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Letters

Vol. 38 No. 20 · 20 October 2016

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A Bed for Fifty

Raoul Vaneigem’s impressionistic piece about Hieronymus Bosch overlooks an important point: a 15th-century artist did not paint a four by two metre triptych to express his own ideas or intellectual interests (LRB, 8 September). He did it because someone had commissioned the work and paid for it, and that patron largely dictated the content of the piece. The triptych known to us as The Garden of Earthly Delights is first documented in 1517, one year after Bosch’s death, as being in the possession of Count Hendrik III of Nassau, in his palace in Brussels. Depending on the date of the triptych (scholarly opinion varies between roughly 1490 and 1505), it would have been commissioned either by Hendrik himself or by his uncle and predecessor Engelbert II: that is, by rich, erudite aristocrats from the inner circle of the Burgundian court, who collected works of art, read widely, held extravagant parties (in the same palace where the Garden hung there was also a bed large enough for fifty guests), and could afford to flirt with heretical or otherwise fringe ideas. Other works by Bosch feature more conventional Christian themes: scenes from the life of Christ, saints resisting temptation, the punishment of sin. Presumably the artist’s other patrons favoured those. Bosch’s unparalleled imagination in executing all those commissions was of course his own; but it is a mistake, I think, to assume we can know much about what was going on in his head.

Marta Uminska
Warsaw

What are we allowed to say?

David Bromwich’s essay on free speech contains several misreadings of my book Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World (LRB, 22 September). He suggests, by way of Isaiah Berlin, that I countenance a veto-claim to take offence on the basis of identity politics, whereas in fact I explicitly and emphatically reject it, calling it ‘the “I’m offended" veto’. He then suggests that I endorse trigger warnings like the one proposed by students at Columbia on, wait for it, Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The context makes it absolutely clear that I’m pointing to that student proposal and its ludicrous justification negatively, as the unacceptable ‘campus versions of the subjective, individual “I’m offended" veto and the heckler’s veto’. After mentioning a few more instances, I write: ‘Some of these examples are so silly it is almost too easy to pick them off.’ Indeed, a reviewer in the New York Review of Books actually chided me for being too dismissive of this nonsense.

On ‘the subject of hate speech’, Bromwich only cites me as quoting, with what he calls ‘a mild demur’, an unsubstantiated claim by two critical race theorists about the short-term physical harms caused by hate speech. But once again, quotation obviously does not imply endorsement, and this comes in an early section of the book where I firmly dismiss the arguments for an offensiveness veto. It’s not clear that Bromwich even got to my subsequent chapter on hate speech where, having summarised the arguments made for hate speech bans, I spell out my own position in a section headed ‘Why Mature Democracies Should Move beyond Hate Speech Laws’.

The cumulative effect of these misreadings is to suggest that I’m somehow complicit in the kind of lily-livered indulgence of identity-based offensiveness vetoes and expansive hate speech bans which in fact I repeatedly and robustly criticise.

Timothy Garton Ash
Stanford, California

David Bromwich worries about the coddling of students on American university campuses. But he makes his case too easy for himself by downplaying the underlying causes of their disgruntlement. Yale, where Bromwich teaches and where I was an undergraduate, remains one of the most racially segregated places I’ve ever spent time in. On the whole, in the dining halls, and in the classrooms too, white kids hung out with white kids, and black kids hung out with black kids. There was a general presumption among white students that their black peers were there only because of affirmative action. (White students tend not to grasp that they are the ones benefiting most from affirmative action: if it was all just a matter of test scores, the place would be filled with East and South Asians.) I once watched a fellow undergraduate, a black woman, speak off the cuff in a debate. She was (and still is) extraordinarily eloquent. The white boy next to me (a near stranger) leaned in and whispered: ‘I wasn’t expecting that.’ Bromwich may think that what is sometimes called ‘safety’ comes at too high a cost to freedom – and he may be right – but what he dismisses as ‘identity politics’ is often simply a demand for community membership on equal terms.

Amia Srinivasan
University College London

David Bromwich moves lightly over one aspect of free speech I find important: my right to be offended by the protected speech of others. I grew up during the late 1930s and early 1940s on New York’s Upper West Side, then occupied largely by middle-class Jews and known as the Gilded Ghetto. We were surrounded by other ethnic enclaves, most of them hostile if only because in general we were better off. It was the time of Father Charles Edward Coughlin, who liked to use the medium of radio to issue anti-Semitic propaganda. When several New York City radio stations refused to allow Coughlin on the air, his followers took up the task. We Jewish kids understood very well what was going on, if only because we were occasionally beaten up for being ‘kikes’. This education, however unpleasant, was important because early on it gave me and my pals an idea of what went on in America beyond the Gilded Ghetto. Attempts to shut Coughlin up on the usual grounds were in effect inadvertent calls to deprive us of useful knowledge.

Donald Mintz
Trumansburg, New York

Towards the end of his essay on the complexities of ‘free speech’, David Bromwich glosses over a number of practicalities. The views censored as ‘offensive’, ‘divisive’ and ‘unpleasant’ on many American campuses today are often little more than moderately conservative opinions. These views typically involve different ideas about capital markets, affirmative action, Israel and the Palestinians, English literature, the nature of inequality and so forth. Attempts at the suppression of these views have owed less to multiculturalism and globalisation, as Bromwich suggests, than to the disappearance of a conservative or libertarian opposition to the left and its reigning ideologies, especially where race, culture, gender and class are concerned. Those ideologies, virtually unopposed, and the effect they have had in polarising American society, have been a long time coming, to be sure. But a healthier climate for political debate on our campuses hardly seems possible without the flourishing of a political opposition among faculty members in the humanities and social sciences. This is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Pieter van den Toorn
Novato, California

As an example of the current smothering of free speech in the academy, David Bromwich quotes the chancellor of UC Berkeley speaking on the fiftieth anniversary of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement:

When issues are inherently divisive, controversial and capable of arousing strong feelings, the commitment to free speech and expression can lead to division and divisiveness that undermine a community’s foundation … We can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so, and this in turn requires that people treat each other with civility.

‘Reduced to a practical directive,’ Bromwich remarks, this says: ‘Indulge in free speech if you must; but please avoid issues that are controversial; and if you do address such issues, don’t sound as if you care about them intensely.’ It makes me wonder if Bromwich feels so oppressed by the current straitjacketing of public speech on campus that when he sees the word ‘civility’ he immediately hears ‘censorship’.

I think we need to remember that civility and candour can co-exist. It isn’t a choice between stultifying self-censorship on the one hand, and the mindless food-fight that passes for debate among politicians and much of the media on the other. To be civil is not to be mealy-mouthed or bland; it is not to avoid controversy. It is to remember that we are always trying to communicate with fellow human beings, fellow citizens, about things that matter.

David Hall
Saint Paul, Minnesota

The German War

Carla Wartenberg writes that what she and her countrymen knew of the treatment of Jews by the Nazis ‘did not lie beyond the bounds of ordinary human experience’, thus making the wholesale murder of Jews ‘beyond the imagining of most ordinary Germans’ (Letters, 22 September). Is it to validate this picture of supposed normalcy that she relates that on 3 January 1943 ‘two polite, nondescript German officials came for [her] Jewish grandmother’? If so, the effect, chilling and macabre, is hardly what she intended. Although the language she uses could just as well be describing two courteous gallants arriving to escort a young woman to a dance, in fact it records the moment an old woman in poor health was forced to leave her home to be deported to a concentration camp. This antiseptic portrayal of Nazi officers going about their everyday tasks inadvertently shows how the actuality of the Final Solution could be distanced, made palatable, or normalised by ‘ordinary’ Germans intent on not seeing or understanding what was happening around them.

My argument here is that too often we have recourse to an impoverished conception of knowledge when we attempt to answer the question of what the Germans knew about the mass murder of Jews. On the strength of this conception, Wartenberg can present an entirely plausible case for her countrymen ‘not knowing’ or, rather, for their ‘knowing’ about certain things (Kristallnacht, for example) but ‘not knowing’ about others (i.e. the death camps). But barbarism doesn’t suddenly spring up out of nowhere; it gradually (or not so gradually) intensifies in stages, often alongside what is taken to be civilised behaviour. There is of course a difference between the events of Kristallnacht and the atrocities of Auschwitz, but they share a kinship in the context of the unceasing dissemination of anti-Semitic propaganda by the Nazis. The Final Solution may not have been an inevitable outcome of this racist ideology but it should certainly have been conceivable to any German who cared enough to worry about the fate of the Jewish neighbours he saw disappearing on a daily basis. For the ‘ordinary’ Germans invoked by Wartenberg, however, it is difficult to imagine what evidence could have convinced them of the Final Solution, short of Hitler himself knocking on their door to announce the fact.

Such wilful blindness is not unique to wartime Germany. Current instances include Americans’ unwillingness to confront the growing civilian death toll caused by US drone attacks in conveniently distant lands, or Tel Aviv residents’ shielding themselves from knowledge of atrocities taking place in the Occupied Territories.

Carole Fabricant
Santa Monica, California

Compendium of Clichés

Adam Mars-Jones writes of John Updike: ‘His Polonius uses the phrase “neither a borrower nor a lender be" as if it were already a cliché, rather than a formula that Shakespeare sent on its way into the dictionaries of quotations’ (LRB, 6 October). Actually, it was already a cliché when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. The first quarto, which only came to light early in the 19th century, encloses most of Polonius’s statements inside quote marks. These aphorisms and saws do not contain the wisdom of the ages, but are merely the worldly commonplaces that dullards like Polonius had been spouting since time immemorial. The audience presumably recognised most of the phrases, and laughed at the old fool who was retailing them as if freshly coined out of his own brain. (It should shame us that so many took this compendium of truisms to be a summation of wisdom. Looked at closely, most of what is said by Polonius is a recommendation to be selfishly expedient. Even ‘to thine own self be true’ is compromised if your self resembles Polonius’s self.)

Stephen Kennamer
Fort Defiance, Virginia

What Rome Means

In claiming that Rome ‘took its name from the Greek word for strength’ T.P. Wiseman has an illustrious predecessor in Plutarch, who mentions this as one of a long list of possible etymologies; his favourite seems to be that Rome derives from a word for the ‘teat’ of the she-wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus (LRB, 22 September). All, however, are equally wrong: the name may be from an Indo-European root meaning ‘flow’ (making it cognate with English ‘stream’; the ancient name of the Tiber was Rumon), or it may be Etruscan.

Tom Recht
Berkeley, California

Killed by Tigers

Recent correspondence about tigers in India, following Katherine Rundell’s discussion of Saki, reminded me of my favourite Indian tiger tale (Letters, 6 October). It comes from James Pope-Hennessy’s official biography of Queen Mary. In India for the Durbar of 1911, while her husband was elsewhere, the queen was taken on a tiger shoot by Lord Shaftesbury: ‘Lord Shaftesbury has described how … it was Queen Mary who saw the tiger before anyone else did. She was sitting in the tree-hut, knitting, and suddenly remarked, pointing to the jungle with one of her knitting needles: “Look, Lord Shaftesbury, a tiger." For some seconds, on the principle perhaps that a cat may look at a king, the animal stood transfixed, glaring with its green eyes at Queen Mary, who returned the steady gaze. The animal then disappeared into the undergrowth before Lord Shaftesbury had time to take aim.’

Andrew Wilton
Chislehurst

No Broguing

Charming as Marina Warner’s story is, the shoes photographed for her essay are not brogues (LRB, 6 October). There is no broguing on them. The shoe pictured is most usually called an Oxford or, depending on one’s origin, a Derby.

Baer Pettit
London N5

Marina Warner’s lexical pyrotechnics make her mother come alive on the page with a rare vitality and gracefulness. Still, judging from her photographs, the young beauty from Bari must have found her husband’s no doubt well-intentioned gift of the kind of footwear invariably described as ‘sensible’ a bit hard to swallow. As for her accent, one hopes that, whether husky or lilting, it was more in the nature of the sun-drenched than the mist-mumbled. After all, her ancestors lived in stone or brick houses and went about in sandals at a time when the people in her husband’s part of the world were still living in mud huts and rawhide.

Michael Taylor
Savignac-les-Eglises, France

Unfair to Geneticists

According to Steven Rose, classical genetics views development as ‘little more than the carrying out of a molecular program embedded in the genes’ (LRB, 8 September). In fact, one of the creators of 20th-century genetics, Thomas Hunt Morgan, was a distinguished developmental biologist. Sewall Wright, a founding father of the Modern Synthesis, which Rose discusses in a rather dismissive fashion, devoted much of his time to studying the role of genetic factors in controlling mammalian development and coat colour, including the role of interactions among different genes, and the fact that a single gene can affect several different traits. In an article from 1934, Wright wrote:

The present states of knowledge of embryology and physiology impose certain limits on speculation. We are sure, for example, that development is an epigenetic process. The genes cannot stand in the simple one to one relation to morphological characters of a preformationist theory … Each character is affected by many genes and each gene affects many characters.

Together with R.A. Fisher, Wright developed the mathematical theory of the control of complex traits (such as body size) by the joint influences of non-genetic factors (including effects of the maternal environment) and of variants in many different genes. This theory has been repeatedly tested and supported by genetic experiments, and forms the basis of contemporary ‘genome-wide association studies’, which are identifying the genetic factors underlying many human diseases. More than seventy years before the publication of the first paper on the Human Genome Project in 2001, it was well understood by researchers in evolutionary biology and genetics that there is no such thing as a ‘gene for’ a given trait.

Rose emphasises the importance for biology of understanding development, but doesn’t mention that since the 1980s a detailed understanding of development has emerged from application of the methods of modern genetics and molecular biology to the analysis of embryonic development the very ‘ruthless reductionism’ that Rose disparages. Needham’s and Waddington’s Theoretical Biology Club, to which he devotes considerable attention, contributed nothing to this understanding; the experimental techniques available in the 1930s were simply inadequate to unravel the complex networks regulating gene activity that are involved in development. Similarly, without modern work by geneticists and molecular biologists we would know nothing about the ‘epigenetic’ modifications of DNA bases and histone molecules, which interact with DNA to modify gene expression.

Brian Charlesworth, Deborah Charlesworth
University of Edinburgh

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