In Commander Glen Newey’s world there are so many knaves and fools, so fearlessly assaulted, that one has trouble following him through the debris and collateral damage to the sober denouement: that the ‘Atlantic democracies’ are a lousy imposition on just about everyone and that the ‘laissez-faire mode’ is ‘incoherent’ (LRB, 25 January). Yet in his passion – like all good generals – he is not entirely reckless. Some of his bigger targets are easily dealt with: the UN (‘a monotreme’) or Nato (‘psychopathic’, give or take). But a warrior’s work is never done and so we turn to the mopping up. First the moralistic neo-imperialists in ‘the modish salons’ who want to make the world ‘safe for democracy’, whether by mouthing platitudes about ‘ethical foreign policy’ or bombing Yugoslavia is not quite clear. Same thing, perhaps? Anyway, there go the salonistas, or was it the torturers? Not sure. Somehow – but again this is a multi-target sortie and so we can’t be entirely certain – the same people are advocates of ‘statism’ (though you’d have thought Milosevic was the statist) who share their enthusiasm with ‘devotees in the torture-room’. Moving on rather briskly, we find the targets beginning to diversify: Francis Fukuyama, already dead in the water, is followed by ‘Union Carbide, Exxon, Shell’, the cigarette industry, Ford Motors, Anthony Giddens, Geoffrey Sampson, the Académie Française and the editors of ‘a UK newspaper’ who may have felt that Newey’s grasp of the 20th century had been impaired by too much strenuous campaigning. Newey is right, however, that liberalism is a shoddy arrangement. Someone will have to step in and sort things out. Preferably he should give no quarter. War of course is even shoddier, although the Geneva Conventions stress the importance of a proportionate approach in seeking to identify and engage the enemy. On those grounds alone, I fear, Commander Newey would have to appear before the appropriate tribunal.
Readers who got to the end of Glen Newey’s article about Chomsky might have been puzzled by his mention of the ‘UK newspaper’ that censored his sensitive and proportionate bracketing of Jack Straw with Heinrich Himmler. Since the paper for which I work is, to some extent, a bastion of pernicious liberalism I feel I ought to report that an all-dates search on our database shows no references to Newey. The blue pencil (which sounds remarkably judicious in its use to me) was exercised elsewhere.
Guardian, London EC1
Adam Thorpe (Letters, 25 January) is quite right about the scramble for Africa involving a great deal of looting. That wasn’t all: in Namibia it involved genocide. No one would wish to justify any of that. My point was rather different. By the 1950s, this sort of thing had pretty much stopped. Colonialism had seen a large increase in per capita income and life expectancy throughout the continent. It had also set up a rudimentary physical and educational infrastructure and was responsible for a degree of law and order which had not existed in pre-colonial times. Africans were and are perfectly aware of all this – which is why many African countries were in no particular hurry to get independence, why many of them see the colonial past as part good as well as part bad, and why many African leaders today plead for greater Western involvement.
Thorpe inveighs against the deforestation now taking place in Africa. don’t Africa’s elites have any responsibility for that? If it was happening in Britain, I’m sure he would – quite rightly – blame Blair. And he inveighs against the EU’s funding of new roads because poachers use them. But that doesn’t mean new roads are bad, does it?
Malaysia, India, Singapore, Australia, Canada and the US were all once colonies, too. No one there is complaining about the West having ‘imposed nation states’ on them. They seem to like it – and it doesn’t seem necessary to them to blame everything on colonialism because they have been getting on pretty well since independence. That’s the real difference: much of Africa has gone backwards since independence. Which is why there is such a frantic search for scapegoats – and why I felt I had to ask the awkward questions I did.
Adam Thorpe’s letter on the pillaging and deforestation of Africa takes a sideswipe at the British colonial record as compared with the French. It is not quite fair of him to use Cameroon as an example. I spent four years in the ex-British part in the 1970s teaching in an educational institute controlled by Yaounde University in the ex-French part. The much smaller Anglophone region of Cameroon had been administered as an outlying area of Nigeria by the British since the Germans had had to relinquish their colony at the end of World War One. It was certainly neglected, but this had good as well as bad results. Improved infrastructure is not generally provided by external powers without some interest in the exploitation of raw materials, as Thorpe indicates with his indictment of the EU’s ‘plump wallet’. I don’t suppose the recent introduction of tarred roads into the beautiful Bamenda highlands, where I used to live, will improve the chances of that area’s natural environment surviving – or indeed its traditional social structures.
What Thorpe describes as Britain’s ‘minginess’ might also have the effect of curbing the other European vice he describes: that of never really leaving Africa. This is surely most characteristic of the French. In the 1970s, and again during the Anglophone political upheavals in the 1990s, what Anglophone Cameroonians most often taxed me with was the British failure to stay involved as the French had done. The 1961 plebiscite which produced the decision to join the Francophone part of Cameroon instead of Nigeria was regarded as the consequence of local inter-ethnic fears. The minginess of the British came much lower down the grievance list.
Knowing Your Onions
Despite what Zoë Heller says (LRB, 4 January), Alfred Lord Tennyson didn’t write a poem called ‘The Lady of Shallot’. He did, however, produce one called ‘The Lady of Shalott’.
As a 14-year member of Alcoholics Anonymous, I was disappointed by the misconceptions in John Sutherland’s article (LRB, 30 November 2000). Far from being a ‘superstition’, the idea that alcoholism is progressive, even if the alcoholic is abstinent, results from the notion that it is a disease with a physiological component. One’s body never overcomes its ‘allergy’ to alcohol: on the contrary, the allergy grows more acute, a fact borne out by the experience of most AA members (especially those who drink again after a period of sobriety).
Sutherland also overstates the programme’s evangelical tone – AA is not for proselytisers (though we have them) – and gets the social dimension wrong. I go to meetings with everyone from my closest friends to new friends, acquaintances and newcomers, to people I would never dream of speaking to in other circumstances. Cross-talk, or dialogue, is proscribed (although it’s not forbidden everywhere) for two reasons: it occurs so frequently, and it often offends people. But I’ve yet to see guns and knives brandished at meetings. I have seen a fist fight or two, but they had nothing to do with cross-talk, and everything to do with people sleeping with, or trying to sleep with, other people’s wives.
Mount Vernon, New York
The Inevitable Pit
The term ‘Balkanisation’ has come to mean a process which leads to a horrific state of affairs. Now, as well as its existing connotations, implications and extensions, Balkanisation is presented as a potential result of hyphenation. Charles Homsy tells us (Letters, 16 November 2000) that his family comes originally from Homs, northern Syria, and made an emotionally long journey to Boston, Massachusetts; that, despite his ethnic origin, he had a choice between Harvard and MIT; that, despite being a Syrian Orthodox, he married a Wasp (in a Congregational church); and that he now lives in Houston, Texas. All that would be well were it not for the closing sentence of Homsy’s letter, which ends with this warning: ‘The future of the United States is positive only to the extent it resists becoming a country of hyphenated groups on the way to Balkanisation.’
The use of the term ‘Balkanisation’ usually displays only a partial understanding of the history of the Balkan peninsula and of the struggle of the people who have lived there to assert their ethnic, religious and cultural identities. Homsy, for example, ignores the fact that there has never been such a thing as a hyphenated Balkan as there is, say, a Syrian-American – or as there might be a Syrian-Arab for that matter. Had there been one it is probable that ‘Balkanisation’ would not exist, and Homsy’s creative rhetoric would be diverted elsewhere.
I spent some time in Houston myself. It is a town of peace and prosperity, which many Balkan, or Arab, towns are not. And it is a long way from the Balkans. So Homsy has good reason to be grateful for his luck, and should try to avoid quick analogies, and make his point by other means. But he was obviously carried away by the force of his narrative and became forgetful of the metron – the word, it is said, was written on the temple of Apollo, in Delphi, Phokis, southern Balkans.
Can you pee in your car?
It was around 1950 when my brother and I – amateur sleuths beside whom we considered Sexton Blake a mere beginner – saw an advertisement in the Hotspur for the Seebackroscope. Like Alan Bennett (LRB, 25 January) and his brother, we experienced a mixture of puzzled disappointment and rage at being cheated of our pocket money by such a spectacularly useless object. I prefer now to see the Seebackroscope not so much as a con, but rather as the fruit of some helpfully ingenious mind – of the same inventiveness that litters the pages of Exchange and Mart with suggestions for things that enable you to have a pee in your car or make tea in a foreign hotel (two devices, these, not one).
I had a Seebackroscope probably at about the same time Alan Bennett did, and found it equally useless. I wonder if Bennett also came across some of the catchpennies that could be bought at the stalls along the sea-front in Blackpool and Morecambe. One was a small box with a label on it printed so that the box looked like a tiny radio. This would be described as ‘The Smallest Receiver in the World – 2/6'. A tiny radio would have been a technical impossibility in those pre-transistor days and when you opened the box, you’d find a tiny plastic or wooden chamberpot inside. Many adults must have had to explain this joke to their bewildered children. Another object was advertised as a patent bug-killer. It consisted of two blocks of wood, linked by a piece of string, and marked A and B. There were printed instructions: ‘Hold block A in the right hand. Place the insect on block A. Hold block B in the left hand, and bring it smartly down upon block A.’ The lesson pointed out at the time was never to trust advertising, and never to ‘buy a pig in a poke’.
Ilkley, West Yorkshire