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Letters

Vol. 23 No. 22 · 15 November 2001

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11 September

I may well be ‘worse than tactless’, as Christopher Prendergast suggests (Letters, 1 November), but I did not say that ‘America had it coming.’ I observed (as Nicholas Simpson correctly spotted) that ‘that is … what many people, openly or privately, think’. Witness, for example, the audience reaction on the famous – in the UK at least – Question Time broadcast on 13 September. It is worth reflecting, though, what that reaction amounts to. To believe that the United States ‘had it coming’ is not to believe that the victims deserved to die. It is, rather, to recognise a causal connection between US foreign policy and the events of 11 September; to see those events as a sad but predictable outcome of US actions elsewhere in the world. Anyone who read my contribution carefully would, I think, have seen the point.

Mary Beard
Cambridge

I wondered as I read Marjorie Perloff’s letter (Letters, 18 October) if she and I had read the same articles. I went back to the original and reread what the writers had to say. ‘It was the most open atrocity of all time,’ Neal Ascherson wrote. David Bromwich praised the New York city and state leaders who ‘spoke in voices of dignity, compassion and deliberation’. Terry Eagleton declared that Islamic fundamentalism ‘represents a blasphemous version of the Koran’, and called the attack a ‘moral obscenity’. Hal Foster spoke eloquently of the emotional effect of the attack on some children he knew of, and of the difficulty New Yorkers had coming to terms with the immediate aftermath: ‘we are left to swap our own stories at work, on the streets, by phone, in e-mails.’ Michael Wood used the phrase ‘gratuitous evil’, and focused on the horror of one specific image, a photo which appeared in Time magazine showing five tiny figures falling from one of the towers, victims who had thrown themselves from the high windows. Of course, the articles deal with more than the atrocity itself and how we can address ourselves to it and to its victims with dignity. Bromwich understood the desire for retribution but hoped that America’s leaders would not have recourse to it. Eagleton, among others, hoped that America might begin to see itself through the eyes of others – indeed, he felt that this was its only hope. The articles collectively represented a debate on such questions as ‘why did it happen?’, ‘what should be done?’, ‘what lessons can be drawn from it?’ Perloff’s response (and she, too, is an academic) to a debate on the most dangerous political crisis of the new millennium is to cancel her subscription to the LRB. Well, that’s her prerogative. But to try to take her students with her is grossly unethical. Since she has abandoned the intellectual process, perhaps she would be better resigning her post, and settling for discussions of world politics with her gardener, er, sorry, the man who takes care of her garden.

Tom Cleary
Bradford

While I, too, was appalled by the heartlessness of some of your contributors, I was amazed that their comments in almost every case displayed so little common sense. There was great unanimity in their condemnation of the post-attack tough talk, but surely even the overwhelmingly leftish inclination of the literary/arts establishment cannot blind its members to the fact that the morale of any nation requires and expects a defiant, rather than a supine, response to attack.

The exercise of some critical intelligence would have been welcome. Terrorism is waged on an intellectual as well as a visceral level, and I would have liked to see at least one of your contributors analyse its underlying hypocrisy. America is decried and abused as the ‘great Satan’, yet the only reason terrorist organisations and, indeed, guerrilla armies are able to function is that ‘great Satans’ do not attack innocent and guilty alike but try (whether successfully or not) to distinguish between them. Terrorists don’t bother. But then the unwillingness of the superpowers to resort to undifferentiated slaughter is turned against them in triumphalist claims that America lost in Vietnam and the Russians lost in Afghanistan.

There also seems to me to be something worthy of comment in the way the enemies of the ‘great Satan’ both assume and take full advantage of its (presumably) amazing hospitality towards them, its concern for their civil rights and liberties, its unwillingness to demand conformity to the established social and religious norms of Western society – and its readiness to accommodate, legitimise and even encourage the propagation of alien belief systems, including extreme fundamentalist Islam.

Islamic fundamentalists do not make distinctions between good Americans and bad ones. By contrast, Western political and religious leaders have specifically demanded that innocent Muslims should not be victimised. Neither in America nor in Britain have we seen mass anti-Islam street protests, chanting of hate-slogans and public incitements to murder.

And, finally, no bleeding hearts are really necessary concerning ‘what the terrorists have to say’. As R.W. Johnson points out, terrorism works. It has worked this time. Already Osama bin Laden’s specific concerns are being addressed with vigour, just as IRA demands rocketed to top priority following the bombing of Canary Wharf. So, in the medium term, the Israelis had better watch out, and I don’t think there will be US military bases in Saudi Arabia for very much longer.

J. Glenn
Co. Down

Marjorie Perloff wrote the following concerning the LRB roundtable on the events of 11 September (LRB, 4 October). ‘With a few exceptions, your roundtable is agreed on one central point: what happened in NY and Washington can be directly blamed on US policies and actions from the 1960s to the present.’ By my count only nine of your contributors come even remotely close to fitting Perloff’s characterisation: Beard, Chaudhuri, Eagleton, Foner, Glass, Jameson, Laqueur, Rogin and Said. Three more – Ali, Holmes and Simic – say something to the effect that the attacks may partly be explained by US policies. The rest of us – Ascherson, Bromwich, Buchan, Castle, Daston, Foot, Foster, Hoberman, Irwin, Johnson, Laor, Powers, Rorty, Rose, Runciman, Waldron and Wood – make no reference at all to previous US policies, by way of blame or of explanation.

Does this miscounting matter? Well, I doubt whether Perloff’s comments about the way academics are regarded by the general population would have had the same impact if they’d been backed up by a claim that ‘barely more than a third’ – rather than ‘all but a few’ – of the LRB contributors blamed the events of 11 September on US policies.

Clearly something in the tone of the 17 exceptions offended her, besides the company they kept. Here’s my explanation. Some of the exceptions question the wisdom of a military response to the terrorist events (along the lines of the bombing that is presently taking place). By implying that most of these contributors blame what happened in New York on previous US policies, Perloff hopes to discredit views with which she disagrees about present and future US responses without having to engage with them on their merits. Is that unfair? If it is, perhaps Perloff could write in and give us a more honourable explanation of the inaccuracy on which her letter is premised.

Jeremy Waldron
Columbia Law School, New York

I've been thinking a lot about Marjorie Perloff's gardener. Does Mr Vargas always call Marjorie by her first name, or only when she tells him about those leftists in Europe? Does she always ask his opinion on political matters? Does she ask his opinion in other contexts? If this is the first time she has asked for his political views, then something good did happen in America following 11 September. I only hope Mr Vargas knows that Professor Perloff can get very aggressive, that she might even fire him for careless dialectical remarks.

Yitzhak Laor
Tel Aviv

Mary Beard might be right when she says ‘full blown martyrs are a rare commodity,’ but at the rate of six thousand lives lost to fewer than ten martyrs, they don’t need to be in plentiful supply.

Barbara Loon
Johannesburg

In Radical Artifice, Marjorie Perloff deplored the reassuringly uniform language of America’s corporate media as a linguistic extension of the hyperreal simulacrum of thought. Sadly, her letter embraces the curiously consistent vocabulary she once pilloried. The rehearsal of the appalling facts of 11 September does not amount to knowledge; indeed, it forestalls active understanding by veiling in shocked amnesia the historical preconditions of that crime. What is still worse, the fact that 95 per cent of the American population desires military reprisals against the Taliban Government in Afghanistan is self-evidently a manufactured consensus. For Perloff, however, the fact that a few intellectuals refuse this consensus is evidence that the majority is in the right. Even her Latino gardener knows better than Fredric Jameson, because, as he points out, intellectuals are a minuscule minority. His majoritarian patriotism circularly confirms the media polls as he responds to the interrogation of his professional white employer. What else is he going to say? Populism channelled like this through an ethnic working-class figure is the first refuge of an intellectual scoundrel. Perloff’s virulent anti-intellectualism, compounded by her disgraceful call for a boycott of the LRB, marks a new low-point in American critical thought.

Perloff also wonders contemptuously why Jameson writes of the fear of speaking out critically in this context of a completely spurious media consensus. Is she serious? The new anti-terrorism Bill being rushed through will give the US Government unparalleled powers to authorise covert searches against suspects, permit information sharing between all the major investigative agencies without judicial review, create a new crime of domestic terrorism which may be applicable to peaceable political protest, and allow the CIA to spy on American citizens. Critics of the war are already being investigated by the FBI, websites are being shut down, and a rigorous censorship is in place; the expansion of these actions into a full-scale anti-terrorist domestic operation is a chilling prospect. It can be said from experience that appearing even in local media as an anti-war intellectual in the US results in death-threats. Fear? You bet.

Perloff’s virtual endorsement of Bush’s ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’ creed goes hand in hand with the daily bombardment of hungry, defenceless, terrified Afghan citizens. The idea that American deaths are more important than Afghan (or Iraqi, or Palestinian) ones is racist and imperialist: it is also the moral fruit of the terror carried out by the American Government in its Cold War on Communism and the international Left. You can call Perloff’s boycott patriotism, or moral relativism: we prefer to call it political reaction.

Ruth Jennison, Julian Murphet
Berkeley
Oxford

‘At least now we’re all in it together,’ Marjorie Perloff’s gardener told her. If an unidentified terrorist group had launched a murderous assault on Mary Beard’s college, faculty and university library, with similar casualty figures to those at the World Trade Center, does Perloff seriously believe that President Bush would now be conducting massive air-raids on the country suspected of harbouring those terrorists? Would she be urging him to do so?

Stan Smith
Beeston, Nottingham

Marjorie Perloff responded with a display of petulance which, I fear, may be typical of US readers. Perhaps she doesn't know or understand that approximately forty thousand people, almost half of them children, die needlessly every day due to Third World debt and an unfair system of world trade, and that some people believe the US to be at least partly to blame for these daily tragedies. The numbers of dead and dying will also surely increase given the US (and Australian) stance on climate change, and the continuing profligate use of fossil fuels. Of course none of your correspondents tried to justify the terrible deed perpetrated on 11 September and neither will I, but the US needs to understand why it is hated so much, and how it is that people like bin Laden can attract popular support, even (or perhaps especially?) in countries that are supposedly close allies of America.

Chris Connors
Kalapa, Queensland

So Marjorie Perloff is to lead a boycott of the London Review of Books because some of its writers insufficiently condemned the perpetrators of the events of 11 September. A judgment call, and not necessarily wrong. But perhaps the would-be leader of this boycott can be persuaded to go a little further, and to do so closer to home. Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts has supported anti-British terrorists for the last three decades. Of course, it is true that the ‘friends of Senator Kennedy’ (an occasional London colloquialism for the IRA) took thirty years to murder 300 policemen, rather than managing 300 firemen in a single day – but that is his only defence. Hence I am asking the same boycotters of the LRB to refuse to work with anyone who has helped or publicly supported the Massachusetts Democratic Party.

J.D.A. Wiseman
London SW10

The ‘95 per cent of the US population’ to whom Marjorie Perloff refers are still, as is completely understandable, reeling from 11 September. My recent travels suggest that they are able to think about little else; and when they do think beyond the atrocity to what is happening now, it is in terms of revenge. ‘Let’s kick ass’ is the general sentiment in both the US and the UK. The scene of carnage is once more removed to a distant, improbable place beyond the realm in which we express real emotion or register real horror. If it is possible even to a small extent to engage sympathetically with a world outside our own, and if we believe that such engagement is one of the defining characteristics of an enlightened civilisation, this has to do with the keeping-alive of a tradition of criticism which is able to rise above general sentiment.

I shall be taking out a subscription to the LRB, to compensate for Professor Perloff’s cancellation of hers. This is not because I agree with what was written in the 4 October issue (I do not) but because I believe we need to be nourishing, not abandoning, those spaces where such things can be said.

Jules Greavey
Berwick-on-Tweed

Marjorie Perloff’s attack on Mary Beard was misplaced. From my experience the majority of English people, even supporters of military action, indeed think ‘the Americans had it coming.’ This remarkable phrase in English doesn’t exactly imply guilt, but does mean, I think, lack of foresight, self-satisfaction, hubris. Perloff sneers at Beard writing from an ‘idyllic safe haven’, forgetting that nowhere in England is safe: we’ve had thirty odd years of terrorist activity, partly funded by those alluring collection-boxes to which New Yorkers contribute so generously on St Patrick’s Day.

Robin Milner-Gulland
University of Sussex

So Marjorie Perloff is offended that Mary Beard, safe in Cambridge (much safer than Stanford), should entertain the thought that the US ‘had it coming’ on 11 September? To say that America had it coming is not to say that the people in the World Trade Center deserved their fate any more than individual Afghan victims of the American bombardment deserve theirs, although interestingly even Americans do not make quite such a heartfelt plea on behalf of the casualties at the Pentagon. Almost always, when one person dishes it out in the name of a country, it is someone else from that country who is hit back. To adopt a poetic term presumably familiar to Perloff, this is a type of synecdoche.

That 95 per cent of the American people think differently from the LRB’s pundits is precisely to the point: Americans simply cannot comprehend the view from the other side. It is sad that Perloff is cancelling her subscription and urging her fellow Californians to likewise draw their wagons into a circle. Through the usual inertia, my subscription recently lapsed. I shall renew it today.

Gilbert Elliott
North Perth, Australia

It is obviously a stinging criticism of the editors of the LRB that Marjorie Perloff seems to have learned absolutely nothing from her twenty-year subscription to the magazine.

Robert Callwell
San Francisco

Post-11 September

I travelled from San Francisco to Florence and back via Paris last month for a conference. Here are some of the encounters I had with airport/airline officials.

San Francisco. I check in smoothly. I pass through security, taking my laptop out of its case to put it through the X-ray machine. The Hispanic security official is not happy and calls over a superior, who asks me to ‘step to one side’, where the contents of my bag are scrutinised. While this is going on, I lean against the counter. The rather short Army guy (white American) next to the official checking my bag walks up to me and points at me with his automatic rifle. He tells me to ‘stand up’. I think about asking him if he’s not a little small to be in the Army but think better of it and comply.

As I am sitting at the gate, waiting to board, an Air France stewardess walks by smiling. She sees me, her face freezes, and when she gets to the desk she engages with her colleagues in some whispering and glancing over at me.

The flight is called, I pass through the gate and make my way towards the plane. The woman who is taking boarding passes sees me and asks me to ‘step to one side please, sir.’ An American security guard (surname Hassan) leads me to a booth with a curtain. I let out a short laugh and he looks at me suspiciously – ‘What’s funny?’ I decline to go into it. I am patted down very closely and then asked to take my trousers down and again ‘searched’. The contents of my bag are taken out and scrutinised. My manuscript notes on First Amendment theory are read page by page. Less attention is paid to my conference paper on British party funding and campaign finance law. Mr Hassan apparently satisfied, I am allowed to leave the booth. Mr Hassan seems somewhat offended when I snatch my passport from his hand. Of the dozen people who I saw board before me, and the fifty or so who went past me while I was being searched, none was stopped. By a strange statistical coincidence, all were white.

On the ten-hour flight to Paris, the cabin staff (one a black French guy) do not make eye contact with me once, or acknowledge my various thank-yous.

Paris. Going through immigration control, I encounter no unusual treatment. Walking to the information desk, I am accosted by a security guard who stops me, asks for my passport and ticket and pats me down – all in the middle of the concourse. The woman checking passports for my transfer to Florence looks at me, then looks at my passport, then looks at me, then looks at my passport. This amusing little game is replayed for about 15 seconds. Then she rings through to check my details. I board and have a perfectly pleasant flight. Nothing untoward happens at Florence Airport – which is unusual as I am frequently hassled there.

Florence. Having checked in (no problem), I am having a coffee in the landside café. A female security officer asks me for my passport and boarding pass. Her male colleague is standing a metre behind her, his hand on his pistol. I hand the documents over and look away, thoroughly fatigued with all this. They are on their radios, checking out my details. The pink sheet attached to my J-1 US visa is of great interest to them. After a few minutes the man holds out my documents, smiling pleasantly. I stare at him and make no move. He looks quizzical and shakes the passport a little. I do nothing. His smile slides as the penny drops. There is a minor stand-off for a few long seconds as I refuse to take the passport from his hand. Eventually, I nod for him to put the passport on the seat next to me. He does so. Turning away, he describes me to his colleague (in Italian) as a ‘fucking Indian prick’. Remaining in the café for another 20 minutes, I note that this dynamic duo do not ask any of the forty or so other people there for their documents.

As I pass through security before boarding for Paris, the security guard (‘Hey, mister!’) asks to see my passport and boarding pass. I hand them over … For the ten minutes that I am at the gate, he does not ask anyone else for their documents, chatting instead with his mate. The flights to Paris and then San Francisco pass smoothly.

Since 11 September I have taken four domestic flights and not once have I encountered such treatment. At Richmond, Virginia, the computer beeped during my check-in and I was told that I’d been ‘randomly selected’ for a hand search of my baggage. This was done in a perfectly friendly fashion and the woman remarked on my ties, saying: ‘you Europeans always dress so nice.’ I cannot imagine a security official in Florence or Paris using the term ‘European’ to include me.

On another plane, from Dallas to San Francisco, I was working on my laptop, listening to some music. A few seats away to my right I saw a little blonde girl, about three years old, waving and speaking to me. I took off my headphones and realised that she was actually pointing at me and chanting: ‘Bad man! Bad man!’ A few seconds later her mother realised what was going on and, hugely embarrassed, shifted herself between the girl and me. She said nothing to me.

Navraj Ghaleigh
University of California, Berkeley

Hooray for the Plane Trees

I loved Peter Campbell’s piece (LRB, 18 October) on the plane trees of London. When I lived overlooking Highbury Fields more than forty years ago, we at first didn’t understand the ravages of Dutch elm disease and protested against the felling of many elm trees. A Council notice was put up explaining why they had to be cut down. It ended with the splendid words: ‘This will enable the plane trees to develop to their full majesty.’ They are still doing so.

Caroline Lassalle
Limassol

Roland and Oliver

I noted with surprise that James Buchan’s pigs (LRB, 18 October) ‘will reject out of hand only citrus fruits’. In the 1970s my father, a meat-loving vicar in the Church of England, kept two pigs called Roland and Oliver. As children we were encouraged to take leftovers to those portly twins, but were expressly forbidden to include fish scraps and orange peel as both of these would affect the flavour of the pork when eaten a few months later. It seems that Buchan’s pigs know a thing or two.

Siobhan Wall
Amsterdam

The Pope Speaks

Lordly though Denis Donoghue may sometimes be, the phrase ‘Papa locutus est’ should have appeared outside, not inside, quotation marks in the passage I cited from his book Words Alone (LRB, 1 November).

David Wheatley
Hull

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