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Letters

Vol. 40 No. 4 · 22 February 2018

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Must Do Better

In the aftermath of Weinstein and the same week as a weaselly report on pay at the BBC, the dearth of women in the LRB of 8 February is much more than disappointing to readers who see the magazine as an important forum for discussion about rights and social justice: just one letter out of 11, and four articles out of 18 appear to be by women. Of course representation is not the only thing that matters, but without it women will never be recognised as equal contributors in fields such as media, politics, literature and entertainment. This is the moment for the LRB to build on its track record of promoting powerful and persuasive voices such as Jenny Diski, Mary Beard and Jacqueline Rose, and take responsibility for helping to nurture the next generation of feminist writers.

Moira Dustin
Brighton

All This and a Poet Too

It is enlightening to find Patrick McGuinness treating Nancy Cunard as a serious modernist poet rather than an upper-crust dilettante with a garish life that parallels, and may have inspired, an episode of Downton Abbey (LRB, 25 January). It was through that life, with ‘plenty to distract from the work’, as McGuinness notes, that I first learned of Cunard’s existence. In particular I was struck by her obscure but direct connection with the founding of California’s most raffish city, Oakland.

Nancy’s mother, Lady Emerald Cunard, was born Maud Alice Burke in San Francisco. At the age of 18 she became the ward of a wealthy lawyer and land speculator named Horace Carpentier. He had once been keen on Maud’s mother, a divorcée and socialite; and when she remarried, he offered to look after Maud in his household in New York. Fresh out of Columbia College, Carpentier had joined the Gold Rush in 1849. Like most of the tycoons who emerged from that moment, he prospered far from the motherlode by squatting on a muddy spit of land on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay until he could ‘negotiate’ a sale with the reluctant owner, Don Vicente Peralta. The debts Peralta had incurred defending his Mexican title to a vast rancho that covered most of the East Bay soon forced his hand. With two neighbouring squatters, Carpentier laid out streets and lots, and as the new state took shape, by various machinations got himself elected to the legislature. He won incorporation of the town – previously known as Contra Costa or Encinal – as a city, which he renamed Oakland, wangled a deed to the whole of the city’s waterfront and was elected its first mayor.

He went on to become president of the Overland Telegraph Company, which outmoded the Pony Express. He was a director of the Central Pacific Railroad and a figure in the ‘China trade’. And in 1890 he dutifully whisked his new protegée, Maud, to Europe in search of a noble suitor. She landed a prince: André Poniatowski, a French-born descendant of Polish kings.

Their engagement was announced and Poniatowski travelled to San Francisco, where he invested profitably in gold mines, railroads and electric utilities – but promptly fell for another California heiress, a member of the Crocker banking and railroad clan. Maud rebounded with aplomb. In 1895, aged 23, she married Sir Bache Cunard, the mustachioed, 43-year-old fox-hunting heir to a British steamship fortune. In London, as Lady Cunard, she became known as an unconventional and effervescent hostess of country weekends for a musico-literary crowd. She had a daughter. She became the foremost patron of the Royal Opera. She took Sir Thomas Beecham as her longtime lover. She solicited enough donations from her circle to keep James Joyce writing through the 1920s. And she promoted the liaison between her American friend Wallis Simpson and the future King Edward VIII.

Horace Carpentier, meanwhile, pursued a life of bookish seclusion. He served on Columbia’s board, and he made several significant gifts to the university, among them endowing a chair in Chinese. Maud and Nancy visited him once, in 1906, at his country home in upstate New York. He was 82 and Nancy, who was ten, was not impressed. He included neither of them in his will. Instead, he gave $1 million each (when that really meant something) to Columbia and its women’s college, Barnard, with a scholarship ‘for deserving girls, not excluding Chinese’. He left $100,000 to the University of California to purchase books and research materials on ‘the five great areas of Asiatic civilisation: China, Japan, India, Arabia and Babylonia’. He financed a home for the poor and gave a significant amount to the Tuskegee Institute in memory of its founder, Booker T. Washington. All this at a time of heightened Oriental exclusion and Jim Crow fervour – with passing bows to environmental protection, animal welfare and women’s education.

So maybe Nancy Cunard’s iconoclastic commitment to avant-garde writers, her love of jazz, her social conscience, her leftist politics and her public relationship with a black man (‘Do you mean to say that my daughter actually knows a Negro?’ sniffed Lady Emerald, severing her allowance), skipped a generation but owes something to her mother’s benefactor. It certainly bears the Oakland stripe.

All that and an estimable poet too.

David Ollier Weber
Placerville, California

Can the law be feminist?

Lorna Finlayson, in a review of my book Butterfly Politics, states that in a 2014 speech in Israel I ‘praised the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) as “the only army in the world that does not rape the women of its occupied people"’ (LRB, 25 January). No source, including the one Professor Finlayson kindly provided when asked, supports this false characterisation of what was clearly an empirical observation of the contemporary occupying IDF. Saying I praised a fact I simply stated, raising it as a question seeking further information and analysis, is a category mistake as well as sloppy scholarship. It is also, in context, intentionally politically defamatory.

While ignoring the central theme and point of the book – activism – the review uses this inaccuracy to launch a lengthy attack on work that is not in it. Professor Finlayson is apparently unaware either of my international work against sexual violence or my analysis that ending violence against women is fundamental to peace. Her discussion of my views on these topics is pure conjecture.

Catharine A. MacKinnon
University of Michigan Law School Ann Arbor

Lorna Finlayson replies: Catharine MacKinnon accuses me of a ‘category mistake’ and of ‘sloppy scholarship’, on the basis that she did not ‘praise’ the Israeli Defence Force, but merely stated the ‘fact’ that the IDF does not rape Palestinian women under occupation. My point was that this is not a fact, since it is false, or at the very least highly questionable. Further, as I suspect MacKinnon is well aware, interventions taking the form of descriptive statements – whether true, false or questionable – can and frequently do constitute acts of praise or legitimation. I leave it to readers to judge whether it is reasonable to interpret MacKinnon’s statement, delivered at an Israeli institution while a captive population was being bombed just a few kilometres away, as constituting such an act. Readers of Hebrew are also free to consult my source, which was published in Saloona on 30 July 2014 (‘If prostitution is a free choice, why do men not choose it?’). If MacKinnon believes that Saloona’s report is inaccurate, I suggest she take it up with them.

The Fear Gauge

I wrote about VIX, the Wall Street ‘fear gauge’, in the LRB of 25 January, addressing in particular the question of what was maintaining the VIX at such a low level. A week after publication, the processes I discussed began to go into reverse. Then, on 5 and 6 February, the reversal became dramatic and the VIX rose to well over 30 (it had been under 10 as I was finishing the article), accompanied by big overall fluctuations in international stock markets.

It is impossible at this stage to be certain how much of those fluctuations can be explained by the reversal of the feedback loop I described. Certainly, though, the ‘short VIX’ trade I discussed incurred huge losses. In particular, by the close of trading on 6 February, the XIV (the ‘inverse’ fund which facilitated betting that the VIX would continue to fall) had incurred losses of more than 90 per cent. In response, Credit Suisse – whose product the XIV was – announced its termination. Investors in the XIV can redeem their units, but it appears that they can do so only at prices that for most of them imply almost complete loss of their capital.

Donald MacKenzie
Edinburgh

Defining Anti-Semitism

Richard Carver’s strictures against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement demand a response (Letters, 8 February). He writes that Jackie Walker – a black Jewish woman – is ‘boycotting moisturiser made by a US company because an Israeli actress is used to promote it’. That actress is also an enthusiastic member and supporter of the IDF and has promoted its support of the illegal occupation. Carver also mentions an American Jewish musician who had a gig cancelled ‘when he failed to produce a politically acceptable statement on Palestine’. That musician is a proud and vocal apologist for the Israeli army and its illegal activities; he declined to support Palestinian human rights when the promoters put the question to him. Neither instance had anything to do with anti-Semitism; both were responses to Israel’s flagrant violations of human rights.

BDS is a campaign directed at institutions, not individuals, unless an individual is representing the state of Israel or a complicit Israeli institution, or has been commissioned or recruited to participate in Israel’s efforts to ‘rebrand’ itself. BDS originated in a call from Palestinian civil society to address the violence, terror and racism intrinsic to Israel’s pursuit of hegemony in the territory it occupies. Carver demands to know why BDS supporters aren’t ‘equally exercised about China, Morocco, Turkey or any other country engaged in long-term illegal occupations’. If other oppressed groups made the demand, as the blacks of apartheid South Africa once did, there would indeed be an argument for boycotts elsewhere.

Diana Neslen
Ilford, Essex

A Problem in Understanding

Charles Hope might have focused less on issues of attribution and more on the complex personal resonances of Michelangelo’s gifts (LRB, 8 February). He writes that there is ‘no obvious problem in understanding’ a drawing of Ganymede’s rape by Jupiter. That’s true in the sense that this is one of the most recognisable Greek myths. But there is surely something worthy of further reflection in Michelangelo’s having sent the image – in which a startlingly unperturbed-looking naked youth is being swept off by a giant bird of prey – to Tommaso dei Cavalieri, the handsome young nobleman he adored. The ‘problem in understanding’ here is only intensified in the exhibition by the nearby presence of Michelangelo’s drawing, also for Tommaso, of a vulture preparing to tear out the liver of the bound and recumbent nude Tityus. On the back of this Punishment of Tityus are sketches of the risen Christ.

Dianne Mitchell
The Queen’s College, Oxford

A Noun Is Coming

Bee Wilson’s mention of soldiers’ routine use of the word ‘fucking’ reminds me of my training days in the Royal Engineers (LRB, 8 February). ‘Do you know why you’re learning the slow march, you little bar-stards?’ the sergeant major shouted at us across the parade ground. ‘No, sir,’ we shouted back in unison.

‘It’s RESPEK FOR THE FUCKING DEAD!’ he bellowed.

Fabian Acker
London SE22

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