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Vol. 29 No. 8 · 26 April 2007

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The Politics of Naming

The letters written in response to my article on Darfur (Letters, 22 March) raise five main issues. First, Iraq and Darfur. Gérard Prunier begins by contrasting the counter-insurgencies (Letters, 5 April). True, ‘the counter-insurgency in Iraq is organised by a foreign power and is the result of foreign occupation while the counter-insurgency in Darfur is organised by the national government and has no foreign cause,’ but how does this help us define political responsibility? Nuremberg set out the general principle that whoever is in power is responsible for atrocities that happen on his watch. It is of no consequence whether the power in question is that possessed by a national government or an occupying authority. Prunier also makes a distinction between a genuine counter-insurgency in Iraq and a pernicious one in Darfur. When every significant report coming out of Iraq seems to agree that ethnic cleansing is one of the consequences of the violence, as it is in Darfur, what is the difference?

Sean Coleman wonders whether it is a fact that similar numbers of civilians have been killed in Darfur and Iraq (Letters, 5 April). All we have to go on are estimates. The government of Sudan downplays civilian deaths in Darfur, and US officials in Iraq have flatly refused to keep a count of them. The most recent estimate for Darfur is between a low of ‘at least’ 200,000 (Science magazine) and the Save Darfur Coalition’s figure of 400,000. The figures given for Iraq range between a low of 150,000, proposed by Iraq’s health minister, and a high of 655,000 proposed by the Lancet.

Second, the matter of political violence and political identity. Prunier accuses me of ‘trivialising Darfur by saying that violence in Central Africa is recurring and banal, that Darfur is nothing special and that in any case the factor responsible above all others for these various evils is US imperialism’. From Sudan to Ethiopia, Uganda to Mozambique and Angola, and Ivory Coast to Liberia, most political violence in post-colonial Africa seems to be organised along ethnic lines. Why is that? Some have suggested that it has to do with the importance of ethnicity in African culture. I argue instead that it has to do with the politicisation of culture in the African colonies. When colonial reform replaced ‘direct’ with ‘indirect’ rule through compliant local authorities the effect was to make cultural difference the basis for administrative, legal and political organisation, thereby politicising ethnic difference and making ethnic identity the basis for political discrimination.

Sindre Bangsted (Letters, 22 March) worries that such an analysis serves only to highlight ‘the pernicious influence of Western colonialism, leaving out of account the often destructive agency of post-colonial elites’. Far from it: to the extent that the colonial political model has been reproduced in post-colonial Africa, the responsibility lies with the political elites of independent Africa. The 1959 revolution in Rwanda was an example of this: as I argued in my study of the Rwandan genocide, When Victims Become Killers, the revolutionaries turned the colonial world upside down, but they failed to change it.

Prunier misrepresents my remarks on Congo. I did not claim that the killing in Congo is confined to the Ituri region. I take the violence in Kivu as illustrative because it involves paramilitaries, including child soldiers, trained by US allies; because its victims are discussed in terms of their racial identities, as in Rwanda; and above all because it has been ignored in spite of flagrant violations of even minimal standards of human rights. Prunier caricatures my reference to ‘US allies’ to suggest that I see ‘tribes as US proxies’; and, just as he downplays the US counter-insurgency in Iraq, he dismisses the role of US allies (Rwanda and Uganda) in fanning political violence in Kivu by saying that the ‘militias were never properly trained by anybody’. Finally, I claim that collective identities in Kivu acquired a racial character as they had in Rwanda or, for that matter, as they have now in Darfur. Prunier objects that these identities are not the same: ‘racialisation’ produced Hamites and Bantu in Rwanda, Nilotics and Bantu in Ituri and Arab and African (Bantu) in Darfur. But my interest lies in the similarity not of the identities produced, but of the processes involved.

Prunier’s main point is that the ‘complex dialectics of Arab identities in the Sudan’ make it a special case. According to him, the key difference between ‘Arabisation’ in Sudan and ‘Amharisation’ in Ethiopia and ‘Swahilisation’ in East Africa is that the last two are ‘indigenous’ while Arabisation is not. ‘Arabisation’ in Sudan has often gone hand in hand with ‘Islamisation’ just as ‘Amharisation’ in Ethiopia has usually gone hand in hand with ‘Christianisation’. Like Sudan, Ethiopia has historically had a north-south problem; the administration, based in the north, has been regarded as Christian, while the oppressed majority in the south is thought of primarily as Muslim. In Prunier’s terms, these processes – ‘Arabisation’, ‘Islamisation’ and ‘Christianisation’ – are the result of a process of cultural diffusion from elsewhere. But the real question is not whether they are foreign or indigenous: it is whether their spread is coerced or consensual.

I pointed out in my article that Arab identity in Sudan covers groups as diverse as the despised nomads in the western desert and the supremacist riverine elite in Khartoum. This isn’t exceptional: there are similar differentiations among the Islamists as well as the insurgent Africanists. Prunier distinguishes between indigenous and foreign ideologies, but it would be more illuminating to look at inclusive versus exclusive variants of these ideologies. Those who follow events in Sudan will know that the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement recently decided to shift its headquarters from Juba to Khartoum, signalling the ascendancy of a more open and inclusive ‘African’ ideological and political project within its ranks.

The third issue is the lesson of Rwanda. Jannie Armstrong (Letters, 5 April) suggests that the US ‘should be accused of inattention, not interference’ with regard to Rwanda and Central Africa because, in 1994, ‘US attention in Africa was firmly focused on the ongoing debacle in Somalia.’ But the debacle in Somalia was not a distraction: it was the experience that convinced the US to desist from direct intervention and return to the strategy of acting through proxies. Its proxy-based interventions in Africa had begun two decades before, in the aftermath of defeat in Vietnam: examples include the sustained nurturing of Renamo in Mozambique and Unità in Angola by South Africa. This went on for more than a decade and would not have been possible without the diplomatic and political cover provided by the Reagan-era policy of ‘constructive engagement’ with apartheid South Africa.

From a post-Vietnam perspective, Somalia was an aberration and Rwanda a return to business as usual. Armstrong is right to suggest that the Rwandan Patriotic Front ‘was more a product of regional than international politics’. The US did not manufacture the RPF, nor did it create the National Resistance Army in Uganda. But it built close relations with the latter during the late 1980s and, through it, with the RPF in the 1990s, providing crucial diplomatic and political cover even before the RPF assumed power in 1994.

Fourth is Nato’s intervention in the former Yugoslavia. Leaving to one side the merits and demerits of the interventions of 1995 and 1999, it is appropriate to consider whether the example can easily be shifted to Darfur. To begin with, the interventions in Yugoslavia should be seen as regional rather than international; the analogy in Darfur would be the African Union intervention. Whether the type of intervention that Nato carried out in Yugoslavia, including air strikes, would be appropriate in Darfur depends on what the aim would be. I can think of three alternative objectives: first, overthrowing the government of Sudan, even at the risk of splitting the country into so many fragments that we would have to speak of the former Sudan as we do today of the former Yugoslavia; second, a ceasefire, which would presumably hold only so long as the intervening force remained; and third, political negotiations leading to a power-sharing deal between the current adversaries.

It is worth asking those who advocate foreign military intervention how it would help to end the civil war. Should the objective be to disarm the insurgents and end the counter-insurgency, or the reverse? Whichever way is chosen, the going will be tough: there is no escaping the fact that the way forward will have to involve a political settlement.

Matthew Moore worries that I am counselling inaction, and capitulating to an indefensible ‘moral agnosticism’ which holds that we ‘must reserve judgment’ because ‘there are perpetrators on both sides’ (Letters, 5 April). But that is hardly my point of view. What I counsel in lieu of a military intervention is a political process with two objectives in mind: a reform of the state that will build on the peace settlements in the south and east by extending power-sharing to insurgent elites in the west; and a resource-building initiative (the conflict in Darfur is driven in part by a lack of resources that the international community is best equipped to address but has yet to show serious interest in). The example to emulate is not Nato’s intervention in the former Yugoslavia, but the political settlement in the south of Sudan, which the Bush administration can count as its solitary foreign policy success.

Finally, the question of naming. There is much to say about Martin Shaw’s observation that ‘civil war/insurgency’ and ‘genocide’ may turn out to be ‘complementary rather than alternative ways of naming these conflicts’ (Letters, 22 March). The issue is how to prevent civil wars from degenerating into genocide. Genocide requires the involvement of ordinary men and women. In the cases I have studied, the ground for genocide is prepared by spreading fear, thereby convincing ordinary people that they must either kill or be killed. It is not an accident that most instances of genocide have occurred in the context of war; it seems absurd to suggest that extending the war is the way to prevent genocide.

Mahmood Mamdani
Columbia University, New York

If Sean Coleman wishes to play the numbers game with regard to Darfur and Iraq, he would be best advised to compare like with like. To quote the ‘most credible’ source on Iraq, as he does in relation to Darfur, he would be obliged to cite the Lancet survey of 2006, which estimated 655,000 deaths in Iraq with a 95 per cent confidence interval of 393,000 to 943,000 ‘excess’ deaths. In other words, there is a 95 per cent chance that the minimum number of Iraqis killed as a result of the conflict up to June 2006 is more than the maximum number of deaths – 255,000 through May 2006 – attributed to the conflict in Darfur by the Science magazine article quoted by Coleman.

Elliott Green
London School of Economics

Warmer, Warmer

John Lanchester endorses James Lovelock’s enthusiasm for nuclear power (LRB, 22 March). I presume he feels, as Lovelock does, that nuclear waste is so safe he would be willing to store it in his garden shed. Perhaps he also finds ‘persuasive’ Lovelock’s claims that the death rates from cancer of Hiroshima survivors were lower than in comparable populations, and that Chernobyl killed only 45 people. Lanchester appears to have fallen for the PR campaign conducted by the nuclear industry and the Blair government over the past year. He overlooks the environmental costs of uranium mining, which will only increase as reserves are depleted and the industry is forced to rely on progressively lower-grade ore. He doesn’t tell us how we will dispose of nuclear waste, says very little about the risks associated with running nuclear power plants, and ignores the costs of decommissioning. Nor does he take into account the amount of money the industry has already taken from taxpayers in the form of state subsidies, money which could have been spent on developing less risky alternatives.

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad

John Lanchester’s assertion that ‘66 per cent of the power generated by the UK national grid is wasted because of inefficiencies of transmission’ makes it sound as if the electricity companies have been behaving as negligently as the water companies, allowing electricity to dribble out of the wires. The 66 per cent figure is about right, but the losses are at the power generation stage, and are an unavoidable consequence of the use of heat engines (coal, gas and nuclear) to generate power. Renewable sources work completely differently: hydroelectricity generation is close to 100 per cent efficient.

David Lane
Guildford, Surrey

John Lanchester says ‘it is strange and striking that climate change activists have not committed any acts of terrorism.’ Volkert van der Graaf, who murdered the Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, was an animal rights activist and worked for an environmental NGO. It is quite plausible that Fortuyn’s flamboyant donning of fur coats and his comments about ‘whining’ environmentalists aroused van der Graaf’s ire.

Andrew Scheuber
Clare Hall, Cambridge

John Lanchester wonders why people don’t go about keying SUVs. One reason is that there’s a better way of letting SUV owners know how you feel about them: let the air out of their car tyres. This was the strategy adopted by a French group called Les Dégonflés (‘The Deflated’, or, in argot, ‘The Scaredy-Cats’), who have inconvenienced many Parisian owners of ‘quatres-quatres’. The key fact (so to speak) is that since no actual damage is done, it is difficult to prosecute the protesters.

Alexander Scrimgeour
New York

According to John Lanchester, IPCC members are now between 90 and 95 per cent ‘certain’ that global warming is occurring and that it is caused by human activity. This degree of certainty is higher than in previous IPCC reports, and the trend appears to indicate that it’s only a matter of time until the human causation is ‘proved’ correct. This, however, resembles the way a novel enters the literary canon, not the way a scientific theory should gain acceptance. The theory of relativity has not been accepted because scientists, over time, have expressed increasing certainty that it is correct, but because experiments have verified its implications and predictions. The percentage degree of certainty is not a hard scientific probability, like the chance of throwing two sixes with a pair of dice. It is a soft psychological probability with little scientific basis.

Lanchester is wrong to describe those who resist the attribution of global warming to industry as ‘nutters’. There probably are a few nutters, but there is good reason to think that climate change science is crude. At this point, computer models are based mostly on force-fitted correlations, not theory, and their predictions merely reflect their assumptions. We don’t know what contribution industry makes to climate change compared to farming, human waste, natural planetary variations or natural phenomena such as volcanoes. We don’t know whether humans are causing irreversible climate change to which we will be unable to adapt. It is still reasonable to believe that it would be premature to place restrictions on industry that might not affect climate change at all, but might well cause massive unemployment, recession or depression.

Louis Harovitz
New York

Unfair to Pythagoras

M.F. Burnyeat sets out to show that the notion that Pythagoras was the original architect of mathematical demonstration, or even a practitioner, is without basis or warrant (LRB, 22 February). Nowhere, though, does Burnyeat directly address, still less refute, what many students of pre-Socratic philosophy attribute to Pythagoras, and regard as his primary importance in the history of philosophy, namely his introduction of the idea of abstract entities and some type of psycho-physical dualism. We don’t know how self-consciously he held these ideas, what precise form they took, or what theoretical ramifications he thought they had, but there is good reason to believe that it is because of Pythagoras, the early Pythagoreans and their influence, that later philosophers – Plato among them – have worried about the nature and reality of numbers and triangles (and things like them), and what it is about thought which seems to enable its possessors to be independent of this or that body, perhaps of any body at all. Burnyeat acknowledges that mathematical objects and transmigrating souls were central parts of Pythagoras’ philosophical views, but doesn’t appear to see the significance of these views in later philosophy. Obviously enough, people before Pythagoras believed in numbers and in the transmigration of souls; but Pythagoras seems to have been the first to make such ideas matter in philosophy.

Peter Loptson
University of Guelph, Ontario

M.F. Burnyeat writes: Peter Loptson’s letter invites discussion of two ideas or issues which, he claims, Pythagoras is widely agreed to have contributed to the history of philosophy. Let me start with ‘psycho-physical dualist theory’. The idea is that Pythagoras, a believer in the transmigration of souls from one life to another, must have accepted a distinction between the psyche or soul and the physical body analogous to the soul-body distinction we later find in Plato, who also believed in transmigration. In due course, the history of philosophy would reach the dualist mind-body distinction in the Meditations of Descartes, who most certainly did not believe in transmigration. And the mind-body distinction is still being argued over today.

One difficulty for this Whiggish approach is posed by the philosopher-poet Empedocles of Acragas, c.495-435 BC, the founder of the long-lived theory of the four elements, earth, air, fire and water, to which he added the motive forces Love and Strife in order to explain the repeated formation and dissolution of the cosmos as we know it. He too believed in transmigration: ‘I have already been once a boy and a girl, a bush and a bird and a leaping journeying fish.’ He described Pythagoras as having a memory that spanned back over twenty generations. Yet Empedocles’ account of knowledge and thought sounds as physicalist as a theory could be: ‘With earth do we see earth, with water water, with air bright air, with fire consuming fire; with Love do we see Love, Strife with dread Strife.’ Or again: ‘The blood around men’s hearts is their thought.’ To suppose that a believer in transmigration must be a soul-body dualist in the way Plato was later, and must think of thought as enabling its possessor to transcend their body, is to miss out on one of the challenges that accurate history of philosophy can put before us and our students.

Plato is again the lure for Loptson’s second Whiggish proposal: Pythagoras as the first to introduce philosophy to ideas of abstract entities like numbers and triangles. Certainly, Plato did go in for philosophical discussion of the nature and reality of mathematical entities like numbers and triangles. So did Aristotle and numerous later ancient philosophers from the fourth century BC onwards. But not the great mathematician Euclid, who flourished around 300 BC: his famous Elements is a magnificent achievement, but there is not one ounce of philosophy to be found in it. He talks about numbers and triangles, subjects them to precise mathematical definition in order to prove important, unobvious theorems about them, without for one moment raising philosophical questions about, as Loptson puts it, ‘the nature and reality’ of such things. And to return from the sublime to the ridiculous, there is no evidence that Pythagorean dicta such as ‘Marriage is five’ ever led to philosophy. Or will Loptson accept ‘Seven is Athena,’ another Pythagorean example discussed in my review, as a contribution to the philosophy of mathematics on the grounds that it speaks to the nature and reality of the number seven?

Aristotle repeatedly complains that the Pythagoreans failed to distinguish abstract mathematical entities from corporeal bodies: ‘They construct the whole universe out of numbers – only not numbers consisting of abstract units; they suppose the units to have spatial magnitude.’ There is much to puzzle over in this report, but it clearly runs counter to Loptson’s claim that Pythagoras was the first to bring ideas of abstract entities into the history of philosophy.

Carbon Trading

Donald MacKenzie has taken the smoke and mirrors of the carbon-trading lobby too much at face value (LRB, 5 April). Skirting around the ludicrous failure of the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, which last year handed £1 billion in subsidies to British power generators alone, he focuses on the alleged success of the US sulphur-trading programme.

In 1979, the US was a little ahead of Europe in controlling sulphur emissions. There was only one functioning flue-gas desulphurisation (FGD) plant in Europe, but there were several in the US operating on new-build coal plants. In 1980, concern that acid rain created by sulphur emissions was killing forests drove the German government to start a crash programme of retro-fitting FGD. This wasn’t cheap, although work I undertook for the OECD in the mid-1980s suggested that it added only between 2 and 4 per cent to the annual investment budget of German utilities. In 1988, after the first Large Combustion Plant Directive from the European Commission, the EU-wide control of sulphur and other emissions began. By the early 1990s, an effective acid-rain reduction programme was in place. At the same time, the development of sophisticated atmospheric transport models, and of large plant databases at York University and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, enabled the assessment of major pollution sources across Europe, such as the Maritza lignite-fired plants in Bulgaria.

As MacKenzie records, the US delayed taking action until 1995, when a cumbersome trading programme started. The financial benefits claimed for emissions trading as opposed to direct regulation are based largely on a series of ex ante simulation studies carried out in the 1990s. Two ex post studies disagree as to whether there was actually any financial gain; none of the studies took into account the huge ecological and building-maintenance costs associated with the dilatory response to a known environmental threat.

MacKenzie may be right that a pseudo-market in emissions was the only way to get a control programme past the US legislature. But this is hardly a good reason to succumb to another experiment in the market control of pollution. Better, cheaper and quicker alternatives are available. The US experience shows that emissions trading is actually a way for governments to try to avoid taking responsibility for necessary environmental control.

Michael Prior

Silent Masses

I was startled by John Pemble’s assertion that ‘the masses’ in the Victorian period lack individual voices (LRB, 8 March). Working-class Victorians expressed themselves in print as well as writing letters, diaries and private memoirs. Accounts of leisure were produced by writers as diverse as Joseph Skipsey, Janet Hamilton, Philip Connell and Sergeant Jowett, while publications edited by William and Mary Howitt, for example, gave space to numerous working-class writers. Autobiographies, such as those collected by the social historian John Burnett, and studies such as Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes demonstrate that there was a wide enthusiasm for writing. Parliamentary reports, too, convey a wealth of factual information (for example, on church outings) in their accounts of interviews with workers.

Kathleen Bell
Beeston, Nottinghamshire


Colm Tóibín’s piece about Samuel Beckett in the last issue was a version of the John Coffin Memorial Lecture given at the Institute of English Studies, University of London, in January.

Editors, ‘London Review’

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