Neal Ascherson notes Józef Bem’s contributions to freedom fighting in Poland and Hungary (LRB, 1 June). The Polish poet Cyprian Norwid (1821-83) wrote an elegy in his memory. The opening stanza, in my translation, has Bem’s body in armour carried on a horse to his grave, according to Roman practice.
Why ride away, Shadow, hands broken on the mail,
Torch sparks playing about your knees? –
Green with laurels, the sword spattered with candle tears,
The falcon strains, your horse stamps its foot like a dancer.
– Banners in the wind blow and lash against each other
Like moving tents of nomad armies in the sky.
Long trumpets shudder in sobbing and pennants
Bow their wings which droop from above
Like spear-pierced dragons, lizards and birds …
Like the many ideas you sought with your spear …
Poles couldn’t support the Hungarians publicly. So the poem appeared on the front page of the leading communist weekly Nowa Kultura. The message was clear to its readers, but evidently not to the censors.
David Book has two problems with my use of the pronoun ‘they’ to refer to Lauren Berlant (Letters, 15 June). The first is that Berlant relinquished the right to choose their own pronouns by dying. That seems to me unkind. It’s bad enough that we are welcomed into the world with a gender (‘It’s a girl!’); I don’t think we should have to leave it that way too.
Book’s second objection is stylistic: my use of the pronoun ‘they’ is clumsy, stilted, unnatural, at times confusing. Berlant wrote in their last book that ‘inconvenience is the force that makes one shift a little while processing the world.’ If my use of the word ‘they’ made Book shift a little while reading – feel a little unnatural, a little confused, in matters of gender and its language – then I suppose he is that much closer to loosening his attachment to the fantasy of gender altogether.
David Book’s suggestion that we use ‘tha’ as a way of reducing pronoun confusion could lead to fresh misunderstandings. ‘Tha wot?’, if correctly pronounced and intonated, expresses a high degree of scepticism that the proposed intervention will resolve the difficulty.
Colin Burrow refers to the ‘fantastical multiplication’ of food regulations ‘by those hostile to the EU’, citing for example the claim that bendy bananas are banned (LRB, 1 June). The EU does have a law that regulates bananas. Regulation 2257 from 1994 doesn’t ban bendy bananas, but it does say that the highest-class fruit should be ‘free from malformation or abnormal curvature’; Class 1 bananas can have ‘slight defects of shape’ and Class 2 bananas full ‘defects of shape’. The Sun denounced this ‘crazy law … drawn up by thumb-twiddling EU chiefs’ in a story headlined ‘Now they’ve really gone bananas.’ The truth is more mundane. I made a Freedom of Information request to the European Commission and received a stack of 41 documents relating to the law. The European Community Banana Trade Association lobbied hard for it, and the regulation was championed by the French. The UK, the only country to object, protested in particular against ‘any system of classification which links quality to size’. In short, it was typical EU legislation – made for corporate interests, written by compliant member states. But this was a nuance lost on the British tabloids.
Kieran Setiya is correct to note that more philosophers today are writing for broader audiences than was the case half a century ago (Letters, 15 June). I have never denied that. My point was that the technical practice of analytic philosophy has become even more minutely focused than its 1970s counterpart was. It looks like an irrelevant series of games played by a coterie of initiates.
Setiya agrees that philosophy has historically been more influential than it is now; he also admits that inquiries differ in their value. These concessions ought to inspire him to ask whether the articles appearing in major philosophical journals today address questions that are worth posing. Shouldn’t people who call themselves philosophers reflect on what they are doing? I suspect that Setiya has sometimes engaged in such reflections himself, even though most of the practitioners whose work he defends do not appear to have done so. His letter sidesteps the issue with an uncharacteristic misinterpretation of my position. To suppose that I want philosophers just to pursue ‘practical’ questions, as he does, overlooks my efforts – in the book he reviewed – to explain what philosophers have traditionally contributed to the broader culture. ‘Synthetic’ philosophy (as I call it) has offered its many readers valuable ways of thinking about the world and their place in it. Today’s highly professionalised philosophical exercises seem neither to supply that nor to address the pressing issues of our age. If appearances are deceptive, that needs to be shown. Until Setiya has explained the track record of analytic philosophy’s contributions his verdict on my book will be merely another unthinking endorsement of the status quo.
Kieran Setiya writes: My view is that philosophy was already insular and technical in the 1970s and that, over the last twenty years, it has become more outward-looking, more engaged with other disciplines, and more methodologically diverse. The dispute here is sociological. But there’s a conflict of values, too, in that I see more worth than Kitcher does in technical contributions to traditional problems in metaphysics and epistemology – about the logical structure of reality, the refutation of scepticism, or the possibility of armchair knowledge. It’s hard to prove that these inquiries matter in themselves, but I don’t see that Kitcher has shown otherwise.
Like Kitcher, I think an undue obsession with rigour risks limiting the scope of analytic philosophy and I wish there were more ‘synthetic’ work of the kind he prizes – and has produced. A precondition of this work is the flourishing of philosophy as an academic enterprise, despite economic and ideological threats. It’s in the context of such threats that I think we should take care not to overstate the dysfunction of philosophy as it is.
Bill Hayton quotes David Stoddart’s ‘deadpan detail’ that Peter Kropotkin ‘fled to Hull, where not even the tsar’s secret police would think to look for him’ (Letters, 18 May). In Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes (1911), the revolutionary Sophia Antonovna remarks of a letter received from St Petersburg: ‘It went by the first English steamer which left the Neva this spring. They have a fireman on board – one of us, in fact. It has reached me from Hull.’ An explanatory note in the Cambridge edition of the novel from 2013 points out that not only was Hull engaged in trade with Russia and other northern countries, but that in the late 19th century ‘waves of emigration from Germany and Eastern Europe passed through the city’ – a fact that is likely to have been known to the tsar’s secret police.
Chris Armstrong discusses the immense power of industrial fishing interests and their state sponsors (LRB, 18 May). It should be pointed out that the legal framework under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 not only enables unsustainable fishing but also fails to protect workers at sea or their human rights. The industry is awash with voluntary certification schemes, of which the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), mentioned by Armstrong, is only one. A remarkably high proportion of senior figures from commercial fisheries sit on their boards. The MSC’s Audit and Risk Committee, for example, is overseen by the former managing director of a major Australian trawler business. Where standards do account for crew, their protections are often weaker than those directed by international conventions, foremost of which is the International Labour Organisation’s Work in Fishing Convention, 2007 (No. 188). In part, this is because only twenty states have ratified ILO 188, and so its global authority and enforceability are weak. Those who have not ratified include China, the US and flag-of-convenience states such as Panama. However, supposedly independent certification schemes also make ‘edits’ to ILO 188. One US-based scheme, for example, does away with the ILO ban on sleeping quarters ‘forward of the collision bulkhead’.
Joseph Hearn, David Hammond
Human Rights at Sea, Havant, Hampshire
Eric Foner mentions ‘the infamous 1988 campaign ad by George H.W. Bush that identified his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis, with Willie Horton, a dangerous Black criminal’ (LRB, 1 June). That ad wasn’t produced by the Bush campaign itself but by an independent group advocating on Bush’s behalf. The official campaign produced a spot called ‘Revolving Door’, showing shadowy convicts walking in and out of a rotating prison gate. It’s clear that Bush’s people were happy to have the electorate frightened by Horton’s face, but were reluctant to traffic in explicit racism themselves.
Russell L. Riley
Craig Westwood of the Electoral Commission writes that two-thirds of voters say an ID requirement makes them feel more confident about the security of their vote, while agreeing that voter personation is ‘rare’ – which is one way of describing the single conviction in 2019 (Letters, 18 May). In other words, a publicly funded regulatory agency thinks it important to address non-existent problems because it makes people feel better. Could the Electoral Commission look into the use of pencils rather than pens to mark ballot papers? I worry this allows unscrupulous returning officers to use erasers to alter my vote.
Tony Sharpe is far from alone in attributing the palindrome ‘T. Eliot, top bard, notes putrid tang emanating, is sad; I’d assign it a name: gnat dirt upset on drab pot toilet’ to W.H. Auden (Letters, 1 June). But Auden’s literary executor and biographer Edward Mendelson attributes it to the Scottish poet Alastair Reid, who took credit for it in his essay ‘Palindromes’, reprinted in Passwords (1963).
Malcolm Gaskill quotes Malcolm X commenting ‘on the African American experience’: ‘We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock – the rock was landed on us’ (LRB, 18 May). I suspect Malcolm X was riffing on Cole Porter’s ‘Anything Goes’ (1934):
Times have changed
And we’ve often rewound the clock
Since the Puritans got a shock
When they landed on Plymouth Rock
If today, any shock they should try to stem
’Stead of landing on Plymouth Rock
Plymouth Rock would land on them
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