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Letters

Vol. 39 No. 5 · 2 March 2017

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Don’t resist, oppose

David Bromwich writes powerfully, but is in some respects too optimistic (LRB, 16 February). In particular, he seems to think the United States has working elections, such that a popular movement could give rise to an electable opposition under the current system.

This is doubtful. Half of the American voting population doesn’t vote at all – namely, the poorer half. Some countries hold elections on weekends or ad hoc holidays; US elections are on a Tuesday, following a 19th-century farm schedule. Americans with no job security working multiple jobs with no breaks often have no time to vote. If Americans have been convicted of felonies, they are in many states disenfranchised for the rest of their lives.

Most of those who are entitled to vote in the US and who have the leisure to do so will take part in a primitive winner-takes-all system of electoral districts that the Republican Party has systematically manipulated. They will vote on electronic voting machines with minimal electronic security, purchased by Republican state governments from Republican-donor equipment suppliers, machines that routinely return Republican candidates to office even when polls show a wide lead for the other party – this may inform the Democrats’ ‘loss of nine hundred seats in state legislatures’.

This was the state of the system which nevertheless, as Bromwich says, ‘voted for Obama twice’. But then things got worse. In 2013, Chief Justice John Roberts effectively terminated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that had made it easier for black people to vote. Many states introduced racist voter-ID requirements that had been blocked for fifty years, and even in states that did not pass new laws, election officials were emboldened to invent purported requirements and refuse minority voters their rights.

Benjamin Letzler
Oberursel, Germany

Clintons ♥ Trump

Sidney Blumenthal (‘a senior adviser to Bill Clinton from 1997 to 2001’, as you describe him) neglected to mention one important thing in his piece on the Trump family: the past closeness of the Clintons and Trumps (LRB, 16 February). Bill and Hillary were favoured guests at Trump’s marriage in 2005 to Melania Knauss, going on to join the happy couple at the Palm Beach reception. Trump was a generous donor to the Clinton Foundation and made a substantial financial contribution to Hillary’s Senate and 2008 presidential campaigns. ‘I like him. And I love playing golf with him,’ Bill said of his pal Trump in 2012. According to Blumenthal, Trump’s ascent to the presidency represents ‘the triumph of an underworld of predators, hustlers, mobsters, clubhouse politicians and tabloid sleaze …’ A world in which the Clintons gave every impression of feeling at home.

Harry Harmer
Eastbourne

One Tree to Another

Francis Gooding, in his thoughtful comparison of Frans de Waal’s book on animal cognition with Peter Wohlleben’s account of interactions among trees, omits a definition of communication (LRB, 16 February). Communication takes place when information is passed intentionally from a signaller to a receiver able to intercept the signal and act accordingly. Wohlleben gives the example of umbrella thorn acacias, which release a chemical to deter giraffes from grazing. The chemical is detected by neighbouring trees, which bolster their own defences in anticipation of an attack. This satisfies two out of the three criteria for communication, but not the remaining one. The first tree released the chemical for its own purposes, not for the benefit of others. By contrast, de Waal’s elegant experiments on primates have shown evidence of intentionality in communication.

Gooding also gives the example of trees ‘pumping sugar’ to keep a neighbour alive. Wohlleben talks of a ‘wood wide web’ in which trees are linked to one another through a network of soil-based fungi. The fungi gather up and supply soil nutrients, for which the trees repay them with sugars. By means of radioactive labelling, it has been found that some sugars created by one tree can pass, via fungal partners,to another. But the tree didn’t intend this to happen. If I go to the butcher to buy sausages, and he later goes to the pub for a beer, I haven’t chosen to give my money to the barman. The forest fungi act according to their own needs; struggling trees are not ‘being cared for’ by others out of empathic awareness. No communication has taken place.

There is a long cultural tradition of imagining better from nature, a collaborative sociality in contrast with our own mercenary impulses. The truth is that we do have much in common with trees. We too are often selfish actors looking out for our own interests. To say that other organisms are slaves of their genetic drives does not diminish them, but diminishes us; we are, after all, just organisms too.

Markus Eichhorn
University of Nottingham

A General Logic of Crisis

I find it inconceivable that, as Adam Tooze suggests, Wolfgang Streeck entertains ethnonationalist fantasies of the type associated with Nazi use of the term Volk (LRB, 5 January). However, if not actually asking for trouble, Streeck was bound to get it from the moment he joined Volk with Markt (as do other German scholars in the fields of economics, social sciences and political theory). The term Marktvolk has been around for centuries, typically meaning buyers and sellers who flock to local, mainly village, marketplaces. However, there isn’t any hint of this context in Streeck’s use of the term; for him it refers to such ‘people’ as international bankers and investors (what is, laughably, sometimes called the financial ‘community’). His analytical point (about owners of mobile capital) stands, relevant and powerful. However, few readers of the compound noun today could fail to hear resonances of the kind described by Tooze.

The question that remains is why Streeck didn’t opt for the alternative: Marktleute. The term is both clunky (in dictionaries rendered as ‘marketeers’) and quaint. Yet Leute might have been perfectly serviceable for Streeck’s purpose. His whole point seems to be, plausibly, that the globally footloose money boys are without affiliation other than to the accumulation of more money. The more anonymous character of Leute would capture this, detaching the point from the historical associations of Volk (above all its evocation of international capital as ‘Jewish money’).

Christopher Prendergast
King’s College, Cambridge

Always Suspicious

Andrew O’Hagan might have considered adding Anita Brookner to his list of possible literary spies (LRB, 16 February). Her heroines were very often used as repositories for confidences – though not, granted, at the state-secret level. She also appeared rather artful in the interviews she gave, quick to dismiss her life as dull – always a suspicious assertion to make about oneself. And there was a connection to Anthony Blunt. In researching her career I recently listened to John Golding’s recording for the Artists’ Lives project at the British Library, in which he suggests that Brookner was the only person at the Courtauld who hadn’t cottoned on that Blunt was gay. That seems unlikely given how much time Brookner would have spent with him, first as a student and then a colleague, so perhaps her ability to give such an impression only displays her capacity for discretion.

Miles Beard
University of Strathclyde, Glasgow

From Ealing to Melbourne

Nicholas Penny mentions that ‘Joseph Burke of Melbourne University’ enticed Kenneth Clark to Victoria to ‘stimulate cultural interests in his compatriots’ (LRB, 5 January). While Sir Joseph, as he became in 1980, was very much at home in Melbourne, he was born in Ealing, and his career in Britain included, inter alia, a stint as private secretary to Clement Attlee.

Gordon Kerry
Sandy Creek, Victoria

When were you thinking of shooting yourself?

Sophie Pinkham appears to take Mayakovsky’s dying wish not to be gossiped about as a challenge – by gossiping about him mercilessly (LRB, 16 February). Mayakovsky was, in her eyes, a bourgeois philistine prude, a squeamish hypochondriac and germaphobe, who was ‘not good in bed’, suffered from premature ejaculation and fathered illegitimate children. She is less interested in his poetry than in redressing the wrongs done to his lover Lili Brik by the biographer Bengt Jangfeldt, whom she accuses of ‘casual psychologising’ while indulging in the same thing herself. She sees Brik’s promiscuity as ‘compulsive or self-destructive’ behaviour originating with her ‘sexual persecution’ when younger. Isn’t it possible that Brik, like many women in her circle, regarded promiscuity as liberating? None of this would matter much had Pinkham spent more time on Mayakovsky’s poetry and less on Brik’s sexual adventures.

Udith Dematagoda
Vienna

Worsening, or not?

There are a number of mistakes in Thomas Meaney’s piece on Sri Lanka (LRB, 2 February). He writes, for example, that the British ‘converted Ceylon’s inhabitants on a much larger scale than the Portuguese and Dutch had’, yet there were four times as many Catholics as Protestants in the population when the country gained its independence in 1948. The Citizenship Act of that year stripped huge numbers of Indian Tamil estate workers of their citizenship: it did not ‘assign greater value’ to Sinhalese votes. Meaney asserts that most support for ‘Sinhala ethnic nationalism’ has come not from ‘Buddhist fundamentalists on the political right, but from elements originating on the communist left’: in fact, the key figures in post-independence Buddhist nationalism, like Walpola Rahula, were Buddhist nationalists closely aligned with political parties on the left. ‘Buddhist’ and ‘left’ are not alternatives in this political cosmology.

I’m not sure who would be more offended by the suggestion that S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was a member of something called the ‘burgher class’: the Eurasian Burghers, many of whom left for Australia as a result of Bandaranaike’s language policies, or Bandaranaike himself, a man from the highest caste in Sinhala society. The ‘fifty thousand youths’ who ‘descended on Colombo’ in 1971 are new to me, and I imagine to all other scholars of modern Sri Lankan politics. The economy didn’t ‘worsen’ under Jayewardene’s government in the late 1970s and early 1980s, unless annual growth rates of 5 per cent and more are taken as ‘worsening’.

Jonathan Spencer
Edinburgh

Thomas Meaney writes: I thank Jonathan Spencer for clearing up errors for which I have only myself to blame. But some of his objections are unnecessary. Of course the Citizenship Act of 1948, along with the two follow-up Acts of 1949, stripped Indian Tamil workers of their citizenship: I say as much in the piece. But, as Janice Jiggins has shown, by continuing to be allocated parliamentary seats based on the total population and area of the Kandyan highlands, where the workers lived with a smaller number of Sinhalese, the up-country Sinhalese exercised greater voting power than citizens did elsewhere, making them, in K.M. de Silva’s words, ‘the arbiter of the country’s politics’. I did not say that ‘Buddhist’ and ‘left’ were mutually exclusive, merely that the main stimulus of Sinhala nationalism in the 1970s was the need for the government to respond to the concerns of the JVP, a leftist movement. Finally, while it is true that Sri Lanka’s GDP did not suffer under Jayewardene’s watch, income disparity and other negative factors increased.

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