Vol. 35 No. 4 · 21 February 2013

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In Defence of Rights

Benedict Birnberg is right to emphasise what English law has achieved to enhance protection of human rights under the European Convention on Human Rights (Letters, 7 February). But he is wrong to claim that a parliamentary statute is equivalent to ‘an indigenous bill of rights’. Parliament’s whim offers slender protection against the erosion of fundamental rights. Although an Act of Parliament abolished capital punishment in the UK before the ECHR achieved the same, its reintroduction has been debated in the Commons since then and the e-petition system may force further reconsideration of it. After 9/11 it was domestic legislation that introduced indefinite detention without trial and it was only the ECHR which forced the government to reverse that assault on the right to liberty. While Westminster can certainly supplement ECHR rights, I would not trust it always to deliver the same without the ECHR.

Alex Bailin
Matrix, London WC1

You’ve been Googled

As a San Franciscan who has worked a couple of years now at Google, riding the ominous white shuttle to Mountain View, I was naturally piqued by Rebecca Solnit’s Diary (LRB, 7 February). Solnit doesn’t like the way I dress: it makes me look like a German. I understand the power of tribal identification – as an engineer, I have to fight not to be irritated by business people in business dress – but it’s an emotion more than an argument, and (obviously) illiberal. Nobody likes their own place to be overrun by others, but as Solnit seems to acknowledge, such overrunning is not about to stop, especially in cities.

I wonder what positive change she would propose. I’m sure we’re agreed that evictions and economic segregation are bad (and not only for their direct victims). But how specifically should San Francisco, or the Bay Area, or Google act to make things better – and what counts as better? Should Google, Apple, Genentech etc, as she seems to imply, extend public transportation so that it serves everyone on the peninsula? Even leaving aside the politics, the cost would be extravagant for a group of private firms that employ perhaps fifty thousand of the seven million people in the region.

Two things that I think would help are a reduction in income inequality and a redevelopment of all areas of California (and the US) in the direction of the urban values championed by Jane Jacobs and others. Can we talk?

Vance Maverick
San Francisco

Zhukov’s Due

Sheila Fitzpatrick seems oblivious to the main reason anyone would be interested in General Zhukov – namely, his outstanding military skill (LRB, 24 January). Given the circumstances that prevailed in the USSR following the Nazi invasion – its officer class heavily reduced by the Purges and then held back by Stalin’s bizarre refusal to accept that Hitler had broken his promises – Zhukov started with an enormous handicap compared to the leaders of the other Allied armies. Also, at least until Stalingrad, he had to deal with Stalin’s constant interference in military planning, and at the same time worry that if he took one step too far in pushing his case it might lead to summary execution.

Zhukov may not have had the flashy style of Manstein or Guderian, but their abilities were most effective in the Blitzkrieg tactics used early in the war. After Hitler embarked on Operation Barbarossa it soon became evident that Blitzkrieg had had its day and, once he was able to gather the resources, Zhukov decisively out-generalled his opponent. His preparations were meticulous, and he had exceptional strategic insight (he was an excellent chess player). He made extraordinary efforts to build up, train and supply his troops, often going to the front lines to check on preparations before battle. At Moscow and Stalingrad, he was able to build up huge concentrations of troops and armour without the enemy knowing – the Soviet army not only had superb tanks and artillery, but also excelled in camouflage – and then unleash them at precisely the point when the enemy was most extended and vulnerable. By contrast, at Kursk he created an intricate defensive structure that systematically chewed up the Nazi forces despite the best efforts of Manstein, Model and other top generals.

Of course Zhukov used his position in the Soviet hierarchy to his benefit and had a number of overlapping relationships during his life. So what? Surely the important issue is to examine how, in the most difficult conditions, he marshalled the resources of the Soviet state into first holding, then turning the Nazi invasion.

Robert Kaplan
University of Wollongong
New South Wales

In Search of Monsters

While I was glad that Stephen Smith didn’t fall for any of the usual stuff about the defence of democracy in Mali, security in the region and the eradication of terrorism, I was surprised that he couldn’t find any explanation for the French intervention beyond François Hollande’s low popularity at home (LRB, 7 February). La Françafrique, he argues, is ‘a spectre that should now quietly be laid to rest’.

One motive that Smith doesn’t discuss is that of securing important mineral resources in the region. Stéphane Lhomme, the head of the French environmental pressure group Nuclear Observatory, sees the intervention as an attempt to secure a supply of uranium for French nuclear power plants. The energy company Areva has been mining Niger’s uranium for fifty years: the deposits, in northern Niger, are separated from Mali by a technicality that masquerades as a border.

Smith blames the debacle in Mali not on the French, who have for years supported successive corrupt Malian governments, and not on the Malian government, which has exploited the north for its resources without developing the region, but on Bilal Ag Cherif, the head of the secular separatist Tuareg movement, whose weakness led him in a moment of temerity to agree an alliance with the Islamist movement Ansar Dine. Ag Cherif may have dreamed up the pact, but the majority of the MNLA leadership condemned it and soon withdrew. Smith doesn’t mention that the MNLA subsequently reconstituted itself and took on the Islamists in Gao in June 2012, undergoing a terrible defeat.

Fazia Aitel
Claremont, California

The Shit We’re In

John Lanchester states that government spending, according to figures given by the Office for Budget Responsibility or OBR, will rise from £674.3 billion in 2012-13 to £765.5 in 2017-18 (LRB, 3 January). What Lanchester fails to point out is that these are nominal figures and do not allow for inflation. If we deflate the nominal spending by the consumer price index (as used by the OBR), we get a fall in real government spending from £690.9 billion in 2011-12 to £652.6 billion in 2017-18. Instead of rising by £74.6 billion over the six years, expenditure falls by £38.3 billion.

Chris Edwards, University of East Anglia, George Irvin, School of Oriental and African Studies, Howard Reed, Landman Economics, Colchester

Believing in Unicorns

Walter Benn Michaels argues that when it comes to social justice, we should focus on class rather than race (LRB, 7 February). America’s obsession with race, he says, ‘renders [the disparities] between rich and poor invisible’, thereby justifying rather than remedying inequality. That might be so. But can we really replace a politics of race wholesale with a politics of class? A poor white man and a poor black man both have it rough, but not equally so; the poor black man is less likely to get a job and more likely to be put in jail. The same goes for a rich white man and a rich black man. And how about a poor black woman who is also a lesbian? Sure, racism on its own isn’t responsible for poverty, and the eradication of race discrimination is insufficient for the elimination of economic injustice. But to think we can address economic injustice without addressing racism ignores a main reason many Americans stay poor. It also seems to forget that racism is itself a form of injustice.

Mary Baldwin
New Orleans

The D is silent

Michael Wood speaks of the jokes in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained as connecting to historical questions (LRB, 24 January). Are the anachronisms part of the joke? For instance, the Ku Klux Klan raid situated in 1858 – seven years before the South’s loss of the Civil War and the ensuing Reconstruction gave birth to the original Klan? Or Dr Schultz telling Django Richard Wagner’s version of the story of Brünnhilde’s captivity 12 years before Die Walküre was first staged? Not to mention Django’s use of dynamite (first marketed in 1867) to blow up the Candyland mansion (whose name itself refers to a mid-20th-century American board game for young children).

Marc Haefele
Santa Monica, California

Michael Wood says that Django ‘parades in front of the blaze on his horse, getting it to spin in circles and do a bit of dressage footwork’. If Wood had spent as much time as I did as a child in the 1950s studying the Observer Book of Horses and Ponies he would realise that this isn’t just a random act on a random horse. Surely the horse is a Tennessee Walking Horse whose flashy high-stepping and easy and comfortable walking pace made it the go-to mount for slave-owners parading round their plantations. But this time it’s Django, erstwhile slave, in the saddle.

Mary Camps

Product Placement

Like Eva Joyce, I hadn’t realised this club had rules (Letters, 7 February). I conducted research (on myself) and have concluded that if I finish a session of reading at the end of an article, I return the LRB to its coverfold position, but if I have to break off, leaving an article unfinished, I keep it open at that place. It seems to me that the covers make the LRB easily found in a pile of papers. I don’t know what the rules say about the order in which to read the journal; I assume no one reads from cover to cover but that most people, once they’ve checked for any letters they may have written, scan quickly and begin with favoured authors and topics of greatest interest, among which I would cite Thomas Laqueur’s article on the Titanic in the previous issue. Many of the bodies were brought ashore at Halifax, Nova Scotia, where the procedures developed for their identification, registration and disposal subsequently proved their worth in the wake of the Halifax explosion of 6 December 1917, when much of the city was destroyed by the detonation of wartime explosives carried by the SSMont-Blanc, a French cargo ship. The Maritime Museum at Halifax has a small Titanic exhibition, of which the star exhibit (in my eyes) is a deckchair. I assume that occasionally they move it slightly.

Rob Close
Drongan, Ayrshire

Who He Was

Alan Bennett says that Joe Melia was the only person he knew who could read as he walked (LRB, 3 January). Those of us who were undergraduates at Oxford when W.H. Auden was professor of poetry there can hardly forget stepping off the narrow pavement into the Turl as that non-stop reader loomed ahead: not so much in deference to Who He Was as to that deeply graven brow signalling the direst intent. Besides, he was bigger than most of us, and moved faster.

Murray Biggs
Yale University

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