Vol. 42 No. 5 · 5 March 2020

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What Matters

There is a bizarre surplus of outrage in Alexander Zevin’s letter (Letters, 20 February). Even leaving aside (as I shall) his unnecessary and misleading ad hominem remarks, there are too many exaggerations and misrepresentations in it. Surely the nub of the matter is this: Zevin’s book Liberalism at Large is described as ‘a critical biography’ of the Economist since 1843; Zevin views the magazine as a ‘continuous and unified project’, and he affirms that he is writing ‘the history of the Economist as a history of liberalism’. I expressed some reservations about the persuasiveness of this frame.

One reservation concerned the usefulness of a category of ‘liberalism’ that has supposedly animated the Economist over the past 177 years. ‘Liberalism’, as I emphasised, is a term that has been used in a great variety of often conflicting senses, and the character of the magazine itself, as I also suggested, has by no means been stable throughout its history. I entirely recognise that there can be different views about the referent of the term – Zevin and I may legitimately disagree about its application – but if it is used to mean little more in practice than a tendency to be favourable to capital it does not seem to be a particularly illuminating historical category. Nowhere do I ‘pooh-pooh’ Zevin’s research on the political positions expressed in the magazine’s editorials. In fact I explicitly commend the book’s ‘well-documented contributions to the intellectual history of political argument’, while suggesting that there are further interesting questions to be asked about the nature of the magazine. And nowhere do I speak of ‘its coverage of soya futures and sex toys’ (where has that come from?), though I do say that part of its role has been to provide detailed coverage of international markets.

Another of my reservations concerned the continuity of the terms of Zevin’s critique over such a long period of time. For example, in emphasising the ‘confrontation’ between liberalism and ‘the challenges of democracy’, Zevin is highly critical of Bagehot’s views about the coup of 1851 in France as indicating the Economist’s tendency to side with authoritarianism. Later, in criticising the magazine’s triumphalist endorsement of Pinochet’s overthrow of Allende in 1973, he says: ‘Bagehot, writing in 1851, had worked harder than this to justify the coup in France.’ That comment may acknowledge the thicker texture of Bagehot’s writing, but it certainly seems to confirm that the magazine’s responses in these two instances are being condemned by the same standard. I am surprised to be told that I ‘leap … to defend Bagehot’, which I was not doing, though this assertion does underline that Zevin sees himself as attacking that writer. I am even more surprised to learn that I ‘wave away the positions that Bagehot took’ – why would any historian do that? – and that I treat Bagehot as representing some ‘standard’ consensus among his contemporaries (pig-ignorant as I apparently am, I’m not altogether unfamiliar with the varied views of John Stuart Mill et al). I’d like to think it is possible for a reviewer to raise issues of this kind without being so sweepingly denounced.

Stefan Collini

Prospects for the BBC

Ferdinand Mount makes the common error of identifying the BBC with the licence fee, and assuming that, absent the licence fee, the BBC would be ‘demoted’ (LRB, 20 February). The reality is rather more complex. A subscription-funded BBC entertainment service would undoubtedly thrive, as the BBC’s chairman, Sir David Clementi, has acknowledged. And the service could be distributed abroad, likely doubling or even trebling whatever it earned in the UK (Netflix has twice as many subscribers outside the US as inside).

However, a subscription-funded BBC could not be expected to continue to pay for the World Service (until 2010, a cost rightly borne by the Foreign Office), the Welsh-language channel S4C, the monitoring service at Caversham, local TV channels or broadband roll-out. The huge panoply of obligations associated with the BBC Charter, and overseen by Ofcom, would also be jettisoned, from the proportion of broadcast hours commissioned from outside the M25 to the requirement to publish all salaries above £150,000 funded by the licence fee.

Such a BBC, released from never-ending wrangling with governments over the level of the licence fee and its associated conditions, not to mention the odium of criminalising more than a hundred thousand citizens every year for failing to pay the compulsory charge, might well also offload radio (why should TV customers fund that?), the orchestras, Gaelic TV and the more esoteric elements of its current public service content: let governments decide if they want to retain these, and how to pay for them.

Tory politicians who imagine that getting rid of the licence fee might weaken the BBC could be in for a rude awakening. Picking up the tab for everything the BBC currently funds, but would no longer fund if the licence fee were removed, could leave ministers choosing between an annual bill running into the hundreds of millions and abandoning great swathes of public service provision and overseas influence. There would be a national outcry. But a leaner, richer and bolder BBC could rejuvenate its creative output, and would never have to put up with bullying and threats from ministers again.

David Elstein
London SW15

Labour’s Defeat

In his novel The Northern Clemency (2008), Philip Hensher described the Sheffield neighbourhood in which I lived at the time (Letters, 20 February). It was in the least affluent corner of the city’s most affluent constituency, Sheffield Hallam. The people there lived secretive lives, as Hensher saw it, and were narrow-minded and selfish. That wasn’t my experience. And in December’s election, Sheffield Hallam returned Olivia Blake as its MP – for Labour.

Hensher will see what he chooses to see, and he is unlikely ever to see things the way I do, even if we did walk the same streets. He takes issue with James Butler’s claim that Jeremy Corbyn received a level of opprobrium almost unprecedented in public life, contrasting the abuse Corbyn received with the treatment Margaret Thatcher got when in office. But Hensher could at least recognise that where Thatcher was a prime minister vilified for what she did in power, Corbyn was a man who never became prime minister vilified for fear that he might one day hold power.

Danny Dorling

All the abusive remarks about Margaret Thatcher cited by Philip Hensher were made by individuals who suffered from her policies, or by people speaking on their behalf. Abuse of Corbyn came mostly from large corporations, including many media outlets, and concerned not the results of actions already taken but the potential effects of reforms we were supposed to be scared of.

Paul Eustice
Worthing, West Sussex

Perhaps Philip Hensher is right that the vilification of Corbyn was mild in comparison with the treatment of Margaret Thatcher. However, as far as I know, the Parachute Regiment never used a photo of Mrs Thatcher for target practice.

Anthony Moore

Soviet Dissidents

Sheila Fitzpatrick describes my book The Dissidents: A Memoir of Working with the Resistance in Russia, 1960-90 as ‘an optimistic story of success (the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union)’, told with ‘boosterism and good cheer’ (LRB, 6 February). It is, she goes on, ‘not so much a celebration of [individual dissidents] as of the Westerners who selflessly took up their cause’. In reality, however, the book features much by way of awful suffering, including the travails of no fewer than 42 dissidents.

Fitzpatrick claims that my campaign to disseminate dissident writing in the West ‘was one of the most spectacular successes in the history of 20th-century publicity’. Yet only two books of mine, published in 1972 and 1977, came out in significant numbers. And the Western journalists who wrote about dissidents did so only occasionally. In similar vein, Fitzpatrick writes that ‘the collapse of the Soviet Union was – apparently – a victory for the dissident cause.’ Here she distorts my conclusion that while the dissidents contributed to the collapse, its outcome was not a victory for them, or for democracy or freedom of speech. As I say in the book, in December 1990 I reported after a trip to Moscow that ‘everyone seemed to agree that the current political and economic situation presented no hope for improvement, only for further decline.’ I also quoted – with approval – remarks made by the liberal economist Leonid Abalkin in September 1991: ‘This country hasn’t changed. The people remain the same as they were a month ago, with the same culture and the same psychology … It will take decades, or at least a generation.’

Fitzpatrick then projects her view of the political impotence of the dissidents beyond 1991, where the book ends, suggesting that if I too had carried the narrative further, it would have been ‘yet another story of defeat, given the virtual obliteration of the dissident cause and even memory’ in post-Soviet Russia. Here she overlooks the fact that I never claimed that the dissidents had political power, and she exaggerates their plight today. Despite heavy pressure, Memorial in particular is very much alive as a group. Finally, she seems to ignore my summary chapter, where I argue that the dissidents’ prospects are not good for the foreseeable future, because ‘Russia is far from being pregnant with a new order.’

Peter Reddaway
George Washington University

What’s your ontology?

Claire Hall asserts that of all ancient Greek peoples, ‘the Athenians are the only ones who claimed autochthony’ (LRB, 20 February). But we know from the Theban cycle that the ancestors of Oedipus, Antigone and other Thebans are supposed to have been the Spartoi – armed men who sprang directly from the earth after Cadmus sowed the teeth of a dragon he had slain.

Perhaps the insertion of dragon’s teeth into the mix makes the Thebans’ earthy parentage less than pure? Consider then the Carians, whose claim to have sprung from the soil is preserved by Herodotus. He tells us that in Crete it was said that the Carians had migrated to their contemporary homeland during the Dorian invasions, ‘but the Carians themselves … believe that they are autochthonous inhabitants of the mainland.’ Surely if we are to buy into the ontological empathy proposed by Hall, we should take at face value that Herodotus, and the Carians, were using the Greek word in its original sense?

Hassan Damluji
London NW1

Barbarism begins at home

It is striking that in the discussion of ‘barbarism’ following the review by John Gallagher of Keith Thomas’s In Pursuit of Civility, no mention was made of the widespread fear from the 16th century onwards – not only in countries bordering the Mediterranean but also in those along the Atlantic coast further north, including England (as well as Ireland, Scotland and even Iceland) – of the ‘corsairs’ or ‘Barbary pirates’ (Letters, 1 August 2019). These marauders operated for the most part from the ports of Tripoli, Tunis and, most of all, Algiers and Salé (in present-day Morocco) along what was widely known as the Barbary Coast, and used their naval and military skills to raid along the European coasts and on the high seas with the objective of taking captives to be sold in the slave markets of North Africa and the Middle East.

South-West England was a particular target for these ‘barbarians’. The situation was so bad that in December 1640 a Committee for Algiers was set up by Parliament to oversee the ransoming of captives. At the time it was reported that between three thousand and five thousand English people were in captivity in Algiers. Charities were set up and local fishing communities clubbed together to raise money for ransom. In 1645, another raid by Barbary pirates on the Cornish coast resulted in the kidnapping of 240 men, women and children. The following year Parliament sent Edmund Cason to Algiers to negotiate the ransom and release of English captives. He paid on average £30 per man (women were more expensive to ransom) and managed to free some 250 people before he ran out of money. Cason spent the last eight years of his life trying to arrange the release of a further four hundred. By the 1650s the attacks were so frequent that fishermen became reluctant to put to sea since it meant leaving their families ashore unprotected. Oliver Cromwell decreed that any captured corsairs should be taken to Bristol and slowly drowned. Lundy Island, where pirates from the Republic of Salé made their base, was attacked and bombarded, but the corsairs continued to mount raids on the coastal towns and villages of Cornwall, Devon and Dorset.

Sir John Narborough, backed by a Royal Navy squadron, managed to negotiate a peace with Tunis in 1675. A heavy naval bombardment by the British brought about a similar peace with Tripoli. Algiers too was attacked from the sea by British warships, and also by the French and Spanish, at various times throughout the 18th century. The United States fought two wars against the Barbary states in the early 19th century. Finally, after an attack by the British and Dutch in 1816, more than four thousand Christian slaves were liberated and the power of the pirates was broken. In 1830, the French captured Algiers and occupied Algeria, subjecting the local population, both Arabs and the indigenous tribes the French referred to as ‘Berbères’, to colonial rule.

David Seddon
London SE3

Spare Heirs

Leslie Green refers to Maximilian I as the emperor of Brazil (Letters, 20 February). In fact Napoleon III made him emperor of Mexico in an attempt to shore up the French invasion there. He was shot at the Cerro del Las Campanas (Hill of Bells) outside Querétaro by the Mexican Republican forces led by Juárez. The Mexican people have always regarded Maximilian with some affection, understanding that he was a pawn in international power politics concerned, among other things, with Mexico’s debts to European banks and governments. His body was returned to Vienna, where it is buried in a large sarcophagus in the Kaisergruft (the Imperial Crypt). The Mexican embassy in Vienna has placed a Mexican flag on the tomb and periodically places bouquets there.

Steve Merlan
Santa Fe, New Mexico

I was already going spare at my having rendered Franz Josef of Austria as ‘Karl Josef’ when I realised I’d also referred to Maximilian as the emperor of Brazil, not Mexico. Take me out and shoot me.

Leslie Green
Stockton-on-Tees, County Durham

Special Court

Adewale Maja-Pearce’s examination of the precarious politics of post-conflict Liberia was enlightening and sobering in equal measure (LRB, 6 February). One point he makes should be clarified. The Special Court for Sierra Leone, where the former Liberian president Charles Taylor was tried, was not, as Maja-Pearce writes, ‘set up under the aegis’ of the International Criminal Court. It was in fact a wholly independent, sui generis court funded by voluntary contributions by UN members, with a judicial bench comprising judges appointed by Sierra Leone’s government and the UN secretary-general. It’s true Taylor was, uniquely among the indictees, tried in The Hague as opposed to Freetown, but this was entirely under the aegis of the SCSL (though he was held in the ICC’s detention centre). Situation-specific ‘hybrid’ courts like the SCSL were in fact supported by George W. Bush’s administration as an alternative to the ICC. The neoconservatives in charge of the US State Department were implacably opposed to any permanent international criminal tribunal over which the US wouldn’t be able to exercise a decisive influence.

Pádraig McAuliffe

At the Corner House

Rosemary Hill’s evocative piece about Lyons Corner House brought to mind the time in the 1950s when my uncle Fred was in Gloucester Royal Infirmary (LRB, 20 February). In the next bed was an old lag from the local prison. Uncle Fred asked him what he was in for. ‘Oh nothing much,’ he said. ‘I just popped into Joe Lyons for a cup of tea and an overcoat.’

When the Lyons family’s greatest legal luminary, Sir Cyril Salmon, was appointed a law lord in 1972, he loyally took the title Lord Salmon of Sandwich.

Stephen Sedley

Thank you

While reading Colin Burrow’s thoughtful lecture, one word came to mind: ‘bullshit’ (LRB, 20 February). Specifically, Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit (2005), which gives conceptual clarity to the distinction between ‘liar’ and ‘lie-ee’. To lie, one must stand in a strict relation to the truth. You need to believe that you know what’s true in order to attempt to convince others of the opposite. To bullshit, in contrast, you care neither about the truth-value of what you say, nor whether you convince others of its truth-value: you care only about the impression you make. In Frankfurt’s account, this makes bullshit ‘a greater enemy of the truth than lies are’. Some of the ‘lies’ Burrow talks about could more accurately be described as bullshit. This omission aside, I think the amount of bullshit in the LRB is about right.

Liam Shaw

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