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Letters

Vol. 34 No. 1 · 5 January 2012

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Watch this man

The aggrieved Oxford dons who denounced Niall Ferguson prompt the thought that even if they stood, like circus acrobats, on one another’s shoulders, they would never be as significant a historical force as him. Maybe that is driving their McCarthyite smears of ‘racism’, which even the massed gauche caviar should know are obviously misdirected.

Michael Burleigh, William Shawcross
London SE11
London W1

What she doesn’t want

I think that Jenny Turner and I want the same thing: a revolutionary feminism committed to overcoming the family, transforming economic life and providing people with better choices than the ones currently offered them (LRB, 15 December 2011). It is rare to see someone want these things in writing, in public, in a mainstream publication. So why was her essay so hard for me to like? Mostly, it is that Turner wants to use historical analysis to figure out what the future will be like, and her history is garbled and wrong.

For example, she points out that Elizabeth Cady Stanton opposed suffrage for freedmen in the years following the Civil War. Stanton, along with many other first-wave American feminists, was an abolitionist first. Abolitionism taught them organisation, political tactics and rhetorical fire, and they spent decades giving speeches, circulating pamphlets, and being called ‘nigger lovers’ as they walked down the street. It was only after the Civil War, with abolition completely achieved, that Stanton and other feminists lodged their opposition to the 14th and 15th Amendments. The reason is they expected a little reciprocity from the cause to which they had devoted so many years, and got none; those Amendments let male-only suffrage go unchallenged. It is perfectly legitimate to criticise Stanton’s decision to oppose these amendments, but it is contemptuous to imply that it was made on the basis of nothing more than self-absorption.

‘Who … ever heard of a radical-feminist movement taking its understanding of historical change from a man?’ Turner asks. Well, everybody, actually. Shulamith Firestone wrote that Freud ‘grasped the crucial problem of modern life’. There was also Marx, who radical feminists discussed (and still discuss) all the time. She claims that consciousness-raising was invented by lesbian separatists, women who wanted to ‘build a man-free, women-only tradition’ of their own. This is completely backwards. Radical feminists of all kinds invented consciousness-raising because they felt domestic life had isolated women from one another, and that it might be useful to have a little space to work out ideas together. The lesbian separatism came later.

These details matter, especially in an essay that gives the impression of a strange contempt for feminism in general. Whenever Turner finds an event, or a protest, or an idea that she likes, it is usually some exceptional individual woman who is behind it. Whenever she disapproves of something, then ‘feminism’, or ‘Women’s Liberation’, or ‘libbers’, or the ‘radical-feminist movement’ is to blame. I sympathise with almost everything that Turner wants for feminism’s future, and I agree with her that certain strains of feminist thought have been misguided and counterproductive. But she also seems to want to do without any kind of movement at all, or at least to forget about any movement that preceded her writing her essay.

Richard Beck
Brooklyn, New York

Jenny Turner is disappointed in Western feminism for too often wanting to have its cake (by adopting a critical stance towards whatever seems to hinder women from having the lives they want, or ought to want) and eat it (by declining to challenge the economic and familial structures within which these hindrances come about). But Turner’s own attempt at a radical challenge to the world as it is does not inspire confidence. She quotes with approval Toni Morrison’s claim that the nuclear family ‘just doesn’t work’ – it causes narcissism, consumerism, overeating, undereating and self-harm, according to Turner – and applauds Morrison’s vision of a world in which a teenage single mother who aspires to train as a brain surgeon can readily do so, thanks to fellow community members’ willingness to take care of her baby for free. Turner assures us that the rightness of this line of thought is ‘obvious’ once you come to think about it; presumably this is why she presents no evidence to support the correctness of the diagnosis, much less the viability of the solution.

Michael Nabavian
London N5

Uses for Mummy

Michael Neill notes that mummy or mumia was used ‘throughout the Christian West’ well into the early modern period (LRB, 1 December 2011). In fact, its use was much wider, since mummy was a commodity of the Dutch East India Company. It was readily available in Japan in the 18th century, and was mentioned in almost every Japanese book dealing with European medicine or with the West more generally. The shogun’s own physician, Katsuragawa Hoshû, discussed it in the 1780s, although it is unclear whether he administered it. One would think mummy easily substituted with fraudulent alternatives, but tests on extant samples in Japan reveal them to be the genuine article.

Timon Screech
School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

Was he the Great Emancipator?

Nicholas Guyatt asserts that in his first days in office, Lincoln ‘sent the states a draft constitutional amendment guaranteeing the status of slavery where it already existed’ (LRB, 1 December 2011). Presidents, however, have no official role in the matter of constitutional amendments, which are sent to the states for ratification if they win a two-thirds majority in both Houses of Congress. Any proposed amendment is just that, proposed rather than a draft; three-quarters of the states must ratify the amendment in exactly the form in which Congress submitted it. Lincoln did support the proposed amendment, somewhat tepidly and reluctantly, but he did not originate or write it, or submit it to anyone. Congress had sent the amendment to the states for ratification before Lincoln became president.

Guyatt says ‘the Midwest became the cradle’ of the new Republican Party. However, the Republicans failed to carry Illinois and Ohio in 1856, while they swept New England and carried New York. Lincoln lost the 1858 senatorial contest in Illinois. Indiana, Illinois and Ohio were notorious ‘Copperhead’ states, where Confederate sympathies were widespread, especially in the southern portions. The Republicans never had secure control of them until, briefly, after the Civil War. One week after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the legislature of his own state of Illinois denounced it as ‘a gigantic usurpation’ that would result in ‘a total subversion of the Federal Union’ and incite ‘servile insurrection … a means of warfare, the inhumanity and diabolism of which are without example in civilised warfare’. New England remained the rock-ribbed Republican area.

Nor were Indiana and Illinois ‘the heartland of free labour’. Eric Foner, in the book under review, reminds us that the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 banned only the importation of slaves, and did not free those already in the territory. Ninian Edwards, the appointed governor of Illinois Territory from 1809 to 1818, ‘advertised for sale 22 slaves’ along with livestock. The importation, buying and selling of black ‘servants’ remained legal into the 1840s, at which time hundreds of legally defined slaves (in addition to ‘indentures’) still resided in Illinois. Lincoln himself tried to return a black woman and four of her children into slavery in 1847, despite the fact that they had migrated to Illinois with the full consent of their owner, and had resided in freedom for at least two years. The Great Emancipator also prosecuted for damages the abolitionists who supposedly ‘enticed’ those slaves to ‘escape’, i.e. remain in Illinois as free persons.

It is true that John Wilkes Booth, on hearing Lincoln’s advocacy of very limited black suffrage, said ‘this means nigger citizenship,’ and that three days later he assassinated Lincoln. But the implication that Lincoln died a martyr to black enfranchisement is a stretch. Lincoln made his statement in the course of defending the white supremacist Louisiana constitution from its radical critics. Booth had for months plotted to kidnap or kill Lincoln; there is no reason to suspect that he would have abandoned his goal had Lincoln remained silent that night.

Clifton Hawkins
Berkeley, California

Universities under Attack

I admire Keith Thomas’s honesty in admitting that his critique of the coalition’s higher education policy is rooted in nostalgia for a supposed golden age for the sector (LRB, 15 December 2011). I also understand his suggestions for an alternative way forward. We should indeed present the new financial arrangements to students and parents as a graduate tax. We can look forward to the forthcoming REF exercise being the last, as government money is channelled increasingly to the recipients of competitively awarded grants from research councils. This concentration of resources will require more universities to focus on their teaching and knowledge transfer functions, delivering the increasing diversity in institutions that Thomas desires.

His final point, that universities must generate much more popular support from the general public, is also well made. However, it is hard to see how this will be achieved by harking back to a period when it was acceptable for one in ten fellows in his own college to do no research and little teaching; tolerance of such indolence, he writes, was ‘the price the rest of us paid for our freedom and in my view it was a price worth paying’. Of course, it was not the fellows who really paid, it was the taxpayer. Nevertheless, Thomas lists attempts to measure the outputs of scholars as among the many vices of the modern-day university. Others include the introduction of external regulation and audit and the development of a cadre of professional academic managers. To most members of the public such initiatives would be the least they would expect of a sector seeking public support, never mind the large amounts of public money that will continue to fund students in their studies and academics in their research. After all, they are now routine organisational procedures across the public and private worlds. There may be a debate worth having as to how they are implemented in our universities, but to deny that they have any role will merely fuel the impression that we are running self-serving institutions out of reach of the norms that apply everywhere else in our society.

Edward Peck
University of Birmingham

In her piece on feminism Jenny Turner incidentally misrepresents the motives behind the closure of Middlesex University’s Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, now transferred to Kingston University (LRB, 15 December 2011). Government cuts did not lie behind the decision. Rather, philosophy did not fit with Middlesex’s international strategy and the university knew that by closing the centre, it could keep the money awarded for its strong research performance in 2008 and use it for something else. The Higher Education Funding Council for England will continue to give Middlesex something in the region of £175,000 per year until the results of the next national assessment of university research are known – sometime around 2015-16 – even though most of the staff who generated that income are now at Kingston. Middlesex closed its highest rated research unit in order to take a profit on it.

Andrew McGettigan
London N1

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