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Letters

Vol. 39 No. 11 · 1 June 2017

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As much as it wishes

Thomas Jones writes that China is ‘gradually reducing its dependence on coal’ (LRB, 18 May). China has a population almost half a billion larger than that of the EU and the US combined. Such is the size of its energy economy that Jones is right to say it is ‘massively expanding’ its investment in renewables. But at the moment solar and wind power account for just 1 per cent of China’s generating capacity; if one includes hydro and nuclear power, the figure rises to 10 per cent. China plans to double the share of renewables in its energy mix so that by 2030 the respective figures might be 2 per cent and 20 per cent. The fossil fuels that currently account for 90 per cent of China’s mix (67 per cent of which is coal) will account for 80 per cent in 2030 (coal’s share will fall slightly).

But crucially, over that period, China plans to double its entire capacity. There will, in other words, be an immense absolute increase in the consumption of fossil fuels in China in the coming years, and of coal in particular. China’s coal plan alone will double global emissions by 2030. All this is in perfect accord with the Paris Agreement, which strengthens the permission China has always enjoyed under international climate change law to emit as much as it wishes.

David Campbell
Lancaster University

Essential Reading

Ian Patterson observes that ‘Jilly Cooper’s work is not, so far as I know, much studied in universities’ (LRB, 18 May). I’m happy to say that the extraordinarily perceptive analysis of British social divisions in her 1979 work Class was for many years ‘essential reading’ on my second-year Social Class course at York University. I suspect that I was prompted to give the book such prominence by a review by Ralf Dahrendorf in the LRB of 20 December 1979, in which he said, ‘her characters are fun, her observations acute,’ and concluded that ‘it is hard to fault her.’

Laurie Taylor
London EC1

Chomsky Says

Jackson Lears asserts that since the 1970s left-wing intellectuals have been drifting away from Chomsky’s rationalist humanism towards a hermeneutics of suspicion (LRB, 4 May). Yet Foucault was politically engaged, especially with the prisoners’ movement, and although today’s Foucauldians may have retreated from the barricades, Chomsky is still a towering figure of the left, unsilenced and unsilenceable.

However, Lears doesn’t mention the contradictions in Chomsky’s radical position, and seems to regard Chomsky’s academic home, MIT, as if it were like any other powerful university. It isn’t. MIT’s chief source of funding has long been the US military. Chomsky sees his linguistics as parallel to pure physics, floating above and entirely uninfluenced by the social; thus being funded by the military cannot influence his science. But since the mid-1970s Everett Mendelsohn, based just across the road in Harvard’s history of science department, has argued – he isn’t the only one – that science and society are co-constructed. Each shapes the other.

Chris Knight, in Decoding Chomsky (2016), tells a story that bears on the happy marriage between Chomsky’s research and the military’s need for a cognitive account of mind. MIT was a prime target of the student movement against the Vietnam War. Chomsky, who was opposed to the war, was caught between the students’ attack on military research at MIT and his reliance on military funding. He was invited by a canny MIT administration to join the committee it had established to discuss the matter. While one activist student on the committee remained hostile to each and every military research project on campus, another joined Chomsky in his more selective criticism. Chomsky’s contribution helped take the steam out of the student revolt.

Hilary Rose
London WC1

Defining Anti-Semitism

Stephen Sedley writes that it is difficult to track events that failed to take place because of pressure to abandon events critical of Israel, ‘or for fear of it’ (LRB, 4 May). Well here is just one example. Last autumn Skyscraper, of which I am managing director, published a book called State of Terror, about the regular and systematic use of terror attacks by Jewish gangs against British, Arab and even Jewish citizens in Palestine in the 1940s. The author, Thomas Suàrez, was invited to speak in April at a Palestine Solidarity Campaign meeting at the Friendship House in Portsmouth. The MP for Portsmouth South, Flick Drummond, contacted the police in case, as she put it, ‘there might be some trouble from people who were opposed to [his] visit.’ The venue was then changed to the Buckland Community Centre, but this too was cancelled owing to pressure. The talk finally took place at a third venue. The Daily Mail reported on it thus: ‘A charity supported by Jeremy Corbyn [the PSC] hosted an anti-Semitic speaker who has accused Jews of exploiting the Holocaust and called Zionism “parallel to Nazism".’

Karl Sabbagh
Bloxham, Oxfordshire

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Adam Shatz states that all the Northern states in the US abolished slavery by 1804 (LRB, 4 May). In fact New York State did not end slavery until 1827, and there were still several dozen slaves in New Jersey in 1860. Bondage remained legal until 1865 in the slave states that remained in the Union: Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri. It is important not to exaggerate anti-slavery feeling in the North. The persistent support for the institution was one reason Lincoln delayed emancipation.

Joan Cashin
Ohio State University, Columbus

Somerdale to Skarbimierz

Michael Richards is mistaken when he says that I consider the web an ‘incontrovertible good’ (Letters, 18 May). I merely said that its inventor has had a far greater impact on the world than the actions of any politician.

I could also have observed that the web is unstoppable. Every technology sits somewhere on a continuum of controllability that can be adumbrated by two of its extremes: nuclear energy and genetic engineering. If I want to build a nuclear power station then I will need a big field to put it in, copious supplies of cooling water and a few billion quid. Such requirements mean that others can exert control over my project. Nuclear energy is highly controllable. If, by contrast, I wanted to genetically engineer night-scented stock to make it glow in the dark so it attracted more pollinators, I could do so in my kitchen with equipment that I could build myself. Genetic engineering is uncontrollable.

Every technology starts as an idea in one person’s mind, and the responsibility for uncontrollable technologies lies entirely with their inventors. They alone decide whether or not to release a given technology. (Note: all other things being equal, an uncontrollable technology will have greater Darwinian fitness than a controllable one when it comes to being reproduced.) In my own case I classify technologies I invent as broadly beneficial or damaging. The former I release online, open-source. The latter I don’t even write down (these include a couple of weapons systems at the uncontrollable end of the continuum); they will die with me.

I may be mistaken in my classification, with consequences we may regret. Other inventors may act differently: we may regret that too. But we shouldn’t make the mistake of indulging in (necessarily) endless discussion of what to do about a technology if it is uncontrollable. The amount of debate that we devote to a technology should, inter alia, be proportional to how controllable it is.

Richards is right when he says that ‘technological changes have unforeseen, sometimes profoundly negative social and political consequences.’ This is inevitable when something powerful impinges on things that are relatively weak; the same applies to the benefits. Fortunately the vast majority of people are well intentioned, and technology amplifies the majority along with its complementary minority. Much happens faster and more spectacularly, but the ratio of more good to less bad stays about the same.

Adrian Bowyer
Foxham, Wiltshire

Since Reagan

According to Thomas Meaney, writing from Potsdam, Donald Trump came to power ‘after a quarter of a century of domestic liberal triumph and consolidation’ (LRB, 4 May). That’s certainly not how it looks over here. Since Ronald Reagan’s first electoral victory in 1980, American liberalism has suffered one crushing defeat after another: the decimation of the unions; the drastic reversal of progressive taxation; the dramatic rollback of business regulation and environmental protection; reduction in funding for public education; the abolition of welfare; a retreat in voting-rights enforcement; the flooding of private money into the electoral system; the pronounced conservative tilt of the judiciary; an unprecedented consolidation of war-making and surveillance powers in the executive branch; and more. Some of this happened under Democratic presidents. But if Roosevelt, Kennedy and Johnson were liberals, Clinton and Obama were not – the former even announced that ‘the era of big government is over.’ From Reagan to the present, the Republican Party has devoted itself single-mindedly to rolling back the New Deal. The last 35 years is the story of their triumph and consolidation.

George Scialabba
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Hereby Condemned

Fredrik Logevall says that Joe McCarthy ‘was censured by the Senate’ (LRB, 18 May). McCarthy was never censured. The Senate voted that his conduct was ‘hereby condemned’. He remained a member of the Senate; he had all his rights, his seniority, and his committee assignments. Half the Senate Republicans had voted against censure. After the vote, he said: ‘I wouldn’t exactly call it a vote of confidence, but I don’t feel I’ve been lynched.’

Derek Robinson
Bristol

Great Scott

By quoting Dame Elizabeth Chesterton’s fond filial belief that her father, Maurice Chesterton, and not Elisabeth Scott, had been the real author of the design that won the competition for the new Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1928, Richard Wilson is reviving contemporary gossip (LRB, 4 May). In the very masculine profession of architecture, few could then accept that a young woman could possibly have been responsible for a sophisticated modern design chosen by independent British and American assessors out of 72 entries. It is true that Scott preferred working in collaboration, and she was happy to admit that two fellow former students at the Architectural Association, Alison Sleigh and J.C. Shepherd, had helped her with the competition entry. To execute it, Scott entered into the partnership of Scott, Chesterton & Shepherd and, for what it’s worth, at the time her former employer, Chesterton, disclaimed ‘any personal share whatever in the successful design’. Scott herself was clear: ‘While mine was the design chosen for the theatre, the actual work has been carried out by my partners and myself as a firm.’ Geoffrey Jellicoe, who had been in partnership with Shepherd, later recorded that ‘Scott provided the initiative, Chesterton the administration and Shepherd the flair.’ Wilson is correct to observe that Scott was never associated with another major building (although the Marie Curie Hospital in Hampstead and the Fawcett Building at Newnham College, Cambridge were scarcely negligible commissions), but, then, nor was Chesterton. He eventually gave up architecture and devoted himself to painting.

Gavin Stamp
London SE23

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