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Letters

Vol. 26 No. 9 · 6 May 2004

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Who got rid of Aristide?

Although the US was clearly the senior partner in the expulsion of President Aristide from Haiti, as Paul Farmer argued (LRB, 15 April), it’s worth emphasising the importance of France’s contribution. Demonisation of Aristide has been something of a national obsession in recent months, with normally left-of-centre dailies such as Libération and L'Humanité struggling to outdo each other in their efforts to portray Haiti’s president as the reincarnation of Duvalier or Mobutu. This isn’t an easy trick, when you consider that people with – generally tenuous – connections to Aristide’s Lavalas party were probably responsible for around thirty killings in all the years he was in office. Five thousand Lavalas supporters were killed while Aristide was in exile between 1991 and 1994, and fifty thousand deaths have been attributed to the Duvalier dictatorships.

The equation of Aristide and Duvalier, however, was a useful way of diverting attention from another point that Farmer is right to emphasise: Aristide’s demand for reimbursement of the money France extorted from Haiti between 1825 and 1947 as compensation for the loss of colonial property. By the end of the 19th century, payments to France consumed around 80 per cent of Haiti’s budget. Régis Debray, who was sent to Haiti by Chirac last autumn in search of arguments to undermine Aristide’s position, happily concluded that his demands – unlike slavery itself presumably – had no ‘legal basis’. He also found that ‘no members of the democratic opposition to Aristide took the reimbursement claims seriously,’ but neglected to mention that the Haitian electorate preferred Aristide to this opposition by a factor of nine or ten to one.

Peter Hallward
King’s College London

Failed State?

Edward Luttwak questions the description of Israel as a ‘failed state’ on the grounds of its GDP per capita and its scientific and cultural accomplishments, and suggests that Israel’s main achievement has been to restore the morale of Jews worldwide ‘by winning its wars and battles against all comers’ (Letters, 15 April). He assumes that anyone challenging this view would prefer Israel not to exist. David Grossman sees his country in a potentially irreversible decline, in thrall to a militarism that is destructive of both the Palestinians and itself. He is not alone. ‘Our country is going into a decline, nearing a catastrophe in all areas of economy, politics and social services and security,’ Yaakov Perry, who ran Shin Bet from 1988 to 1995, commented recently. ‘If we continue to live by the sword, we will continue to wallow in the mud and to destroy ourselves.’ These people are passionate in their allegiance to Israel.

It is, on the contrary, Luttwak’s view that Israel is never the aggressor that has been so damaging to the country since its founding in 1948. The notion of Israel as ‘poor little Samson’ (it is in military terms the fourth most powerful nation on earth) has placed the country under the domination of a military ethos that threatens the material well-being of its citizens, which Luttwak sees as evidence of its success. When the finance minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, recently proposed to slash NIS 4.5 billion from other ministry budgets to support the Defence Ministry, Shimon Peres said that it was as if the government were telling hundreds of thousands of elderly people facing starvation: ‘If you don’t have bread, eat television sets.’

More important, to describe Israel as a ‘failed state’ (my expression, not Grossman’s) is to suggest that we are too ready to speak of ‘failure’, with its undertones of moral inferiority, in connection with nations that do not conform to a Western vision of civilisation. Just as it is crucial to acknowledge that terrorism is not practised only by those who don’t share Western values and faiths, and that there is such a thing as state terrorism (Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza are an obvious example), so it might be crucial to acknowledge that a nation can be powerful and can also fail, because of the way it exercises that power. Power is not always benign, as the consequences of US and British policy in Iraq attest. Sharon may well succeed in his unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and annexation of vast swathes of the West Bank, but if he does so his success will be a catastrophe for the Middle East.

It is doubtless the case, as Luttwak suggests, that the creation of Israel in 1948 restored the morale of many Jews all over the world. The tragedy was that this imperative took such brutal precedence over Palestinian rights, and is still used to ride roughshod over them. For many Jews today, among whom I include myself, it is this continuing reality – which one could indeed describe as Israel ‘winning its wars and battles against all comers’ – that saps morale, while also placing the nation’s future in jeopardy.

Jacqueline Rose
London NW6

In spinning an apotheosis for Israeli achievements, Edward Luttwak forgets to mention not only the American arms and money that pour into Israel, but also the fact that so many of its scientists and engineers were born and trained in Eastern Europe and the US. If Ireland and Singapore – to take his two comparisons – had been similarly blessed, who can say how much more they might have accomplished?

Lauro Martines
London NW1

Unfair to Revenants

Virginia Tilley (LRB, 6 November 2003) wrote of ‘settlers in “Judea and Samaria" who are indeed gun-toting religious zealots (mostly from the US)’. In the same article, she also presumed that Ariel Sharon would not support the dismantling of Jewish communities in the disputed territories.

As a resident of Shiloh, a Jewish community pejoratively called a ‘settlement’ populated by ‘settlers’, and a member of the communities’ representative body, the Yesha Council, I can tell Tilley that the people here, and more properly they should be referred to as revenants, persons who have returned after a long hiatus to their ancestral homes, who number more than 250,000 (and more than 400,000 if eastern Jerusalem is included), are secular in the main. The number of Americans who live beyond the Green Line armistice demarcation boundary does not exceed 20 per cent of that population.

Yisrael Medad
Shiloh, Samaria

In Defence of the Patriot Act

Richard Rorty denounces the US Patriot Act without mentioning any of its provisions (LRB, 1 April). It is supported by George W. Bush and the ‘thoroughly sinister’ John Ashcroft and that is enough to damn it. The act was passed in Congress by large majorities of both parties in 2001 and was intended to improve the federal government’s ability to prevent terrorism. It included provisions allowing the CIA and FBI to communicate with each other about potential terrorists trying to enter the US, and to make it easier to obtain warrants to examine computers. The act also allows warranted searches of stored voice-mails on the same legal basis as stored emails, and national (as opposed to single-jurisdiction) search warrants for terrorism. It has not chilled public debate over the Bush administration and its actions. All of its provisions will be debated when it comes up for reauthorisation next year. It would be helpful if they were debated on their merits, weighing the sometimes conflicting demands of civil liberties and the prevention of terrorism.

Peter Connolly
Washington DC

Everyone except the Dog

Here’s the story depicted in a recent film. A woman comes to transform a small world by teaching its people, through extravagant example, about love, forgiveness and mercy. She has come from a ‘Father’ who is much more inclined to wrath, judgment and punishment. She is initially welcomed as a redemptive gift by the community, but then the people turn against her and subject her to degrading and sadistic punishments, which she endures without reproach. Following a final humiliation, during which she is forcibly tied to an immovable object, she returns to the Father to assume her inheritance – the kingdom and the power of the Father. The film is Dogville. Only in its ending does it differ in plot structure from The Passion of the Christ. In Dogville there is a second coming, a judgment day: having assumed the Father’s power, the redeemer returns to judge the world and consigns everyone, except the dog, to the fire. Lars von Trier, Dogville’s writer and director, even calls his heroine ‘Grace’. In her review, however, Joanna Kavenna can see in Grace only a hapless masochist and, in search of the spiritual significance of her story, makes the ungainly suggestion that ‘she may have shifted religious archetypes, from madonna/whore to avenging angel’ (LRB, 15 April). Most other reviewers also missed the parallel with the Passion. The active, redemptory act of sacrifice is perceived, when performed by a woman, as an act of masochism or the exploitation of a helpless victim.

Vincent Deary
Edinburgh

As Seen in Dublin

Tom Arnold married Julia Sorell in Tasmania, not New Zealand, as Philip Davis claimed in his review of my biography (LRB, 15 April). My description of him as ‘an anomaly, a walking category-mistake’ was not a reference to his personal qualities, but to the way in which English Catholic converts such as Arnold and Hopkins and, a generation earlier, Newman, were liable to be perceived in Dublin.

Bernard Bergonzi
Leamington Spa

Miller Time

David Edgar maintains that from the 1960s Arthur Miller ‘never recovered his influence or his reputation in the States’ (LRB, 18 March). Since 1997 there have been major revivals, on Broadway alone, of All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, A View from the Bridge, The Price, The Man who Had All the Luck; After the Fall is due this summer. In addition, the enterprising off-Broadway Signature Theatre devoted its whole 1997-98 season to old and new Miller plays, including Mr Peters’ Connections.

Murray Biggs
Yale University

Cute

Kitty Hauser didn’t say whether she had ever been to Harajuku to see the young people who dress up in fantastical costumes, but I imagine she hasn’t (LRB, 15 April). For one thing, Harajuku is not a suburb: it is a central Tokyo neighbourhood. Also, it is impossible to see these teenagers in their elegant gothic Lolita costumes and write: ‘We ought to take them seriously.’ Admire them, yes – defying the norm is courageous in Japan – but take them seriously? Her primary mistake is conflating the Harajuku youth with the corporate ‘cute culture’ of Hello Kitty. Harajuku is a rejection of this: it’s handmade and defies marketing.

Harvey Dickson
Paris

Trafalgar Square

David Wootton's essay on the rarity of nakedness in early modern England reminded me of my first visit to Kathmandu in the fall of 1967 (LRB, 15 April). I stayed at the Royal Hotel, which was presided over by the legendary White Russian Boris Lissanevitch – Boris of Kathmandu. Boris told me about a republic that had been established outside the city called Hippieland. You could, he said, go there and get your passport stamped. You could also, for a modest honorarium, look at the Trafalgar Square of one of the female citizens. Boris explained that most of the clientele were locals who in the course of their married lives would never see their wives naked.

Jeremy Bernstein
Aspen, Colorado

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