Vol. 34 No. 15 · 2 August 2012

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A Bad President?

David A. Bell finds my observations on Barack Obama ‘unremittingly acerbic’ and ‘ungenerous’ (Letters, 19 July). I am sorry to have given that impression, but though I didn’t choose the cover line ‘A Bad President’, I won’t disclaim it. The recurrent pattern in which Obama unveils a grandiose design, leaves the detail to others, and at last pronounces significant reform impractical has been a real disservice to many causes he began by espousing (environmental protection and the West Bank settlement freeze are just two examples). His adoption of the Republican austerity platform in 2011 was a strategic disaster that led to the disgrace of the debt-ceiling negotiations. His failure to mount a single prosecution for acts committed in Guantánamo, or on Wall Street, has done harm to the common understanding of the rule of law. Bell compares Obama to Lincoln. For many reasons, a fairer parallel is Clinton, and I’m not sure that Clinton suffers in the comparison.

David Bromwich
Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut

David A. Bell isn’t happy with David Bromwich’s ‘acerbic’ summary of Barack Obama’s presidency. Bell is allowing himself to be confused by the media’s reports of Obama’s busy-ness. All that stuff like turning water into wine and raising the dead is actually carried out by White House apparatchicks and guys in the background. Obama is a smoke and mirrors illusionist whose assiduous crawl to the top was driven by the hubris we see detailed in Bromwich’s account. It should be apparent by now that the return of the messiah will not be taking place in Washington, although it’s evens that the next incumbent will at least be able to let us know what really happened to Joseph Smith’s gold tablets.

Chris Wheeler

‘Together … we unlocked the mystery of the atom,’ Barack Obama declared on 14 June. ‘No: we didn’t unlock the mystery of the atom together. A few scientists did it, on secret government subsidy,’ David Bromwich responds.

In one sense Bromwich is being too literal (the point is that the secret government subsidy derives from the consent of the people to the tax and spending powers of the federal government); in another, not literal enough. For who did ‘unlock the mystery of the atom’? Any account of the extraordinary advances in particle physics in the first half of the 20th century would prominently feature Niels Bohr, Max Born, James Chadwick, Paul Dirac, Enrico Fermi, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, Ernest Rutherford, Erwin Schrödinger and J.J. Thomson – all of them European.

Even the origins of the atom bomb are European. Contrary to popular belief, the first person to split the atom was not Robert Oppenheimer (a brilliant motivator and gifted administrator rather than a pioneering physicist) but a German chemist called Otto Hahn. (It fell to his one-time assistant, Lise Meitner, and her nephew Otto Frisch to interpret correctly his baffling laboratory experiment.)

Patrick Skelton
London SW1

Of Time and Temples

Marina Warner is right to say that ‘museums explicitly recall temples’ and that there is a connection between the words ‘temple’ and ‘time’ (LRB, 5 July). At least in Latin. But this is not, as she suggests, because the temple is a place where time stands still. The word ‘temple’ does not have its roots in ‘time’. Rather ‘temple’ (templum) and ‘time’ (tempus) share the same root. They both refer back to something cut off or marked out. In the case of a temple, it would be a portion of land consecrated or set apart as the dwelling of a god: a sanctuary or sacred space (temenos).

John Gale
London SW3

The Charity Mess

‘Anyone who has paid their taxes and then wants to give financial support to a museum, an opera house or a donkey sanctuary has every right to do so, and the beneficiaries every reason to be grateful,’ W.G. Runciman writes (LRB, 19 July). ‘But let’s not pretend that the donors are being “philanthropic" and are therefore entitled to pay less tax than they otherwise would.’ I am currently president of the Royal Asiatic Society, a small body that depends on its charitable status to manage its expenses, and is in sore need of more donors and gift aid. It does not reduce poverty, except of the mind. Does Runciman really want to live in a country in which a learned society is not a public good? Is his own Cambridge college recalculating its budget to take account of the large reduction in its income that his proposals would produce?

Peter Robb
London N1

W.G. Runciman, addressing the matter of tax relief for charities, asks: ‘What is the public benefit in donations made for the advancement of religion?’ The Church Times, published the same week, offers the following answer on page eight of its General Synod report:

The Church as a whole reclaimed ‘about £84 million of tax from HMRC a year’, much more efficiently in parishes than in cathedrals … what the state ‘gets’ in return [is] ‘ministry in every square mile of England … preservation of the country’s heritage … chaplains in hospitals, prisons, armed forces … governance of 4700 schools educating one million children … over 23 million hours of voluntary community action over and above church activities each month’.

Richard Thorneycroft

Easier for Some than Others

Jenny Turner observes that the Roland Mouret Galaxy dress ‘was so successful because it was strict and yet curve-friendly, making it easy to look nice in’ (LRB, 5 July). The accompanying photo shows a superbly beautiful, strictly proportioned and curve-friendly young woman modelling it. She makes it easy to look nice in too.

Jim Valentine
Woodland Hills, California

So why is it on the list?

Raymond Tanter’s defence of his pro-MEK stance holds no surprises (Letters, 19 July). He states that the MEK is the most prominent group in rejecting clerical rule in Tehran. In a sense he is right: it is the most prominent group – but only in Washington, Paris and London. Exiles often dream of returning to power in their homeland and a few, such as Lenin and al-Malaki, have achieved it. They are hardly promising precedents for the establishment of democracy in Iran. Tanter is right to say that the MEK’s cultish behaviour does not make it a terrorist organisation. Indeed, I made that point in my review of his book. But the MEK’s extraordinary practices must surely call into question the judgment of those who back the organisation. How can people advocating democracy in Iran lend such fervent support to a group which is led in perpetuity by a married couple who require their most active members to divorce and get rid of their children? As for the FBI report, it is obviously highly embarrassing for the MEK and suggests that the organisation’s public renunciation of violence may not be genuine. I have discussed the document with Louis Freeh, a former director of the FBI, who is a keen (and paid) advocate of the MEK: while he didn’t like the report’s findings, he did not – and could not – question its authenticity as an FBI document.

Owen Bennett-Jones

Go to Greece for your hols

‘The day before the latest elections in Athens, the German tabloid Bild published an open letter,’ Philip Oltermann writes (LRB, 5 July). He will presumably be surprised to hear that in Greece, voting takes place not just in the capital but all over the country. Newspapers, the BBC and the British public also imagine that Greece is Athens, and that if there are riots in Omonia Square in Athens then there must also be riots in Dung Square in Alonnisos. (Yes, there really is a Dung Square here, and no, it hasn’t seen riots since 1944.) One result is that tourism, a major source of income for Greece and Greeks, is greatly reduced.

As for German complaints that they are filling Greek cash machines with euros, what about Greece’s large gold reserves, taken away by the Germans during the war? They are still in Germany: requests for their return are ignored, nor has any interest ever been paid.

Simon Darragh
Alonnisos, Greece

No, he was Lord Chancellor

In an otherwise masterful discussion of the available literature and biography of Francis Walsingham in light of John Cooper’s new study, Alexandra Walsham makes a couple of errors (LRB, 5 July). First, whatever else Conyers Read’s study of Walsingham may have reflected in terms of his interest, it cannot have reflected his ‘role in establishing the Office of Strategic Services, precursor of the CIA, in the decades before the Second World War’, as the Office of Strategic Services was only founded during World War Two – almost twenty years after Read’s study. Second, Thomas More was never Walsingham’s ‘predecessor as principal secretary’: he was Lord Chancellor, in succession to Cardinal Wolsey.

Charles Coutinho
New York

What He Did Next

The preposterous and repugnant aspects of W. T. Stead (his auto-intoxication, his lubricious puritanism) have long been familiar. What is missing from John Pemble’s account of this maverick of Victorian journalism is a proper sense of the extraordinary qualities of his mind and of the range of his educational and humanitarian concerns (LRB, 19 July). Pemble’s portrayal of Stead is skewed by his failure to discuss the Review of Reviews, the monthly Stead edited from 1890 until he went down with the Titanic 22 years later. A concise critical digest of the serious periodical press which also served as a vehicle for his opinions and campaigns, the Review of Reviews was not just the central episode of Stead’s life but one of the great undertakings of 19th-century journalism.

Neil Berry
London N10

‘When Stead left the PMG,’ John Pemble writes, ‘he was either forgotten or written off as a crank.’ This may have been the case in Britain, but he soon forged a new career in the United States. His If Christ Came to Chicago reputedly sold 60,000 copies on the day of publication in 1894. Detailing Chicago’s underworld, visiting gambling dens and brothels and accusing the city’s department stores of leading young women sales staff into a life of vice, Stead rode the tide of puritanical revolt against the new consumerism. Thorstein Veblen provided the sociology, Stead the grisly reality. Chicago still struggles to shake off its infamous image. His Geordie countenance is captured in bronze in New York’s Central Park, not far from the memorial to Isadore Straus, his fellow Titanic victim.

Bill Lancaster
Hutton Rudby, North Yorkshire

Access of Butchness

Edward McGuire interprets Alan Bennett’s use of ‘access’ to mean a sudden onset of illness (Letters, 5 July). Terence Kilmartin’s revision of Scott Moncrieff’s translation of Proust contains the following passage, from Swann in Love:

He could not explore the idea further, for a sudden access of that mental lethargy which was, with him, congenital, intermittent and providential, happened at that moment to extinguish every particle of light in his brain, as instantaneously as, at a later period, when electric lighting had been everywhere installed, it became possible to cut off the supply of light from a house.

Len Bates

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