Vol. 39 No. 12 · 15 June 2017

Search by issue:

Don’t go to the doctor

Karma Nabulsi’s critique of the Prevent strategy passes over one particular aspect of the programme: its potential extension beyond the ostensible focus on ‘violent extremism’ to the policing and suppression of undesirable political and ideological positions (LRB, 18 May). Nabulsi quotes the definition of extremism given by Prevent, but omits the final sentence: ‘In a more general sense, extremism may refer to political ideologies that are opposed to a society’s core (constitutional) values and principles.’

I was offered Prevent training as part of my role as a parent governor at a local primary school. I agreed to take the training in part because I was intrigued to see how the policy would be explained and presented. The session was certainly instructive. There was no discussion of the unspecified ‘political ideologies’; the session was pointedly introduced as ‘not a session on government policy’. However, we did talk about what sorts of group might be considered ‘extremists’ or terrorists. Greenpeace was mentioned; the course trainer even said that some Greenpeace tactics could be likened to terrorism. I am a member of Greenpeace, and I objected: surely Greenpeace wasn’t being likened to Isis, in the context of referring young people to counter-terrorism police? I was told that the session was not a discussion of government policy, and the issue was dropped.

Perhaps the trainer’s remarks about Greenpeace that day were merely ill-advised and off-the-cuff, but he did also express his regret that the government had been unable to fund a further development of Prevent, whose intended aim had apparently been to train school-age children to recognise the signs of extremism, so that they could report on each other.

Name and address supplied

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

A ‘strategic decision’ was taken, Nick Moss writes, not to police areas including Northern Ireland, Brixton, Liverpool and Handsworth in the 1980s, and ‘a counter-economy of drug distribution was allowed to take root’ (Letters, 18 May). I cannot speak for London, Liverpool or Birmingham, but Moss’s contention that the pattern of ghetto uprisings followed by heroin and crack epidemics in the US in the 1960s and 1970s was repeated in Northern Ireland is not borne out by the evidence.

In the 1970s, Northern Ireland had relatively low levels of drug use (mainly cannabis, sulphates and LSD). Heroin was almost unheard of; the first registered heroin addict was recorded in the early 1980s (I am very reliably informed that this was someone who had arrived from London), though there is anecdotal evidence that a small close-knit group of users existed in Belfast in the late 1960s. In 1985, 35 people were officially registered as ‘drug addicts’, most of whom were notified as heroin users; by 1997 there were 78 registered heroin addicts; the number notified for heroin reached 233 in 2000.

A change seems to have taken place with the arrival of ecstasy in the early 1990s. Surveys of drug use, together with drug seizure data for the period 1991-95, indicate that there were sharp rises both in the popularity of ecstasy and in its availability. Seizures of cannabis and LSD also increased in this period. A new government policy, including actions to be undertaken in education, research and evaluation, treatment and enforcement, was adopted in 1995. Before the ceasefires, which took place around this time, a strong police and army presence had been a deterrent to drug traffickers, since there was a high risk of detection while transporting or dealing drugs. The scaling down of this presence may have made it easier for traffickers to establish and maintain a market, and as individuals felt more confident about going out at night, social centres such as pubs and clubs began to flourish. Throughout the Troubles, paramilitaries had played a role in the supply and distribution of drugs, as well as in protection and extortion, and after the ceasefires they turned their attention to organised crime.

One can hardly be surprised at the approach the police took in relation to the two groups, Direct Action against Drugs and Republican Action against Drugs, which Moss says were being ‘criminalised by the state more determinedly than the dealers they sought to challenge’. Between 1995 and 2001 Direct Action against Drugs, thought by many to be a front for the Provisional IRA, claimed responsibility for the killing of nine alleged drug dealers. Republican Action against Drugs was formed in late 2008 and was active mainly in Derry and the surrounding area. The group’s methods included shooting alleged dealers in the arms and legs, pipe-bomb or arson attacks on their property, and threats or ‘banishment’. It claimed its first killing in February 2012 and in July that year it was announced that RAAD was merging with the Real IRA and other independent republican paramilitary groups to form what is now referred to as the New IRA.

At the end of last year the Stormont Justice Committee was briefed on the extent and nature of organised crime in Northern Ireland and heard that there were 138 groups, including paramilitaries as well as criminals from outside the country, involved in drug dealing, sexual exploitation and fraud; and that there was also collaboration between loyalist and republican paramilitaries and foreign criminals.

Moss is right to suggest that greatly increased funding for rehabilitation is required, to which I would add early intervention, education and support.

James Grainger
Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire

Uses for Barleycorn

Josephine Quinn writes that one of Theodora’s stage performances as a teenager involved her ‘lying down dressed only in a regulation undergarment … attendants scattering barleycorn about her private parts, and a pack of trained geese pecking it off’ (LRB, 4 May). The use of barleycorn had a long history in the Greek theatre. In Aristophanes’ Peace, first performed in 421 BC, the hero Trygaios tells his slave to throw barleycorn out to the spectators. When the slave says that everyone has received some, Trygaios complains that the women didn’t get any. The slave replies that the men will give it to them later that night. The passage can be taken as evidence that women did not attend the theatre in Athens in the fifth century BC, or that if they did they were segregated at the back. The word for barleycorn (κριθή) was also a colloquialism for a penis, so the passage may be no more than a sexual joke.

Josh Beer

Chomsky says

Hilary Rose’s letter concerning alleged ‘contradictions’ in my ‘radical positions’ relies on an account by Chris Knight that is rich in innuendo and falsification, but lacking in evidence (Letters, 1 June). Knight’s crucial charge, which Rose repeats, is that military funding influenced my scientific work. There is a very simple way to verify the charge: determine whether (and if so how) the work changed from the time I was a graduate student at Harvard with no military funding, to my early years at MIT, when its funding was quite generally military, to subsequent years when I received no military funding at all. Answer: not in the slightest relevant way – which is doubtless why Knight evades this test. Exactly the same is true of the other researchers in the same programme. End of story. And an end to the slanderous charges against all of us.

Further, during the years of military funding in the 1960s our group was at the centre of academic resistance – not protest, resistance – to the war in Vietnam. My own involvement in such activities was even more direct. Knight sidesteps all this.

Rose mentions one specific example, a faculty-student committee on military labs of which I was a member. Following Knight, she misrepresents the issues and the background. In fact the issue of military funding of academic research never came up. As for the labs, it was understood, of course, that whatever the commission determined, the military work would continue. The only question was where. One position, which prevailed, was to end ‘each and every military research project on campus’ (Rose’s approving words). The meaning was obvious: while formally separated from the campus, the military labs would continue their work as before, also effectively maintaining relations with academic programmes, though not visibly. It’s quite true that I didn’t share this concern for the purity of campus, which was a matter of no interest to the Vietnamese or any of the US military’s other victims. Again, no contradiction.

There is much more to say about Knight’s quite astonishing performance and, more important, about the idea that scientific work is necessarily influenced by its source of funding (corporate, military, whatever). That claim, easily refuted, should not be confused with the work of Everett Mendelsohn on science-society relations that Rose adduces. But no need to pursue these matters here.

Noam Chomsky
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Noam Chomsky is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. From the centre and the right he has been vilified for his alleged anti-Americanism, and from the left for his supposed complicity with Pentagon-supported research at MIT. Hilary Rose takes this latter tendency and runs with it, concluding that Chomsky’s putative failure to condemn all military-funded projects at MIT ‘helped take the steam out of the student revolt’. Chomsky is not above criticism, but this is a bizarre claim. Surely there were other more compelling causes for the weakening of anti-war protest: the infiltration of the student movement by FBI agents provocateurs, the ending of the draft, the rise of identity politics. Whatever the ambiguities of Chomsky’s actions at MIT during the Vietnam War, he played a major role in legitimating the anti-war position among the American intelligentsia at a moment when Cold War liberalism was still ascendant and speaking out against militarist pieties required real courage.

There is also an epistemological argument in Rose’s letter, which contrasts Chomsky’s faith in pure science with the historicist view that ‘science and society are co-constructed.’ As a historian I am committed to that constructivist perspective, and there is nothing in my essay to suggest otherwise. What I argued was that Chomsky’s philosophical position is idiosyncratic: he is a rationalist and humanist who believes in the reality of such universal ideals as truth and justice, while at the same insisting that certain problems may remain forever resistant to questions posed by scientific research. From a constructivist view, as I acknowledged, Chomsky’s universalist epistemology may be naive, even fundamentally mistaken. But it may also provide a firmer foundation for political action than a postmodern impulse to question absolutes and universals. In this Chomsky resembles Orwell, whose slogan ‘good prose is like a windowpane’ embodied a simple-minded view of language but also underwrote a commitment to truth-telling in a time of lies.

Jackson Lears
Ringoes, New Jersey

Who’s the real cunt?

Andrew O’Hagan’s broadside against Paul Dacre reminded me that the bard of Salford, John Cooper Clarke, got there first forty years ago (LRB, 1 June):

This paper’s boring mindless mean
Full of pornography the kind that’s clean
Where William Hickey meets Michael Caine
Again and again and again and again
I’ve seen millionaires on the DHSS
But I’ve never seen a nipple in the Daily Express

Philip Murphy
Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London WC1

It may be worth noting, a propos of Andrew O’Hagan’s account of the Daily Mail, that the Dictionary of the Scots Language lists ‘dacre’ as a verb, meaning ‘to inflict corporal punishment’.

Annalena McAfee
London WC1

Continuing Contempt

In the last paragraph of his discussion of the Sutherland Clearances David Craig gives an instance when the painful memories remained very much alive more than a hundred years after the events (LRB, 18 May). In this case the instigator of so much misery was Patrick Sellar, the estate manager (factor) for the Duke of Sutherland, who set about the eviction of tenants with great brutality. The memory was that of one of those affected by it. Two hundred years later the memories survive, and the male residents of Glasgow, where many of those who’d been evicted ended up, as Craig also notes, have the chance to demonstrate their continuing contempt for Sellar in Lios Mor, a traditional Gaelic music pub in Partick, by pissing on him in the urinal dedicated to his memory.

Paul Sutton

No Acolyte

I was mystified to find myself described by Wes Enzinna as a ‘former acolyte’ of Murray Bookchin who ‘wrote a book, Beyond Bookchin, ridiculing him’ (LRB, 4 May). I am not and have never been anyone’s acolyte, least of all Bookchin’s. And my book was hardly mere ridicule, though I couldn’t avoid some sarcasm at the expense of his self-image as the sole legatee of a historical dialectic from the Greek agora through Hegel, Marx, Yankee democracy and the revolutionary anarchist tradition to today.

As I say in the book, I once respected Bookchin for his contribution to radical politics. He had the good sense to write about anarchism at a time when much of the New Left was waving Mao’s Little Red Book. He also offered what seemed to be a promising notion of radical social ecology. His work was ‘frequently rich and always problematic’, I said, but added that in the light especially of his later essays, which were ‘increasingly vituperative, dismissive, pessimistic, almost paranoid’, it might be time to ask: ‘What kind of social ecology ought to survive the passing of Bookchin?’

In 1988-89 most environmental activists and radicals were appalled at the murderously Malthusian, anti-immigrant declarations coming from a few Earth First! militants. But they were just as dismayed by Bookchin’s self-serving denunciations of activists and deep ecologists who expressed a spiritual connection to nature similar to the connections expressed by native peoples, or activists interested in Buddhist and Taoist attitudes towards nature, or even social ecologists and ecofeminists not committed to Bookchin’s ideas. Bookchin’s lack of generosity not only to people he disagreed with, but to people with whom he agreed on important things (including me), undermined whatever was valuable in his work.

David Watson
Detroit, Michigan

At the Partisan Coffee House

Nicholas Faith refers to Raphael Samuel as ‘a deeply irresponsible man’, which seems to me a bizarre and wrong-headed judgment unsupported by the evidence of the exhibition about the Partisan Coffee House at the Four Corners Gallery (LRB, 1 June). It is incorrect to say that he told no one about his plans for the café: the correspondence on display showed that he told dozens of people when canvassing for financial support. It is a matter of opinion whether the funds spent on kitting the place out were ‘excessive’: most of the fittings were built at very low cost by Ernest Rodker. And besides, many a capitalist venture, then as now, has gone down the tubes without anyone having to have behaved irresponsibly. Finally, I can refute the assertion that ‘few if any’ of the Partisan’s customers were other than middle class: I came from a Scottish working-class background, as did Eddie Linden, and we recently recalled together many of the diverse characters from all parts of the UK and abroad we bumped into at the coffee house between 1958 and 1962.

Harry Marsh
London N10

Making It

I visited Hannah Arendt shortly after the publication of Norman Podhoretz’s Making It, the reissue of which James Wolcott writes about (LRB, 18 May). The book infuriated her. She said it was the only truly pornographic book she had ever read. Her anger at his reference to her New Year’s Eve party prompted her to cancel it as an annual event – she later resurrected it on a much smaller scale.

Jack Blum
Annapolis, Maryland


Alan Finlayson claims that the new EU regulations on personal data, agreed in 2016 and due to come into effect in 2018, will not do so in the UK, because by then the UK will be ‘free of such shackles’ (LRB, 18 May). Three pages later, Francis FitzGibbon notes that the rules will come into force by May 2018. He is right, since the UK will not leave the EU until April 2019 at the earliest.

Tom Crewe mistakenly writes that the Lib Dems defeated ‘Tory Zac Goldsmith’ in the Richmond Park by-election last year, helped by the Greens standing down. Goldsmith is undoubtedly a Tory, but in the by-election he stood as an independent, which helps explain how he mislaid nearly half the 34,000 votes he had attracted as a Conservative in the 2015 general election. Now that (however improbably) he has been reselected by the local Conservatives, the chances of the Lib Dems retaining the seat are low.

David Elstein
London SW15

Ill Advised

I have learned since enjoying Tom Shippey’s piece on Aethelred the Unready that in French his name is Aethelred le malavisé (LRB, 30 March).

Jim Chaplin

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences