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Letters

Vol. 39 No. 16 · 17 August 2017

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Chomsky has the last say

The distasteful correspondence that Chris Knight and Hilary Rose have carried forward began with their very serious charges against the linguistics programme at MIT, and against me in particular: namely, that we abandoned honest research and scholarship and followed the demands of the military (Letters, 1 June). Though the charges did not merit attention, I did respond, and suggested a simple test: show how our work changed in any relevant respect from what preceded it (Letters, 15 June). There was no change. End of story. All that remains is the need for apologies.

Knight now claims that work I completed before there was any thought of military funding was undertaken ‘to ensure that [my] militarily funded linguistics couldn’t possibly have any military use’ (Letters, 13 July). He further claims that when I continued exactly the same work at MIT, I ‘had to move mountains to avoid collusion’ with the military. Evidently, he couldn’t know whether that claim was true or false. In fact, there was no pressure at all, as is demonstrated by the record of appointments and promotions during the period when the programme he maligns was becoming the main academic centre for resistance (not protest) against the war in Vietnam.

Knight goes on to claim that I have been trying to ‘dragoon’ him into accepting my linguistics as ‘science’. I couldn’t care less what he thinks about my work.

Rose’s response is even worse. She now reduces her charges to the claim that the Pentagon considered ‘the research relevant to [its] brief’. She doesn’t even attempt to justify the claim. Doctrinal verities suffice. (Knight tries, at least: he says that my work was inspired by ‘the dream of accurate machine translation’ – a topic I have never had the slightest interest in, and to which my work has no relevance.) Rose is effectively claiming that the Pentagon was greatly interested in Turkish nominalisation (the first dissertation in our programme), Australian aboriginal languages, Wilhelm von Humboldt’s inquiries into language and the political order, and other work of comparable military relevance. And, by the same logic, that it took a similar interest in the incipient programme in philosophy and other teaching and research programmes sustained in the same manner, including undergraduate courses in radical politics. As for her claim that the military funded these endeavours along with ‘Chomsky’s revolution in linguistic theory’ because they were ‘seen as key in future forms of war’ – I will make no comment, out of politeness.

Noam Chomsky
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Cocteaux

Anne Stillman mentions that Cocteau’s ‘name was the source of jokes throughout his life’ (LRB, 13 July). One onomastic ‘joke’ that doesn’t make it into Claude Arnaud’s comprehensive biography occurs in the diary of the Polish poet Jan Lechoń (1899-1956). Lechoń met Cocteau in the 1930s when he was a cultural attaché at the Polish embassy in Paris. He began keeping a diary only in 1949 when he was living in New York, and Cocteau appears in it 63 times; among French writers only Gide and Proust are named more frequently. On 15 February 1956, Lechoń puns on Cocteau’s name – ‘un coctogénaire’ – to suggest that the perennial enfant terrible, 67 at the time, was old and probably finished as an artist. Lechoń himself often suffered from writer’s block after the war. Just as troubling to the very Catholic Pole was his homosexuality, about which, unlike Cocteau, he was very discreet even in his diary. Cocteau probably kept Lechoń’s attention over the years at least in part because, like Gide, he showed him a very different way of being gay. Lechoń committed suicide on 8 June 1956 by jumping from an upper floor of the Henry Hudson Hotel in New York. He is not mentioned in Arnaud’s biography.

Sam Solecki
Toronto, Canada

Who’s in Charge?

David Bromwich ends his incisive commentary with a weak suggestion for a Democratic Party ‘cause’ – climate change (LRB, 13 July). A much more comprehensive policy would be to take 20 per cent of America’s $582.7 billion current annual Pentagon budget and use it to improve education, housing, infrastructure, public health and environmental protection. The added bonus would be awakening voters to the fact that their taxes are supporting a never-ending succession of wars whose only result has been profits for the makers of military equipment.

Michael Berger
Yamanakako, Japan

Jacob Ecclestone finds ‘astonishing’ my assertion that Trump did something unprecedented in publicly boasting that he had delegated total battlefield authority to the generals (Letters, 27 July). The rest of his letter analyses Trump’s decision on 6 April to order the bombing of a Russian airfield in Syria. But that was a piece of calculated political theatre, of no military importance whatever; the aim was to show that Trump could get tough on Russia. The announcement that Trump was devolving his authority as commander-in-chief to his subordinate generals came later. Google ‘Trump delegate authority generals’ and you come up with the following straightaway: ‘How Much Should Trump Delegate to His Generals?’ (Newsweek, 30 May); ‘Trump Delegates Troop Decisions, to Praise and Concern’ (CNN, 16 June); ‘Trump Gives Mattis Authority to Send More Troops to Afghanistan’ (New York Times, 13 June); ‘Trump’s “Total Authorisation" to Military Gives Some “Deep Concerns"’ (Roll Call, 31 May); and ‘Trump: I’m Giving the Military “Total Authorisation"’ (Military Times, 13 April). ‘We have the greatest military in the world,’ Trump said on 13 April, ‘and they’ve done the job, as usual. We have given them total authorisation.’ There is no precedent, so far as I know, for a president saying he intends not to perform his constitutional duty as commander-in-chief, on the grounds that we have a great military and they do the job better.

David Bromwich
North Haven, Connecticut

Many More Gefs

I enjoyed Bee Wilson’s piece about ‘Gef’ the talking mongoose very much, but did have one small anthropological misgiving (LRB, 27 July). When she says Puerto Ricans believed in the chupacabra ‘as recently as the 1990s’, I can’t tell whether she means they began to believe in them then, or they stopped, but either way I’m not sure she’s right. The history of the goat-sucker runs all the way back, in one legend, to 1540, when the governor of New Galicia (now in Mexico) lost 1500 cattle one night to a small army of dark figures with spikes down their backs. And still today, reports of exsanguinated cattle continue to appear in the media, everywhere from Puerto Rico to the southern continental US states. The belief is very much alive, and nothing seems to have changed in the 1990s.

Wilson writes that people are ‘even now’ preoccupied with monsters. A Puerto Rican, or anyone else, may be wrong to believe in the chupacabra, but if such a thing were to exist, there’s no reason why it would struggle to survive more in one period than another. Besides, researchers are always finding weird creatures – the ‘long-extinct’ coelacanth, the ‘legendary’ giant squid – in locations we know little about. They then become merely part of the natural world. The propensity to believe in alien forms, or the ‘cryptids’ that Gef and the chupacabra represent, is common to virtually all civilisations, and while there are unexplored regions of earth – or, more to Bee Wilson’s point, unexplored parts of the psyche – we’ll probably discover many more Gefs.

Ken Famiala
Manchester

Dazed, Crazed and Bloodied

John Charlesworth has every right to express his ‘distaste and even anger’, both at bullfighting and at my diary of attending taurine events (Letters, 27 July). He is on less sure footing, though, when he notes that the LRB would not provide a forum for a comparable meditation on foxhunting by a ‘hunt supporter’. Leaving aside Ferdinand Mount’s description of bloodsport in the English countryside (in a piece on Siegfried Sassoon in the LRB of 7 August 2003), there’s no reason to assume that writing about bullfighting means advocating for it. For the record, my position is that bulls and horses undoubtedly suffer in the ring, but that their fate is far from the worst thing to befall animals in Europe. If banning bullfighting is to be more than tokenistic scapegoating, it must be part of an overdue reappraisal of our relationship with the animal kingdom.

At the risk of providing further evidence of the ‘affectless integrity’ of my ‘imaginative freedom’, I should disclose that one of the reasons for my continued attendance at corridas is that the debates around its past, present and future raise wider ethical and aesthetic questions. Protesters frequently brandish banners saying, ‘It isn’t culture, it’s torture,’ while parts of the bullfighting lobby tragicomically underplay the suffering endured by humans and animals alike. Some, though by no means all, of what I have witnessed in Spanish plazas constitutes culture by any definition, occasionally of a high order. Acknowledging that doesn’t rule out moral objections, and Charlesworth’s implication that it does says more about the reification of culture than about my ‘dissociative intellect’. Still, I am grateful for his assumption that I am of ‘fine mind and spotless character’, the phrase in his letter that provoked most incredulity among my friends and colleagues.

Duncan Wheeler
University of Leeds

North Wales

Daniel Trilling is right to worry about the enthusiasm of Alexander Betts and Paul Collier in their book Refuge for Special Economic Zones in nearby safe countries, where refugees could find work and firms could be incentivised by international grants to take a chance and open up (LRB, 13 July). Many things they have to say about the ability of UNHCR and others to cope with modern refugee numbers are right and there is now a case for business to pitch in, as professionals and volunteers have been doing for a long time. But Betts and Collier point out more than once that firms are legally restrained from behaving as charities, being bound by duties to their shareholders (that’s us, mostly in the form of our pensions) and, in Germany, to their existing employees. These duties cast a shadow over Betts and Collier’s suggestion that refugee SEZs might be run in an ‘ethical’ way. The ability of a workforce to bargain for better pay and conditions is the best guarantee of ‘ethics’ in a labour market. With a large labour reserve, on the one hand, and investor priorities, on the other, the ethics of a business operation in a refugee SEZ would be rickety. The ethical duty we owe to refugees appears to Betts and Collier – and Trilling – to be absolute, and so in Refuge we have two kinds of ethics, negotiable and non-negotiable. They aren’t diametrically at odds, but they would align more happily if businesses could say: we expect to make a loss by offering proof of what we believe capitalism is for – the benefit of all – and taking opportunities to people in refugee camps. But they can’t, because it isn’t, and so the authors are correct that we shall have to fund them. But if they’re going to be indemnified by ‘international public money’ for the trouble they’ve put themselves to, as Betts and Collier suggest, surely it makes sense to go the whole hog and offset shareholder pressure at the outset by providing additional, targeted public funds to these companies, to subsidise exemplary wages and conditions.

Jeremy Harding
Bordeaux

Rabbits Addressed by a Stoat

As the daughter of a German academic who escaped to London in 1933 and went on to the US the following year, I can add a few comments to Stefan Collini’s piece on refugee scholars at Oxford in that period (LRB, 13 July). In addition to the various factors listed by Collini that discouraged refugees from seeking academic homes at Oxford (and Cambridge), British immigration policy in 1933 did not encourage stays of more than one year. Most migrants were required to move on elsewhere. Longer stays or permanent residence were more likely to be granted to well-known senior scholars and scientists or to writers and people in the arts. Younger exiles usually emigrated again, most of them to the US. There, the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars played a major role not only in helping scholars find positions, but also in arranging funding, supplied in particular but not exclusively by the Rockefeller Foundation, until their universities and colleges could support them fully.

Hanna Holborn Gray
University of Chicago

Black and British

A footnote to Sadiah Qureshi’s review of David Olusoga’s Black and British, which skips the 17th century (LRB, 15 June). Samuel Pepys records that on 7 September 1665 he visited his friend Thomas Povey, a functionary of the Duke of York, later James II. Povey ‘showed us all his house and grounds’ and then: ‘He showed me a black boy that he had, that died of a consumption, and being dead, he caused him to be dried in an oven, and lies there entire in a box.’

Michael Littlewood
Auckland

Down Peckham Rye

It is neat of Owen Hatherley to set Jane Jacobs against the recent demise of the Heygate Estate (LRB, 27 July). As often when I read about Jacobs, or read her in her own words, I wonder why she took so long to visit London and then so briefly. The pulsing shopping centre at Elephant and Castle, still surviving, would test her judgment, Hatherley thinks. But she could have turned to that gadfly Ian Nairn who stayed with Jacobs in Manhattan in the late 1950s, collaborating on a piece for Fortune magazine. She had high hopes they would work together in the future. I like to imagine Nairn taking Jane Jacobs down Peckham Rye: that he didn’t, and couldn’t, was her loss.

Gillian Darley
London WC1

Tooth-Pullers

Will Self’s piece on dentistry provoked memories of my time as a merchant seaman in the 1960s (LRB, 29 June). We were crewed by Pakistanis who signed on for a year. When we docked at Liverpool, they would go en masse to a dentist there. He would remove all their teeth and replace them with gold dentures. I imagine the dentist’s address was well known in Pakistani ports, and passed on by former seamen to first-timers.

I asked one of the crew the reason, and he told me that there were few or no dentists in rural Pakistan, and that with a set of gold dentures – which, incidentally, could cost as much as half his year’s wages – he would be free of dental problems for the rest of his life when he returned to his village. No dazzling smiles though; it often took a month or two for them to recover, during which time they could barely fulfil their duties.

Fabian Acker
London SE22

Great Scott

In his response to my discussion of the suspicious burning and rebuilding of Stratford’s Memorial Theatre, Gavin Stamp intriguingly cites ‘contemporary gossip’ at the time of the design competition in 1928 (Letters, 1 June). One would like to know more about these rumours, which Stamp links to a misogynistic architectural establishment that refused to believe the 29-year-old Elizabeth Scott was the true author of the new building. By contrast, the newspapers were effusive, with headlines such as ‘Woman Wins’, ‘Girl Architect Beats Men’ and ‘London Girl’s Winning Design’.

As Sarah Collins Howard discovered in the course of her research on Scott, none of the media reports ‘was disparaging, quite the reverse’. The Morning Post may have been making an insinuation by comparing the young winner to Shakespeare’s Portia, whose male cousin likewise ‘gave her some useful tips’. But the coverage effectively suppressed any embarrassment about the fact that Scott was a mere ‘bottle washer’ in the firm belonging to the cousin of the Stratford publicist A.K. Chesterton, who may have been responsible for a ‘developer’s fire’ and had engineered the rebuilding competition.

Stamp points out that Scott credited her colleagues in Maurice Chesterton’s practice with a share in her success, but that Geoffrey Jellicoe would say no more than that she ‘provided the initiative’. In fact, Howard found that ‘Jellicoe’s role in the theatre was greater than everyone was led to believe,’ which was why he remained ‘reluctant to mention Scott as sole winner’. Stamp is therefore incorrect in claiming that Elizabeth Chesterton held a ‘fond filial belief’ that her father was the real architect of the theatre. As I reported in my original piece (LRB, 4 May), what she said in her interview for the British Library in 1997 was that Maurice worried that the competition had been falsely entered under Scott’s name – ‘at which point she paused, then added: “erm … which is, I think, all I will say about that."’

Howard deduced that ‘while Chesterton did involve himself in the technical side’, it was another partner, John Shepherd, ‘who did the designs’. But if the entry ‘was a team effort, why did they choose to put Scott’s name on it?’ she asked, reasonably. It ‘may never be known’ why Scott continued to assert that the design was hers, even when it was so heavily criticised as a ‘monstrosity’, Howard concluded. The answer, I suggested in my original piece, lies in the part played by the sinister A.K. Chesterton in the destruction and reconstruction of the Shakespeare Theatre, and thus in his own papers in the archives of British fascism.

Richard Wilson
Kingston University

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