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Letters

Vol. 24 No. 20 · 17 October 2002

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The Fat, the Old and the Ugly

Jeremy Waldron writes (LRB, 19 September): ‘we value those features of an economic system that are sensitive to effort, and – more important – we deplore those features that guarantee success for some at the expense of systematic insensitivity to the choices and efforts made by others.’ True enough, but decisions based on true merit and ‘systematic insensitivity’ are not the only options. The unexamined word here is ‘systematic’.

Suppose an employer faced with two applicants, Ernest and Jack, chooses Ernest because he happens to love that name, though Jack is actually far better qualified. Has equality of opportunity been denied? No, because both applicants equally face a world in which merit coexists with arbitrary preference as a criterion of selection: Jack had as good a chance, going in, of meeting an employer partial to Jacks. The value of equality of opportunity gets most of its practical force from its opposition to systematic discrimination. If Jack were black, would equality of opportunity have been denied? No – not if we can be sure that race did not motivate the employer. But how can we be sure? We can only do the best we can to come to an accurate judgment of the case. Systematic bias may be revealed by patterns of employment, which governments may take steps to remedy. The remedy is not to reach perfect fairness for every individual, but to eliminate systematic bias against certain groups.

A society where discrimination is merely a matter of random personal inclinations amounts, in fact, to a society with equality of opportunity. A perfectly fair society is something beyond that. How far should we go in hunting down discrimination, not only against blacks and women but against the fat, the old and the ugly? To pursue positive equality beyond the elimination of egregious systematic discrimination produces what has become known as political correctness.

David Bishop
Cambridge, Massachusetts

The Trouble with Smallpox

Hugh Pennington points out (LRB, 5 September) that ‘nobody reads books about the diagnosis of smallpox any more. I bought my copy of Ricketts from an antiquarian bookseller.’ Even leading medical textbooks nowadays fail to discuss the clinical recognition of smallpox in any detail. Fields Virology tells us that ‘there is little point in delineating the clinical features of this now-extinct disease.’ Most rashes do not appear on the palms and soles: the smallpox rash does. Pennington describes a smallpox laboratory accident in 1973, and notes that Dr MacKenzie ‘was puzzled by the blister-like lesion on her hand’, which may ultimately have led to the diagnosis. However, in Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine, another leading textbook, smallpox is no longer listed among the few human rashes affecting the palms and soles.

Edward Tabor
Food and Drug Administration
Rockville, Maryland

Carbon Wars

Anatol Lieven makes the point that ‘the single most important consideration’ in the push for war on Iraq is ‘guaranteed and unrestricted access to cheap oil’ (LRB, 3 October). In the context of the Bush regime’s energy policies, which have been integral to its foreign policies, the war needs to be considered in terms not only of its aims but also of the consequences of consuming the oil.

The probable ratification of Kyoto despite US hostility illustrates the fault-line Lieven analyses. The alienation of the US from its German ally may superficially owe much to the injudicious remarks of Schröder and his colleagues, but their electorate’s concerns about the impending war and about climate change as a result of the recent flooding suggest a more fundamental political divergence. And at the other end of the scale, the micro-nation of Tuvalu has announced that it will have to abandon its islands within a generation because of rising sea levels.

One needn’t ask how the US would react if, somehow, the roles were reversed and its vital interests, or even existence, were threatened by policies pursued by, say, Tuvalu. As it is, it seems bent on behaving like a twenty-stone chain-smoker in a stalled and crowded elevator.

Jonathan Sinclair-Wilson
Earthscan, London N1

Quite Normal

John Sturrock, in his review of The Keys of Egypt (LRB, 19 September), remarks that its authors ‘sink to a new low in asinine anglicisation by turning the Ecole Normale into the Normal School’. Whether this is quite such a low is debatable, but it is very far from new. A proposal for a teacher-training Normal School administrating non-denominational religious instruction was central to the Education Bill introduced by Lord John Russell in February 1839. Given Whig francophilia in general, and Russell’s own familiarity with France, the name has an obvious origin. Russell abandoned the proposal on 4 June in response to clerical agitation, proof perhaps of the endurance of the ancien regime on at least one side of the Channel. James Kay-Shuttleworth founded a Normal School at Kneller Hall, Twickenham in 1849; Frederick Temple, later Archbishop of Canterbury, was principal until its closure in 1855.

S.A. Skinner
Balliol College, Oxford

Elect the judges

Stephen Sedley (LRB, 19 September) is only partly right to attribute the lack of an ethnically diverse judiciary ‘not to fundamental failings in the judicial appointments process … but to deep-seated discrimination within the legal profession’. In fact, it’s almost certainly both. At the Employment Tribunals, where I practise, one regularly confronts black and Asian lawyers, but to appear before a non-white tribunal chairman is still very unusual.

The solution is to provide for a proportion of the lowest tiers of the full-time judiciary to be elected. To be a candidate for election, one would have to be a fully qualified lawyer of, say, seven years’ standing, to have practised for at least some of that time, and perhaps to be verified by the Lord Chancellor’s Department as worthy of judicial office. But after that one could put oneself up for election. In areas with large populations of ethnic minorities there would soon be a fairer proportion of black and Asian members of the judiciary.

Chris Purnell
Orpington, Kent

Implosion in the Glens

David Walker (Letters, 19 September) suggests that Scotland is more spendthrift Hyde than canny Jekyll, and can't, therefore, transform itself into a bourgeois region like Baden-Württemberg in a oner. I agree, but I think that the purpose of devolution was to create a framework within which new policy priorities could be made. This need not mean more cash but ought to require efficient and rational appraisal of alternative expenditure patterns. Six billion pounds are blown annually on cars and roads. Best practice in transport need not cost more: indeed, the pressure to economise may accelerate environmental reform rather than requiring the rattling of a begging-bowl outside 11 Downing Street.

Christopher Harvie
Tübingen, Germany

Surrender

It is hard to understand why my suggestion that the dropping of two atomic bombs was not the only way of ending the Pacific war in 1945 causes such indignation (Letters, 19 September). A wide range of military figures have taken that view. Field Marshal Montgomery, in The History of Warfare, has this to say: ‘In my view it was unnecessary to drop the two atomic bombs on Japan in August 1945 and I cannot think that it was right to do so … The dropping of the bombs was a major political blunder and is a prime example of the declining moral standards of modern war.’ General Eisenhower was just as clear: ‘Japan was at that very moment seeking some way to surrender with minimum loss of face. It was not necessary to hit them with that awful thing.’

Bruce Kent
Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament
London N7

At This Late Hour

In his review of Carol Peaker’s Penguin Modern Painters (LRB, 8 August), Peter Campbell quotes a letter from Kenneth Clark to Eunice Frost at Penguin Books. In that letter, Clark also said: ‘Whether there is really any point in introducing the people of South Shields, at this late hour, to Matisse and Picasso I am far from certain. It seems to me that these painters were the product of a highly sophisticated society and can never be genuinely popular, although people may buy them out of snobbishness and curiosity.’ Despite the attitude he reveals here, Clark worked at Penguin with editors, including Eunice Frost, who believed strongly in taking art to wider audiences. Their dedication to education and the dissemination of art (Penguin’s chief editor helped found the ‘art for the people’ scheme in the 1930s) was as important to the Modern Painters enterprise as Clark’s belief that the health of art lay in modest private patronage.

Nicholas Joicey
Washington DC

Water on the Brain

Edmond Wright (Letters, 3 October) is surely mistaken about the water/H2O analogy for the mind/brain distinction. He seems to say that ‘water’ is associated with the properties of water, which we phenomenally experience, whereas ‘H2O’ is the physical description of water: ‘we cannot identify H2O with the being of water.’ But it is clear that water and H2O are co-referring expressions. You cannot make the true statement ‘water is wet’ into a falsehood by substituting the term ‘H2O’ for ‘water’. Try a similar thing with ‘mind’ and ‘brain’ and it’s obvious that the two terms do not co-refer: we don’t speak of finding ‘peace of brain’. The properties of water are all physical properties, and explained by the fact that water is made up of two molecules of hydrogen and one of oxygen. In the case of phenomenal experience, a physical object, the brain, is in some sense involved, but experience appears to have properties that just don’t seem physical. As Jerry Fodor pointed out in his original article (LRB, 5 September), a pain is not the same sort of thing as a rock. Philosophy of mind has somehow to find a way to reconcile the existence of both in a material world.

Graham Hamilton
York

As a Lifelong Member of the SWP . . .

What Perry Anderson misses (LRB, 3 October) is a most surprising admission by Eric Hobsbawm. Having read his books and heard him speak over many decades I knew that Hobsbawm remained a Communist Party member and assumed, as a lifelong member of the SWP, that he must do some of the things that I did, and do. Namely, go to branch meetings, relate to strikes by visiting picket lines and sell a socialist paper. However, it seems he did none of this, not just after 1956 but before as well. Indeed he manages to get the date when the Daily Worker changed its name to the Morning Star wrong by ten years – 1956 for 1966 – so detached was he from selling the daily paper of the Party of which he was a member.

This explains, on the one hand, how Hobsbawm had the time to write such marvellous socialist history. It also explains how he came to be so closely associated with the anti-socialist politics of Marxism Today.

Keith Flett
London N17

Back to Square One

The illustration of the chessboard on the cover of the 19 September issue includes a black square in the right-hand corner of the board. The first rule of chess is that the board is to be positioned so that a white square is in the right-hand corner. To fail to follow this rule is to do violence to the positions of the king and queen.

James Gollata
Miller Memorial Library
University of Wisconsin-Richland

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