Vol. 33 No. 17 · 8 September 2011

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Invisible Man

Thomas Powers, reviewing the biography of Malcolm X by Manning Marable, reports that Marable thought ‘the investigation of the murder was botched and that some of those who participated in the killing went free’ (LRB, 25 August). Powers adds: ‘It may be so.’ Marable also believed that the man convicted of firing the shotgun, Thomas 15X Johnson, was innocent. Johnson, 29 years old at the time of the murder and a follower of Elijah Muhammad, spent 22 years in New York state prisons, where he adopted a more conventional Sunni faith and changed his name to Khalil Islam. Marable credited his alibi – that he was home in bed in the Bronx with an attack of rheumatoid arthritis when Malcolm X was shot – on the grounds that security at the Audubon Ballroom would never have allowed in ‘a well-known enforcer’ for the Nation of Islam, which Johnson was. Johnson died at the age of 74, an invisible man.

Eric Strong
New York

Dismantling the Universities

Stefan Collini’s account of the higher education White Paper is lopsided: it is too convenient simply to blame the government (LRB, 25 August). The universities would not have been so easily ‘dismantled’ if the vice-chancellors, the managers and, most significant, the academics themselves had not colluded with it. Even the academic trade unions, the AUT and the UCU, resorted to justifying their own claims by reference to the ‘economic needs’ of the nation. The episode confirms Bourdieu’s assertion that intellectuals form the ‘dominated fraction of the dominant class’. It is misleading of Collini to compare the prose styles of the government White Paper, which focuses on the economic value of a university education, and the Robbins Report, which affirmed the virtues of a liberal education that Arnold, Newman or Huxley would have recognised, and is, of course, much more congenial to the academic’s idealised self-image. That academics conformed so readily to the culture of monetarism suggests that the ethos of a liberal education was already set up to be disposed towards it. The pronouncements of Robbins, let alone Newman and Huxley, on the nation’s ‘needs’ and social benefits are themselves another way of ensuring the instrumentalisation of knowledge, in accordance with the idea that education must have a quantifiable use value.

Martin Davies
University of Leicester

Stefan Collini appears to assume that the White Paper proposes a pro-rata decrease in the number of AAB students in the core allocation of student numbers. But the White Paper says that ‘places will be removed from institutions’ core allocations on a pro-rata basis, once AAB places have also been removed.’ In other words, it looks as if the proposal is that all AAB places will be discounted across the board, and then a further pro-rata reduction in the number of students remaining – i.e. those with lower grades – will be made across the board. In practice, this will mean each institution’s core will consist of its current non-AAB intake, minus a pro-rata cut of around 8 per cent of places to be distributed among the £7500 providers. If this is implemented, Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial and the LSE will be free to recruit exactly the numbers they wish, but everybody bar the top few will have to increase significantly the number of AAB students they admit in order for their numbers to stand still. One way to offset a loss in numbers is of course to raise the fee. Though some institutions will find themselves in the ‘race to the bottom’, Collini notes, many more are quite happy for now to take five students at £9000 rather than six at £7500.

It is a nice irony that during this year’s post-results scramble for places David Willetts was quoted as saying that the Ucas tariff has led people to believe, in what amounts to a ‘cruel trick’, that ‘non-academic’ A levels have equal worth to ‘core academic subjects’ in terms of admission to very selective universities. Unless Ucas can be persuaded to award more tariff points for an A* in English than in, say, Business Studies, next year will see many universities and schools revising their opinion of the worth of A and B grades in subjects like Media Studies, Critical Thinking and General Studies.

Stephen Longstaffe
University of Cumbria, Carlisle

I wonder how long it will be before the validity of an argument, the consistency of a position, or the evidence for a belief is determined not by reason but by show of hands, size of headline or contribution to GNP.

Peter Cave
London W1

The Innocents Abroad

Thomas Jones is sharp in pointing out that in Ann Patchett’s novel State of Wonder ‘the world outside North America doesn’t really exist: it’s a fuzzy, malleable backdrop for the psychodramas of her American characters’ (LRB, 25 August). This is not so much a defect of Patchett’s as a feature of the contemporary American novel writ large. How else to explain Chip in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections fleeing academic disgrace to commit cyberfraud in Lithuania; or the Ukraine of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, where the natives speak in adorable English malapropisms and we learn about the gruesome soap opera called the Holocaust; or Dave Eggers’s two fictional forays to Africa, a good place to give money away or to escape from? As an Indian housekeeper says in Nell Freudenberger’s Lucky Girls, ‘Travelling is for people who don’t know how to be happy.’ At least the late David Foster Wallace’s fiction never travelled much further than Quebec. As for our homeland, I’ve always thought of New York as a city where Martin Amis narrators go to sleep with whores.

Lindsay Jacobs
Portland, Oregon

From Capital onto Labour

Corey Robin is right to fault Obama for capitulating to Congressional Republicans in the scuffle over the debt ceiling (LRB, 25 August). But after the deal was struck it became clear that the right is pursuing something more subtle than a simple ‘anti-tax philosophy’. GOP leaders have opposed Obama’s plan to extend the payroll tax cut, enacted last December, which benefits employees who earn less than $100,000 a year. This affirms the party’s real agenda: not so much a matter of killing taxes as shifting the tax burden from capital onto labour. Here was the meaning of George W. Bush’s ‘ownership society’: a society dominated by those who own things. It’s left to the rest of us to pay the rent, and regressive taxes – not to mention the austerity Obama has championed as a good neoliberal – don’t make that any easier.

Jonathan Kaplan
Somerville, Massachusetts

The Lord’s Request Fulfilled

I was sorry that Terry Castle in her essay on outsider art didn’t have more to say about the late American artist Howard Finster, who introduced many of us – in America, at least – to the strange marvels of outsider art, but given that she finds his work ‘repulsive’ it may be just as well (LRB, 28 July). Finster started out as a Baptist preacher and, after a fashion, as a curator: he created a ‘Plant Farm Museum’ in Georgia in order to ‘show all the wonderful things of God’s Creation, kinda like the Garden of Eden’. But God, he claimed, had other things in mind for him, instructing Finster to ‘paint sacred art’. The Lord’s order, he said, was quite specific: he wanted Finster to make 5000 paintings to spread the gospel. And so from the mid-1970s until his death in 2001, Finster painted furiously, scrawling biblical verses on his intricately detailed paintings, some of which depicted sacred American icons, like Elvis and George Washington. Each painting, of course, had a number, and by the time he died Finster had produced tens of thousands, easily fulfilling the Lord’s request. And despite commissions for cover art from REM and Talking Heads, he never ceased to think of himself as the Lord’s servant. When Talking Heads released Little Creatures, he remarked: ‘They sold a million records in the first two and a half months after it came out, so that’s 26 million verses I got out into the world in two and a half months.’

James Finlay
Baton Rouge

Period v. Historical

Perry Anderson mistakes one category and misses another in his account of the historical novel (LRB, 28 July). A Zeitroman does indeed overlap with the lifetime of the author, as he says, but that is not what defines it. This characteristically German species lays bare the tensions and contradictions of a society in crisis. The MagicMountain is an example. The historical novel, on the other hand, should be distinguished from an adjacent variety Anderson doesn’t mention: the period novel. This too is set in the past, but lacks the political framework of the novels Anderson focuses on: major public actors or events feature in period novels as occasional references, but not as drivers of the story. This is why Buddenbrooks, a great period novel, doesn’t compete with The Radetsky March, a historical one, as a study of decline.

Kristin Surak
Montorsoli, Italy

Can you stomach it?

Steven Shapin celebrates the 19th-century physician William Beaumont who introduced muslin bags containing food into the stomach of Alexis St Martin in 1825: ‘Human digestion had become visible,’ Shapin concludes (LRB, 30 June). In fact this could be said to have happened some four decades earlier. The Italian Abbé Spallanzani described his experiments on digestive juices in the Dissertazioni di Fisica Animale e Vegetabile of 1780. He swallowed perforated metal tubes containing beef and later forced himself to vomit, bringing up the tubes. ‘The flesh,’ he noted, ‘was thoroughly soaked in the fluid of the stomach, and the surface was soft and gelatinous; it had moreover wasted from 53 to 38 grains.’ This surely was the birth of digestive science.

John Woodley

There after all

It isn’t true, as Marina Warner writes, that the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital has been ‘pulled down to make way for apartments behind Unison’s grand new building on the Euston Road’ (LRB, 25 August). The listed hospital building, significant for its architecture as well as its place in women’s social history, has been preserved and restored alongside the new building.

Chris Cossey
London SE11

‘The Traitor’

A note to Walter Murch’s translation of Curzio Malaparte’s ‘The Traitor’ suggests that the story is taken from Journal d’un étranger à Paris, leaving the impression that the original is in French (LRB, 28 July). In fact, it is a section of Malaparte’s diary, written in Italian, published after his death as Diario di uno straniero a Parigi, and subsequently translated into French and other languages. Some of Malaparte’s texts appeared first in French, before and after the war, but all of them (with the exception of two plays in 1947-48 and some minor journalism) were written in Italian.

Maurizio Serra

Useless Eaters

‘The phrase “useless eaters",’ according to Alex Lockwood, ‘was first used by German advocates of eugenics’ (Letters, 25 August). But the term ‘bouches inutiles’ was in general use in 18th-century warfare to describe the civilian population of besieged fortresses, and probably goes back a long way before that.

Michael Howard
Eastbury, Berkshire

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