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Letters

Vol. 31 No. 3 · 12 February 2009

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Gaza

Henry Siegman worries that Israel’s attempt to hold on to the Occupied Territories will ‘bring about the end of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state’ (LRB, 29 January). But if democracies are judged by the way they treat their minorities, Israel never has been one. From 1948 to 1966, Palestinian citizens of Israel lived under military government, and though ‘Arab Israelis’ (the official euphemism) have been allowed to vote and to serve in the Knesset, their rights to purchase land have been restricted, their communities and schools severely neglected. In the words of Azmi Bishara, a Palestinian representative in the Knesset, ‘Israel is a democratic state for Jews and a Jewish state for Arabs.’ Bishara is now in exile, having been accused of providing Hizbullah with secrets with which he is unlikely to have been entrusted; Balad, his party, has been banned from running in the next elections. As Siegman surely knows, Israel has never hesitated to place its Jewish identity above its democratic principles whenever the two have clashed. The deterioration of the situation in the Occupied Territories is not so much jeopardising Israel’s democracy as exposing its contradictions.

André Bénichou
Paris

Henry Siegman says that he isn’t aware of a single major American TV channel whose coverage of the assault on Gaza questioned the Israeli line. He must have missed the extraordinary exchange broadcast live on CNN, after the station decided to fact-check the allegation made by the Palestinian politician Mustafa Barghouti that Israel, not Hamas, had broken the truce.

The exchange began with the presenter Rick Sanchez waving a sheaf of print-outs from the internet, the evidence for Barghouti’s claim. He read first from a US News and World Report story: ‘“The six-month ceasefire started coming apart at the beginning of November, after Israeli commandos killed a team of Hamas fighters during a raid on a tunnel."’ Then he said: ‘I got another one for you, I believe, here. OK, this is the Guardian. Questionable, but nonetheless.’ (In the US the Guardian seems to be seen as a Hamas mouthpiece.) ‘“A four-month ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza was in jeopardy … after Israeli troops killed six gunmen in a raid in the territory."’ After reading another extract, from the Economist, confirming that Israel broke the truce, Sanchez turned to his co-presenter and said: ‘So, the question as to who started this … Is this now a little more in question?’

The other presenter shrugged off this suggestion. ‘But you know,’ Sanchez said, ‘I guess what it is, Americans, we like our order; we want things delineated for us; we like to see a quid pro quo. They’re saying this happened. Are they right? And they’re saying this happened, are they right? It’s almost like we’re left – when you talk about the Middle East, you’re left with such subtleties that sometimes everything is vague …’ Then they moved on to less troublesome material.

Karl Sabbagh
Newbold on Stour, Warwickshire

Resident Aliens

David Runciman quotes Josiah Ober as defining Athenian democracy by ‘native male franchise, majority rule and authority of law’ (LRB, 29 January). Among the multitude of sins covered by that, two stand out. One is the absence of women from any formal part of the process, to which Runciman does make reference. But there is no elaboration at all of what is meant by ‘native’. This in fact excludes the whole commercial, entrepreneurial class of resident aliens, known as metoeci in Latin transcription, on whom much of Athens’s wealth depended. They did indeed benefit, to a limited extent, from the rule of law. But they could not sit in the Assembly, they could not be archons, and they could not hold military or naval commands. Athenian democracy, in other words, excluded, besides slaves, many of those who helped make Athens more than just any old city-state.

John Gretton
Lafage, France

All Too Human

According to Glen Newey, ‘copulating without regard to season’, ‘recreational killing’ and ‘torturing’ are all ‘distinctively human pastimes’ (LRB, 29 January). But our near cousins the bonobos are famous for having it off with each other, every which way, pretty much all the time (though Newey’s particular point may still hold, because the bonobos live in equatorial climes, where the seasons don’t change much). As for recreational killing and torture, what are we to make of a cat that spends an hour tossing a mouse around before finally breaking its neck, then walking away from the corpse? I concede that it’s hard – indeed impossible – to say for sure that the cat tortured and killed the mouse for fun: maybe it didn’t realise it wasn’t hungry (having forgotten, or not having the capacity to remember, the big bowl of Whiskas it had had for breakfast) until it came to the point of actually having to eat the mouse. Kill first, work out if you’re hungry later: no doubt there’s some plausible Darwinian reason why cats that behave like this are more likely to survive – maybe their owners find it cute. But then it’s not hard to come up with plausible reasons why finding certain things fun is more likely to make certain kinds of people, too, outlive and outbreed their peers: you can always rely on an evolutionary psychologist to take the fun out of fun.

George Adams
Salisbury

Glen Newey mentions ‘the early modern English spectator sport of hanging, drawing and quartering’. Not just early modern: in 1820, three people were hanged, drawn and quartered; one man in Glasgow and two in Stirling.

The widespread unemployment and famine that followed the Napoleonic Wars were accompanied by demands for political reform. On 1 April 1820, a few months after the Peterloo Massacre and the uncovering of the Cato Street Conspiracy (supposedly to murder the prime minister and his cabinet), a petition entitled The Address to the Inhabitants of Great Britain and Ireland was circulated throughout the West of Scotland. The government sent up from London the cavalry officer Sir Richard Hussey Vivian, who assembled 2000 infantry and cavalry. Four days later, a demonstration took place in Glasgow. Following a skirmish, about 20 men left the city to march the 20 miles to the Carron Ironworks, where they hoped to find weapons. On the way, they joined up with another 40 or so protesters. Before reaching Carron, there was another skirmish with the cavalry and 47 men were taken to Stirling Castle.

James Wilson, who lived 14 miles outside Glasgow, in Strathaven, did not even get as far as Glasgow or the demonstration, but, a known radical, was arrested close to his home, and charged on four counts. The jury found him guilty on one, ‘compassing to levy war against the king in order to compel him to change his measures’. He was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. On 30 August, Wilson was hauled head down on a hurdle to Glasgow Green, where he was duly hanged and beheaded. The crowd seems to have intimidated the headsman, however, because he did not quarter Wilson. On 8 September, the leaders of the march to Carron, two weavers called Andrew Hardie and John Baird, were hanged, drawn and quartered in Stirling. This punishment was not removed from the statute book until 1947.

Bill Gilmour
Edinburgh

How can you tell?

John Borneman’s comment that ‘in all-female settings, the veil functions like a uniform, to create equality and erase outer distinctions,’ covers up one of the most basic, but seldom discussed, uses of an abaya: to display wealth (LRB, 18 December 2008). On the Arabian Peninsula, where I have lived for five years, women get their abayas and sheilas (headscarves) from a tailor, so they know the weight, drape, feel and cost of every kind of black fabric. Some of the more expensive shops attach a label or symbol to publicise the brand, which the cheaper stores will then copy. The women may, at first glance, look equal, but the choice of fabric, cut and decoration of the abaya and sheila, and the method of wrapping the sheila, show how much money the outfit cost, as well as how stylish the woman wishes to appear. And since men have to buy their own fabric to have a dishdash made, and will sometimes also buy abaya fabric for their sister or mother, they too know how to tell the quality of fabric. A student, trying to learn this body of knowledge in a new context, recently asked a colleague of mine: ‘How can you tell if a tie is expensive or cheap?’

Marielle Risse
Salalah, Oman

Bennett’s Dissection

Chris Horner says that he is ‘a bit mystified’ by Alan Bennett’s suggestion that pupils in private schools are better taught than those in state schools (Letters, 29 January). He explains his bit of mystification by the fact that the state school in West London where he himself teaches was recently told by the Ofsted inspectors that it was ‘outstanding’. Very well done, those teachers. I wouldn’t begin to know how Ofsted inspectors go about their duties, or how consistent their ratings may be, faced as they are with visiting schools in such widely disparate social settings. Horner’s personal experience takes nothing away from Bennett’s comment in any case, since none of those many of us who share Bennett’s ‘unease’ over the continued prestige or indeed existence of private schools would doubt that there is an overlap in terms of the quality of teaching between the two sectors, with the worst private schools teaching less effectively than the best state ones. But taking the sectors as a whole, we wouldn’t doubt either that the private schools do better, as examination results remind us year in year out. It would be nice to think that Bennett’s unease, and my own, might be lessened by what is currently going on in the economy. One of the green shoots I have enjoyed reading about in the past few weeks was one not of economic recovery but of the reverse, if you like, of the likely demise of some of the more tottery private schools, à la Woolworths, as the families of their pupils start finding it beyond them to go on paying the fees. May the next Tory government not get into office in time to bail them out.

John Scott
London N6

Domes, Domes, Domes

To rebuke me for slighting Buckminster Fuller’s achievements, Paul Taylor points out that Fuller ‘developed the material and invented the machinery for manufacturing’ the wood-fibre bricks that he sold as a young man (Letters, 1 January). That’s true, but so is what I wrote, namely that Fuller’s father-in-law designed the bricks, that Fuller was in charge of selling them, and that he failed at this task. In his 1989 biography, Lloyd Steven Sieden writes that Fuller was in charge of ‘every aspect’ of the company’s operation, ‘including sales, marketing and management, as well as engineering’, and was later to ‘admit that he was a terrible businessperson’. As Sieden tells it, Fuller fell short as a salesman, not as an engineer, and for the purposes of my summary, this seemed salient as a factor that may have contributed to the suicidal despair he experienced soon after.

Taylor also claims I was wrong to write that Fuller ‘saw no greater value in hand-made domes than in mass-produced ones’. But in Paper Heroes: A Review of Appropriate Technology (1980), Witold Rybczynski writes that

In an interview appearing in Domebook 2 Fuller was asked if he thought that there was any conflict between making geodesic domes by hand and mass producing them with high technology. Fuller answered that he himself had experienced the excitement of personal experimentation, ‘but after you’ve done it for a while and so you really feel it and understand it, you’ll feel that … there are more important things to do.’

Caleb Crain
Brooklyn

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