Vol. 33 No. 23 · 1 December 2011

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Who said Gaddafi had to go?

For 42 years Libyans endured the contempt and violence of Muammar Gaddafi’s rule. It subjugated the press, closed down unions and weakened the independence of the courts. It dismantled civic institutions and hanged students by the neck from the gates of the university. Executions of critics in public squares and sports stadiums were broadcast on national television. In a country with a population smaller than that of the City of London, tens of thousands disappeared or were imprisoned. Journalists who dared break the silence were found dead.

It is extraordinary how in his very long essay Hugh Roberts excludes any mention of this history (LRB, 17 November). It makes one wonder whether he knows the country at all. His objection to Nato’s support of the Libyan revolution causes him to lament the end of the dictatorship. With an air of ethnocentric contempt he disregards the will of the Libyan people. Indeed, he even disapproves of calling the deposed leader a dictator, and offers Gaddafi’s comical Green Book the respectability of a serious political theory that, according to Roberts, ‘drew many ordinary Libyans into a sort of participation in public affairs’. Really? What ‘sort of participation’ was possible when every independent agency and organisation was subdued? Although Roberts prefers to judge Gaddafi by his words and not by his actions, he mysteriously excludes any mention of the speeches Gaddafi delivered after 17 February promising to ‘exterminate’ the demonstrators. Just as baffling is the derogatory tone in which he refers to those ‘young men … careering up and down’. He means the men who led the battles that ousted the dictator. In more than 12,000 words Roberts succeeds in expressing no sympathy for, let alone solidarity with, a people’s legitimate aspiration for justice and freedom. Shame.

Hisham Matar
New York

Watch this man

Pankaj Mishra is now in full and ignominious retreat. As my last letter explained, in his review of my book Civilisation, he made a vile allegation of racism against me (Letters, 17 November). In his response he nowhere denies that this was his allegation; nor does he deny that he intended to make it. He now acknowledges that I am no racist. Any decent person would make an unconditional apology and stop there. But Mishra proves incapable of doing the right thing. His mealy-mouthed acknowledgment is qualified by the offensive suggestion that I lack ‘the steady convictions of racialist ideologues’, to whom his original review so outrageously compared me. Mishra’s slippery spin on his original words is that he meant to accuse me only of a ‘wider pathology’ of ‘bow[ing] down before the conqueror of the moment, to accept the existing trend as irreversible’. Unfortunately for his reputation, this new smear is also demonstrably false.

If Mishra bothered to read my work – or if he were not so intent on misrepresenting it – he would have to concede that since my book Virtual History (1997) I have consistently argued against the notion of irreversible trends in history. He would have to concede that the first article I published on the subject of ‘Chimerica’ (in the Wall Street Journal on 5 February 2007) explicitly concluded with a warning that the Sino-American economic relationship could prove to be a chimera. Far from writing ‘whatever seems resonant and persuasive at any given hour’, I have consistently sought to challenge the conventional wisdom of the moment. The Cash Nexus (2001) – published at a time when most bien pensants were ardent proponents of European monetary union – accurately foretold the current crisis of the euro. My book Colossus (2004) was subtitled ‘The Rise and Fall of the American Empire’ and warned that neoconservative visions of American imperium would likely founder on three deficits, of manpower, finance and public attention. Throughout 2006 and 2007, when others fell victim to irrational exuberance, I repeatedly warned of the dangers of a large financial crisis emanating from the US subprime mortgage market. And, far from hailing ‘the Chinese Century’, I spend pages 319-324 of Civilisation discussing the numerous challenges that China is likely to face in the coming decades. In fact, the phrase ‘Chinese century’ does not appear in my book.

As Mishra – and the LRB’s editor – must have appreciated, the allegation of racism in Mishra’s review was ostensibly buttressed by repeated accusations of omission of important issues and evidence. In my last letter I took five of these supposed omissions and showed they are in fact in the book under review, in black and white – and in the index. Had Mishra read the book so casually that he missed all five? Or was he wilfully and maliciously misrepresenting it?

Exposed, Mishra now retreats into quibbling about my tone. For example, my reference to Kenneth Pomeranz’s work is said to be ‘uncouth’. Really? Here is what I wrote:

For a century after 1520, the Chinese national savings rate was negative. There was no capital accumulation in late Ming China; rather the opposite. The story of what Kenneth Pomeranz has called ‘the Great Divergence’ between East and West therefore began much earlier than Pomeranz asserted.

I leave readers to make up their own minds about whether or not this is uncouth. (By the standards of serious economic historiography it is actually pretty polite.)

Mishra’s disingenuous approach is exemplified by his treatment of Chinese economic history at the start of the modern era, a central topic of Civilisation. Mishra’s original review said I gave no evidence for my position. Now that he stands corrected, Mishra responds that ‘[Ferguson] now unearths a footnote’ citing ‘two obscure Chinese scholars’. I find this extraordinary in two respects. First, the reference needed no ‘unearthing’. It was there, in the source notes and bibliography, for him and other readers to see. Second, David Daokui Li is hardly an ‘obscure scholar’. He is one of China’s leading economists. Not only is he the director of the Centre for China in the World Economy at Tsinghua University, he is also a member of the People’s Bank of China’s Monetary Policy Committee. He is, moreover, a former fellow of Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a former editor of the Journal of Comparative Economics. To say that Professor Li’s curriculum vitae is more impressive than Pankaj Mishra’s would be an understatement. A simple Google search, had Mishra bothered to do one before he wrote his rejoinder, would have spared his blushes. Your readers can now draw their own conclusions about the quality of the work you allow into your publication.

My book is not a ‘paean to the superiority of Western civilisation’, as Mishra describes it in a last pathetic salvo. I explicitly disavow triumphalism in the introduction. Rather it is a dispassionate examination of why the West came to dominate the Rest economically, geopolitically and even culturally between the 1500s and the 1970s. Besides the familiar, ugly methods of expropriation and enslavement – employed by Western and non-Western empires through the ages – there were novelties, not all of them pernicious. One of these was the scientific method, whereby claims are not advanced that patently conflict with empirical evidence. Another was the rule of law, under which, among other things, the freedom of the press does not extend to serious defamation, at best reckless, at worst deliberate and malicious. It is deplorable that the London Review of Books gives space to a man who seemingly cares about neither of these things.

I am still waiting for an apology, from both Pankaj Mishra and the editor who published his defamatory article.

Niall Ferguson
Harvard University

Pankaj Mishra writes: Niall Ferguson does not, alas, satisfactorily embody the ‘novelties’ – ‘scientific method’ and ‘rule of law’ – that he insists were the West’s gifts to the ‘Rest’. He seeks to mitigate the crimes of his beloved Western empires – what he calls ‘ugly methods of expropriation and enslavement’ – by also implicating ‘non-Western’ empires in them. He persists with questions that I have already answered in our previous exchange. Asked for proof of the ‘recent research’ that has ‘demolished’ Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence, he comes up with the curriculum vitae of a Chinese academic nearly as well connected as he is. However, some readers of Civilisation may still want to see the actual paper that apparently singlehandedly discredits a major work of scholarship.

It is hard, even with Google, to keep up with Ferguson’s many claims and counter-claims. But his announcements of the dawning of the ‘Chinese Century’ and his more recent revised prophecy that India will outpace China, can be found as quickly as the boisterous heralding of the American imperium that he now disavows. As for his views on the innate superiority, indeed indispensability, of Western civilisation, these can be easily ascertained from his published writings and statements. Here is an extract from an interview early this year in the Guardian justifying the conquest of Native Americans:

The Apache and the Navajo had all sorts of admirable traits. In the absence of literacy we don’t know what they were because they didn’t write them down. We do know they killed a hell of a lot of bison. But had they been left to their own devices, I don’t think we’d have anything remotely resembling the civilisation we’ve had in North America.

It says something about the political culture of our age that Ferguson has got away with this disgraced worldview for as long as he has. Certainly, it now needs to be scrutinised in places other than the letters page of the LRB.

Have they already been?

On whether this world has been, or will be, visited by UFOs and aliens, discussed by Jenny Diski in the LRB of 17 November, perhaps a historian, with an instinct for chronology, may throw in his ha’pworth.

Given that stars and planets are born at different times and evolve at different rates, the likelihood is that if we have been visited it will have been aeons ago, before the dinosaurs, and if we are to be, it will be aeons hence, long after man has vanished from the scene. The idea that it will happen just when our civilisation has reached a sufficient standard of technology to embark on local space travel is stretching coincidence beyond credulity. As well expect a blind golfer to hole in one.

The evidence of any landings on this planet will have been long effaced by geological and meteorological forces. But unlike the surface of the Earth, the surface of the Moon is unchanging. And as any aliens taking an interest in the Earth would find the Moon a superb viewing platform, we should expect any evidence of visits to be found there. Long after all traces of man – the pyramids, the Great Wall of China, New York’s skyscrapers – have vanished, Neil Armstrong’s 1969 footprint in the Moon dust will still survive, so a meticulous search of the Moon’s surface should reveal whether or not we have been visited. As to whether we will be, who can tell? – but it is likely to be long after we are extinct.

Brian Porter
University of Kent

Jenny Diski writes about an episode in 1967 when some Cambridge astronomers considered the possibility that a new astronomical source they had found might be an alien civilisation. As I read this part of her review, it reminded me of a piece I wrote for the Guardian science blog on 22 August. On checking, I found more: a number of matches, given here in the order they appeared in the two accounts.

Penny: ‘In 1967 astronomers at Cambridge’; Diski: ‘In 1967 … astronomers in Cambridge’. P: ‘regular blips’; D: ‘regular intervals’. P: ‘One possible explanation’; D: ‘One possible explanation’. P: ‘dismantle the telescope’; D: ‘dismantle the new telescope’. P: ‘alerting a possible evil-minded alien’; D: ‘alerting the possibly hostile aliens’. P: ‘they had in fact discovered pulsars’; D: ‘In fact, they had discovered pulsars.’ An acknowledgment seems due.

It may be that this is a consequence of the LRB’s sometimes choosing amateurs to review books on scientific subjects, an amateurishness made explicit in this case by Diski’s discussion of ‘a recent paper I don’t pretend to understand’.

Alan Penny
University of St Andrews

Jenny Diski writes: Dr Penny is quite right, my apologies for not crediting him. Although to be strictly accurate the information came from Cropcirclewisdom.com, which referenced Dr Penny’s Guardian article: http://bit.ly/udzHdA. (It isn’t clear what Dr Penny’s sources were for the story.)

The paper about Bayes’s theorem as applied to the probability of life on other planets came from http://bit.ly/t09wql, and was entitled ‘Life might be rare despite its early emergence on Earth: A Bayesian analysis of the probability of abiogenesis’ by David S. Spiegel and Edwin L. Turner. It’s true that I am indeed an amateur in the field of astronomy, and equally at sea in the discipline of ufology.

Nomenklatura Kid

I was taken aback by the praise Peter Pomerantsev poured on Mikhail Khodorkovsky (LRB, 20 October). While neoliberal intellectuals may see him as a free-market martyr, for most people in Russia this spoilt nomenklatura kid is still a big-time capitalist crook. Khodorkovsky makes billions defrauding the Russian state, and then suddenly becomes an egalitarian when he loses all his money. Convenient, but hardly ‘impressive’, as Pomerantsev puts it. There are many things wrong with the Russian justice system (including the unlawful detention and extrajudicial killings of thousands of Chechens; for some reason the liberal press never complains about those), but the fact that a man guilty of massive corporate fraud is in prison is not one of them.

Dave Horsfield

Ten Inches Taller

Tom Shippey, in his review of Tracey Borman’s biography of Queen Matilda, alleges (following Borman) that Matilda was 4'2" (LRB, 17 November). This is a modern myth. It arose from a misreporting of the measurement of her surviving remains in 1959. The actual estimate was five feet, which is altogether more credible of a woman who bore her husband, William the Conqueror, at least nine children. It is debatable, however, whether any estimate of her or his height is of any value at all, since their remains are fragmentary and of dubious identity, the tombs in Caen having been destroyed and their contents scattered during the Revolution. All this was discussed thirty years ago by John Dewhurst in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology.

Marc Morris

It could happen again

J. Robert Lennon writes that ‘American writers are at the mercy of a publishing regime that does not, by and large, value middle-class experience’ (LRB, 17 November). He claims that white or deracinated middle-class fiction writers face the choice of cooking up extravaganzas of magical realist whimsy or writing memoirs in which, presumably, they will castigate themselves for past bad behaviour (Mary Karr), tell the sad tale of their parents’ fatal illness (Meghan O’Rourke), recount journeys of self-discovery and fulfilment (Elizabeth Gilbert), or mix some cocktail of the three (Dave Eggers). But Lennon neglects a third way that may be the dominant genre of the day: historical fiction. In these books – popular with book clubs – middle-class readers are congratulated for their rejection of old injustices like slavery (Toni Morrison), homophobia (Thomas Mallon) and McCarthyism (Philip Roth). Of course there’s always the shivering implication that it could happen again. Something else that could happen, the way things are going in Washington and on Wall Street, is the obliteration of the middle class. Among the many beneficial side effects, like the vanishing of MFA programmes, would be the resurgence of a literature of squalor. And at last Americans could return to the novel’s supreme theme: marrying rich.

Harriet Hodge
Salt Lake City

Blame mother (again)

Mark Ford makes much of A.S.J. Tessimond’s use of psychoanalysis in his review of the Collected Poems but repeats an error made by Hubert Nicholson in the introduction to the book (LRB, 17 November. Tessimond’s father died in 1936; it was on the occasion of his mother’s death in 1942 that the poet received the inheritance that he subsequently spent on chorus girls and analysts. I am writing a biography of the poet and have access to his unpublished journal, where he recalls this figure being nearer £7000. It is ironic that the money should have come from his mother: most of the analysts believed she was the cause of his problems.

James Bainbridge
University of Liverpool

Men bear the heavier burden (oh yes)

Amanda Vickery is badly, albeit fashionably, misinformed as to the role and rights of married women in the past (LRB, 8 September). Quoting the position of wives at common law is not helpful, as the rules of canon law and equity prevailed, so much so that a common law marriage became a synonym for mere cohabitation, where the rights of the spouse were not affected by the union.

Canon law and equity, on the other hand, rigorously enforced the principle that a married couple was one person – a position to the advantage of women even today – and also the promise by the husband to endow the wife with all his worldly goods. Statute enlarged this into a duty to support, so that the practice arose that the husband also became liable for his wife’s breaches of contract, torts and tax, the first until the mid-20th century and the last until the 1990s. It did not follow that because a man was responsible for his wife’s affairs she was not responsible too, or could not sue or be sued.

In marriage, as in life generally, the law and custom ensured that men bore an unequal, heavier burden.

C. Coghlan
Northleach, Gloucestershire

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