Vol. 30 No. 19 · 9 October 2008

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Let’s try the other lot

It so happens that I only caught up with Ross McKibbin’s funereal piece on the state of the Labour Party on a day when the party, unlike so many of its onetime supporters, was enjoying its annual conference in Manchester (LRB, 11 September). The rare snatches of that event that I could find the strength to stay tuned to left me in no doubt that McKibbin had it absolutely right, and wondering indeed why a prime minister whom more than a quorum of his fellow lemmings would all too obviously like to see culled didn’t throw his trademark prudence to the winds and declare for an immediate general election. After all, if you know you’re going to lose an election by a country mile, why not lose it now, when you could do the inevitable winners a thoroughly nasty turn, by casting them into office at a moment when they will have a ghastly economic mess on their hands and only the supercilious oppositional platitudes we’ve been having to listen to these past months in their heads as they set about confronting it. By the time the tough economic times go away a new government will have made itself unre-electable. Ah well, dream on.

According to McKibbin, ‘many who once wished Labour well are now wondering whether they can vote Labour at all, or whether they should stop voting tactically,’ i.e. ‘vote as they really want to’. So far as I’m concerned there’s no contradiction between voting tactically and voting as I really want to. On the contrary. Living in a grassy constituency that may well never return anyone but a well-Barboured Tory to Westminster, I can square my political conscience only by doing my singular best to enlarge the anti-Tory vote by one, voting in the event for the Liberal Democrat candidate who has come second round here over and over again. The implication of what McKibbin writes is that, come 2010, lapsed Labour voters are going to grit their teeth and switch by the thousand to the Lib Dems since, besotted as they currently are with the Blessed Vince Cable, they believe that’s the only reputable slot for a centre-leftist to be seen occupying. We veteran Lib Dem vote-wasters are long accustomed to voting for a party that we know isn’t going to form a government; old Labour voters may well prefer to go the whole horrible hog and vote for the Bullingdon Boys, especially since, as McKibbin himself admits, we now have a situation where ‘the two different parties no longer stand for differing opinions.’ The fact is, like it or not, we’ve entered an age where voting patterns are largely determined by the millions whose political ideology come election day amounts to ‘where’s the difference, let’s try the other lot.’

Martin Carrick
Bolney, West Sussex

Before and after Kemal

Perry Anderson claims in his first essay on Turkey that, unlike Christian Europe with its persecutions and pogroms, the Ottoman Empire ‘tolerated Christians and Jews, without repression or forcible conversion, allowing different communities to live peaceably together under Muslim rule, in a premodern multicultural harmony’ (LRB, 11 September).

The Ottoman millet system did allow religious minorities to govern themselves, but it is misleading to describe the Ottoman Empire as a ‘premodern multicultural harmony’. Conditions for non-Muslims varied widely from ruler to ruler and region to region. Even in good times, they could best be described as precarious. A non-Muslim who faithfully served his ruler could attain great prominence one moment, but be beheaded the next. Non-Muslims ultimately knew their place as inferiors. It was only pressure from the Christian West that forced the tottering Ottoman Empire to grant equal rights to Jews and Christians from the mid-19th century onwards.

Lyn Julius
London SW5

At the heart of Perry Anderson’s second essay on Turkey is the argument that secular nationalism and Islamism there ‘have never been chemically separate’, and that they are more alike than different (LRB, 11 September). What Anderson doesn’t register is that his point about the deeper commonalities of secular nationalism and Islamism in Turkey could be made of most countries in the region, from Egypt and Palestine to Israel and Algeria; the blurry line between religious and national identity is a feature of almost every post-Ottoman state. And in emphasising what Islamism and nationalism have in common, Anderson loses sight of what divides them: if power rather than principle is all that’s at stake, as he suggests, how does he explain the fears that middle-class, secular, urban Turks have about the creeping Islamicisation of their country? How does he explain their support for the fanatically secular ‘deep state’, which has made plain – and gone to violent lengths to prove – that it will not tolerate an Islamic state? There is also a strange convergence between Anderson’s assertions and the arguments of pro-war liberals who, in advocating the assault on Baghdad, insisted on the deeper identity between Arab nationalism and Islamism and claimed that, even if Saddam Hussein had no ties to bin Laden, secular Arab nationalism was ultimately a thinly disguised form of Sunni Islamism and had to be brought to heel.

Nicholas Simmons
London N5

Poor Wallace

I disagree with Wyatt Mason’s view that the stories in the late David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion represent a rhetorical oraesthetic or ethical dead end (Letters, 25 September). I and lots of other readers find them beautiful, moving, clarifying and enriching, in the way that, as so often, the most apparently harsh and forbidding art ends up bringing the most joy. However, I have no doubt that Wyatt Mason is just as shocked and saddened as I am that, by unfortunate coincidence, we find ourselves airing such a disagreement with poor Wallace so recently dead. I for one consider myself incredibly lucky to have been able to read and love Wallace’s writing before it got burdened with being known – as it is now, and will be presumably for ever – as the work of a writer who would go on to kill himself in his mid-forties. For readers who missed out on that chance, I suggest starting with ‘The Suffering Channel’, the final story in Oblivion, which gives a pretty good idea of what I believe to be at stake.

Jenny Turner
London SE5

Noble Savages

Richard Evans is unfair to Karl May in describing him as a writer of ‘pulp novels set in the Wild West’ whom Hitler admired (LRB, 25 September). Only a small part of his immense output concerned the American Wild West, though his four Winnetou novels are still probably his best-known. He was by the end of the 19th century by far the most popular German writer of all time; at the end of his life in 1912 his books had been translated into 25 languages.

Sympathy for the American Indians is one of the main themes of the Winnetou books: at a time when the only good Indian was a dead Indian, May created heroes able to satisfy everything one might demand of ‘noble savages’. Correspondingly, his white men are sympathetic or not according to their empathy with the Indians. The Indians were doomed, but May treats this fact as an unmitigated tragedy, not, as Evans suggests, in a triumphalist Darwinistic ‘survival of the fittest’ manner.

May’s brushes with the law, giving him a ‘criminal record’ in Evans’s words, grew out of the ill-will of contemporaries envious of his success. He was accused and tried as a purveyor of fantasy as fact, given that in his many books of exotica, he described events and persons in lands he had never visited; this is what he served time in jail for, grotesque as that now seems.

J. Elfenbein
Papworth Everard, Cambridgeshire

Not Good Enough

Peter Campbell claims that Wyndham Lewis’s portrait of T.S. Eliot was rejected by the Royal Academy because the selection committee ‘spotted phallic references in the hangings’ (LRB, 11 September). There is no evidence for this. The Star reported at the time: ‘The artist departed from convention by introducing behind the sitter a light green screen with scrolls of figures which he intended to be symbolic, to suggest that the portrait is the portrait of a poet. It was apparently to these scrolls that the Academy selection committee took exception.’ A spokesman for the Academy, however, said that the picture was rejected because it wasn’t as good as those that were accepted. By their ‘strict criteria’ it was not a good portrait; just as by Campbell’s criteria Lewis did not produce ‘great portraits’.

I am sure, however, that Campbell is right that Sickert would not have committed his telegraphed praise of Lewis as ‘the greatest portraitist of this or any other time’ to public print (it was John Rothenstein who did this).

Paul Edwards

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