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Letters

Vol. 30 No. 21 · 6 November 2008

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Orientalist Symptoms

Bernard Porter claims that Lady Hester Stanhope’s affection for Arab culture was ‘genuine’ rather than Orientalist, in Edward Said’s sense (LRB, 23 October). But a romance of the Eastern Other was very much a part of the Orientalism described by Said, as was the hope that Arab culture might redeem the fallen, decadent souls of the West. And these fantasies went hand in hand with some very bad behaviour – Stanhope’s abuse of her Arab servants is an example. In her desire to dominate what she loved and at the same time reviled – to shape and even possess it – Stanhope exhibits the classic symptoms of Orientalism.

Adrian Fosgood
London W8

Cityphobia

John Lanchester’s analysis of the current banking crisis (LRB, 23 October) seemed to end with much too sweeping a conclusion: not only are the bankers to blame ‘but we’re to blame too.’ Not necessarily. You have only to look at the average age of the drivers of expensive second cars to know that it is people in the 25-45 age group who are mostly to blame.

Unfortunately included among the people ‘who are going to have to pay’ are those who, in the 1960s and 1970s, took out mortgages based on a maximum of four times their earnings and 90 per cent of the valuation of their property. During particularly lean times, there were other conditions, such as minimum deposits and proof that you’d held an account with the building society for a specified period. For most of that time only the income of the primary wage-earner was taken into account, making for a much closer correlation between house prices and local earnings.

Over the period of these mortgages there were times when interest rates rose into double figures, but the pain was felt by the borrowers alone: there was no question of the rest of the country being asked to share it. And when these mortgages were being redeemed, and the original borrowers found themselves with more disposable income, only miserly interest rates were available, were they to want to save towards their retirement. The sad thing is that this group is going to have to pay again for the financial situation in which the UK finds itself as a result of housing being used as an instrument of economic policy.

Brian Cartwright
Laurencekirk, Kincardineshire

Why vote?

David Runciman states that one problem facing the individual deciding whether or not to vote is the fact that the number of votes at which the threshold of victory is reached is impossible to determine, so as a voter I never know whether I made a difference or not, just as in sorites paradoxes I appear never to be able to make a heap of sand by adding a single grain at a time, even though if I carry on adding, I will eventually have a heap (LRB, 9 October). He solves it by saying that, as there is a threshold, it makes sense to act as if my particular vote will be the one that passes it, as the threshold can be passed if everyone behaves in that way. He supports this argument with a number of analogies: the loss of one hair at a time will eventually make me bald; eating single éclairs will make me fat. The problem with using analogies to make arguments is that while they must be similar to the case being made, they must also be different. Here, the achieving of negative outcomes is being used to illustrate collective efforts to achieve positive outcomes, and repeated single actions (eating éclairs) are treated as analogous to the single actions of large groups.

I believe I vote not because ‘the closer you get to that threshold the harder it is to find it,’ but because the threshold is known with complete accuracy, but only after the event. At the time, I can only make an educated guess as to how many voters will turn out for the other party and how many for mine, and part of that guess is based on analysing my own willingness or otherwise to go out to vote and on the assumption that ‘people like me’ are doing the same as I am.

Alex Fox
Leeds

Stateliness

In his essay on Rothko Peter Campbell likens the interpretations of his late paintings to ‘jazz versions of simple songs’ (LRB, 23 October). Musical comparisons are apt in the case of Rothko, although unlike Pollock and Kline, he was never much of a jazz buff, and his paintings have a stateliness and ruminative calm that aren’t often encountered in the bop that captured the Expressionist imagination. A closer analogy would be the music of Rothko’s friend Morton Feldman, the New York School composer whose quiet, sombre works unfold patiently, with only occasional, but nevertheless striking variations in timbre and texture that can put one in mind of Rothko’s use of colour.

Eric Cohen
New York

Before and after Kemal

Lyn Julius takes Perry Anderson to task for a roseate view of the Ottoman Empire’s tolerant millet system (Letters, 9 October). She is right that there was some variation in the way the policy was implemented. Muslims belonging to what were considered ‘deviant’ sects – for example, Alawis in Syria – had a harder time of it than Jews and Christians. And there were lapses. Yet compared with Europe at that time, the Ottomans sustained a remarkable level of multicultural harmony, just as Anderson claims. Some Westerners simply cannot bear the idea that Islamic polities were a lot more tolerant than their European counterparts.

Julius herself seems to have a rose-tinted view of the ‘Christian West’, which she says ‘forced the tottering Ottoman Empire’ to grant equal status to Jewish and Christian minorities alongside the Muslim majority. ‘Forced’ is right. There was massive economic, political and military bullying of the region by the Great Powers. The most damaging consequence was that people of the region were infected by European notions of ethnic nationalism, which was a major factor (along with Russian military pressure) in paving the way for the Armenian genocide.

David McDowall
Richmond, Surrey

William did it first

‘The first systematic inventory of population, livestock, crops and landholdings’ in the British Isles was carried out not by Cromwell’s agents in Ireland, as James Scott has it, but by those of King William I in England in 1069 (LRB, 9 October). The details of this survey are recorded in the Domesday Book.

J.A. Bosworth
Cugy, Switzerland

James Scott is right to conclude that the torments inflicted by Europeans on one another were first tested in the colonies, or in the US as a consequence of the colonial encounter. But there is more to this than Scott suggests. Much of the more mundane, everyday coercion we experience as ‘being managed’ has the same colonial origins. The elements of Fordism (division of labour, rules, measurement etc) were first set out in antebellum guides to the ‘management’ of slaves, and implemented by their 38,000 salaried managers (as counted in the 1860 US Census). And those still tempted, post-meltdown, to accept Boltanski and Chiapello’s notion, cited by Hal Foster in the same issue, that the contemporary worker is a creative, autonomous individual, might remember that the other side of surveillance and coercion is co-optation. Today’s managerialist notions of co-optational ‘participation’ and ‘empowerment’ have their roots in practices designed to enable the early 20th-century mode of colonial administration called Indirect Rule, whereby limited amounts of autonomy were granted to co-opt otherwise resistant populations. This autonomy was always controlled and delimited; and ‘sovereign power’ was always ‘reserved’.

Bill Cooke
Lancaster University

Nobody’s Grandma

Liz Brown asserts that Doris Day ‘has no interest in her past’ and agrees with Molly Haskell’s description of her as having an ‘almost pathological aversion to discussing her films’ (LRB, 11 September). In January 1990 I filmed a two-day conversation with Doris Day at her hotel in Carmel and her nearby dog sanctuary, during which she reminisced enthusiastically about her films and helped me to select the right clips to illustrate her memories. After the filming, we went out to dinner: far from looking like ‘anybody’s grandma’, as Liz Brown puts it, she was instantly recognised by everyone in the diner. On the day the documentary was broadcast, she phoned to say how much she’d enjoyed revisiting the highlights of her film career. More contentiously, she then said that I reminded her of ‘David Niven in his prime’.

Christopher Frayling
Royal College of Art

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