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Vol. 28 No. 11 · 8 June 2006

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They made her life hell

Jenny Diski is mistaken in suggesting that Labour opposition councillors played no part in the exposure of Shirley Porter and her crooked entourage in Westminster Council (LRB, 25 May). Quite the contrary. A talented and articulate group of councillors, including several who went on to sit in Parliament, made her life hell and ultimately exposed her. One, Neale Coleman, now an adviser to Ken Livingstone, cottoned on very early to the fact that the policy of ‘Building Stable Communities’ was a fig-leaf for a massive gerrymandering exercise, and he worked tirelessly to obtain proof. The Labour councillors were also backed by a very active party, which was able to call on a wide group of activists to demonstrate and campaign against Porter. Not only did the Labour group play a crucial role in bringing Porter’s misdeeds to public attention through regular briefings and leaks to the press; they were also instrumental in her demise by referring the matter to the district auditor and ensuring that it was not quietly forgotten once Porter had departed.

Christian Wolmar
London N7

Jenny Diski asserts that ‘somehow the opposition Labour Party failed to find out what was going on, or to get to grips with the scale of it.’ In July 1987 we fought hammer and tongs to stop the Designated Sales plans that led to the sale of council flats in marginal wards. In July 1988, having seen leaked documents proving conclusively that the council was acting unlawfully, I wrote to the district auditor to urge him to mount a full-scale investigation into Porter’s gerrymandering. Unbelievably, the district auditor took no action for a full year until July 1989, when we gave all the information to the BBC, and Panorama exposed the depths of the illegal activity and forced the authorities to take action against the council.

In addition, from March 1987 to April 1988, the council’s managing director regularly and intentionally misled Labour councillors when we asked him to explain why council resources were being unlawfully concentrated in the marginal wards. In the words of Lord Bingham following the House of Lords judgment in December 2001, ‘there were deliberate attempts by officers to conceal the system … by giving deliberately misleading answers to proper questions from members of the minority party on the council.’

And without Labour’s unwavering and long-term commitment to recovering the £42 million surcharge imposed on Porter, the council would never have seen a penny piece of what she owed.

Paul Dimoldenberg
City Hall SW1

The Israel Lobby

Alan Dershowitz accuses John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt of ‘quoting David Ben-Gurion out of context so that he appears to be saying the exact opposite of what he actually did say’ (Letters, 20 April). Mearsheimer and Walt accurately quote Ben-Gurion as saying that after Israel became powerful, it would expand to encompass all of Palestine. Dershowitz supplies an ensuing phrase, implying that Ben-Gurion meant only expansion by ‘mutual understanding and Jewish-Arab agreement’. However, a fuller statement, in Michael Bar-Zohar’s biography of Ben-Gurion, Facing a Cruel Mirror, runs:

We shall organise a modern defence force … and then I am certain that we will not be prevented from settling in other parts of the country, either by mutual agreement with our Arab neighbours or by some other means … we will expel the Arabs and take their places … with the force at our disposal.

Perhaps after independence Ben-Gurion changed his mind? Apparently not. Tom Segev, in The First Israelis, quotes him as follows:

Before the founding of the state, on the eve of its creation, our main interest was self-defence … But now the issue at hand is conquest, not self-defence. As for setting the borders – it’s an open-ended matter. In the Bible as well as in history there are all kinds of definitions of the country’s borders, so there’s no real limit.

Jerome Slater
Williamsville, New York

‘We can easily believe,’ John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt write, ‘that Daniel Pipes has never “taken orders" from the lobby, because the Leninist caricature of the lobby depicted in his letter is one that we clearly dismissed. Readers will also note that Pipes does not deny that his organisation, Campus Watch, was created in order to monitor what academics say, write and teach, so as to discourage them from engaging in open discourse about the Middle East’ (Letters, 11 May).

First, Mearsheimer and Walt unconditionally concede they have no information that the alleged ‘lobby’ gives me orders concerning Campus Watch, thus confirming the falsehood of their initial claim. Second, what they dismiss as a ‘Leninist caricature’ of a lobby – one that strategises and gives orders – is the only type of lobby that exists. If no one instructed me to begin Campus Watch, how could Campus Watch’s coming into existence be part of an organised campaign? Third, I deny their point that Campus Watch intends to discourage academics ‘from engaging in open discourse about the Middle East’. As our mission statement explains, the project ‘reviews and critiques Middle East studies in North America with an aim to improving them’.

Campus Watch is to Middle East studies as political analysis to politics, film criticism to movies, and consumer reports to manufacturing: we provide assessments for the public. Unlike politicians, actors and business executives, who accept criticism with good grace, academics howl with umbrage at being judged.

Daniel Pipes

John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt are making a mistake when they say, in their rebuttal of their critics (Letters, 11 May), that the oil embargo of 1973-74, which caused panic among gasoline consumers in the US, was instituted by Opec: it was instituted by a group of Arab countries, led by Saudi Arabia, and prompted by support of Israel on the part of the US and the Netherlands during the war with Egypt and Syria. While the embargo lasted, other members of Opec, including some of the Arab exporters, even expanded their exports, so that total Opec exports actually rose during that period, and neither the US nor the Netherlands was specifically targeted.

Salah el Serafy
Arlington, Virginia

Compare Stephen Hawking with me

Ian Hacking predicts that parents of autistic children, whom he describes as ‘heroes’, will be angered by his list of all the things that are ‘so dreadful’ about their autistic children (LRB, 11 May). He is right to suggest that autism is a hazy description of a little known condition that may in fact not be a condition at all, but this does not stop him from giving a detailed description of ‘an autistic child’, which is entirely a list of negative characteristics, and concludes: ‘Your child is an alien.’ Does every autistic person share every one of these negative characteristics and no positive ones? As with any diagnosis concerning the mind, everyone can identify ‘autistic’ characteristics in themselves and every ‘autistic’ person will sometimes confound expectations.

Hacking also describes John Kennedy’s sister as ‘severely retarded’. In terms of its level of offensiveness, this is on a par with a white writer casually using the term ‘negro’, but this description crops up in the London Review on a disturbingly regular basis. It is offensive to sum up an individual with a one-word pejorative description of their perceived disability, because it suggests that there can be nothing else to know about them. Compare Stephen Hawking with me: if you take only physical ability into account, he becomes a ‘cripple’; if you consider only intellectual ability, I become a ‘retard’. All the currently widely accepted labels begin with the word ‘person’, which is where your contributors’ thinking on the subject should be encouraged to begin.

Alex Fox

Little Americas

Contrary to what Carol Brightman implies, the vast majority of people in Iraq do not see the disintegration of the country as a nation-state as something to be sad about (Letters, 11 May). On the contrary, they see it as the undoing of a huge colonial injustice against them: they have always been acutely aware that, in fabricating a false identity for the country following the First World War, one of the key goals of the British was to keep them under. When the Americans went in, they planned on keeping things more or less the same way. Much to their surprise and dismay, however, the intervention has created its own dynamic, giving the Kurds and the Shia the opportunity to avenge themselves against their oppressors. America didn’t invent Iraq’s ethnic divide. As for America building bases in Iraq, isn’t it far better to have America in your midst than to be occupied by fascists from Tikrit, Ramadi or Oja, or to be left at the mercy of jihadist gangsters and their allies in Damascus, Tehran and Riyadh?

Sabah Salih
Bloomsburg University, Pennsylvania


Robert Leary is wrong to suggest that there is no political significance in the use of the name ‘Myanmar’ (Letters, 11 May). The regime renamed Burma ‘Myanma Naing Ngan’ in June 1989, in the wake of the 1988 elections and the subsequent military coup. This was part of a series of actions, some symbolic, some all too material, designed to contest the meaning of recent Burmese history. ‘Myanmar’ (the ‘r’ being an orthographic addition in English), it was claimed, better reflected the multi-racial character of the country. Most ethnic minority leaders rejected this, as, of course, did Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues. Leary refers obliquely to the Dobama Asiayone, formed by young Burmese nationalists in May 1930. They made exactly the same claim for the semantics of ‘Bama’ as the present regime did for ‘Myanmar’. Following their example, Aung San, whom no one could accuse of being anything other than a Burmese nationalist and patriot, was content with the use of ‘Burma’. That the late Ne Win was not perhaps tells its own story.

John Jenkins
British Consulate, Jerusalem

What is a solar?

Barbara Everett has been confused by the word ‘solar’ (LRB, 11 May). It isn’t ‘a glass structure on a medieval house’ but a private upper room, usually made in the 14th or 15th century by inserting a ceiling into an open-plan hall, and it would have had narrow unglazed windows like the rest of the house: you can see some at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in Sussex.

Jeremy Harte
Ewell, Surrey


The Hola camp massacre took place in Kenya, not in Nyasaland, as Bernard Porter has it (LRB, 25 May) – and as he knew, and you knew, since he wrote about it in the LRB, 3 March 2005.

Ramnik Shah
Epsom, Surrey

Colm Tóibín’s review of Edwin Williamson’s biography of Borges (LRB, 11 May) contains a small but significant mistranslation, either his own or the biographer’s, of the words spoken by Borges’s mother to the maid. In Argentina, the term ‘el niño’, when said by a person in authority to a servant with reference to a younger person, is a term not of belittlement but of respect. ‘El niño no toma vino’ should be translated as ‘The young master’ – not the boy – ‘does not drink wine.’

Virginia Prieto-Fineberg
New York

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