Vol. 41 No. 8 · 18 April 2019

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Amritsar, 1919

In his review of my book Amritsar 1919, Ferdinand Mount insists that both General Dyer and the massacre were unique (LRB, 4 April). The violence of Jallianwala Bagh was all down to the personality of one officer: ‘No Dyer, no massacre,’ as Mount puts it. This despite the fact that I provide numerous examples and much evidence to the contrary: the review itself cites several other instances in which British officers in India from 1857 onward resorted to exemplary and indiscriminate massacres. Granted, there were always critics of such atrocities, yet the logic pursued by Dyer at Amritsar never went out of fashion, as anyone familiar with British military practice later on in Ireland, Palestine, Malaya or Kenya would recognise.

So why is there this insistence on focusing on Dyer’s personality to explain the Amritsar massacre? Because it is much easier to confine the racialised violence of the British Empire to the actions of a few misguided individuals than to understand it as a systemic aspect of colonial rule. To acknowledge the pervasive violence of the British Empire, however, is not about judging the past by modern standards or ignoring the brutality of other imperialist regimes. A critical approach to the history of the Empire is not the same as a critique of the Empire. Indeed, reductive labels– ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – are deeply unhelpful when seeking a genuine understanding of the complexities of the past. In 2019, people in Britain have nothing to be ashamed about, as long as they are willing to face the oftentimes uncomfortable realities of the empire instead of taking comfort in some ahistorical moral calculation according to which railways make up for massacres. We are not responsible for the past, but we are responsible for what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget.

Kim Wagner
Queen Mary University of London

Ferdinand Mount writes of ‘the absurd regulation that required Indians to buy platform tickets at railway stations while Europeans could stroll on free of charge – the kind of racist nonsense that would be unthinkable were India to enjoy dominion status, like Canada or Australia’. This would have been unthinkable, no doubt, in a self-governing India. But dominion status still allowed for plenty of racist exclusion – as does the dispensation that succeeded it. To pick just two examples from Canada’s dominion period: Chinese-Canadians gained the right to vote in federal elections only in 1947, and aboriginal Canadians only in 1960.

The federal Indian Act still specifies who is and is not, in principle, eligible for ‘Indian Status’ and so entitled to sundry legal benefits. The federal government has pledged to do away with this paternalism, but pledges have always been cheap, while obstacles to reform remain formidable. Racism now poses as liberal enlightenment. Non-aboriginal Canadians sometimes stoutly insist on complete equality of status, and an end to ‘privilege’. In the same breath, they’ll say that the First Nations were ‘defeated’ (an absurd falsehood) ‘and should just get over it’ (more paternalism). I would be surprised to see a truly nation-to-nation form of relationship in my lifetime.

Bob Beck


Michele Pridmore-Brown, writing about Hans Asperger, places a good deal of emphasis on the German word Gemüt (LRB, 21 March). Terms for the emotions are notoriously difficult to translate from one language to another. The Portuguese and the Welsh pride themselves on the fact that there is no direct English equivalent for their words saudade and hiraeth, which are, incidentally, pretty good translations of each other. But that doesn’t mean the English-speaking peoples are complete strangers to the feeling of a melancholy longing for something you can’t quite put your finger on, which is the feeling being named. Similarly, the fact that Gemüt is sometimes a bit elusive hardly implies all that Pridmore-Brown seems to be suggesting. It is related to the English word ‘mood’ and a Gemütskrankheit is a mood disorder, like severe depression or bipolar disorder. We have plenty of mood disorder clinics and research units in the UK, without there being any implication that something politically suspect is afoot. Pridmore-Brown implies that to be, as she puts it, Gemüt-ful, would be ‘to be choreographed to swarm in one direction’. Swarm? Is social life swarming? We hardly need her hybrid term. There’s a perfectly good German word, Gemütvoll, and it just means ‘nice’ or ‘agreeable’. The fact is that most psychiatric diagnoses entail a normative evaluation of symptoms. The current DSM-5 description of autism spectrum disorder refers to ‘deficits in social-emotional reciprocity’, ‘deficits in social communication and social interaction’ and ‘significant impairment in social … functioning’. Are the terms ‘deficit’, ‘impairment’ or, for that matter, ‘reciprocity’ or ‘functioning’ any less normative than those Hans Asperger uses?

Jem Thomas

No One I Know

Daniel Soar possesses an admirable ability, much like his subject Christopher Hitchens, to stick to his guns (LRB, 21 March). He remarks that the question of religion ‘is of precisely no interest to almost any person I know’. But that is emphatically not true of Hitchens’s audience in the US, where he lived from 1981 and became a citizen in 2007. Sixty per cent of Americans remain deeply religious, and only 33 per cent believe in evolution without divine intervention. Among evangelical Christians, who make up an estimated quarter of the total population, those figures are 88 per cent and 4 per cent respectively. More than 80 per cent of white evangelical Christians voted for Trump.

While ‘godly’ is an adjective few would apply to Trump himself, Vice President Mike Pence and other Trump appointees demonstrate the continuing potency of religion as a political force. Religious beliefs affect American policy on climate change (Scott Pruitt, the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, denies climate change and evolution on the basis of a lack of evidence); education (the secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, talks of wanting to ‘advance God’s kingdom’ through political activity); and health (as a Congressman in 2006, the former secretary of health and human services Tom Price co-sponsored a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman), to name but a few. The US Supreme Court continues to rule on cases inflected by religion, from Masterpiece Cakeshop’s refusal to make a wedding cake for a gay couple to Trump’s Muslim travel ban, while lower courts confront issues such as non-theists’ right to deliver invocations to Congressional sessions. Soar and his acquaintances may be uninterested in religion but he is surely mistaken to dismiss as ‘deranged’ those among us who are acutely interested, not to say worried.

Maxwell Young

Brexit Blues

Ben Bradley is technically correct in pointing out that Brexit was not, as David Runciman described it, ‘the choice of the people’, since just over a third of the electorate voted for it in the referendum (Letters, 21 March). But it is irritating to see this figure wheeled out as ‘proof’ that the referendum somehow lacked democratic validity. Unlike parliamentary elections held under our first-past-the-post system, referendums do at least provide a clear majority for one side or the other, and from that point of view reflect the ‘will of the people’ more accurately than parliamentary elections ever could. Whether they are a good idea from other perspectives is of course a completely separate issue.

In the 2015 general election the SDLP won Belfast South with only 24.5 per cent of the votes cast (there were nine candidates). As the turnout was 60 per cent, this amounts to a mere 14.7 per cent of those eligible to vote, less than half the national figure on which Leave won the referendum. Winning an election in this way on a quarter of the votes cast is indeed a shocking distortion of democracy, but that is entirely a consequence of our first-past-the-post system and did not apply in the case of the referendum.

Bradley suggests that a system of compulsory voting would eliminate these anomalies; he is writing from Australia, which has such a system. This is a red herring, given that the main culprit is first-past-the-post, a system Australia abandoned in favour of preferential voting many years ago. There are in any case weighty arguments against compulsory voting, chiefly the difficulty of allowing for conscientious abstention. An acquaintance of mine deliberately cast no vote in the EU referendum because, he said, in all conscience he found the facts too complex and the arguments too confused to allow him to reach an informed decision. This could be worked around by including a ‘Don’t Know’ or similar option in any compulsory vote, although I strongly suspect that in a ‘People’s Vote’ held now along these lines the ‘Don’t Knows’ would have it. And what then?

John Dewey
Wareham, Dorset

Among the Gilets Jaunes

Jeremy Harding writes that income inequality in the UK, which is higher than in France, ‘has been offset – a little, for some – by an overall rise in property prices’ (LRB, 3 January). Rosemary Hill, in the same issue, observes that historically the British succumbed to a property bug that was less infectious over the Channel. But the times are changing. Today 64.9 per cent of French households are owner-occupied, as against 63.4 per cent in the UK. According to Bertrand Garbinti, Jonathan Goupille-Lebret and Thomas Piketty, a broad base of home ownership has somewhat shielded the French middle class from growing inequality since the 1980s, but at the same time the very wealthiest groups have accumulated financial assets that brought bigger returns than savings and property. In any case, as Harding recognises, a property ladder dominated by the middle classes isn’t very useful to people struggling to accumulate the savings to get on it.

Rob Priest
London SW4

Jeremy Harding’s essay on the gilets jaunes highlights a fundamental dilemma of the global crisis, that mankind has evolved into homo vehicularis, a new techno-species whose habits and desires are dependent on personal transportation to move about sprawling global cities, almost all of which lack adequate public transport. Tackling climate change requires an increase in fuel prices and the imposition of speed limits in order to wean humans off their cars, SUVs, pickups and vans. These policies will inevitably anger the life form.

Lee De Cola
Reston, Virginia

The Vice President’s Men

Edward Luttwak and Marc Dubin are in a nice back and forth over whether Reagan would have pressed the button (Letters, 21 March and Letters, 4 April). I was a technical illustrator for a brief period during the Reagan era. I created classified graphics for the Pentagon, mostly for ‘Star Wars’. One of my last jobs was a series of situation maps depicting a Pentagon wargame involving a Soviet attack on West Germany, culminating in a general nuclear exchange once the Reds reached the Low Countries. Game over, as the kids used to say. Upper management was solidly pro-Reagan, the rest of us a mixed bag. None of us took such scenarios seriously: we knew the Russians weren’t crazy. And in those days, the generals weren’t bootlickers: they would probably have pulled the plug on any foolishness. After all, the point of war is to get rich, not dead, and under Reagan, the Beltway Bandits – mostly retired military personnel – got very rich indeed.

Mahendra Singh

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