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Vol. 31 No. 19 · 8 October 2009

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The Framing of al-Megrahi

As a partner of Gareth Peirce until my retirement may I add a sequel to her penetrating analysis of the al-Megrahi case (LRB, 24 September). First, to point out that the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) after an investigation lasting over three years referred his conviction to the Scottish court of appeal in June 2007; its statement of referral extended to more than 800 pages with 13 volumes of appendices. It is that appeal which, as Gareth Peirce says, al-Megrahi abandoned before his release and repatriation to Libya, thus denying the court the opportunity to consider the case, even though the SCCRC stated in its press release: ‘based upon our lengthy investigations, the new evidence we have found and other evidence which was not before the trial court … the applicant may have suffered a miscarriage of justice.’ Why did al-Megrahi withdraw his appeal? Was it because he was put under pressure to secure his release on compassionate grounds? Or was it voluntarily done because he lacked confidence in the impartiality of the court? Whatever the truth may be, the onus now rests on the Scottish government to establish a public judicial inquiry, so that the case so painstakingly prepared by the SCCRC does not go by default.

Second, to add to the suspicions Peirce’s article exposes, it needs to be said that the Scottish justice secretary Kenny MacAskill’s decision has unleashed a hysterical torrent of vilification, not least in the US where many of the relatives of the Lockerbie victims are convinced of al-Megrahi’s guilt. We have witnessed a campaign of denigration on which even Obama, Hillary Clinton and the late Edward Kennedy have bestowed their benediction. On this side of the Atlantic too the irrational commentators abound. The overwhelming weight of media comment has been hostile to al-Megrahi. On 3 September the Guardian carried a long article by Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign secretary and a prominent Scottish lawyer, headed ‘Megrahi’s return has been a sorry, cocked-up conspiracy’: it failed even to mention the SCCRC reference. Even pillars of the human rights establishment, such as Geoffrey Robertson, have shouted themselves hoarse: ‘We should be ashamed that this has happened’ (Guardian, 22 August) and ‘Megrahi should never have been freed: the result is a triumph for state terrorism and a worldwide boost for the death penalty’ (Independent, 2 September).

Yet, when al-Megrahi releases part of the SCCRC case on the internet, his declared aim being to clear his name and ostensibly to prove his innocence, pat comes the Scottish lord advocate (Scotland’s chief prosecutor) joining relatives of the victims convinced of his guilt to denounce him for his ‘media campaign’. Meanwhile pleas from those who, like Dr Jim Swire, believe justice has not been done and who, for the sake of the memory of the victims as much as al-Megrahi, wish there to be a genuine and far-reaching inquiry, fall on deaf ears.

Benedict Birnberg
London SE3

More Disadvantaged than Thou

Walter Benn Michaels writes that anti-racism today has ‘nothing to do with left-wing politics’, and that, in distracting attention from class inequality, it ‘can be a bad thing’ (LRB, 27 August). Reading his cookie-cutter logic, one wonders whether he’s been following the healthcare debate in the US. Obama’s efforts to reform America’s healthcare system may be sorely wanting, but they have been opposed every step of the way by a right-wing populist movement driven by a powerful current of racial animus. The ‘Obama haters’ speak a corrupted language of class injustice, decrying the bail-out and Wall Street’s stranglehold over the economy. But the symbol of their disenfranchisement is the black man in the White House. For the likes of Glenn Beck and his followers, the defeat of the Obama initiative is but a prelude to the defeat of Obama, who, by virtue of being black (and, of course, ‘foreign’ and ‘Muslim’), has no right to be president: it’s not for nothing that at the recent ‘tea party’ rally on 12 September protesters carried signs with images of Obama as an African primitive with a bone in his nose. Anti-racism can, to be sure, go hand in hand with a complacent neoliberalism, leaving class privilege unscathed; but class anger is not always progressive, least of all in the US, where working-class anger has often been infused with a commitment to white skin privilege, and to a ferocious opposition to black enfranchisement.

Alan Harvie
New York

‘It would be a mistake to think that because the US is a less racist, sexist and homophobic society, it is a more equal society,’ Walter Benn Michaels writes, adding: ‘in certain crucial ways it is more unequal than it was 40 years ago.’ But equal and unequal in what ways? Crucial to whom? And why should economic equality trump everything else? If America has focused on eliminating racial and sexual inequality over the past 40 years, it is only because many Americans wanted to eliminate inequalities, including economic inequalities, that result from racial and sexual discrimination. Michaels gets this entirely right. Most Americans are neoliberals, and eliminating discrimination based on ethnicity, race, gender or religion is part of their philosophical creed. But unless I am mistaken, few Americans have ever wanted to eliminate economic inequality per se. They do not, in other words, want to put an end to some people being better off than others. They want, instead, to ensure that they, and everyone else, are among the people who have that opportunity.

Mark Amadeus Notturno
Washington DC

As unemployment rises . . .

Roy Mayall’s Diary gave well-argued insights into the background to the current dispute between the Royal Mail management and the Communication Workers Union (LRB, 24 September). Most newspapers have conspicuously failed to look into the management tactics that precipitated the national ballot for strike action, preferring to accept the management view that postal workers are resisting the changes needed to ensure the survival of Royal Mail, and (as usual) defending outdated working practices. The Daily Mail’s headline, ‘Post Strike Agony Grows’, suggests the kind of reporting we can expect if the postal workers vote for a national strike. (The CWU spokesperson got a token mention near the end.)

By coincidence I read the Diary the day after I returned from the TUC Conference in Liverpool, where every moment is carefully managed, and every gesture cleared beforehand. Industrial correspondents are a dying breed – to my knowledge there are only two or three journalists left who still have that title. Yet as unemployment rises, and workers are asked to take pay cuts or reduce the hours they work, we should be reading more about our working lives. It is sadly indicative of the way the press reports the TUC that the one story that got prominence in newspapers and on TV was the resolution from the Society of Chiropodists calling on employers not to force women to wear high-heeled shoes at work.

Granville Williams
Upton, West Yorkshire

Inglourious Linguists

It seemed obvious to me that Quentin Tarantino’s sub-theme in Inglourious Basterds was the Anglo-Saxons’ inability to speak anything other than English (LRB, 10 September). This is thrown into relief by Christoph Waltz as the Jew hunter Hans Landa, who is chillingly fluent in any language a particular situation requires of him. ‘Don’t any of you Americans know any other languages?’ the German double agent asks of Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raine and his Nazi hunters. The British are slightly better but it is an Englishman’s use of German that gives the game away to August Diehl’s ‘endlessly smiling SS officer’. He then compounds his slip by holding up three fingers to order three whisky glasses instead of two fingers and a thumb, as apparently a German would, thus confirming the SS officer’s suspicions. I hadn’t realised the German-speaking Englishman was played by a German actor, as Wood tells us; given the point the film is making, I suppose it had to be that way. And it may be that Pitt ‘has the worst imitation of a rural Southern accent imaginable’ but he uses his own language with great wit. Aldo is not stupid, as Wood surmises, just monoglot. The reason he says less and less as the film goes on is that he is pretending to be an Italian and dare not open his mouth. But it isn’t Aldo who is responsible for burning down the cinema and shooting the Nazi leadership. Shosanna and her black lover start the fire. Landa could have stopped the other half of the plot but he lets it happen once he has arranged to change sides and join the Americans. ‘Who knows foreign languages, wins,’ the film seems to be saying.

Incidentally, the actor who plays Landa may not be quite the über-linguist the film suggests. Buried in the credits, I noticed ‘Voice Impersonator for Christoph Waltz’.

Julian Preece

Michael Wood is mistaken when he says that Brad Pitt ‘has the worst imitation of a rural Southern accent imaginable’, though he is right that the accent does not conform to the usual war film stereotype of the Bible-quoting sniper ‘Southern’ accent. The film is clear that Pitt’s character, Lieutenant Aldo Raine, is from Maynardville, East Tennessee, which is about 20 miles from where I was born and raised. Not only is Pitt’s East Tennessee Appalachian accent spot on – down to the level of saying ‘bidness’ instead of ‘business’ and ‘all y’all’ instead of merely ‘y’all’ – so too is the ‘squinting’ that Wood also objects to, all of it marking out Aldo Raine as a bona fide Appalachian hillbilly.

Sylvia McLain

Too Much Fun

Ferdinand Mount dismisses the ‘unspeakable goodness’ of Arthur Ransome’s characters and seems to be irritated with the fact that they are portrayed as enjoying themselves (LRB, 24 September). He also seeks to highlight what he sees as the novels’ twee predictability by declaring that ‘no boat [ever] capsizes.’ Is he dismissing the wrecking of the Swallow (the defining event of Swallowdale), because crashing into a rock isn’t technically the same as capsizing?

Harry Stopes
London N16

Which way to Paris?

R.W. Johnson writes: ‘The great prize … was to break out westwards to the Seine and Paris’ (LRB, 10 September). Anyone who thinks Paris is west of Normandy is holding the map upside down.

Derek Robinson

Digital Remedy

Michael Wood’s description of the human predicament in the ‘digital age’ – and other ages – is striking: ‘Remembering things we would rather forget and being remembered for them’ (LRB, 24 September). Department of Homeland Security willing (it probably won’t be), there may now be a digital remedy for that problem; a team of scientists at the University of Washington have developed an intriguing system called Vanish that causes digital communications to self-destruct after a specified period of time. Needless to say, the implications could be enormous. The last time I checked, the press release was still at

Petter Næss
Lier, Norway


The Germans’ word for @ is Klammeraffe, ‘spider monkey’, although as the language becomes lamentably more anglicised, many Germans simply say ‘at’ (Letters, 27 August).

Stephen Richards
Frankfurt am Main

The MI5 files from World War Two in the National Archives at Kew show an early step in the evolution of @. It was used as shorthand for ‘alias’, as in ‘Smith @ Jones’.

Geoffrey Elliott

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