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Letters

Vol. 38 No. 9 · 5 May 2016

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Crisis in Brazil

Perry Anderson’s generally well-informed essay on Brazil suffers from his strong ideological bias (LRB, 21 April). I will restrict my comments to the events he describes that involved me.

All evidence of the wrongful use of public funds or of undue influence on the part of Petrobras during my time in government was sent to the Ministério Público for the attention of the public prosecutor.

The sole proven instance of unacceptable use of funds to pay congressmen – to support a bill allowing re-election to executive office – resulted in the prosecution of four members of parliament, who were forced to resign. Neither I nor my party was involved in that case.

It is nonsense to say that my presidential campaigns cost more than Bill Clinton’s. My last campaign, in 1998, cost 44 million reais. It is also incorrect to say that the evangelical right supported me in particular. They may have voted, in the course of events, for one or another of my government’s projects, but they heavily supported the Workers’ Party until they recently broke with Dilma Rousseff’s government.

To describe Senator Delcídio do Amaral as ‘a transfuge from the PSDB, where he was a stalwart of Cardoso’s party in the machinery of Petrobras’ is misleading. Delcídio was appointed director of gas and oil at Petrobras in 1998 by my administration, under the patronage of the PMDB, and stayed until 2001. He joined the Workers’ Party that year, was elected to the Senate in 2002, and has been re-elected ever since as a cadre of the Workers’ Party. He was the leader of the Senate (chosen by President Dilma at the beginning of 2015) when he was arrested last November.

Finally, it is regrettable that someone who has known me for more than fifty years should give voice to the allegations of a lady whose son, according to two DNA tests, is not mine (though I have always shouldered the cost of his education) without stating that she herself retracted the tale she concocted.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso
São Paulo

What is money?

The effectiveness of cryptography depends, John Lanchester writes, on the fact that ‘there is no way’ of breaking very large numbers down into factors ‘other than by trying every smaller number and seeing if it fits’ (LRB, 21 April). In fact, all cryptographic questions are questions of computational complexity: the number of resources required to solve a problem grows as the size of the problem grows. The best-known method of factoring integers necessitates a lot of time (an exponentially increasing amount of time) to execute as the size of the integer grows. But there is no mathematical theorem that says no algorithm can do better: we don’t know that ‘there is no way’ of doing it more efficiently. Furthermore, all the underlying assumptions of ‘hardness’ and ‘impossibility’ on which modern cryptography is based are unproven (though widely believed) open conjectures. Tomorrow it could conceivably be announced that every modern cryptographic system has been broken because of a single mathematician’s new insight. To be sure, there are provably unbreakable forms of encryption (some were even used successfully during the Second World War), but credit card transactions, internet traffic and bitcoin do not use them.

One might argue that this fact about cryptography – that there are so few facts – accentuates Lanchester’s point that ‘to believe in bitcoin’, you have to take the underlying mathematics ‘on trust’. Not only do you have to trust in mathematics you don’t understand, you’re also trusting in mathematics that has the possibility of being false.

Jeremy Kun
University of Illinois, Chicago

The value of money, John Lanchester writes, rests on our belief in its value. I’d say that it rests, rather, on our belief that others will accept it. For example, I may knowingly accept a fake coin, albeit at a discount, if I think that everybody else will think it genuine. On the other hand, I may be reluctant to accept a Scottish banknote, though I know it to be legal tender, if I expect others to be leery of it. In fact whenever notes and coins cease to be acceptable – as in hyperinflation – they cease to be money, however official the fiat; whereas there have been many times and places in which formally illegal US dollars have been very good money.

Jonathan Harlow
Bristol

Unfair to Merkel

Wolfgang Streeck attacks the German leadership of the EU and the Eurozone (LRB, 31 March). There is little in his critique that Germany’s second most powerful woman, Frauke Petry, leader of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland, would find to disagree with. Yes, Merkel changed her mind about neoliberal economics. She entered the pivotal 2005 election on a radical pro-business manifesto and with a 30 per cent lead in the polls, but on election day Gerhard Schröder’s SPD very nearly overtook her CDU/CSU alliance. She respected the verdict of the voters and governed from the left of centre at the head of a grand coalition of the two biggest parties and was rewarded in 2009, when the SPD lost votes. Her decision in 2011 that Germany would get out of nuclear power was again a response to the general mood after the Fukushima disaster in Japan. Her third great turn, when faced with the biggest humanitarian crisis in Europe since 1945, was to announce suddenly, seemingly impulsively, that refugees from Syria automatically qualified for asylum. This has further transformed the landscape of German electoral politics, marginalising the left, disconcerting traditional conservatives but retaining majority support in Germany. In contrast, the UK government pays for ever higher barbed-wire fences around road and rail links to Calais to discourage desperate people from attempting to smuggle themselves across the Channel.

Insofar as the refugee crisis is caused by the activities of Islamic State, which is a product of the American-British invasion of Iraq in 2003, it was not caused by the EU or by Germany. On the contrary, Schröder took a lead in opposing that war, just as Merkel is leading in allaying the excesses of its long aftermath. If this is what German leadership of the EU looks like in the 21st century, I think we can all live with it.

Julian Preece
Swansea University

Lumpers v. Splitters

Ferdinand Mount credits Charles Darwin with the first recorded appearance of the distinction between lumpers and splitters (LRB, 31 March). Actually he wasn’t the first, even in the Darwin correspondence: the botanist Hewett Cottrell Watson (1804-81) used the terms in a letter to Darwin in 1855. The terms appear to have originated in 19th-century British botany, but the first use of the two together seems to date from 1845, when Edward Newman (1801-76), editor of the Phytologist, wrote: ‘The talents described under the respective names of “hair-splitting" and “lumping" are unquestionably yielding their power to the mightier power of Truth.’

Glenn Branch
National Center for Science Education
Oakland, California

‘The East India Company banned Christian missionaries from operating in the subcontinent,’ Ferdinand Mount writes. ‘All the same, millions of Indians continued to believe that Christianisation and the destruction of their caste were part of the long-term plan.’ Impelled by the evangelical lobby, Parliament forced the East India Company to admit Christian missionaries to India under licence in 1813. Missionaries quickly became very active in the country. Twenty years later even the right to control them by licence was removed, and Parliament gave Indian Christians the same civil and employment rights as Hindus and Muslims. The fear that Christianisation was part of the plan was by no means unfounded.

James Fanning
Greifswald, Germany

Representation of the People

Peter Clarke discusses the hidden role of the household in the history of Britain’s franchise (Letters, 31 March). In the 18th century there were a few ‘open’ constituencies with extensive householder electorates where the right to vote was vested not in house-owners but in all rate-paying tenants. The best-known example was the City of Westminster, where gentlemen voters rubbed shoulders not only with ‘middling sort’ tradesmen and artisans but also with propertyless journeymen, labourers and servants. Women (even if rate-payers) were excluded from voting by custom but were deemed to be ‘virtually’ represented by their heads of household. This proto-democratic experience, however partial, was a prelude to 19th-century franchise reform. Lord Macaulay invoked the good example of Westminster when reassuring the conservatives in 1832 that it was safe to risk extending the electorate: ‘Experience, I say, is on our side.’

The household continued to have a hidden role even after the introduction of the full adult franchise in 1928. The electoral register was compiled following requests to all heads of households to supply the names of all qualified persons. Only in 2009 did Parliament decide to switch to a new system of individual electoral registration, entirely bypassing the household. Paradoxically, the first result has been to shrink the size of the electorate, especially in constituencies with many young potential voters. Until the registration system becomes really effective – and, it might be added, until voters really want to vote – ‘true’ democracy remains a work in progress.

Penelope Corfield
Royal Holloway, University of London

The New York School

Jenni Quilter writes that John Bernard Myers ‘began to refer to a “New York School of Poets"’ (LRB, 21 April). In his introduction to the anthology The Poets of the New York School (1969), Myers wrote: ‘I have not called these writers “The New York School of Poets", but have deliberately refrained from so defining them because, properly speaking, they do not constitute a “school of poets" in the old-fashioned sense.’ He went on to explain that the ‘Poets of the New York School’ were so called, not because they formed a homogenous group, but because they shared an involvement with the ‘plastic arts’ of the New York School of painting and sculpture. ‘For the poets included in this book there was no resisting the pull which these artists exerted.’

Paul Feldwick
Frome, Somerset

Jenni Quilter names several of the interesting women painters in New York during the 1950s and 1960s but makes no mention of Dorothy Heller, whom Clement Greenberg, no less, reportedly called the finest woman painter in America. Heller was also among those showing at Tibor de Nagy in those years, but she fell out with the gallery and moved, first to Pointdexter and then, more importantly, to the Betty Parsons Gallery.

However, this relationship also seems to have ended badly, and although Heller continued to live and work in New York she had become almost completely estranged from the art scene by the time of her death a decade or so ago. The considerable body of work she achieved is as powerful and profound as that of any of her better-remembered peers and should urge us to consider whether Clement Greenberg may have right – he often was.

David Hass
London NW3

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