Vol. 35 No. 16 · 29 August 2013

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Albion Urdank’s defence of NSA surveillance is confused and misinformed (Letters, 8 August). Urdank believes that Edward Snowden should have stayed and stood trial, just as Daniel Ellsberg did. Ellsberg himself disagrees, recalling that even after he was indicted in 1971 for espionage, theft and conspiracy, he was allowed out on bail and left free to speak at anti-war rallies throughout the country. He was a major figure in a powerful mass movement in an era when public dissent was pervasive and legitimate. Snowden fled and Ellsberg stayed, but as Ellsberg says, ‘The country I stayed in was a different America, a long time ago.’ What a difference forty years have made. The contrast between Ellsberg’s America and Snowden’s is sobering. Snowden has been accused of espionage in an era when ‘the battlefield is everywhere,’ the war is endless and mistreatment of political prisoners – especially powerless ones – is routine. Urdank cites Lincoln’s example, but Lincoln held office during a war that had clearly defined geographical, legal and temporal boundaries. The ‘war on terror’, despite Obama’s assurances, has none.

Urdank appears to think that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is an adequate judge of probable cause. But the FISC meets in secret, hears only the government’s side of the case, and since 2001 has decided more than twenty thousand times to ten in the government’s favour: it looks, in short, suspiciously like a rubber stamp. Certainly it has been no real obstacle to the expansion of executive power, and neither have the other branches – Congress and the courts – which over the last decade have given intrusive police power a veneer of legality. Obama’s proposed reforms, which include the addition of a ‘privacy advocate’ to FISC proceedings, do nothing to change their secrecy, or to acknowledge the fundamental principle at stake in this controversy: that the electronic dragnet violates American citizens’ constitutional protection from unreasonable search and seizure.

David Bromwich is right: we owe Snowden a deep debt of gratitude. The real threat to ‘our way of life’ comes not from a handful of jihadists but from the surveillance state that has emerged in Washington.

Jackson Lears
Ringoes, New Jersey

When I read such advocates of the surveillance state as Albion Urdank condemning an opponent, David Bromwich, as being a ‘hand-wringing liberal’ on the grounds that ‘jihadists have wrought havoc on our lives’ and ‘remain a formidable threat to our way of life and need to be defeated’, I feel the need of such balancing contributions to the tone of the debate as ‘nervous Nellie’, ‘raving McCarthyite’ and ‘swivel-eyed paranoid’.

Mat Snow
London SW12

At the Hôtel Splendide

William Firebrace, in his letter about my article on Marseille in the Second World War, suggests that the dynamiting of the Vieux Port in 1943 was little more than a council programme of slum clearance (Letters, 8 August). The Wehrmacht, in that version, were merely contractors called in to do the job because of their skill at demolition. Even allowing for patriotic myth-making, which prefers to blame the Germans rather than the French Vichy authorities for the crimes of the Occupation, that is a long way from the popular memory of what happened, and from the official history. Robert Mencherini, author of Ici-Même:Marseille 1940-44, records that the city already had plans to redevelop the quarter, including a plan drawn up in 1942. But he continues:

The German authorities, suspecting that [the Vieux Port] harboured deserters and ‘international terrorists’, considered it extremely dangerous. Moreover, the Nazis were anxious rapidly to increase the total of deportations, in the framework of the ‘Final Solution’. In early 1943, using the pretext of the [Resistance] bomb attack on 3 January, Hitler issued an order for the razing of the northern districts of the Vieux Port and the deportation of their inhabitants.

Carl Oberg, supreme commander of the SS and police in occupied France, went to Marseille to explain the plan to the municipal and regional prefects and the chief of police. Their disgrace is that they consented to what followed, not that they devised it.

Neal Ascherson
London N5

Come, come

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad writes about the protests in Gezi Park (LRB, 8 August). I participated in these and related protests every day from 31 May to 7 July. In focusing exclusively on street fighting and on the history of the Turkish left, Abdul-Ahad fails to identify the heart of what the protests were about. The street fighting that he describes happened on 11 June, the day the police returned to Taksim after having withdrawn for ten days. During that period Gezi Park had been turned into a festival area, even a small republic, with the emphasis on peaceful protest and co-operation between groups that had not co-operated before. The emphasis on non-violence led to radical political parties, all of them with tiny memberships, being expelled from the park by protesters and told to camp on Taksim Square itself. And they agreed. One of those groups was the Socialist Democracy Party (SDP), the history of which Abdul-Ahad describes at length. This is not uninteresting in itself but the SDP and parties like them were not central to the Gezi protest or to its spirit.

One small correction. Abdul-Ahad refers to the shout ‘“Gel, gel, gel," Turkish for “Go, go, go."’ It actually means ‘Come, come, come’ and was used in two contexts. In the first, it was shouted at people who were running away from the teargas: ‘Don’t go away, come back and stand with us.’ In the second, it was shouted by crowds of marchers, young and old, political and apolitical, at people who were cheering from their windows: ‘Don’t just cheer, come and join us.’ And in many cases they did.

Zeynep Talay
London EC1

The Best Policy?

John Barrell’s review of Lowry at Tate Britain elicits an ambivalent recollection (LRB, 8 August). As a student at Manchester University in the early 1950s I lived at the Ancoats Settlement in Every Street (my mission: to get delinquents to climb mountains instead of factory walls). While clearing out a lumber room in the Round House, the building at the centre of the Settlement’s activities, I took a last look into a box of assorted junk, already marked for disposal. I discovered what was unmistakably a Lowry pencil sketch of the Round House. It was on a sheet of paper, eight by six inches or thereabouts, obviously torn from a sketchpad, unframed but in good condition considering the way it had been treated. It was a wonderful rendering both of the building’s incongruous architecture and the feeling of intrusion into the local scene it evoked.

With some excitement I showed my find to the Settlement’s director. Neither he nor anyone else on the staff knew about Lowry and no one showed any interest. So I took it to my room for my own enjoyment. There I faced the obvious dilemma. It was easy to justify keeping it for myself but its rightful place was in the Settlement. Conscience won. I persuaded the director that they should have the picture framed and display it. So they did.

Several years later, after a period in the US, I visited the Settlement and immediately noticed that the Lowry was missing. ‘Oh,’ I was told, ‘we sold it for six thousand pounds. We needed the money to have our driveway redone.’

Raymond Clayton
Stanford, California


Colm Tóibín makes two contentious claims for Anthony Hecht (LRB, 8 August). One is that Hecht ‘is unique among poets in the English language who fought in the First or Second World Wars because of the intensity of his struggle’. If Tóibín has in mind the struggle of coming to terms with his war experiences, surely David Jones’s In Parenthesis is at least as intense a work as anything by Hecht. And then there is Louis Simpson. Tóibín claims that Hecht’s ‘tone, the calm controlled cadences, belonged to him as much as the well-wrought technical wizardry’. But it was Simpson who originated this tone, a kind of near-hallucinatory matter-of-factness which first emerged in his great ballad ‘Carentan O Carentan’ (published in 1949 in The Arrivistes) and is developed in the collections that followed. Tóibín quotes from Hecht’s ‘The Man Who Married Magadalene’, but doesn’t quote the epigraph, ‘Variations on a Theme by Louis Simpson’.

John Lucas

Colm Tóibín confuses the victim with an accomplice of the assailant in his interpretation of the fourth sonnet in Hecht’s poem ‘The Feast of Stephen’. In Tóibín’s reading, horseplay ‘moves into dreadful and deliberate violence against “a young man whose name is Saul"’. In fact, the poem depicts Saul urging several other ‘burly youths’ to their ‘hot work’ of beating a victim who is unnamed but is obviously the titular St Stephen. The hooligans have ‘flung down their wet and salty garments/At the feet of a young man whose name is Saul’, obligingly watching over their clothing as they accomplish the murder. The biblical reference is Stephen’s sermon and stoning in Acts. Stephen, a Christian convert ‘full of grace and power’, preaches a sermon to the Israelites accusing them of being ‘stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears’. The Jewish mob is outraged and stones Stephen. And, as reported in Acts 8:1, ‘Saul approved of their killing.’

John Beckmann
Austin, Minnesota

Mr Plornishmaroontigoonter

This is a game one could play for ever. Nevertheless, I think it’s significant that, as Tim Parks mentions in passing, Dickens chose the name ‘Plornish’ as a nickname for his youngest son (LRB, 8 August). Mr Plornish is, of course, the out-of-work Cockney labourer whom Arthur Clennam meets in Little Dorrit, the novel Dickens was working on when Edward was first announced as ‘Mr Plornishmaroontigoonter’ in the programme of his family’s Twelfth Night entertainment. The Plornish in Little Dorrit seems perfectly to embody Dickens’s fears for his son (for all of his sons, in fact): that he might fail to make a success of himself – might fail, even, to prove himself intelligent. Dickens writes of Mr Plornish: ‘A willing, working, soft-hearted, not hard-headed fellow, Plornish took his fortune as smoothly as could be expected; but it was a rough one. It so rarely happened that anybody seemed to want him, it was such an exceptional case when his powers were in any request that his misty mind could not make out how it happened.’ To be named after this character was a kind of curse. Parks’s idea that ‘giving nicknames is an indication of one character’s power over others’ does not apply only to Dickens’s fiction.

John Dawkins

Not Quite

Mike Jay writes that Fridtjof Nansen reached the North Pole over land the year before Salomon Andrée’s abortive attempt by balloon (LRB, 8 August). In fact, Nansen never reached the Pole: he and his companion, Hjalmar Johansen, were forced by the harsh conditions they encountered to turn back at 86º 13.6’ N.

John Barnie
Aberystwyth, Ceredigion


Deborah Friedell says that Lionel Shriver ‘rarely lingers over physical descriptions, with one great exception: she’s highly conscious of how much her characters weigh’ (LRB, 20 June). If that’s so, Shriver would better enable the reader’s understanding of her characters if she expressed their weight in kilograms, not pounds. Apart from the impossible-to-change Americans and the foot-dragging British only Liberia and Myanmar still use imperial weights and measures.

Peter Best

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