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Letters

Vol. 40 No. 3 · 8 February 2018

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The Blame They Deserve

David Runciman subscribes to the usual narrative of criticising Gordon Brown for his skills in leading a government, but praising him for his actions during the near collapse of the world’s financial system from 2007 to 2009 (LRB, 4 January). Brown, Alistair Darling and other leading Labour figures consistently frame the financial crisis as ‘global’, out of their hands, impossible to have foreseen, the creation of sinister forces which, because they operate on a global scale, are unaccountable to sovereign nation-states. It is a compelling argument and conveniently absolves the 1997-2010 Labour governments of any responsibility for the financial crisis and the subsequent stagnation in British living standards. It is as if controlling these unknown and unidentifiable forces were impossible, in spite of the fact that London had by 2005 become – and by some measures may still be – the world’s pre-eminent financial centre. Whether measured by assets, revenues, numbers employed or head office locations, a vast number of global banking transactions take place in London. The forces are not unknown and not unidentifiable.

It seems to me that successive governments have failed to understand what the City does and how it generates its vast income. I recall, for instance, Nicholas Macpherson, permanent secretary of the Treasury under Brown and the coalition government, praising the City as recently as 2016 for generating huge tax receipts between 1998 and 2006, without reflecting how it is that financial institutions can become so profitable so quickly, i.e. by generating income from their hugely inflated loan books. The vast increase in the profitability of the City before the crisis should have given Brown, Darling and the Treasury pause for thought. Instead, they shamelessly celebrated it.

Brown as chancellor, and Darling as chief secretary to the Treasury, have not received the blame they deserve for their approval of the Royal Bank of Scotland’s takeover of National Westminster Bank in 2000. This infected a systemically important English clearing bank with the poisonous hubris of RBS’s management, and made the collapse of RBS a far greater mess than it might have been had Brown and Darling refused Fred Goodwin and his team permission to buy NatWest. Neither, so far as I am aware, has acknowledged this error of judgment.

Runciman’s list of the ‘demands of political leadership’ includes an ability to communicate effectively, ‘mastery of detail’, ‘hard work’, ‘commitment to a cause’ and a ‘passionate conviction about what needed to be done’. None of these is much use without decision-making skills, the absence of which was Brown’s undoing. Even when he was able to come down on one side or another, the outcomes were unfortunate or costly or both. To the decision on RBS one might add the Child Support Agency debacle, the failed part-privatisation of London Underground, the overbearing complexity of tax credits, the abolition of the 10 per cent tax band, the ongoing conundrum of tuition fees, the money pit that is HS2 and, of course, the willingness to sign a blank cheque for the invasion of Iraq.

Oliver Lewis
Montgomery, Montgomeryshire

Zonked

Alan Bennett is disappointed at no longer being able to buy Dr Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne across the counter (LRB, 4 January). He is perhaps unaware that the principal ingredient of this wonder-working potion was laudanum (tincture of opium). Its therapeutic value lay in its ability, in common with all opium derivatives, to cause instant constipation, which led to its being seen as a prime remedy for all conditions, lethal or trivial, involving diarrhoea. In addition, of course, one could get seriously zonked on it (a spoonful was enough), and this made it a product from which the public had to be protected by its withdrawal from sale. I share Alan Bennett’s mild regret at its passing and the loss of innocence it represents.

Roger Jones
Andover, Hampshire

On 8 August last year Alan Bennett wondered if General MacArthur might not be ‘a Trump Counterpart’. In E.L. Doctorow’s novel The Book of Daniel (1971), the eponymous narrator makes an even more startling observation: ‘MacArthur came closer to overthrowing the government of the US than any person in modern times. He was acclaimed throughout the land. I noticed he combed his hair across the top of his head to hide his baldness. How could the country trust a man of such pathetic vanity?’

Neil Ferguson
London W10

Defining Anti-Semitism

Neve Gordon mentions the definition of anti-Semitism ‘adopted by the current UK government’ and its accompanying list of examples (LRB, 4 January). I’d like to add a word about its origins.

In 2005 a working party of the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, an EU institution, produced a forty-word ‘working definition’:

Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed towards Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, towards Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

It was followed by a series of examples, of unknown authorship, which, depending on their context, might constitute acts of anti-Semitism. Of the 11 examples, seven referred to Israel rather than to Jews. But both the definition and the illustrations were rejected by the EUMC, and in 2013 its successor, the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), removed the entire text from its website as part of a clear-out of non-official documents.

In May 2016 the same text was adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (the IHRA), a Berlin-based association of 31 states, at its meeting in Bucharest. To it were added, in the IHRA’s press release, the list of 11 examples. I wrote about this composite text in the LRB of 4 May 2017, because the definition seemed to me clumsy and open-ended, and a number of the illustrations, by seeking to conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, slanted.

What I did not appreciate then was, first, that the IHRA text was not original but had been retrieved from the files of two other bodies which had never adopted it; second, that the ‘examples’ had been added to the adopted text; and, third, that the content of the versions adopted by UK institutions and bodies (and by governments such as those of Austria and Romania) has itself been variable.

In December 2016, a press release from the Department for Communities and Local Government and the prime minister’s office announced that the UK had ‘formally’ adopted the IHRA’s working definition of anti-Semitism, setting out the forty-word definition without any of the associated examples. It is not known what ‘formal’ adoption means in constitutional terms: either a text has to take legislative form, with all that this entails, or it remains simply a policy. On the same day Jeremy Corbyn announced that the Labour Party was adopting the definition.

In neither of these announcements were the tendentious illustrations included. But central government has cited them as grounds for rejecting the advice of the Home Affairs Committee that the ‘definition’ should be qualified by spelling out that in the absence of additional evidence of anti-Semitic intent, it is not anti-Semitic to criticise Israel’s government, to hold it to the same standards as other liberal democracies or to take a particular interest in its policies or actions. A number of municipalities, including London, Manchester and Birmingham, have adopted the list wholesale – London, among others, using a version which omits the proviso that the listed examples depend on their context.

What is at issue is suggested by the prime minister’s contemporaneous speech, quoted in the government’s press release: ‘Israel guarantees the rights of people of all religions, races and sexualities, and it wants to enable everyone to flourish.’ From this it isn’t far to the first of the ‘examples’ of anti-Semitism: ‘Manifestations could also target the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity.’ Leaving aside the difference between targeting and criticism, one asks: conceived by whom? The world at large, millions of Jews included, conceives of Israel as a state with the same rights and obligations as any other state, including an obligation not to extend its territory by incremental colonisation or to occupy and administer the land of others under military law. It is hardline Zionism and hardline jihadism which coincide, as extremes tend to do, in regarding Israel as a ‘Jewish collectivity’ – jihadism by seeking to identify Israel with all Jews (making every Jew a legitimate terrorist target), Zionism by seeking to identify all Jews with Israel (whence the description of Israel’s Jewish critics as ‘self-hating’).

None of this is addressed by a definition which sets the bar needlessly high by stipulating hatred rather than simple hostility as the defining characteristic of anti-Semitism, nor by tendentious examples which look to immunise Israel from sharp criticism. Those who seek to make use of such material in the UK should perhaps remember that public authorities are bound by the Human Rights Act to give effect to Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right of free expression subject only to restrictions prescribed by law – which the IHRA definition is not.

Stephen Sedley
London WC1

Neve Gordon, instead of going to such lengths to prove the separability of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, might have considered how anti-Zionism can be used as cover for more sinister beliefs. One way this happens is through what David Hirsh calls the ‘Livingstone formulation’, named after the former London mayor, whereby anti-Semitic remarks unconnected with Israel are justified as legitimate anti-Zionism. To take just one example, a representative of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, reacting to the Grenfell Tower fire, blamed the ‘murder’ on ‘Zionist supporters of the Tory Party’.

Another way in which anti-Zionism is used to conceal anti-Semitism is through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which Gordon favours. Jackie Walker, who in autumn 2016 was suspended from the Labour Party and removed from her position as vice-chair of Momentum after making critical remarks about Holocaust Memorial Day, is now boycotting moisturiser made by a US company because an Israeli actress is used to promote it. An American Jewish musician had a gig cancelled by a Spanish promoter when he failed to produce a politically acceptable statement on Palestine (he was ‘seen to represent Israel’). Meanwhile, as a pro-Palestinian academic, I am constantly enjoined to boycott like-minded Israeli colleagues. It is unclear what any of this has to do with a ‘passion for justice’ or the ‘struggle for self-determination’.

I would be more inclined to respect the bona fides of the BDS movement if it were equally exercised about China, Morocco, Turkey or any other country engaged in long-term illegal occupations – or, for that matter, war in Syria, torture in Egypt or suppression of dissent in Iran. But the Jewish state is judged by a different standard, which is precisely the phenomenon described by the concept of the ‘new anti-Semitism’.

Richard Carver
Oxford Brookes University

Let Pauline Speak

I am the translator of Degas and His Model, the ‘curious text’ discussed by Julian Barnes in his piece about Degas (LRB, 4 January). On the centenary of Degas’s death, Barnes wants us to let his paintings ‘speak’, and asks us to ‘rein in our chatter’. He treats Degas’s model’s account as emblematic of a litigious contemporary criticism that would substitute moralising and gossip for attention to visual detail.

Barnes argues that concerns about misogyny and objectification in Degas’s work are wrongheaded, since the women who appear in his paintings ‘are not victims of the male gaze but oblivious to it’. They are shown in moments of complicity with other women, or lost in their own inwardness, and portrayed in a way that realistically reflects their lived experience, without erasing their boredom or fatigue. Does it matter that he subjected his models to verbal and physical abuse – and fired them for daring to pose for Jewish artists – if he immortalised their ‘female separateness’? Should this kind of knowledge alter our evaluation of the paintings, a hundred years later? Generations of art historians of diverse backgrounds and critical orientations have wrestled with these questions, including the late Linda Nochlin, who appreciated Degas’s brothel monotypes as much as Barnes does.

But it does seem odd to me that Barnes can vaunt Degas’s representations of female interiority even while pooh-poohing the expression of that interiority by the women themselves. The pictures ‘speak’, but Barnes seems to think that women like Pauline, Degas’s model, can only gossip and chatter. Could he not at least lend them an ear, in the interests of what he calls ‘expanding and continuing the argument’?

A much less significant quibble, but one that is particularly irksome for a translator: Barnes takes issue with my decision to translate this text into American English, implying that so doing somehow troubles its potential value or meaning. I am an American translator translating for an American audience, and the book reflects that, as it does the fact that the original is anything but prim. Perhaps he would have preferred a version in nautical semaphore, Old Church Slavonic or, more probably, the British English spoken at Oxford circa 1965. Perhaps only an exact transcription of the French original would have skirted interpretative difficulties? Fortunately, the text is digitised and freely available on Gallica, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France’s online repository. Mr Barnes, be the Pierre Menard you want to see in the world!

Jeff Nagy
Berkeley, California

About Penguins

Regarding the fatal disorientation of penguins, Robert Falcon Scott said of the adélie, the species that interested Werner Herzog, that they show ‘a pig-headed disregard for their own safety’ (Letters, 25 January). I was stationed in Antarctica in 2003 when a British Antarctic Survey pilot told me he’d spotted one more than a hundred miles from safety on the Antarctic plateau, walking towards certain death. He picked it up and flew it back to the coast, where it promptly turned back in the direction of its doom.

It’s unlikely these penguins are insane; the survival of the group may be enhanced by the habitual striking out for new territories of a (small) proportion. Adélies can cross immense distances with ease: in December 1959 Richard Penney captured five of them at Wilkes Station, Antarctica, put bands on their legs, and flew them to McMurdo Station on the Ross Sea. By the beginning of the following summer, three had made it back – a return trip of more than two thousand miles.

Gavin Francis
Edinburgh

Blame it on New Zealand

Gavin Francis may well wonder why Western Samoa had a disproportionately high death rate in the 1918 flu pandemic (LRB, 25 January). In fact, it was caused by the incompetence of the New Zealand authorities’ administration of the former German Samoa (captured by New Zealand in August 1914). Ships’ passengers who had contracted flu elsewhere were allowed ashore at the capital, Apia. The result was that, of a total indigenous population of 38,000, more than seven thousand died.

Roger Paulin
Trinity College, Cambridge

One of the cadavers from which samples of Spanish flu virus have been taken was that of Sir Mark Sykes, who along with Georges-Picot reorganised the Middle East after the First World War. Sykes was exhumed in 2008, and his lungs and brain supplied 17 samples of the virus for research.

Karl Sabbagh
Bloxham, Oxfordshire

A New Dark Age

Steve Bruce says I was wrong to claim that ‘religion is on the rise’ in my piece about the asteroid Oumuamua, citing indices of religious decline in the West (Letters, 25 January). The new dark age, however, is something that affects us all, and worldwide the number of religiously affiliated people is expected to rise dramatically over the next thirty years. A Pew Report from 2015 forecasts that by 2050 there will be 8.1 billion religious people in the world, 23 times more than there were in 2010 – the number of the unaffiliated is expected to increase by a much smaller degree, to just 1.23 billion. Bruce claims that Islam is ‘waning in influence’, when in fact it is the fastest-growing religion in the world: by 2060 the Muslim population is predicted to increase by 70 per cent. As for Britain, secularisation seems to have stalled, while the Muslim population is expected (again, by Pew) to triple by 2050.

Nick Richardson
London E17

Last Word

Having just caught up with Adam Mars-Jones on Olga Tokarczuk, I’m surprised that he describes her use of Queen’s ‘Who Wants to Live For Ever’ as ‘giving Brian May the last word’ (LRB, 5 October 2017). It’s true that May wrote the song, but the lines Mars-Jones instances were sung by Freddie Mercury. Would Mars-Jones have described a quotation from ‘My Way’ as ‘giving Paul Anka the last word’?

Jemima Smithson
Oxford

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