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Letters

Vol. 24 No. 11 · 6 June 2002

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Vive la République

I enjoyed Jeremy Harding's Diary on the French Presidential election (LRB, 9 May) but I would question his doctor's confident judgment that it was all about nostalgia for Vichy, Pétain and the First World War. The election materials of Mme Jaboulet-Vercherre, our local FN candidate in the forthcoming legislative elections, focus on crime and immigration, but make no attempt to capitalise on enthusiasm for a putative Fascist tradition. The mechanics of the French election system are largely to blame for the embarrassing spectacle of the second round, but the widespread and growing appeal of the nationalist Right is not so easily explained away. It is a Europe-wide phenomenon, and if Britain had PR it would be much more visible there, too. When we think of Europe, we still for some reason forget about Eastern Europe. Xenophobic nationalism is highly developed there, and with a few exceptions we have nurtured this kind of politics wherever we have found it – assuming, I imagine, that the infection would never spread in our direction. Whether it is anti-Russian policies in Estonia, the exclusion of Roma from mainstream society in Central Europe or – perhaps the most striking case – the violent xenophobia of the Kosovo Albanians, we have apparently accepted the principle that democracy and xenophobia go hand in hand, to the point where what looks like extreme nationalism is almost a required qualification for having a country in the first place.

Christopher Lord
Le Vieux St Pierre

Since he first ran in a Presidential election in 1974, Jean-Marie Le Pen has been telling his audiences that the French political classes are lying to them. He is not wrong. Mainstream politicians of all parties have maintained, even more than in most other industrial democracies, a pas devant les enfants approach to difficult issues of all kinds, including the funding of political parties, economic policy, the often unfathomable decisions of the public sector and France's role in Europe (and the world). Yet never until this election has the press dared to present clear evidence that the two leading candidates have lied systematically and on the record (one about personal corruption and the other about his past political affiliations). Not only did neither candidate make the least sign of apology, but their mainstream rivals maintained a discretion about these revelations that can only have fuelled a sense that members of the establishment are all in it together (the humbling of Helmut Kohl stands in interesting contrast). Now that the second round is over, this same establishment has congratulated itself on saving the Republic; there is no sign that any of the mainstream parties have learned any lessons. Le Pen could not have written their script better himself; he is now probably too old to reap the benefits, but he has younger lieutenants who must be delighted.

Paul Seabright
Université de Toulouse

It was misleading to say, as I did, that the count, in the French Presidential elections, is ‘organised at canton level’. In the regional press, round here at any rate, the results are published by canton, but a breakdown of each canton result shows the vote in each of its member communes. For the purposes of voting, the ballots of one or two obscure communes – no shortage of these – may be totted up under the aegis of a larger one. On 5 May, I had the good fortune to see the mayor of our commune deliver his citizens’ second-round ballots at the Mairie where I was watching the count. The ballots go onto a pair of spikes – one for Chirac, one for Le Pen – on each of the counters’ tables and it was with some relief that the onlookers watched the paper high-rise climbing fast on the Chirac spikes. It made me think of the great RPR scam in Paris, when Chirac was mayor, and now, it turns out, in quite a lot of places: awarding public housing contracts to construction companies in return for a major contribution to the party’s coffers. That’s how big building has always gone on in Chirac territory, whether it’s bricks and mortar or ballots on a spike. Vive la République.

Jeremy Harding
Bergerac

Suspect

Reading Rita Giacaman’s piece ‘From Ramallah’ (LRB, 25 April) reminded me of sitting at a breakfast table in the American University of Beirut in 1949 with the well-known journalist Dorothy Thompson, who had been sent by the New York Times to write six articles on the Palestinian refugee situation in southern Lebanon. At the time hundreds of Palestinians were daily being driven from their homes by the Israeli Army and fleeing to the ‘shack camps’ being erected outside Beirut. She had completed five of the articles, and the first had been printed in the New York Times the previous day. That morning at breakfast she was handed a cablegram, which she opened, read, and handed to Stephen Penrose, the president of the university, at whose table we were sitting. She then turned to the rest and said: ‘I was afraid of this.’ On the day of publication, all the major Jewish-owned businesses in New York had threatened to cancel all ads if a further article appeared. Naturally, no more did appear and the American public has been kept in the dark ever since.

Tim Andrews
Cornwall

Shame on you, Azriel Genack (Letters, 23 May), for accusing the whole world of anti-semitism when anyone dares to criticise Israel. On the matter of the pornographic films broadcast on Watan Television during the Israeli incursion into Ramallah and the occupation of the television station's facilities, all I can tell you is that, as the mother of a teenage boy, I was witness to two days of energetic telephone exchanges between my son and his friends on the content of what they considered salacious (and titillating) broadcasts. These consisted not of tapes, as you say, but of European sex channel programmes. Having become tired of policing the television at home, I called an Israeli journalist I know, and was told by her that she had called the Israeli military authorities several times about the offending broadcasts, but was told that the allegations were baseless. Only after a member of the Knesset pressed the military on the matter did the broadcasts stop.

Lisa Taraki
Ramallah

Walking towards Death

I am confused by Kaori Miyamoto’s letter (Letters, 23 May). She accuses Hideki Matsuoka of being a Westerner romanticising Japanese society and culture, then promptly launches into a manifesto of idealised Japanese behaviour that wouldn’t look out of place at the Zennippon Aikokusha Dantai Kaigi (National Conference of Patriotic Associations). To suggest that Japanese parents would be any more aware of where their children were going or what they were going to do than parents in any other culture highlights a problem that has always been peculiar to Japan: the denial of parental fallibility. Were Japanese parents superior to all others, there would not be such high instances of child prostitution in Japan. This, incidentally, is not a modern condition but dates back to the days of the war, when the Japanese Army enlisted ‘comfort-women’ to ‘ease’ the soldiers’ wartime burden. Many of those enlisted – ‘coerced’ is probably the right word – were children. Today the circumstances are different and Japanese schoolchildren are selling their bodies for mobile phones. Do their parents know where they are or what they are doing?

Back in the war there were people who pursued academic studies – not many, but enough to warrant a mention. My uncle was among them. Contrary to what Miyamoto’s schoolbooks may have taught her, history ‘koshiki happyo’ is never the entire story. The Nanjing Massacre did happen, and some Japanese felt shame, perhaps the same shame that Dr Koshiro experienced. Pockets of people wanted their lives back, pockets of people didn’t appreciate the emperor worship that was crippling their country, and pockets of people did what they could to maintain their own sense of dignity and independence – including continuing their studies behind closed academic doors. Ironically, this is what the war came to symbolise for the Japanese. Koshiro was more patriotic than he perhaps thought himself to be, and needn’t have carried so much guilt.

Yoshida Masayuki
Kuala Lumpur

As someone who has only limited knowledge of Japanese society and culture beyond manga and Kurosawa films, I suppose Kaori Miyamoto would think of me as someone who romanticises her people. But if Hideki Matsuoka is not Japanese, why would he make up such a story? There is a reluctance on Miyamoto's part to face up to the real issue at stake: Japan's wartime conduct and its subsequent refusal to acknowledge the effects of xenophobic militarism on its own society, let alone on those nations that Japan invaded.

Chang-rae Park
London W12

Marguerite Helmers (Letters, 9 May) conjectures that the fact that the First World War is ‘not as much of a presence in American consciousness and culture as it is in England’ is partly accounted for by the prevalence of war memorials and related memorabilia here. It seems perverse not to mention the obvious fact that the war memorials and the awareness have a common source in the fact that Britain was at war for four years, and the British Empire suffered over three million casualties, with over 900,000 dead, whereas the US was at war for 18 months, with troops in action for less than a year, and suffered 350,000 casualties, with 126,000 dead.

Peter Regent
Newport-on-Tay, Fife

Why not Berlusconi?

Fedele Confalonieri, one of Silvio Berlusconi’s closest and reputedly most intelligent friends, tells your readers (Letters, 9 May) that ‘there is not, nor has there ever been, any evidence to support the claim that Berlusconi had links in his early career with the Mafia.’ How does Confalonieri explain Vittorio Mangano, who, in the 1970s, when Berlusconi was on the way to becoming one of Italy’s richest businessmen, was employed by him, and housed in his villa near Milan? Mangano was described by Paolo Borsellino (one of the top two Italian anti-Mafia prosecutors in the 1970s and 1980s, along with Giovanni Falcone) as ‘one of those people who have become the Mafia’s bridgeheads in Northern Italy’. He said this (in an interview for a TV programme which was never shown) on 21 May 1992, just weeks before being blown up by a bomb planted by the Mafia. Berlusconi and Marcello Dell’Utri (the latter is, together with Confalonieri, one of the top managers of Berlusconi’s economic empire) were actually indicted for the murder of both Borsellino and Falcone (who was killed a few weeks before): they were acquitted of this charge last month, but the judge also concluded that ‘links have been ascertained between companies which are part of Fininvest’ – Berlusconi’s firm – ‘and people who are in various ways linked to Cosa Nostra’ (Corriere della Sera, 5 May 2002).

Confalonieri also points to ‘two fundamental contributions’ which Berlusconi has made to the wellbeing of Italians: ‘introducing commercial television … [which] created the conditions for a consumer-led boom that drove economic growth in the 1980s’ and ‘forcing Italy towards a more bipolar political system’.

On the first count – the ‘consumer-led boom’ of the 1980s – the claim is, to say the least, extravagant, given that the average rate of GDP growth dropped in the 1980s by more than 30 per cent, from 3.6 to 2.4, the rate of growth of private domestic consumption dropped from 4.2 to 2.9 and the contribution of private domestic consumption to the growth of GDP dropped by 30 per cent. On the second count (‘a more bipolar political system’), Confalonieri omits to report that in August 1993, i.e. several months before Berlusconi chose to run in the general election to be held the following spring, a Bill was passed by the Italian Parliament that introduced a new electoral system, on the basis of which three-quarters of the members of the lower house were to be elected by a first-past-the-post system.

Of all the claims made by Confalonieri on Berlusconi’s behalf, the most bizarre is the suggestion that Berlusconi has made an important contribution to ‘making Italy a more “normal" country’. Berlusconi directly owns three of the six national TV channels – and as Prime Minister more or less directly controls the other three. On top of this, he also owns national newspapers (though because this is against the law, the technical owners are his wife and his brother), as well as the country’s main publishing house, the titles of which include one of the two main political weeklies, and so on. And I know of no ‘normal’ country where the members of the judiciary have virtually unanimously decided to go on strike against the Government, because the ‘reforms’ it is introducing are an attempt to undermine the judiciary’s independent powers.

Giancarlo de Vivo
Naples

What MPs Read

After years of being lectured by liberals about the well-meaning sentiment, historical and political profundity and ‘greatness’ of Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (Letters, 9 May), I found it turgid and sentimental. Admittedly, I grew up within a Fife mining community, so my early reading was Lenin, Pushkin, Burns, Homer, Milton and Grassic Gibbon, which tends to put Tressell right where he belongs: in the tradition of shallow-minded social moralism allied to the Condition of England novel. The autodidacts and Communists of the Fife mining community and my own close family regarded Tressell as compromised politically and a failure aesthetically. This judgment was not based on political exigencies or national prejudice. But for some reason, Tressell, as a figure and as a writer, appeals to English Christians from the middle classes and to mild social reformers from the English Labour Party. In many ways, his ‘novel’ is a version of pastoral that seeks to place the figure of the skilled worker ‘back’ in a notional small craftsman’s guild within the context of a ‘healthy’ England.

David Miller
Rome

No luck (or no brains)

When my eyes alighted on the words ‘Monica Vitti’ in the title of Anne Carson’s poem ‘Ode to the Sublime by Monica Vitti’ (LRB, 25 April), I set to reading with what I can only describe as lust, because unless there are two Monica Vittis in this world, the subject of the poem must be the Italian film star, one of whose films was L’Avventura (1960). I saw this film a long time ago, probably only a few years after it came out, and my then adolescent hormones were so impressed by the leading lady that I cut a picture of her out of a newspaper, and stored it, to be looked at whenever I needed to be reminded of some of the astonishingly beautiful things the world contains. I read the poem once, I read it twice, I read it again – and again, many times. I looked at it from different angles – literally not figuratively – in case some sort of physical manipulation might render it comprehensible. No luck (or no brains). I liked it, I hasten to add, but I could have screamed with a frustration almost equal to the frustration, 35 years ago, of not being able to make love to Monica Vitti: the frustration of not understanding what Anne Carson is talking about. In fact I stalked over to my wife and used some loud and unprintable words to her, as she writes poems which can be almost as obscure as this one and could therefore be expected to see straight into the heart of Anne Carson’s project. She told me to control my language and to throw that issue of LRB into the nearest rubbish bin. In case I should be thought a literary pygmy I should mention that I have actually studied literature to postgraduate level and taught it for about twenty years, including so-called practical criticism of unfamiliar texts. On the minus side, I should mention that I now live in Zimbabwe (or try to) where our brains have recently received quite a battering.

I’m willing to be humiliated, but could Anne Carson, or anyone else – even Monica Vitti – please explain ‘Ode to the Sublime by Monica Vitti’?

Pete Hutton
Bulawayo, Zimbabwe

Escalator Stories

In the 1960s I was going up the escalator in a Tokyo department store behind a little old lady in full kimono gear. For some reason, she stumbled and fell backwards. Quick as a flash, I caught her and sustained her in a semi-recumbent posture until we reached the next floor, where I levered her into an upright position. There then followed a hilarious exchange of competitive bowing, since I am 6'5½" and she seemed to be about 4'6".

David Mason
Devonport, New Zealand

Boortree etc

I think I can help Frank Kermode with Tom Paulin’s use of ‘boortree’ in The Invasion Handbook (LRB, 23 May). It is a Scottish word. The spelling in the Concise Scottish Dictionary is ‘bourtree’, and the definition given there is ‘the elder tree’. There is a place in Aberdeenshire called Bourtree Bush (I think that’s how the locals spell it).

W.S. Milne
Esher, Surrey

Frank Kermode notes in passing that Tom Paulin was probably remembering Auden in his reference to the ‘pluck’ of the tide. Auden himself owed this and several other striking images to Anthony Collett’s The Changing Face of England (1926, reissued 1932), in whose opening paragraph he read that ‘cliffs fall, capes push seaward, or drift at the tide’s pluck like the shadow on a dial.’ He acknowledged his debt to Collett by citing him at length in his commonplace book, A Certain World.

Tony Sharpe
Lancaster University

King of Razz

Alfred Appel Jr writes well on how Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong managed to sing absurd and racist lyrics without losing all self-respect (LRB, 9 May). However, the case of ‘Shine’ is more complicated than he acknowledges. Ry Cooder’s version on his 1978 album Jazz claims to be one of the few to use the first verse of Cecil Mack’s lyric, in which the singer (‘they christened me plain Samuel Johnson Brown’) lists the names that some folks call him: ‘Sambo’, ‘Rastus’, ‘Chocolate Drop’ and now (‘to cap the climax’) ‘Shine’. In the more familiar, but to modern ears painfully odd, second verse he cites some reasons for this abuse: his pearly teeth, curly hair and shady colour, his uncomplaining nature and his fashionable clothes. He clearly can’t enjoy this, but chooses not to care a bit. What Armstrong thought of this I should be interested to know, but there seems to be more here than minstrelsy.

Graham Kemp
University of Liverpool

All Mouth and …

In her review of Hilary Spurling’s biography of Sonia Orwell (LRB, 25 April), Jenny Diski speaks of ‘an old story of all mouth and no trousers’. The saying with which I became familiar growing up in the East End is ‘all mouth and trousers’ – which may be one of those pieces of verbal impressionism that defies definition but communicates perfectly.

Rick Osborn
Sheffield Hallam University

Rival Brownings

Is the ‘Danny Karlin’ who so brusquely dismisses the excellent Penguin and Oxford editions of Browning’s The Ring and the Book (LRB, 23 May) in any way related to the ‘Daniel Karlin’ who coedits the rival Longman Poems of Browning (in progress)?

Paul Stephens
Oxford

Danny Karlin writes: I am indeed both Danny and Daniel, but I don’t recognise either of my selves as brusquely dismissing the Broadview (not Penguin) or Oxford editions. I hope someone in the future dismisses my work by saying it ‘can hardly be bettered for clarity and informativeness’ and ‘richly enhances and illuminates’ its subject, as I say of Hawlin and Burnett’s excellent introduction. If the Longman edition of The Ring and the Book had already been published or was about to appear I would have had scruples about reviewing rival editions; but this is not the case. There’s no underhand plot here.

Intergalactic Jesus

I have subscribed to the London Review of Books for more than two decades. Every morning, my first cup of tea is happily slurped from an LRB mug. And every time I publish a book I hope that it might be deemed worthy of a review in the paper. Finally, my dreams have come true: Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? The Relationship between Science and Religion has been favoured with full treatment in your pages (LRB, 9 May).

Pray that your prayers will never be answered! My dreams have turned to nightmares. I feel like the Pope at the end of one of Ian Paisley’s sermons. My book, according to Jerry Coyne, is littered with ‘sly’ suggestions, ‘inconsistent’ treatments, failures of ‘logical fit’, instances of ‘judicious silence’ and a multitude of other sins.

Scourged by this Savonarola of the Darwinian world, I have gone into retreat like other religious fanatics of my ilk. But may I ask what Coyne intends seriously as an alternative to what I propose, namely – for those who want to combine science and religion – a peaceful and fruitful interaction between Darwinism and Christianity? At the end of his review, he proposes that we take religion metaphorically. But that is precisely my point. Adam and Eve did not exist literally, but the idea of Original Sin – a tendency in us all towards sinful acts – makes good sense. Coyne proposes that perhaps God simply started everything moving and then sat back and let unbroken law do all. He may be right – this was probably Charles Darwin’s position when he wrote The Origin of Species – but it is not Christian theism. It is rather 18th-century deism.

Of course Coyne really believes that if you are a Darwinian then religion is false, and the real theme of his review is that any attempt to claim that a Darwinian can be a Christian is doomed to failure. If this is true, consider the significant legal and political and pedagogical consequences in the United States. The US Constitution separates Church and State. This means that you cannot teach Genesis in the biology classrooms of publicly funded schools. But if Coyne and fellows are right, then – as today’s Creationists point out non-stop – it can hardly be any more legal to teach Darwinism in the biology classrooms of publicly funded schools. As it happens, I have no more religious belief than Coyne. But that is not quite the point. The Constitution does not bar atheists from teaching in schools. It bars atheists from teaching atheism in schools. Coyne might reply that although my non-belief makes me less of a fool, it makes me more of a knave in writing a book claiming that a Darwinian can be a Christian. But my point is not whether a Darwinian should be a Christian, but whether a Darwinian can be a Christian (and conversely). If Coyne genuinely believes that Darwinism leads to atheism, and if he believes in the separation of Church and State, then I hope he has never taken a penny of Federal support for his researches.

Michael Ruse
Florida State University, Tallahassee

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