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Letters

Vol. 26 No. 24 · 16 December 2004

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A Functioning Democracy, after all

As a former resident of Australia who now lives in France, I was struck on reading Tom Nairn’s Diary by similarities in the left’s response to electoral defeat across national boundaries (LRB, 18 November). When an ordinary conservative (Chirac or Bush or Howard) defeats a feebly socialist or mildly progressive challenger (Jospin or Kerry or Latham) the losers cry ‘catastrophe’, accuse the right of surrendering to the electorate’s baser instincts, and find fault with the democratic process. Nairn denounces the voters as ‘zombies’, calls it a ‘pseudo-election’ and casts doubt on the country’s democratic institutions, based, he claims, on ‘a clapped-out British template’. But Australia is, clearly, a functioning democracy, with an educated and generally well-informed electorate. However regrettable to some of us, it was hardly surprising that, in a period of economic upswing, the government defeated an opposition which offered only a marginally different approach.

John Roberts
Labastide-Paumès, France

Yes, we have recently had a federal election in Australia, and yes, we have delivered a significant majority to the Liberal/National Coalition in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. What Tom Nairn didn’t make clear is that the same electorate has, in every state and territory jurisdiction, elected ALP (Labour) governments. Nairn must think we’re a bit dysfunctional if we vote for his decent, principled ALP at the state level, but turn into a bunch of four-wheel-driving rednecks every three years at the federal level.

But give us a bit of credit. The result reflects the eminently reasonable view that the ALP is not fit to govern at the federal level.

Stephen Sasse
Queens Park, New South Wales

Why Kerry Lost

Slavoj Žižek misunderstands the lesson of the recent American election as an injunction to move beyond the multiculturalist politics represented by the Rainbow Coalition in favour of a more class-oriented approach (LRB, 4 November). In the United States, as in most of the postcolonial world, class and race (and gender) are never that far apart. Where there were significant concentrations of working-class voters – in cities, for example – the vote was strongly for Kerry in both blue and red states. Where Kerry lost significant support, as compared to Gore in 2002, was among Latinos, of whom there are now more than 40 million in the US. ‘Cultural values’ issues such as gay marriage (and the attack on Kerry by the Catholic hierarchy) undoubtedly played a part here; but so did the fact that Kerry and his advisers chose not to play the ethnic card by appealing to Latinos on issues of special concern to them, such as the relaxing of immigration rules. Bush, by contrast, had no compunction about doing just this, cynically perhaps, but certainly effectively. When it has been possible, in US politics, to forge a Rainbow-style coalition between African Americans, Latinos, labour, women in the workforce, the white-collar liberal professional class and gays, the Democrats – and usually the left rather than the centre of the party – win. When that alliance is rejected (as relying too much on appeals to ethnic identity) in favour of broad ‘middle-class’ entitlement programmes, as in the post-9/11 mayoral election in New York City or the Kerry campaign, the Democrats lose, even where they have the majority of registered voters.

John Beverley
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Bombers not Martyrs

Jacqueline Rose writes that suicide bombing is a recent phenomenon (LRB, 4 November), but dying gloriously facing the enemy has a long history. The first modern instance was in 1944-45, when the US navy was confronted by kamikaze pilots trying to fly planes loaded with high explosive into their ships as they approached Japan. Not only that: millions of Japanese schoolchildren were drilled in the use of satchel bombs, which would be detonated as they threw themselves under US tanks in the event of an invasion. This presented America with a conundrum: invading the Japanese mainland would produce an unacceptable level of casualties, but holding back was unthinkable, given the need to avenge Pearl Harbor. A solution was found in the use of nuclear weapons.

R.W. Johnson
Cape Town

Given, Jacqueline Rose writes, that suicide bombing ‘kills far fewer people than conventional warfare’, its horror ‘would appear to be associated with the fact that the attacker also dies’. But this is to overstate the fascination of suicidal psychology and to dismiss too easily the significance of its targeting of civilians. Conventional warfare, despite its generally larger civilian death tolls and callousness towards civilian life, is not so unambiguously and consistently murderous: conventional warriors deny their civilian victims rather than exhibiting them to a global public.

Martin Shaw
University of Sussex

Jacqueline Rose refers to an interview with Ariella Atzmon in Asher Tlalim’s documentary Galoot. As a child Atzmon had apparently sung songs to Shlomo Ben Yosef, who is described as having lobbed a grenade onto an Arab bus, killing women and children. In fact, no one was injured or killed in the incident. Guns were fired in the air, and if there was a grenade, it was not detonated. The incident occurred in the context of the 1936-38 Arab revolt, during which a large number of Jews were ambushed and murdered. The trial of Ben Yosef and his companion was a cause célèbre because he was sentenced to hang, and did hang, when no one was actually harmed. Speaking as one who grew up with a close knowledge of Betar (the youth movement to which Ben Yosef belonged), I do not recall there being a mythology around Ben Yosef which glorified killing. If this myth is limited to Atzmon’s recollection or those close to her, we should also be circumspect when she says: ‘We did not want peace.’

In the age of the internet there is a particular responsibility to set the record straight. Within days of the publication of Rose’s article, the paragraph about Ben Yosef had migrated to websites with an agenda to make emotive capital of such an event.

Avril Mailer
London NW7

What killed Trotsky?

Neal Ascherson writes that Ramón Mercader killed Trotsky ‘with an ice-pick’ (LRB, 2 December). Had Ascherson misspent his youth reading pulp fiction, he would know that an ice-pick is a small, obsolete tool used to break up ice before putting it into drinks. Its advantage as a murder weapon was that it could be easily hidden in a jacket pocket, to be gripped, just before use, so that the spike would stick out between two fingers of a closed fist, allowing a punch straight to the heart. Mercader, I think, must have used a mountaineer’s ice-axe, designed to cut footsteps in frozen snow, to smash in Trotsky’s head.

Terry O’Sullivan
London N8

Neal Ascherson says that Trotsky ‘went to Brest-Litovsk and staggered the world by shutting down the war with Germany unilaterally – “neither war nor peace"’. ‘Neither war nor peace’ was Trotsky’s slogan in 1914 at the outbreak of the war. His slogan at Brest-Litovsk was ‘Neither victory nor defeat.’

Noel Hannon
London SW8

Americans in Afghanistan? Not really

Charles Glass talks of the ‘American invasion’ of Afghanistan in 2001, and the ‘American creation of a government under Hamid Karzai’ (LRB, 18 November). But Afghanistan was already in the middle of a civil war. The Taliban lines were broken by US bombing and attacks by the Northern Alliance. Afghan troops advanced and took Kabul. With the exception of the special forces that functioned as spotters for the bombardments, no US troops were present in that advance. As for the creation of the interim Afghan government, that was managed by a gathering of Afghan exile and resistance groups in Bonn in November and December 2001; the US had nothing to do with it. In choosing Karzai, a Pashtun, these groups understood that it might be best if their leader were from the largest single ethnic group. Even the Uzbek and Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance understood this. Glass insinuates that Karzai is told what to do by the US ambassador, but the US has no interest in ‘taking over’ Afghanistan. The idea is for the Afghans to take it over, and have a government elected by the majority of Afghans.

Glass repeatedly compares US policies in Afghanistan to those in Vietnam, but the two situations couldn’t be more unalike. It has been crucial to the US in Afghanistan that their military involvement be minimal. Nato troops (no US troops) are in the capital; Glass says that 18,000 troops are currently stationed along the Pakistan border, but no US troops are in garrison in Afghan cities. They are there only to chase after Taliban remnants and Osama bin Laden. Glass laments that the destruction of Kabul is more extensive and worse than that of Baghdad: yes, but 95 per cent of it was done before 1996, by the warring Afghan factions.

Glass is not impressed by the recent Afghan presidential election. Perhaps he sees such elections as ‘devices of legitimisation’. But you have to start somewhere. When I was in Peshawar in early October, NGOs and other elements were involved in registering Afghans in refugee camps for the election. The response was so overwhelming that the registration process had to be extended by two days. These are the people who, Glass reports, are ‘not supporting the central government’.

Glass claims that the central government mandate doesn’t extend beyond the capital. But if Karzai can keep the capital quiet and increase confidence in the new regime, that is progress. If the new administration can extend its control towards the Khyber Pass and Jalalabad, as it is doing, that is progress. Glass seems not to have heard that Ismael Khan, the governor of Herat, was recently dismissed, and that new Afghan army units have been deployed to the western province. That, too, is progress.

Kenneth Meyer
Hong Kong

School of the Assassins

Corey Robin refers to ‘US-trained security officials’ capturing, torturing and executing Guatemalan leftists (LRB, 18 November). Although he does not say so, the security officials were almost certainly trained at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. Officially, the SOA is now the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Co-operation. Unofficially, it is still known as the School of the Assassins because of its role in training generations of army officers to capture, torture and execute Latin American civilians.

Steve Lane
Bethesda, Maryland

Corey Robin’s account of Ríos Montt reminded me of a documentary film of the pope’s visit to Central America in 1983 broadcast by ITN. After extolling the ‘simple joys of poverty’ to the Mexican masses the pope visited Guatemala. We were shown footage of Montt and the pope seated together, Montt looking shifty and the pope visibly uneasy. Then a sound erupted from the PA: Dusty Springfield singing ‘You don’t have to say you love me.’ Did I dream this?

Anthony Moore
Norwich

Not Guilty

Before 1914, starting a war was neither a crime in international law nor a sin against morality, and there was no principle that said that a country which started a war had to make amends afterwards. Both these ideas were retroactively introduced in the Treaty of Versailles. It doesn’t matter whether Germany started the war or German policy caused it, both of which are beyond dispute: at issue is the word ‘guilt’ itself – a point which Margaret MacMillan seems to have missed (LRB, 2 December).

Oliver Pretzel
London E8

Why We Do What We’re Told

Jenny Diski’s interpretation of Stanley Milgram’s experiments ignores later work in social psychology (LRB, 18 November). Above all, she exaggerates the influence of personal characteristics and underestimates the role of situation in causing behaviour. There is at least as much evidence that the experimental situation influenced the subjects to obey to the extent that they did as for the notion that a given element of their character was responsible for the difference in their behaviour. And there is no evidence that they would differ in the same way in a different situation in which they were pressured by someone in authority to act against their better judgment.

The essential lesson of Milgram’s research on obedience isn’t that two-thirds of the research subjects obeyed and one-third disobeyed, much less that those proportions would generalise to the population as a whole. Our current understanding is that Milgram found that the pressures towards obedience in one variation of his experiment were sufficient to overcome completely the resistance of two-thirds of his subjects. It is the sometimes unexpected power of situations that Milgram discovered, not universals or variations in human character.

It is not useful to conclude from Milgram’s experiments that people lack the character to resist the tactics of exploitative leaders. However, it is useful to recognise that people can be inoculated (educated) against those tactics. Milgram’s use of a very gradual procedure in which punishment of the learner began with a gentle slap on the wrist and escalated slowly to a very painful assault was probably a much more potent factor in eliciting the shocking level of obedience he observed than any aspect of the character of his subjects. People who know this might be less susceptible to the demands of an unjust authority.

Paul Cherulnik
Leeds, Massachusetts

In common with other commentators on Milgram’s experiments, Jenny Diski fails to mention the response that his subjects would have had to make in order to be considered truly civilised. Any one of them could have seen that the supposed experiment would probably inflict not only excruciating pain but also serious injury or death, and consequently called campus security and the police – the proper authorities – and shut the atrocity down on the spot.

Jim Valentine
Woodland Hills, California

How much oil is it safe to spill?

Writing about the effect of oil as a pollutant at sea, James Hamilton-Paterson correctly says that a million tons of oil is a small amount compared with the total volume of the oceans (LRB, 23 September). However, crude oil has the ability to spread out on sea water, eventually to form a film which is only a few molecules thick. The correct comparison is, therefore, not between the volume of the oil and the total volume of the oceans, but rather between the area of such an oil film and the total surface area of the oceans. A rough calculation suggests that these two areas are, in fact, of the same magnitude (a billion square kilometres). On this basis, the spillage of a million tons of oil is indeed a matter for ecological concern.

Brendan Carroll
University of Manchester

False Messiah of St John’s Wood

E.S. Turner is puzzled by a 1973 reference to the ‘kept ladies of St John’s Wood … behind stained glass featuring mauve lilies and a “false Messiah"’ (LRB, 2 December). The false Messiah was an Anglican clergyman, the Reverend John Hugh Smyth-Pigott, whose congregation believed him to be Christ (he saw no reason to disabuse them). He moved on to lead a colony in Somerset called Agapemone and was pleased to take several Brides of Christ. It was his London house that had mauve lilies in the stained glass; the neighbouring ‘kept ladies’ seemed to live in brighter accommodation.

Martin Ward
Northampton

Wotcher chavvy

John Lanchester’s use of the word ‘chav’ (LRB, 21 October) took me back to 1959 or 1960, when ‘chav’ larded the playground conversations of my 14-year-old contemporaries in un-yobbish Tunbridge Wells. It was used as a more aggressive form of individual address than the old-generation, class-tainted ‘bloke’.

Bob Sterry
West Linn, Oregon

John Lanchester has overlooked the impact of gender in his discussion of class. Working-class men are intuitively aware not only that the job structure is continuing to change rapidly in ways that favour the employment and social mobility of women at their expense, but also that politically correct measures to enforce equality of opportunity between the sexes block off job opportunities even in traditionally masculine careers such as the police and the armed forces. The anti-social behaviour of male chavs seems to reflect their realisation that they are an underclass, not really needed any more, except when young for unskilled manual jobs.

Something of the same malaise is even felt among the ‘Uppers’. Over the years the effect of equal pay in the teaching profession has been to feminise the profession, while women increasingly block places for male applicants in medical schools and, once qualified, decide to work part-time, to the despair of Treasury manpower planners.

Tony Caston
Tervuren, Belgium

Any policeman knows that ‘chav’ is an acronym for ‘Council House and Violent’.

Dave Robinson
Farringdon, Devon

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