Vol. 36 No. 9 · 8 May 2014

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Whose sarin?

For a second time the LRB has aired Seymour Hersh’s highly shaky claim that the opposition was responsible for the chemical weapons attack on the Ghouta on 21 August 2013 (LRB, 17 April). Hersh provides only one source for the key claims in his piece: a ‘former intelligence official’. As the bloggers Eliot Higgins and Scott Lucas have shown, he entirely ignores the overwhelming balance of tangible evidence that indicates the responsibility of the regime for the Ghouta attack. The two types of munitions found at the site were the Soviet M14 and an improvised type of rocket known as ‘the Volcano’. Both have been spotted in several combat videos, always being used by regime forces and never by the opposition. Contrary to Hersh’s claims in his first article, all of the rockets used were well within range of regime-held areas (LRB, 19 December 2013). The position of the intact munitions, in particular ‘Missile 197’, indicates a firing point to the north, where the regime-held areas were. The 21 August incident involved multiple rocket attacks on the Ghouta from those directions.

A lot hinges on Hersh’s implication that the Islamist fighters arrested in Turkey in May 2013 were part of a sarin-producing operation. Indeed, the local press did report that the men were carrying two kilogrammes of sarin. The charges laid by the court did not say this: they said that the men were carrying chemicals that could have been used to produce sarin. Perhaps they intended to do so, but they would have needed much more time. At least eight ‘Volcanoes’ were fired on the Ghouta. Each warhead carries an estimated fifty litres of sarin. It took Aum Shinrikyo years, trillions of yen and a dedicated factory to come up with less than a tenth of that. Not only did the jihadists supposedly come up with the sarin in miraculously large quantities without anyone knowing about it, according to Hersh’s intelligence official they then filled perfect copies of regime munitions with the stuff, transported them to areas north of the Ghouta (unopposed by the regime forces occupying those areas) and launched them at their own side.

Hersh has dropped his arguments of December – including the claim that a secret US sensory system in Syria should have shown evidence of the attack – and wants us to take the word of a single unnamed spook instead. Likewise, the Russian Foreign Ministry initially said there had been no attack and that the YouTube footage was false, on the basis of the timestamp on the videos. When it was pointed out that this was due to the time difference between Syria and the US, where YouTube marks its timestamps, and that the actual timing was entirely consistent with reports of the attack, the idea was dropped without further ado. This is not a method of argument that inspires confidence.

Whose sarin? Assad’s, almost certainly. Why did he do it? Perhaps he thought Russian diplomatic cover would let him get away with it. That is what happened, after all.

Jamie Allinson
London NW6

The real answer to Seymour Hersh’s question, ‘Why did Obama delay and then relent on Syria when he was not shy about rushing into Libya?’, is that he was shy in Libya. There he ‘led from behind’, giving over leadership to the French and British, content to play an auxiliary role. In Syria, he’d have to give direct leadership, with allies playing a subordinate role. The imminent prospect of that is probably what gave him cold feet. He then turned to Congress for approval in the certain knowledge he would be denied.

Albion Urdank
Los Angeles

What are we talking about when we speak of ‘sarin’: Seymour Hersh begs the question. Are we really talking about the nerve agent sarin stocked in Syria or smuggled to the opposition forces through Turkey? If it is one of the three well known nerve agents, sarin, soman or VX, then this is extremely serious: one aerosol droplet touching your skin will kill you in a few seconds. But news footage of the alleged sarin incident in Damascus showed a great many ‘care-givers’ wearing gas masks or with handkerchiefs covering their faces, and victims on the ground still moving around. Compare that to nerve agent supplied to Iraq by the Pentagon under the Bush administration and then used on the Kurds, who dropped dead instantly. Obviously, what has been used in Damascus and elsewhere in Syria is a cocktail of various toxic agents, possibly with some precursors of nerve agents, but a sloppy mixture of who knows what.

Sterling Seagrave
Banyuls-sur-Mer, France

Seymour Hersh’s allegations of Turkey’s involvement in the chemical weapons attack that took place on 21 August 2013 in Damascus and his unsubstantiated claims that Turkey supports terrorists and their affiliates in Syria are totally and categorically invalid. It should be stressed that Hersh’s conspiracy theory is based on unnamed sources, assumptions, distorted recordings and unknown reports. It is also noteworthy that Hersh’s article, deliberately or otherwise, serves the Syrian regime’s propaganda machine and is in compliance with the regime’s lies and fabrications. Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, Turkey has been following a principled policy, taking the side of the Syrian people against tyranny and terrorism. We are determined to continue our policy in this context and to be on the right side of history. Distorting well-established facts, mocking the realities on the ground and disrespecting the memories of innocent Syrian civilians who lost their lives at the hands of a brutal regime will not succeed in justifying the regime’s inhumane policies or in giving legitimacy to Assad’s dictatorship.

Ahmet Ünal Çeviköz
Turkish Embassy, London SW1

Stories of the Flood

I am grateful to Basem Ra’ad for sorting out the gods in the story of the Flood from the Epic of Gilgamesh, and for drawing attention to Ea’s crucial intervention (Letters, 17 April). I’d like to add two comments that strike me as timely: at first Ea acts secretly, because he has sworn at the council of the gods to drown all humanity, but soon feels compelled to leak news of the danger by whispering it to ‘a fence made of reed’. In this way he transmits the warning, as it were unattributably, to the Babylonian Noah, Uta-napishti. In Genesis, by contrast, Yahweh is on his own, as monotheism requires, when he decides that his creation and his creatures are corrupt, and that he’ll sweep them all away, except for Noah and his family. Noah ‘walks with God’, and obeys him unquestioningly. Between them, Gilgamesh and Genesis dramatise different power arrangements, with the older poem unexpectedly approving the difference a dissident action can make.

Marina Warner
London NW5

As Hoggart taught me

Christopher Hilliard cites two of Richard Hoggart’s three key interventions in the public discussion of popular culture – his book The Uses of Literacy and his evidence in the Lady Chatterley trial – but makes no mention of the 1962 Pilkington Report on Broadcasting (LRB, 17 April). Unlike other such reports – Beveridge in 1951, Annan in 1977 and Peacock in 1986 – here the chairman’s hand is virtually undetectable in the finished document. It was Hoggart, working closely with the committee’s secretary, Dennis Lawrence, who gave the text its depth and gravitas, along with an unmistakable dose of paternalism.

Hoggart’s disdain for the vapid materialism of early ITV translated into a call for radical structural change that was swiftly rejected – a common fate for the key recommendation in each of the postwar reports. The report also recommended the awarding of a third channel to the BBC, the rejection of a similar award for commercial television even if a fourth channel could be engineered, and support for BBC local radio as a way of suppressing calls for commercial radio stations to be allowed to compete with the BBC. In due course, the disappearance of spectrum scarcity rendered all these instinctive control mechanisms redundant, and consumer choice asserted itself.

As part of the original cohort of graduate students at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in 1964 – seconded by the BBC as part of my general traineeship – I was encouraged by Hoggart and Stuart Hall to write a paper on the concept of public service broadcasting, in which I offered a critique of the controlling mentality that imbued Pilkington. Both Hoggart and Hall found the paper unsatisfactory, but their challenging teaching methods, and their strong urging not to be afraid to judge popular culture, left their mark on me.

One aspect of Pilkington that perhaps still has relevance today was its support for a separate licence fee for colour televisions. Some BBC ideologues continue to claim that a flat-rate licence fee is the guarantor of BBC ‘universality’. Pilkington explains why different fees for different services might make sense, and his report shows that ‘universality’ was a concept neither recognised nor idealised in 1962. A proper understanding of the past, as Hoggart taught me, is an important building block for planning the future.

David Elstein
London SW15

What’s the point of HS2?

Christian Wolmar was spot on in most respects (LRB, 17 April). But he doesn’t rebut forcefully enough the contention that HS2 will reduce the North-South divide. The research shows two things quite plainly. First, in contexts – like England – where ‘connectivity’ is already good, new transport links will tend to shift economic activity around rather than creating much new growth. And it will shift it towards the strongest and most attractive locations. In the case of HS2, this means that London is very likely to be the primary beneficiary: HS2 may well widen rather than reduce North-South disparities. Those few cities in the North and the Midlands with HS2 stations – Birmingham, Manchester, Nottingham-Derby, Sheffield, Leeds – may also see some gain (which is why Labour’s big-city barons are lined up behind it), but this will be at the expense of other places in their regions and of other regions (East Anglia, the South-West).

HS2 is a big-city stitch-up. It would indeed, as government ministers say, create a new economic geography – but not in the way they suggest. Instead, by ‘compressing space and time’ (in David Harvey’s phrase) between a few privileged big cities, it would accentuate the inequalities of the neoliberal economy. There are plenty of much better ways to spend the £50 billion or more that HS2 would cost. The New Economics Foundation, for example, has shown how, for this kind of money, major improvements could be made in local transport and other infrastructure, like high-speed broadband across the whole country. Influential commentators like Wolmar should come out more decisively and call for HS2 to be scrapped.

Mike Geddes
Leamington Spa

Christian Wolmar’s article on HS2 and the sorry incompetence of the UK’s infrastructure planning starts with the likely impact of the development of Euston on a famous Indian restaurant in Drummond Street, Camden (LRB, 17 April). Many others will be similarly affected, especially if consultation is a mere ‘device’ and compensation unreasonably restricted, as Wolmar predicts.

The Royal Asiatic Society, of which I am currently president, owns a building close to the proposed development site at Euston. During the works and perhaps afterwards its fellows and visitors, its library and lectures, are bound to be very badly affected. Worse, about one half of the society’s income comes, directly or indirectly, from long-term and casual lettings to other appropriate groups. The RAS was founded in 1823. Its bicentenary may be very troubled.

‘When a project is seen to be of national significance,’ Wolmar writes, ‘ the interests of the people who have the bad luck to be in its way are never going to be of primary importance.’ The problem with that may be not so much the principle as the definition of ‘national significance’, which in turn defines us.

Peter Robb
London NW1

Other Ways to Read Veronese

T.J. Clark’s imaginative musings on the genius of Veronese in The Allegories of Love may have been more convincing had he not divorced his visual connoisseurship from the historical context of the pictures, and had he made comparisons with other works in the same genre (LRB, 3 April). Clark refrains from naming the various figures in the paintings, making it seem as if Veronese had invented their poses. But such wedding pictures often presented the bride and groom as actors in the story of Venus, Vulcan and Mars, which was a determining factor in the choice of attitudes. Veronese had to hand a standard repertoire of poses and compositions, of classical origin, with accepted meanings, on which to work his magic.

Clark also neglects the late Renaissance obsession with figure drawing (disegno) as the epitome of artistic skill with its focus on unusual foreshortenings (scorci) in the interest of highly varied non-linear outlines (contorni, lineamenti), by which standard Veronese’s work could be seen as a sane reaction to the Michelangelesque extravagances of some of his contemporaries. An elaboration of the several approaches to non-normative perspectives from below (di sotto in su) would have stressed the difference between ceiling pictures with figures seen directly from the floor, making it difficult to discern much beyond the soles of feet, bottoms and crotches (‘l’altre parti di sotto’) and tilted perspective, which permitted a clearer view of the upper body gestures and facial expressions.

Infidelity, for example, represents the Venus Callipyge – ‘having beautiful buttocks’. The relevant text by Athenaeus tells of two Syracusan girls debating which one has the more gorgeous behind. Glimpsed naked by two smitten young men, the girls end up married and wealthy, so they dedicated a temple to Callipygian Venus. In ancient Roman painting and sculpture Venus often appeared naked in rear view, as she does later in Titian’s Venus and Adonis, Veronese’s own Venus and Adonis and Annibale Carracci’s Venus with a Satyr and Cupids. Correggio adopted the motif for his amplexus of Jupiter and Io. Veronese’s mise en scène, with two suitors tugging on the woman’s arms reflects the tale of Hercules’ son, Hylas, and the nymphs. Theocritus’ poem ‘Hylas’ records that the boy went to fetch water from a spring, when suddenly several Naiads ‘with one accord … clung fast to his arm, because love of the young Argive had fluttered all their tender breasts’. The scene is shown in various Roman mosaics, one now in the Cirta Constantine Museum in Algeria, a third-century example in the Musée de Saint-Romain-en-Gal, and a fourth-century piece from the Basilica of Junius Bassus on the Esquiline hill in Rome. Veronese has simply switched the genders of the three characters. His seated Venus reflects a similar figure on the Venus Sarcophagus in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. Veronese modifies the staid Roman figure by leaning Venus out of the vertical and depicting her and her suitors in tilted perspective, resulting in varied, graceful foreshortenings that seem natural rather than contrived, what Armenini called ‘la dolce maniera’.

The fourth panel, Happy Union, to take a second example, represents the marriage of Venus and Mars presided over by Veritas. Clark mistakenly refers to the woman atop the globe as Fortuna, an inappropriate presence for a true marriage, since in that case the globe would symbolise instability. Rather, she stands for Truth as sovereign of the world. The 16th-century Italian iconographer Cesare Ripa describes Truth as a nude female with her right foot on a globe, superior to all things in this world. The image was the source of Bernini’s Truth Revealed by Time. Veronese’s Truth has beside her a column, emblematic of constancy, according to Ripa. The idea is that the goal of marriage is not physical satisfaction. Cupid, as patron of lustful pleasure, is absent since he does not dare to be among those presented to the bride. Veronese’s Venus and Mars both grab onto a myrtle branch, which for Ripa denotes a union based on honest motives. This all departs from other Renaissance pictures of Venus and Mars, which stress their adultery, revealed by the nakedness of one or both, on a bed together, or with Venus’ leg hooked over her lover’s, indicating sexual appropriation. Veronese’s love theme is Christian: both Mars and Venus appear fully clothed, and do not touch or so much as look at one another. All four figures stare upward at Truth, in opposition, say, to Titian’s several Venuses in which the musician leers down at her crotch. Consonant with this chaste symbolism is the tilted perspective, which forces the viewer to look upward along with the actors, out of respect for Honesty and Truth.

In short, for these four paintings Veronese selects from an existing repertoire of gestures and compositions with given meanings, but enlivens them in accordance with the contemporary taste for pleasing disegno. Like others he employs unfamiliar foreshortenings that produce movemented irregular outlines, yet he avoids the prevailing aesthetic of violently twisting nudes and operatically staged but ultimately meaningless compositions. Instead, we find a graceful wedding of form and content that is occluded by Clark’s aspiration to treat only formalist matters with no bow to iconographic foundations or historical precedents.

David Wright
University of South Florida, Tampa

I read T.J. Clark on Veronese with delight, but was startled when I came to the following words: ‘Veronese is a realist. He knows that the balance of power in sex lies ultimately with the male.’ I had thought that what I was reading was concerned with a view of the human that was larger than sexual politics. I then felt sceptical about the citation of Ruskin (‘A good, stout, self-commanding, magnificent Animality’), recalling his devastation at all too human aspects of his wife’s nudity, and wondered if the ‘realism’ was really Veronese’s, or the voice of objective reality as channelled by T.J. Clark?

Alison Clark
Newtown, Australia

Elephants Sulking in Corners

Colin Kidd furnished a whole exhibition hall with bright and intriguing constitutional ideas (LRB, 17 April). But he left a few elephants sulking in corners. He sets great store by the 1707 Treaty of Union between England and Scotland, which is held to have created the British state. But let’s say it loudly and clearly: that treaty – with its form of union – is dead. We can date its fall precisely, to 12 May 1999, when the devolved legislature met in Edinburgh. It fell when Winnie Ewing ignored Donald Dewar’s entreaties and said: ‘The Scottish Parliament, adjourned on the 25th day of March 1707, is hereby reconvened.’

It was as if Glasgow had gone ahead with its plan to blow up the Red Road towers. Almost silently, the huge old architecture of the Union sank into itself and vanished. Dust blew about for a few years. But now Scotland finds itself standing in the open air, staring around at a landscape of choices. Devolution, in other words, has killed the Union as we all knew it. What remains is not the 1707 arrangement, but a quite different form of union: a changeable, constantly loosening association with no hard core. As Janan Ganesh writes in a cruelly intelligent article in the Financial Times, devolution has no reverse gear: ‘Independence may be averted in September, but the trend of history is unmistakable.’

The old treaty was tattered with violations, anyway. In 1988, for instance, I refused to register for the poll tax on the grounds that its application to Scotland alone breached Article 18 of the treaty, and I joined an action at the Court of Session to get it declared illegal. We failed – but only because, as Colin Kidd says, ‘there were no constitutional protections within the Union-state.’ No constitution, because England, specifically, never developed a concept of supreme law. No protection, because the Treaty of Union was not ‘justiciable’.

Kidd should surely show more outrage at the survival of parliamentary sovereignty, that preposterous old doctrine which still obstructs liberty in the British state. For one thing, it blocks the way to his vision of a ‘federal’ upper chamber of the regions. For another, it isolates the UK on an archaic English Sonderweg – a top-down monarchist power concept shared by no other nation in Europe. In 1689, England simply swapped royal absolutism for parliamentary absolutism. But if the subsequent British state had been able to adopt a ‘normal’ Enlightenment constitution, the Treaty of Union would have been one of its pillars. Now it’s too late.

Neal Ascherson
London N5

It simply isn’t true that Scots ‘were made the guinea pigs of Thatcher’s poll tax’, as Colin Kidd writes. The Scottish Tories enthusiastically embraced the poll tax to get them off the hook of rates revaluation in Scotland in 1989. See where it got them. As for suggesting that the House of Lords be turned into a German-style Bundesrat representing the nations and regions of the UK: classically, too little and too late – by about a hundred years.

David McCrone

A Life Worth Living

Does prenatal screening for disability, when the upshot might be abortion, suggest that life with a disability is not worth living? Thomas Nagel thinks not (LRB, 3 April). A life can be valuable or worthwhile in spite of, and in some cases because of, a disability. So we can, as R. Jay Wallace puts it, affirm the lives of the disabled without affirming the disability.

Nevertheless, the congenitally disabled might still have grounds for concern. That a prospective mother would come to love her disabled child, Nagel says, ‘is not a reason for her now to carry it to term’. What seems to be suggested here is that if the child were not disabled then there would be reason to continue with the pregnancy. And, in turn, that if the mother could choose between two children, one disabled, the other not, then, other things being equal, she should choose the latter. It’s clear how the disabled might feel disgruntled about this. Though no one is saying their lives are not worth living, the message does seem to be that it would have been better had they not been born, and a non-disabled child born in their place. A fear, in this, of eugenics isn’t altogether misplaced.

The way out is to compromise. First, acknowledge (as many believe) that there is no positive reason, for the sake of the child, to start any life, disabled or not. Second, make the following distinction. Even though there is reason, antecedently, to prevent disability in any given child, there isn’t therefore reason to choose, when both will have lives worth living, the best of two children.

Chris Belshaw
Blawith, Cumbria

One Day …

Roger Morsley-Smith
London W4

J.L. Austin

I am researching a biography of the philosopher J.L. Austin (1911-60) for OUP, and would much like to hear from friends, colleagues, relatives, ex-pupils and anyone else who knew him or has significant information about him.

Mark Rowe
Biddenden, Kent

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