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Letters

Vol. 37 No. 24 · 17 December 2015

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What about Ireland?

David Runciman’s review of the second volume of Charles Moore’s biography of Margaret Thatcher was as striking for what was not discussed as for what was (LRB, 3 December). He overlooks the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, which was the most significant political development in the decade and a half of the Troubles. Despite the Brighton bomb of the year before, Thatcher signed the Agreement with the then taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, for the first time allowing Dublin to have some limited input in the governance of Northern Ireland.

This lack of interest in Ireland, north or south, was noticeable in reviews of Moore’s first volume, which covered the period of the hunger strikes and the resulting revitalisation of the IRA. The absence of any interest in Northern Ireland is now a marked characteristic of British commentators and academics writing in the public sphere. The LRB is no exception. In his review of May’s general election, Ross McKibbin confined himself to the remark: ‘As ever, Northern Ireland went its own way’ (LRB, 4 June).

Bob Osborne
Belfast

Magical Thinking about Isis

Adam Shatz presents as ‘fact’ the notion that 70 per cent of France’s prison population is Muslim (LRB, 3 December). There can be little doubt that Muslims are over-represented in the prison population compared to the population at large, but the figure of 70 per cent is highly contentious and almost certainly wrong. The Gatestone Institute, a New York-based think tank on Muslim affairs whose board of governors is chaired by the neocon John Bolton, estimates that ‘more than half of the inmates in French prisons are believed to be Muslim, rising to 70 per cent in some urban areas.’ In January, after the Charlie Hebdo killings, the centre-right deputy Georges Fenech asserted that ‘roughly 60 per cent’ of the French prison population was Muslim; he cited a parliamentary report which said that this figure represented the proportion of prison inmates who ‘may be considered to be of Muslim religion or culture’. These figures appear to derive from a survey published in 2004 by the Franco-Iranian sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar, L’Islam dans les prisons. The sample on which he based his findings comprised 160 inmates of four penal institutions in areas around Paris and in northern France, where there are high concentrations of residents of Muslim ancestry. He concluded that the proportion of Muslims in these institutions varied ‘between 50 and 80 per cent’. However the reliability of his sampling has been disputed.

The French administration as a matter of principle does not break down population data by race or religion. The precise number of prison inmates of Muslim religion or culture (not the same thing) will never be known. The only relevant official data come from a report by the prison administration in 2013 to the effect that out of a total of 67,000 inmates, 18,300 – 27 per cent – had registered as wishing to observe the dietary customs prescribed for the month of Ramadan.

Bernard Besserglik
Paris, France

‘Before the Lebanese civil war,’ Adam Shatz writes, ‘Beirut was known as the Paris of the Middle East. Today, Paris looks more and more like the Beirut of Western Europe.’ Perhaps the more cautious view on that point expressed by Patrick Cockburn in CounterPunch on 16 November is preferable: ‘The violence experienced hitherto in Paris is not comparable with Belfast and Beirut in the 1970s or Damascus and Baghdad today. Contrary to the hyperbole of wall-to-wall television coverage, the shock of living in a city being bombed soon wears off.’ Cockburn also draws attention to the possibility that instead of the atrocities acting as an incentive for effective action, the angry words may become a substitute for a real policy. On that point he and Shatz agree.

Those interested in the history of Northern Ireland – Belfast was often ‘twinned’ with Beirut by commentators from the mid-1970s onwards – will be familiar with the phrase ‘politics of the last atrocity’, coined by Erskine Holmes, chair of the Northern Ireland Labour Party. Holmes was taking Conor Cruise O’Brien to task for some of the things he said in the immediate aftermath of Bloody Sunday in January 1972, among them that British troops should withdraw from Northern Ireland and that civil war was imminent. The Provisional IRA took up the phrase in describing responses to terrorism which didn’t address the reasons behind it and didn’t look for a strategic way forward.

The pieces by Shatz and Cockburn show that this is still to a large extent the approach of the main actors, as evidenced by Obama’s ‘red lines’, or Hollande’s ‘Nous sommes dans la guerre.’ One can only hope that some sort of impetus can be generated in the Vienna talks of the kind which produced the Taif Agreement for Lebanon in 1989.

James Grainger
Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire

Adam Shatz gives a good account of the French reaction to the recent outrages from a Parisian perspective, both in terms of national politics and in terms of the reactions of Parisians on the spot. The view from the depths of the countryside is somewhat different. In particular, I think he has the wrong idea about the function of laïcité in French life. It is, he says, something that ‘many feel is code for keeping Muslims in their place’. If he is talking about the feelings of French Muslims, a few of them may feel that way: but many of them also feel that France is run by Jews, that Charlie Hebdo was attacked by the CIA, and so on. I doubt if many non-Muslim French people feel that way, anyway.

La laïcité clearly exists to keep not Islam but the Catholic Church in its place. Hilaire Belloc argued in an idiosyncratic but learned study of Cardinal Richelieu that modern France is the product of a religious rather than a strictly political project (specifically, an attempt to keep the French church separate from a Habsburg-dominated Vatican). Napoleon actually imprisoned Pope Pius VII during lengthy manoeuvres to see who would be master. The compromise that has been found to prevent similar conflicts of interest arising in more recent times is twofold: on the one hand, there are institutional measures to separate church and state, as in other countries, and on the other there is a broad social taboo on the discussion of religion in public. From kindergarten on, French children have it drummed into them that religion is a private matter, something not to be discussed in the large area of French life that is in one way or another connected with the state.

With these latest attacks (it didn’t happen with Charlie Hebdo), the taboo on talking about religion appears to have been broken. Islam is suddenly being discussed. I don’t know whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. The level of discussion may not be very elevated – but it is a significant psychological change.

Christopher Lord
Jours-en-Vaux, France

Where to Put the Scherzo

I hesitate to disagree with my brother, David Matthews, about the order of the middle movements of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, but we have long held opposing views, mine being that the scherzo should come third (Letters, 3 December). I believe there are equally strong arguments for this sequence, both in terms of tonality – two movements following each other in the same key (even if the first movement ends in the major) is unprecedented for Mahler – and of narrative: the andante is, to my mind, more properly seen as an interlude in the relentlessly downward progress of the symphony when placed second.

But the real reason for the disagreement is that the order of the movements only ever came into dispute because of the meddling of the obsessive Mahler editor Erwin Ratz, who, when he oversaw the publication of the Complete Edition in 1963, fabricated other reasons than the telegram from Alma (also an obsessively unreliable source) in order to have the score revert to the order in which Mahler originally composed and published the symphony. The power of the printed note has meant that many conductors have subsequently followed this edition without questioning it. Yet Mahler had had the score immediately republished in the order in which he first performed it and followed in his two subsequent performances – quite something to ask of the publisher if he still had doubts about the order.

My brother is of course correct to say that Mahler had a superstitious fear of the symphony, but to my mind the change of order of the middle movements was made for purely musical reasons: there are several instances of Mahler changing his mind about the placing of movements in other symphonies. We have no reason to think that he ever had any second (or, more accurately, third) thoughts; and to perform the movements in other than the order in which he performed them himself is no more justifiable than my fanciful thought that the Ninth Symphony would convey a completely different and possibly compelling narrative were the third and fourth movements to be reversed. And Mahler never heard that symphony.

Colin Matthews
London SW11

Before I Get to Me

Theo Tait notes Adam Sisman’s warning that David Cornwell is prone to ‘false memory’ in his recollections (LRB, 3 December). I can correct the record on one point. Sisman mentions that Cornwell received a letter from a Colonel Smiley, inquiring what had made him choose the name ‘Smiley’ for his most famous character. In the case of another character, Cornwell recalls, ‘I embarrassed myself by stealing [the] name from the New Statesman (Roy Bland, their writer on East European educational affairs). He wrote to me very sweetly, rather than suing me, and wished me luck.’

In fact, I am the ‘Roy Bland’ Cornwell remembers, but I was merely a reader of the New Statesman, not a journalist. In May 1974 the Statesman published a letter from me, which Cornwell saw, about comprehensive education. A few days later, prior to the publication that July of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I received in the post an inscribed copy of the book with a letter from Cornwell. The inscription read ‘John le Carré for Roy Bland … with apologies!’ for ‘unwittingly appropriating’ my name. In the letter he explained that he had ‘hit’ on my ‘honourable’ name some years earlier while in Greece – ‘the two monosyllables touched me somehow’ – and had stored the name in his card index. He wondered if there were any similarities between me and the ‘Roy Bland’ in his book. He was also struck by the coincidence that we were living close by, he in St Buryan, Penzance, I in St Ives.

It never occurred to me to sue. My only complaint is that when I now Google ‘Roy Bland’, I have to wade through acres of references to John le Carré’s character before I get to me.

Roy Bland
Penzance

Bantu in the Bathroom

From a philosophical point of view, the errors in Judge Masipa’s reasoning about Oscar Pistorius have less to do with auxiliary verbs, as Jacqueline Rose suggests, than with the nature of intentionality, the peculiar way states of mind are directed towards their objects (LRB, 19 November). I see my friend Kaya walking towards me across the quadrangle. ‘No, wait, it isn’t her after all,’ I realise, as she draws nearer. Whom then did I see? Following Elizabeth Anscombe, we may say I saw someone else under the description ‘my friend Kaya’. There are in a manner of speaking two objects here, each of which may be called the object of my sight. But remove the qualifier ‘under the description’ and it is now a little strange to say that I saw my friend Kaya. We would be more likely to say: ‘I thought I saw her, but in fact got sight of someone else.’ Some of our inquiries into mental states are sensitive to their intentionality, this doubleness of objects, and others aren’t. The case at hand is one in which the specific descriptions under which the world appears to us don’t matter. No matter whom I thought I saw across the quad, I got sight of someone.

Everyone is agreed that Pistorius fired his gun at the person behind the door. His thoughts about who was behind the door – Reeva Steenkamp or an intruder – are entirely irrelevant to the question, ‘Could he reasonably have foreseen that the shots fired could kill the person behind the door?’ Despite appearances, this is a question about the firing and how deliberate it was, not a question about what was going through his mind. As we know from experience, we can do many things deliberately without having any particular thoughts about them. And just as I might be inclined to wave if I see my friend Kaya across the quadrangle, even if it isn’t Kaya that I see, any adult with the motor skill to aim and shoot a gun four times at close range is inclined to find his target dead on the floor, even if it isn’t who they expect it to be.

Dhananjay Jagannathan
University of Chicago

For No Other Reason

Does Thomas Chatterton Williams really think that the key to analysing black subordination in America today is to recognise more centrally the role of African American ‘agency’ in the production of its own subjugation (LRB, 3 December)? How exactly would this contribute to our understanding of the obscene racial disparities in American criminal justice statistics? Or to an appreciation of the limitless violability of black lives, of which the headline shootings are only the worst example?

‘Racism’ or ‘white supremacy’ – they can be used interchangeably, though the latter more precisely captures its historical specificity in the US – are more than the sum of individual choices by nasty people: they are the product of a long genealogy of violence, which conditions and constrains the very meaning of black ‘agency’. As James Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time, ‘You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason.’

Shahaan Ansari
Surbiton

Which is it?

Pankaj Mishra complains that my book Liberalism: The Life of an Idea is ‘indifferent to mankind’s many other conversations with itself, especially those held outside the West’ (LRB, 3 December). Those conversations, often critical of the West, were presumably some of them liberal in character and some of them not. Those that weren’t hardly belong in a history of liberalism. Of those that were liberal in character, it’s worth asking if they hadn’t counterpart conversations among self-critical Western liberals. And, of course, they had.

As Mishra shows in convincing detail, liberal argument outside the West formed a subtler, more complex picture of liberalism than commonly on offer. Among its themes were these. Liberals needn’t be doctrinal individualists; liberalism wasn’t just about liberty and rights but about social progress and state-building; liberalism was tangled at root with imperialism; liberalism wasn’t in itself democratic and inclusive but could be narrow and exclusive – and until the mid-20th century often was. All good points. But what is non-Western about them? As noted passim in my book, similar points were all made equally by Western liberals of a kind who didn’t fit what has become an easy, unhistorical caricature.

Mishra is quite right that liberalism can’t be confined to the West. At the same time, he seems to take it for a discredited Western provincialism now approaching its end. Which is it?

Edmund Fawcett
London SW5

Pankaj Mishra is right that liberalism played a role in Japanese imperialism in Asia before 1945. But after the war the pacifist movement that repeatedly brought hundreds of thousands out in the streets of Tokyo to keep Japan demilitarised throughout the Cold War, against the wishes of the US, was led by liberals like Maruyama Masao.

Kiri Paramore
Leiden University, Netherlands

Was he pushed?

Ferdinand Mount states that William Ormsby-Gore, the colonial secretary in Neville Chamberlain’s government, ‘resigned’ in May 1938 because he disagreed with the cabinet’s policy on Palestine (LRB, 22 October). Maurice Cowling, in his definitive book on British politics in the 1930s, The Impact of Hitler, said that Chamberlain pushed Ormsby-Gore out of the cabinet because of his close family ties with such opponents of Appeasement as Lord Salisbury (Ormsby-Gore’s father-in-law) and Lord Cranborne (his brother-in-law). Disagreements over Palestine hardly entered into the matter.

Charles Coutinho
New York

Over and under a Donkey

Gavin Francis mentions that as late as the Tudor period, a cure for whooping cough was to pass the coughing child over and under a braying donkey (LRB, 19 November). In the course of research into modern day carers’ beliefs about pneumonia, I came across a similar practice in Peru. When mothers were asked what they would do if they thought their child had pneumonia, 3.2 per cent of respondents (16 mothers) stated they would pass a rabbit over their child. It would be interesting to know whether this therapeutic strategy evolved independently, or was imported as part of a package of ‘Western medicine’, presumably alongside other practices related to the new European imports of smallpox or measles.

Thomas Williams
University of Edinburgh

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