John Banville omits a key figure from his discussion of the Easter Rising: James Connolly, one of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation and founder of the Citizen Army and the Irish Socialist Republican Party (LRB, 16 July). Connolly was well aware of the squalid living conditions in Dublin at the time (its slums were among the poorest in Western Europe) and had a more internationalist outlook on the upcoming rising than Patrick Pearse and Joseph Plunkett. He was instrumental in the insertion of the clauses in the Proclamation that referred to ‘religious and civil liberty’ and to the importance of pursuing the ‘happiness and prosperity of the whole nation’, knowing that the removal of British forces alone would not bring radical social and economic change. As Banville rightly points out, the republic that emerged from these years was an insular clerical state that survived on a cocktail of silence and denial. It dealt with rebels and dissenters in its own particular way.
Hugh Roberts claims that attempts to find a peaceful resolution to the Syrian conflict have been blocked by the intransigence of the Syrian opposition and their insistence that ‘Assad must go’ (LRB, 16 July). But the account of Syrian peace initiatives that he offers in support of this contention is a very partial one. Before Geneva II there was the ‘six-point plan’ launched by Kofi Annan in March 2012, to which the Assad regime agreed. However, over the following two months the regime failed to fulfil a single one of its obligations. Point 3 called for the entry of humanitarian assistance to areas affected by the fighting, but Homs old town remained under siege for the next two years; Point 4 provided for the release of political prisoners, but the journalist Mazen Darwish remains in prison today; crucially, Point 2 called for an end to the use of heavy weapons against civilian populations, but in the course of the ‘ceasefire’ nearly seven hundred civilians were killed by regime shelling. Annan’s efforts came to a de facto end on 25 May when regime militias butchered more than a hundred civilians, including 49 children, in the ‘Houla massacre’.
Kofi Annan’s resignation statement left little doubt about where the principal responsibility for the failure of his mission lay: ‘The bloodshed continues, most of all because of the Syrian government’s intransigence and continuing refusal to implement the six-point plan, and also because of the escalating military campaign of the opposition.’ Geneva II followed a similar pattern. When Lakhdar Brahimi tried to move the discussion on to ‘confidence building’ measures on the second day of the talks, the opposition put forward concrete proposals for lifting sieges and release of detainees (including quid pro quo measures) and provided a list of detainees in custody. Bouthaina Shaaban, Assad’s close confidant and delegation member, batted such issues away: ‘The other side came here to discuss a small problem here or there … We did not come here to bring relief to a region here or a region there. We came here to restore safety and security to our country.’ On 9 February 2014 the opposition delegation put forward a detailed plan for political transition, in the spirit of the Geneva Communiqué, and with no preconditions concerning Assad. The government delegation refused to discuss it. While this ‘peace process’ was going on the regime stepped up its military operations – killing nearly 2200 civilians, 1400 of them in artillery and aerial bombardments, over 24 days.
So who emerges as the ‘intransigent’ protagonist from this sorry tale? The simple truth is that the Assad regime will never entertain any form of ‘transition’ that diminishes its power. To suggest otherwise is to defy fact and logic.
Galen Strawson talks about ‘Peter Green’s Homer’, as though my version of the passage he refers to (Iliad 20.273-87, 322-3) differed in some way from the Greek text (Letters, 2 July). It doesn’t. Achilles’ spear does pierce through both layers of Aeneas’ shield. It does then go on far enough to stick in the ground. Aeneas does relinquish the shield to pick up a rock as defence against Achilles’ attack with his sword. After a freeze-frame divine discussion (which Strawson doesn’t mention) Poseidon does pull the spear from Aeneas’ shield, and then dump it at Achilles’ feet. So what is Strawson fussing about? I know philosophers can see problems where the rest of us can’t, but here I’m at a loss. The whole business (as I pointed out in a footnote) is physically improbable. Has Strawson been experimenting in his back yard?
Chase Madar was wrong in claiming that Amnesty International has ‘consistently backed US military operations in Afghanistan, which it seemed to view as a Peace Corps programme with soldiers attached’ (LRB, 2 July). Amnesty has consistently documented the civilian cost of US military operations in Afghanistan. Indeed, our latest report on the subject detailed ‘abundant and compelling evidence of war crimes’ and called for investigations, congressional hearings, and the overhaul of the US military justice system. We have documented raids by US special-ops forces, indiscriminate US airstrikes that have killed civilians, and the torture of US-held prisoners at Bagram, as well as US drone strikes in Pakistan, atrocities by US-backed Shiite forces in Iraq, and the torture of prisoners at Guantánamo, CIA ‘black sites’ and elsewhere. Madar concludes by portraying human rights advocates as misguided technocrats, fixated on inconsequential procedural issues while ignoring first-order questions of morality. If he thinks the indiscriminate killing of civilians is not a moral question – or that torture is not a moral question – he has a strange understanding of morality.
Amnesty International, London WC1
I was interested in Helen Irving’s comments about the British treatment of women who were ‘natural-born British subjects’ – the language comes from the relevant legislation – and who married aliens (Letters, 16 July). She states that such women were ‘stripped’ of their citizenship and that this practice operated ‘without exception or discretion’. I know of two married women who were British subjects and who married aliens, acquiring the nationality of their husbands, but who were entitled through a procedure provided for by law to resume their British nationality. One was my mother and the other was a close friend of hers.
I have in front of me the certificate of naturalisation granted on 7 August 1941 to my mother in which the secretary of state declares that upon taking the Oath of Allegiance she shall be entitled to all political and other rights, powers and privileges, ‘and have to all intents and purposes the status of a natural-born British subject’. My mother swore the oath on 27 August 1941 and was registered by the Home Office on 13 September. It is worth pointing out that the legislation also provided that the wife of a British subject was deemed to be a British subject.
Helen Irving refers to the international repudiation of gender-based marital denaturalisation in the UN’s Convention on the Nationality of Married Women of 1957. That news took a while to reach southern Africa. Under the citizenship law of revolutionary Mozambique from independence in 1975 until the adoption of a new constitution in 1990, women who married foreigners lost their citizenship the moment they said ‘I do.’ Similarly, under the 1984 citizenship law of Botswana, only fathers could transmit their citizenship to their children, so the offspring of Motswana women married to foreigners were denaturalised even if they were born in the country. That provision was eventually overturned by the Court of Appeal in 1992, with the government arguing that ‘discrimination on grounds of sex must be permitted in Botswana’ because it was customary.
University of Cape Town
Slavoj Žižek concludes that the socialism with Chinese characteristics that the Communist Party has developed in China is in fact ‘capitalism without class struggle’ (LRB, 16 July). The problem is, as Russia discovered some decades ago, that without class conflict capitalism will not develop sufficiently to be competitive on a world scale. Hence, quite possibly, the current crisis in the Chinese economy.
‘Philosophy, like physics, is one of the great sciences of reality,’ Galen Strawson writes (LRB, 18 June). Well, so is biology. And it isn’t true, as Strawson says, that ‘in everyday life the atoms constituting one’s brain (in particular one’s neurons) are constantly being replaced in processes of cell repair. It may be that one’s brain today has almost no matter in common with one’s brain six months ago.’ Neurons cannot repair themselves: if they could, paraplegia would be reversible. Some of the atoms in them change constantly because of processes such as membrane transport and respiration, but most of the atoms in your neurons are there for life.
I imagine that David Swift and Owen Hatherley are somewhat younger than I am (Letters, 16 July). Like all right-thinking eight-year-olds in Exmouth I hastened to join the Vermin Club. I think the subscription was five shillings to become an ordinary Vermin. The plastic badge was a sort of greyish blue newt in a tail coat and top hat (why the Conservatives had it in for newts wasn’t made clear). If you recruited more members you could become a Vile Vermin or even a Very Vile Vermin.I never progressed beyond Vermin grade and finally fell out with the party after 1979.
Anyone hoping to get a chance to admire the reconstructed gasometer at King’s Cross as it appears in Colin O’Brien’s photographs will be disappointed: the sight of the grade II-listed structure against the skyline has been preserved only for those who will live in the flats being built around it (LRB, 2 July). After being dismantled at its original site, Gasometer 8 was taken to Yorkshire for ‘painstaking restoration’ and rebuilt in front of the new Plimsoll apartment complex. Its central lawn will provide a ‘unique destination for events’. The new flats, which will be finished this autumn, encircle it so closely that viewed from the canal the columns and lattice all but disappear. Gasometers 10, 11 and 12 are due to be rebuilt alongside – as the outer framework for more ‘canalside apartments’ with ‘fantastic views’. Modern preservation equals a ‘unique residential opportunity’.