Vol. 43 No. 7 · 1 April 2021

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Police Trouble

After the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in 1992, Andy Beckett writes, ‘the LAPD began to be brought under the same sort of political control – limited, but real – as police forces in most large democratic cities’ (LRB, 18 February). What ‘political control’ there is of American police forces today is not democratic but judicial: more than twenty large urban police departments have agreed to let a federal judge oversee their operations (and, for example, to require that officers undergo diversity training) in exchange for an undertaking that officers will not be prosecuted or departments penalised for killing so many people. According to New Era of Public Safety, a report issued in 2019 by the Leadership Conference Education Fund, ‘from 2014 to 2018, police officers killed approximately a thousand people a year, committing 10 per cent of the annual homicides in the United States … Roughly a quarter (24 per cent) of people killed by police from 2015 to 2018 involved people with signs of unmet mental health needs.’

One of the first such agreements was reached in 2000 between the US Department of Justice and the LAPD in the wake of the Rampart scandal. The story is complicated, but it seems that LAPD officers killed numerous people, including famous rappers, for sport; awarded playing cards to celebrate shootings (a red card for a wounding, a black card for a kill); framed innocent people for crimes they did not commit; and stole eight pounds of cocaine from a police evidence room, replacing it with Bisquick.

The Rampart scandal convinced Mayor Hahn of Los Angeles to replace his police chief in 2002, a decision that has been linked to Hahn’s failure to be re-elected in 2005. As for Bill de Blasio, mayor of New York, once an outspoken critic of police brutality, his spine disappeared after the NYPD police union used the occasion of his daughter’s arrest for peaceful protest last year to tweet her home address. In consideration for a father who merely wanted to protect his daughter from the cops, let’s not quote de Blasio’s actual words, but a headline from the Onion that summed up what he might as well have said: ‘It is an honour to have my daughter doxxed by the greatest police force in the world.’

Benjamin Letzler
Oberursel, Germany

I’m puzzled by Rhys Crilley’s suggestion that my piece about Los Angeles in the 1960s should have taken into account ‘the way the city is represented in hip hop’, as a place of ‘inequality, racism, violence and police brutality’ (Letters, 18 March). My piece was about precisely those things, except for hip hop, because in the 1960s hip hop didn’t exist. When lockdown permits, he’s welcome to come and listen to my collection of LA hip hop records, which I bought when they came out in the 1980s.

Andy Beckett
London N16

University Barons

As one of the thousands of academics who have left Italy, I sympathise with John Foot (LRB, 4 March). Of course there is something peculiarly Italian about the relations between academic institutions and local and national politics. But this is not the entire picture. The number of internationally qualified academics that the system produces should count for something. More important, Foot neglects to mention the lack of university funding, especially during the long years of austerity between 2008 and 2020, which is crucial to understanding the absence of reform. In the end, he recognises that the relations between academics and power aren’t just an Italian issue. The more I work in the UK academic system, the more I think that the ‘university baron’, despite some national variations, is a universal category.

Simone Maghenzani
Girton College, University of Cambridge

John Foot’s account of the role of the baroni in Italian academia reminded me of my experience as a post doc in a Rome laboratory in the 1960s. A conflict between two baroni, one a communist, the other a Christian Democrat, resulted in the freezing of funds to our lab while corruption charges were investigated. After a couple of months with no salary we post docs staged a sit-in outside the boss’s office. Emergency funding soon materialised.

In the ‘hot months’ of 1968, labs across the country were occupied by students and technicians demanding more democracy in the workplace and control over the direction of research. In Naples, one barone, said to have been in the habit of changing his affiliation to suit whichever party was in power locally, was seen loading his office collection of paintings and sculpture into the back of his sports car, then fleeing the scene as the occupiers entered. It took some months for traditional authority to be restored.

Steven Rose
London WC1

Operation Paperclip

Tom Stevenson notes that the fact V2s were built by slaves was ‘overlooked’ when Wernher von Braun was brought to America (LRB, 4 March). The systematic plundering of German technical expertise went way beyond rocket scientists. The historian John Gimbel noted in 1990 that fear of the Russians was merely an acceptable public excuse for ‘riding roughshod over American denazification policies’. Under Operation Paperclip the US government deliberately obfuscated scientists’ involvement in atrocities. Some officials complained, but the economic benefits outweighed any moral qualms.

In December 1945 John C. Green of the US Department of Commerce described Paperclip as ‘essentially “intellectual reparations”’. The Allies all felt they deserved their fair share. In the LRB of 28 October 1999 Francis Spufford gave a summary of the ‘loot’ from the rocket programme: ‘The Americans got von Braun and several hundred completed V2s which they fired across New Mexico. The Russians got a mixed bag of more junior scientists, and the V2 assembly line at the subterranean Mittelwerk factory. Britain carried off the pioneering German work on hydrogen peroxide. It became the distinctive technology of the British programme.’

Liam Shaw

Big Tobacco

Two stories should be added to Jackson Lears’s account of the US tobacco industry (LRB, 18 February). On 12 May 1994, Professor Stanton Glantz of the Institute for Health Policy Studies at University of California, San Francisco was surprised to find a box of about four thousand confidential tobacco company documents outside his office door. The documents contained information about the public relations and legal strategies of the tobacco company Brown and Williamson (B&W) and its parent company, British American Tobacco (BAT). Two years later, The Cigarette Papers, written by Glantz and his team of researchers, was published. Its exposure of the lies and malpractices of the tobacco industry was influential in the establishment of a more effective, if still imperfect, regime of regulation.

The second story concerns the remarkable array of ‘philanthropic’ activities that the tobacco industry engaged in all over the world in an effort to detoxify its image. Sponsorship by tobacco companies replaced direct advertising, providing large amounts of money for sports, the arts, medical research and universities. The sponsorship of youth-oriented sporting and entertainment events in the 1990s was especially egregious: Miss Gitanes beauty contests in Africa, cricket in Pakistan, football in China, the Nightman Disco in Beijing and so on. Philip Morris sponsored ‘youth smoking prevention programmes’ at the same time as it targeted Virginia Slims cigarettes at young women. Campaigns of this sort may be less glaring these days but they still exist, and remain effective, as the smoking boom in Asia – which accounts for around two-thirds of global cigarette sales – confirms.

Leslie Sklair
London School of Economics

Bacon’s Shadow

Colm Tóibín writes that the shadow in the central panel of Bacon’s Triptych May-June 1973, a memorial to the death of George Dyer, ‘suggests life seeping out of the body and becoming a black shape with wings. Rather than serving the dynamic needs of the picture, the black shape serves to illustrate something’ (LRB, 4 March). Bacon hated illustration, though his friend and rival Lucian Freud accused him of it. It is likely that the shadow is nothing more – or less – than the shadow of death, which in the picture is seeping into rather than out of Dyer’s figure. In his recent book Modernists and Mavericks: Bacon, Freud, Hockney and the London Painters, Martin Gayford retells the painter John Wonnacott’s story of walking with Bacon one day in ‘a strong sun’, when he suddenly noticed another man’s shadow. Bacon asked: ‘Do you see the way that eats into the figure, like a disease?’

Michael Kuczynski
New Orleans

On Conservatism

I would like to correct Jonathan Parry’s possible misunderstanding of what I wrote about Enoch Powell in my book Conservatism (LRB, 18 March). Rather than a socially ‘divisive’ figure, I took him as a ‘herald’ of Brexit and ‘an early framer of a popular counter-faith in the unstable dual monarchy of the free market and nation’. Powell, I wrote, ‘hardened the loose, sentimental slogan “One Nation” into interlocking geopolitical, socio-political and national claims’, that post-imperial Britain was alone in the world, that the postwar liberal British state was at odds with an alienated British society, and that Britain was special and unique. ‘Each idea – aloneness, alienation and specialness – came into its own on the British right after 2010.’ I didn’t call Powell’s vision a ‘Conservative patria’, but I hope Parry would agree we are talking about the same thing. Powell’s detestable views and notorious about-turns make it easy to forget that almost alone on the British right he had a clear picture of the British nation and a coherent strategic vision, misguided and destructive as both were.

Edmund Fawcett
London SW5

Analytic v. Continental

Peter Dews defends ‘the idea that there are two sub-traditions of contemporary Western philosophy, differing considerably in their ethos, their typical strategies, and their sense of the responsibilities of the discipline’ (Letters, 18 March). The only criterion we are given for distinguishing them is that Continental philosophy takes ‘reflection on its own historical and cultural location as an integral part of its activity’. If this means only that it is interested in its history and the situations that give rise to it, then Timothy Williamson, David Wiggins and Michael Dummett should be included among its practitioners, to name only the three most recent holders of Oxford’s Wykeham Chair in Logic.

I agree, though, with Dews’s charge that there is something amiss in analytic philosophy’s rejection of the analytic/Continental distinction. It isn’t that the designations no longer make sense but that analytic philosophy has moved into the places where Continental philosophy once reigned supreme: reading its thinkers, writing on its topics, pushing it to the margins. Like any opponent of gentrification, Dews objects to the displacement of those who already resided in these communities, and to the ignorance of the interlopers regarding the rich bodies of activity that were already there. So much is true. But I hope he will forgive me for saying that, for some of us, the coffee now tastes better.

Anil Gomes
Trinity College, Oxford

Women’s Homer

To Rebecca Armstrong’s necessarily brief list of women writers ‘offering new perspectives on Homer’, I would add Caroline Alexander, whose vivid and brilliant translation of the Iliad from 2016 isn’t often enough mentioned in assessments of recent scholarship (LRB, 4 March).

Tony Abbott
Trumbull, Connecticut

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