is concerned with in his contribution)? Encouraging her students at Stanford to boycott the LRB is not a promising start. Where will it all end – with students pressed to read only from the approved patriotic hymn sheet? Such bluster on Perloff’s part is a disgrace and brings her own great university into disrepute.

Christopher Prendergast
King’s College, Cambridge

I would like to apologise for the e-mail I sent not long after New York and Washington DC were attacked (Letters, 18 October). You are in no danger of me visiting your office and doing anything remotely violent with dog-doo. My e-mail was sent in a fit of passion. People I know in New York were affected by the attack, but luckily not killed or injured. Imagine how you might feel if thousands of Londoners were blown to bits, and then intellectuals in America or France immediately wrote about how England should have seen it coming, because of its past history of colonialism, repression etc, etc. This doesn’t excuse my comment, just helps explain it. You published it partly ironically, I’m sure, and partly to reconfirm your readers’ views of Americans as idiots. Well, I was idiotic with sadness and anger. Even though I don’t usually agree with publications like the London Review of Books or the Nation, I am glad they are around.

Todd Ojala

By a postal quirk, the issues containing Mary Beard’s lucubrations on the World Trade Center and Marjorie Perloff’s reply reached me on the same day. I share the latter’s feelings, though not her impulse to cancel her subscription to the LRB, many of whose regular contributors seem to me, from personal acquaintance, unlikely to think as Beard does. I was duly awed by Beard’s announcement that readers of the Cambridge Evening News, in a telephone poll, ‘voted decisively against any military action’, enough, you might think, to stop the most hawkish militarists in their tracks. On the other hand, it is reported in the Guardian today (12 October) that 74 per cent of the UK population supports ‘military action’, with 16 per cent against; and that Tony Blair’s ‘net confidence rating’ is now significantly higher than Margaret Thatcher’s during the Falklands conflict and John Major’s in the Gulf War. Either those readers of the Cambridge Evening News who also have telephones are a very select group, or the Guardian/ICM pollsters forgot to ask them.

Claude Rawson
Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut

On seeing Marjorie Perloff's letter, I decided not to finish reading her recent book Wittgenstein's Ladder. Instead, I am giving my copy to a local charity shop and suggesting to friends, colleagues and acquaintances that they do likewise.

Alan Bloxham
Hampton Hill, Middlesex

Nearly a quarter of Marjorie Perloff’s attack on Mary Beard is devoted to an account of the numbers of people whose lives were ended or ruined by the WTC conflagration. Fair enough. But the extent of this human waste is not in dispute. So why mention it? For that matter why mention that Cambridge, where Mary Beard apparently lives, is ‘one of the most idyllic safe havens in the world’? The answer is of course to sneer at Beard, as if she had denied the enormity of the atrocity, or as if one’s personal circumstances mattered much in this context. In so far as those circumstances do matter, the USA has until recent times been largely untouched by terrorism, whereas the UK has put up with it for thirty years: Beard would have been no safer in leafy Cambridge than the citizens of Warrington, a Northern post-industrial town, imagined themselves to be until the IRA decided to plant a bomb there. But perhaps news from Warrington has not travelled as far as Perloff in Los Angeles, or indeed as far as the many Americans on the eastern seaboard who have helped to fund the IRA’s activities. ‘Glib definitions’ of terrorism anyone?

Read carefully, Mary Beard’s piece does not state that the US ‘had it coming’, merely that many people think so. Not in Cambridge, I’d like to think; hard anyway to agree that the citizens in the Twin Towers deserved their deaths; though not hard at all to see that those disaffected by the postwar USA’s carefree use of its military, economic and cultural power might one day choose such acts of brutal symbolism, bereft of any effective others.

If Perloff really wanted to refute Beard, she might have said that 11 September had nothing to do with American foreign policy; or that American policy was just fine and we must all live with the actions of its antagonists. Instead she comments on how poorly academics are regarded, and how few academic jobs are available in the Humanities.

Nicholas Simpson

First, Marjorie Perloff’s mistakes: the total number of the dead is six thousand. Clinton didn’t bomb a ‘beautiful new hospital’ in Sudan. He ordered the illegal bombing of a pharmaceutical company which manufactured all the malaria and TB medicine for Sudan.

The innocent victims of the 11 September atrocity represented a cross-section of America (and the world), but their fate only mirrors that of the millions of Third Worlders who were also (and continue to be) innocent victims of the consequences of US policy. It seems that in ignoring this fact Perloff misinterprets what her gardener said. ‘Now, we are all in it together’ can have many meanings, the obvious one being that now American civilians can feel how the rest of the world feels when they are the unwitting victims of explosive attacks as they are going about their everyday lives.

‘Who has ever stopped Fredric Jameson from speaking?’ she asks. People like Jameson are silenced every time they are compared to Nazis, as she so flippantly does. Many people don’t dare speak up against the US or Israel for fear of being called anti-semites, neo-Nazis or fascists. Censorship doesn’t have to be implemented through a centralised state mechanism when the systems of repression have such willing coteries of intellectuals calling their opponents unforgivable names.

Finally, by her boycott of the LRB, Perloff only proves that she (like many other ‘intellectuals’ of her ilk) is willing to listen only to voices that repeat what she says. The echo-chamber of consensus is precisely where those fatal US policies are manufactured.

Laleh Khalili
New York

What was wrong with your assorted ‘reflections’ on 11 September was not just the nonsense that some of your contributors produced, but the designer-label-intellectual culture that made you inflict them on your readers in the first place. Mary Beard writes wonderful reviews of books in her areas of expertise. Why that should make her trite comments on recent political events worth publishing is anybody’s guess. Is it her intimate knowledge of early Christianity (‘full-blown martyrs are a rare commodity’) that makes her an expert on the mass psychology of Islamic fundamentalists? Or is it that the third-rate clichés are worth printing just because they have the brand-name of an ‘intellectual’ in the bottom-right corner? I cringed when reading her threepenny ‘reflections’, not because of their patronising insensitivity (one gets used to that when one lives in England), but because of their ignorance and stupidity. We should ‘listen to what the “terrorists" have to say’? As it happens, what they say is ‘Allahu Akbar.’ Most embarrassing, however, is the thought that any of this sanctimonious garbage has been taken (for example, by Marjorie Perloff) to represent what people think in Cambridge.

Guy Deutscher
St John’s College, Cambridge

Marjorie Perloff notes that ‘the man who takes care of our garden in Pacific Palisades’, a Latino from Mexico, calls her ‘Marjorie’: ‘yes, in California, one only has a first name.’ This informality, she boasts, is part of a class structure that ‘makes the US unique’. Perloff’s combination of the folksy, the smug and the reactionary is unbeatable. The idea that the appalling policies of racial exclusion and economic injustice in the United States are somehow mitigated by the ability of migrant domestic outdoor workers to call their employers by their forenames has an obvious appeal for people who live comfortably in Pacific Palisades: but really it is an imbecility.

Perloff goes on to announce that she will ‘urge my Stanford students and colleagues’ to boycott the LRB for challenging the Bush Administration’s policies on the Middle East and Afghanistan. Surely, it will be a shocking disservice to erect a cordon sanitaire protecting Stanford students from the widespread view held in Europe and elsewhere that US policy towards Israel and the Palestinian people has been reckless, incompetent and unjust. It will be an educational abomination if Californian students are drilled into thinking that the terrorism at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon can be regarded as ‘wild dog attacks’ launched by extremists and with no significant connections to US policy.

Richard Davenport-Hines
London W14

I’m glad Michael Wood noted the rash of pronouncements in the US press about the ‘failure of language’ to account for the catastrophic events of 11 September, as if words were ‘supposed to make sense of everything’. ‘When,’ he goes on to ask, ‘did words ever make such extravagant, untenable promises?’ It is also worth noting that intellectual journalism in the US is often little more than trend-watching, a race to discover and diagram the Next Big Idea. What better way to package 11 September than to deem it ‘indescribable’? Or to chirp that now irony is out and gravitas in?

As I walked around lower Manhattan in the days after 11 September, it was clear that the spokespeople for unspeakability were mistaken. Words were everywhere, on the now famous missing-persons signs, on makeshift posters demanding revenge, on sheets of notepaper taped to cyclone fences and brick walls. One day, after walking around for several hours, I headed to the Spring Street subway station to catch a train home. The wall to the right of the station’s entrance is usually covered with posters advertising concerts, magazines, fashionista events and the like. But on this day the adverts had been scraped off, and over their lingering shreds someone had pasted a small white poster featuring two black vertical rectangles. The rectangles, of course, called to mind the Twin Towers, and each of these towers was made up of a column of words printed in small type: ‘For all those who lost sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, friends, lovers, husbands, we’re terribly sorry for all those who lost’ and so on. The poster was unsigned. A few days later it was gone, and the wall a chequerboard of posters promoting teeth-whitening strips.

John Palattella

Guests on discussion programmes on Radio 4 have an irritating habit of invoking popular opinion by quoting something that was said to them by their hairdresser, or grocer, or the cab driver who drove them to the studio, or another person who, despite all of the difficulties of definition, might still be called ‘working-class’. It was thus with both annoyance and resignation that I read Marjorie Perloff’s criticism of the LRB’s contributors’ assessments of the events of 11 September. Apparently without irony she seeks to demonstrate the contributors’ elitism by contrasting it with the view of ‘95 per cent of the US population’, knowledge of which she claims partly with reference to a conversation had with her gardener. Perloff should think twice before claiming that she has real contact with the masses just because she has occasional conversations with her institutional or domestic servants.

Martin Murray
University of North London

I eagerly read your many contributors’ responses to the recent terrorist attacks, but was struck by the lack of comment from anyone who had worked in the financial industry. Sukhdev Sandhu wrote that the Towers, lit up at night, were a glamorous beacon to visitors and residents alike. He had clearly never worked in them till midnight.

Wall Street always felt like a war zone to me. The huge, monolithic buildings. The dearth of sunlight, the vast barren stretches of concrete and, above all, the giant-scale money culture. It was a far cry from my liberal arts degree, the left-wing weeklies and glossy literary magazines I wanted to work for, the ones that were so progressive they couldn’t pay junior people anything at all, with the result that only the sons and daughters of the wealthy could afford to hone their skills there. I needed cash, and so I went where the money was. Like the Army, Wall Street will take anyone. They don’t care what school you went to, or who your father was. They will find you a job. I quickly discovered a sense of camaraderie, of opportunity – if not quite equal opportunity – lacking in more prestigious academic and creative fields. But civil rights are abridged in the war zone. There is no racial profiling. Everyone gets fingerprinted, drug-tested, hooked up to wires and interrogated when they are hired, and at random intervals thereafter. Criminal intention is assumed. There are questionnaires pages long about personal habits, violations of drug and securities laws. Only indicted, but never convicted? Indicted more than three times?

The first Wall Street company I worked for, in the mid-1980s, was a huge, mysterious international conglomerate, its ranks filled with ex-Army men, ‘spooks’ from the CIA and the FBI. We did business with ‘bad’ countries – Chile, Yugoslavia and Arab nations I’d never heard of before. When I told people this – people who worked for left-wing weeklies, in academia, on literary magazines – they said it was impossible: you can’t do business with countries the US Government doesn’t recognise. You can. We heard strange stories we didn’t know whether to believe: involvement in Third World coups, sex tours in Thailand. A secret company chart showed over four hundred subsidiaries. It was said that the company’s structure was kept deliberately complicated so no one could tell how much money it actually made.

The company was a fortress, its buildings a self-contained world, with a lower concourse full of shops and services, its own bars and restaurants, and high up in the tower, a private dining-room in which the company chief, in whose presence you swiftly understood the seductive charisma of history’s great dictators, showcased photographs of himself with then President Reagan and the Chinese Premier. The other executives – many of whom had landed at Okinawa and Normandy – were so afraid of him that when he entered a room they would melt away as if a smoke bomb had landed in their midst. At meetings, they couldn’t even laugh at his jokes.

No one I knew who worked in journalism, or in publishing, or at left-wing weeklies, had heard of this company. In fact, if you told most people in my circle that you worked on Wall Street, they’d look at you as if you were suddenly speaking a foreign language, or had told them you were a Nazi sympathiser. Wall Street gave me my first inkling that there was another point of view. A Chilean executive explained, quite convincingly, why his country’s dictatorship was preferable to Castro’s Cuba, which he had been driven out of as a child. An intern in my department, the daughter of a Middle Eastern executive, told me what it was like to grow up sleeping in the hallway every night, a pillow over her head, to avoid the sound of mortar shells showering her native Beirut, and to see her beautiful city destroyed, building by building, before her 20th birthday.

I liked working for the international company, but left for mercenary reasons. The second Wall Street company I worked for put itself up for sale the day I was hired. Five thousand people, it announced, would be laid off after Christmas. The acquiring company would look each of us over, and decide who would stay and who would go. Though we knew we would probably be fired, we worked till midnight at a downtown printing press to get our company newsletter out on time. One of my co-workers was a 23-year-old, seven months pregnant with twins. ‘Maria’s a real trooper,’ our boss said, because she could have got her doctor to send her on maternity leave at six months. I remember eating with her in the cavernous Orwellian cafeteria in Two World Trade Center, at 10 p.m. on New Year’s Eve. She was so ill I had to fetch her food, and looked so dreadful that I couldn’t swallow my own. It was my last night with the company. I remember looking at Maria and thinking: this is no place for women. We got our newsletter out, and before dawn my co-worker gave birth to her twins, both dangerously underweight. She was so ill she doesn’t remember any of this, or anything that happened over the next two days.

My next Wall Street job made me sick. I left when Anita Hill was hitting the scene, and in lieu of filing a lawsuit, took a little hush money. Before they’d give it to me they made me sign a piece of paper swearing never to tell what happened. The job wasn’t all bad, though. During the Gulf War, my co-workers, Vietnam Vets all, would cluster in my office to listen to Desert Storm on my transistor, whose use was otherwise restricted to hourly stock market updates. They recalled their own battles, glory days or otherwise, and discussed artillery specifications and the pros and cons of various jet bombers. At our company, the enemy was internal – surprise attacks from above, a side-effect of the prolonged bear market. When I was forced out my male colleagues considered me lucky: they were equally abused, cardiac disease was sweeping the building. But no one was accountable for their harassment, there was no legal classification, or protection. It was just business as usual.

When I left the third company, I swore I would never go downtown again. I felt like a wounded veteran, exempt from future service. This is how I always explain myself to people: when I was young, I ruined my health working on Wall Street. It was my own fault. I should have evaded the draft, I should never have gone down there. There’s a reason people avoid places like that. People who’ve worked there understand. They know about the 11-hour days, the 70-hour weeks, the two weeks’ holiday a year. It takes a certain kind of person to stick out those conditions: people unafraid of risk or sacrifice in the name of company, capitalism, the American dream. I wasn’t one of them. What I do know is that everyone in the World Trade Center, hard at work at 8.30 a.m., was already a warrior, long before any planes hit.

Christina Gombar
New York

I was appalled to read the ‘reflections’ of many of your contributors on the 11 September attacks. Only a week after the horrifying destruction of thousands of innocent people, it was depressing to open a journal of free thought and find writer after writer venting their spleen on America. Eric Foner’s opening sentence seems to characterise the sentiment of most of them: ‘I’m not sure which is more frightening: the horror that engulfed New York City or the apocalyptic rhetoric emanating daily from the White House.’ Really? Apparently the ivory tower, unlike other towers, is extremely well protected against reality. Just days after the catastrophe, to ‘reflect’ by inveighing against capitalism (Terry Eagleton), by talking of the crimes of Israel (Tariq Ali), by putting terrorism in quotation marks, as if the matter were not yet decided (Mary Beard): these are not reflections at all, they are merely ugly statements lifted from an old political manifesto. And worse than being unoriginal, they are, in the aftermath of carnage when compassion is most called for, unkind.

Barth Landor

A careful reading of Marjorie Perloff’s letter suggests that it is an exercise in that American irony which so often illumines your columns. Consider: 1. Perloff is going to cancel her subscription to the LRB and campaign against it because most of your contributors agree with what ‘many’ of her ‘friends think’. 2. She writes from Los Angeles, where the danger from earthquakes, road rage or street crime is far greater than that of terrorism or enemy action, to object that Beard writes from ‘one of the most idyllic safe havens in the world’ – professing to be unaware that Cambridge was bombed in the Second World War and is now the home of a science park and industrial area of the kind that often attracts terrorists. 3. Your contributors are academics, who are ‘poorly regarded by the rest of the population’. But Perloff, it seems, teaches at Stanford. That’s different. 4. The WTC and the Pentagon can’t be ‘emblems of US imperial power’ because the people killed in the attack were ordinary Americans. Presumably Perloff doesn’t teach lit. crit. And it is a truism that ordinary people – American, Afghan or whoever – are always the main sufferers in war. 5. World War Two analogies can be double-edged. The anti-appeaser Churchill had 50,000 ordinary citizens of Dresden killed in one night, not ‘for the hell of it’ but in order to impress the Russians with our seriousness. I don’t mean to downplay the horrors of 11 September. But until more Americans start believing that their foreign policy does cause offence to many (even if not ‘most’) people outside the US, we are all in for a rocky ride.

Charles Plouviez
London NW3

Marjorie Perloff’s anger at some of the responses to the 11 September atrocities is perfectly understandable; and her sympathy for the families of the thousands of innocent victims is something we must all share. It is the essence of terrorism that it is both random and indiscriminate, and there is no way in which its victims ‘deserve’ their awful fate. In Britain, although Perloff shows no sign of recognising it, we have lived with this knowledge for the past thirty years, and the arithmetic she does in relation to the dead of New York could be carried out for the 3500 people killed in the Anglo-Irish conflict since 1969.

What is less acceptable is her apparent refusal to try and understand why these massacres have happened. Surely, as a rational and educated person, she must accept that it is hardly accidental that these attacks have been directed at the United States rather than, say, Sweden or Canada? This is not to justify such attacks, but it is the beginning of explaining them. And unless they are explained and understood, how can they be prevented?

As it happens, only a few pages on from Perloff’s letter you carry an advertisement for William Blum’s book Rogue State, in which he asks that very question: ‘Why do terrorists keep picking on the United States?’ It seems that he also discusses America’s role in nurturing Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan. Perhaps Perloff should get hold of a copy.

Perhaps she should also consider some of the insanely arrogant and dangerous policy proposals which have been put forward in the wake of the atrocities by respected American commentators cited by Anatol Lieven in the issue of the LRB that so enraged her. Given A.M. Rosenthal’s proposal that the cities of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Sudan should be threatened with obliteration, does she not think that there is some value to voices which urge restraint?

Anthony Arblaster

Edward Said’s assertion that ‘even Columbia, my own university, justly famed for its intellectual diversity and the heterogeneity of its students and staff, does not have a course on the Koran’ is not accurate. I have been teaching a seminar on the Koran in our Religion Department since September 1999. The late Professor Jeanette Wakin taught a similar course for approximately twenty years before that.

Neguin Yavari
Columbia University

Edward Said realised that he'd made a mistake – but not until after the LRB had gone to press.

Editor, 'London Review'

Hammarskjöld’s Death

Bengt Rösiö (Letters, 20 September) dismisses the evidence left by George Ivan Smith that Dag Hammarskjöld’s death may have resulted from an attempted hijack. He argued similarly in 1992 when the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs sent him to investigate the matter. According to Rösiö, the Fouga which was supposedly used for the hijacking was unsuitable and did not have sufficient range.

Ironically, the best source for the opposing view is Bengt Rösiö himself. He was stationed in the Congo as a diplomat in 1961, and was closely involved in the aftermath of the events. In June 1962 he told his superior in the Swedish Foreign Office that there were 42 aircraft under Tshombe’s control. ‘It cannot,’ he wrote, ‘be excluded that a possible attack by a renegade against the SE-BDY could have come from one of these.’ In May he had written to Hammarskjöld’s half-brother Knut, at the time Assistant General Secretary of EFTA in Geneva: ‘You can in no way exclude the possibility that the SE-BDY was forced down through surprising manoeuvres (not including firing) by a private plane operating from a small airfield in Katanga or Rhodesia.’

Admittedly, this was before the Swedish Government closed the case, accepting the verdicts of the two commissions, one from the British-run Central African Federation and one from the UN. The former came to a foregone conclusion: its chairman had made it clear before the proceedings started that he believed the only possible cause was pilot error. The UN commission left an open verdict. Neither commission made a real effort to move beyond the immediate technical details characteristic of a ‘normal’ air crash, into the obvious political circumstances that surrounded the disaster. Knut Hammarskjöld requested that all air movements within 1000 kilometres of Ndola on the night of the disaster be examined, but the Swedish Government didn’t pass the request on to the commissions.

In the end, the Swedish Government accepted the maximum penalty: not only the loss of Dag Hammarskjöld, but the attribution of responsibility for his death to a Swedish crew. Why? Parallels have been drawn with the behaviour of the Swedish Government when Raul Wallenberg disappeared in the USSR in 1945. The overriding aim was to avoid embarrassment, to avoid jeopardising friendly relations and Sweden’s neutral position. The ‘kidnapping track’ was not to be examined, not even in order to be disproved.

The two commissions left a number of problems unsolved. What was the reason for the activity, noticed by so many witnesses, along the route the DC-6 was expected to take? What explained the strange behaviour of the airport manager and the traffic controller who went to bed instead of starting search and rescue operations when the plane did not come in to land? And why did the British High Commissioner, Lord Alport, say that ‘the General Secretary has probably decided to go elsewhere’?

A telegram Alport sent to the Secretary of State on 21 September 1961, available in the Public Record Office but to my knowledge never published, includes the following: ‘My recollection is that after the last message from the aircraft to Ndola control a period elapsed, during which the aircraft appeared to be transmitting to some other station.’ What station – the hijacker? This recollection was apparently never forwarded to the commissions, either by Alport or by the Foreign Office.

Rolf Rembe

Catastrophic Playground

Stephen Kotkin (LRB, 18 October) shows the insanity of both Russian and American policies in Afghanistan over the last few decades. I am surprised, however, that he appears to accept uncritically the official Soviet/Russian line that only 15,000 Soviet soldiers died in Afghanistan, since this is widely believed to be a huge underestimate.

Robert Chandler
London W14

Unfair to Herodotus

David Wootton (LRB, 4 October) takes a very short view of ethnology by claiming to find its origins in Montaigne's preoccupation with exotic peoples. More than a thousand years before Montaigne, Herodotus travelled Asia Minor, the Aegean, Greece, Macedonia, Thrace, the coasts of the Black Sea, Persia, Tyre and Egypt collecting ethnological material for his history.

Geoffrey Ridley Barrow
Hammond, Indiana


Jean Jaurès, assassinated as he tried to stem the drift to war in July 1914, was not, as Thomas Laqueur claims (LRB, 4 October), a socialist Prime Minister – he never held that office – but the leader of a united Socialist Party (the SFIO) opposed to René Viviani, a former socialist who became Prime Minister in June 1914. His death permitted the resumption of normal politics. With few exceptions, socialist deputies in France and elsewhere voted for war. Laqueur wonders whether the civic burial of French public figures always serves to integrate society, and suggests, following Durkheim, that it may be a disruptive force. One may well wonder whether the Pantheonisation of Jaurès fits into the first or the second category.

Harvey Mitchell

Authors’ Rights

Jonathan Lamb (LRB, 20 September) claims that in his summary of Chatterton’s career Wordsworth ‘skirts the issues of poverty and obscurity’ in favour of ‘pride and poetic self-deification’. This may seem a straightforward gloss on ‘Resolution and Independence’ and that poem’s invocation of the ‘marvellous boy’ and ‘sleepless soul who perished in his pride’, but Wordsworth is careful to couple Chatterton with the unnamed Robert Burns, whose story was a more straightforward one of financial distress. Wordsworth’s view of Chatterton could be more profitably linked to his later remarkable and persistent lobbying for the extension of copyright privileges to authors.

Peter Morris
Swarthmore, Pennsylvania

I was present

Cólm Tóibín (LRB, 20 September) wrote that Bayard Rustin wasn’t invited to speak at the March on Washington in 1963. But I was present and heard him outline the 14 points or demands which were being made to Congress. His speech followed Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ oration.

Ralph Garber

Enemy Within

Bernard Porter (LRB, 18 October) is a little hard on Stella Rimington. Working in the building next door to MI5 headquarters on the Albert Embankment, I came across Rimington driving out of the building while on my way to work one morning. I considered getting a copy of the Socialist Worker out of my bag to offer her, but dismissed the idea. Why should the enemy within be so easy to uncover? However, the fact that the head of MI5 should come into such close proximity with subversion and, apparently, suspect nothing did not entirely surprise me.

Keith Flett
London N17

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences