Of all the correspondence that has flowed through the pages of the LRB since the events of 11 September, Richard Taruskin’s petulant decision (Letters, 29 November) to cart his Shostakovich review off to some other organ in protest at other readers’ writings is the most depressing. For those of us who enjoy America at home and try to endure her abroad, the determination of apparently otherwise intelligent Americans not to hear, let alone to listen to, or in some cases even to read the views of others serves only to underscore the depth of the crisis in US understanding that this tragedy has revealed. Taruskin should have alerted us to the journal in which his review has now been placed: presumably he would expect us to boycott it in return. Rather we should hunt it down, read it, and try to divine what kind of breakdown of confidence in a man can have led to such intolerance.
Samuel Wong (Letters, 29 November) believes that British citizens are disqualified from criticising American imperialism because Britain was a major imperialist power. Wong’s logic, in fact, is the same as that of Osama bin Laden, who apparently believes that all Americans – including low-paid cleaners in the World Trade Center, and the homeless on the streets below it – are responsible for US foreign policy. The accusation of ‘anti-Americanism’ from Frank Dux, in his letter in the same issue, is as much a smear as the claim that all opponents of the Israeli state are ‘anti-semites’. The sooner we stop thinking of nations as homogeneous blocs and realise that they are deeply divided – above all by class – the sooner we can start making sense of the world. As for all being ‘in it together’, I recall the story of the black US worker who commented after Pearl Harbor: ‘I hear you white folks have declared war on Japan.’
I have no plans to cancel my subscription, although I am disappointed by the exchange of letters on 11 September, most of which seem either ill-informed or self-absorbed. One day, historians will read them and be astonished at the way so many intelligent people totally misread what was going on. Lenin would have recognised this as ‘infantile leftism’. No progressive should shed a tear for fundamentalism but should concentrate rather on thinking of new ways to promote an agenda of wealth distribution and technology transfer throughout the world. Quite a few Americans are working on this, but you would never know it from the LRB, which seems to assume that all Americans are boobs, fools and barbarians.
John Cage dedicated his book M ‘To us and those who hate us, that the USA may become just another part of the world, no more, no less.’ Marjorie Perloff, co-editor of John Cage: Composed in America, must have encountered this sentiment in Cage’s work. It crystallises the position of those she chastises, and also to my mind reinforces the sense of compassion which is the only reasonable reaction to 11 September. The politics of hate, however subtly encoded, have never produced any lasting good. How can a violent response compensate for any of the losses? Prevention is the only justification, but bombing any group into submission will, like all actions, produce a reaction, somewhere, some time.
Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana
It's a disgrace. How dare anyone who reads the same journals as me have differing opinions from mine? I hereby cancel my subscription to everything. And instead of sending you my review of Intolerance in Academe I'm now sending it to a publication which hasn't insulted my intelligence: the Beano.
Dewsbury, West Yorkshire
I am not the first to note that careful reading is one of the earliest casualties of moments of crisis. So I should not be surprised that Bernard Wasserstein (Letters, 29 November) takes me to be calling for a few more dead Americans! I wish for no more dead bodies of any nation or ethnicity (quite the opposite) but was worrying that the popularity of the ‘ground zero’ terminology might support an assumption of equivalent suffering and a superpower response mounted from an imaginary clean sheet free of history and precedent, a response that says that because ‘we’ have now suffered we need not show restraint in punishing ‘them’.
More interesting, though, is the symmetry of Professor Wasserstein’s reading with a number of the other letters in the same issue, which continue to abuse the original authors of the reflections on the crisis (LRB, 4 October). As well as my attributed moral turpitude, there are references to a ‘narcissists’ jamboree’, a ‘fatuous self-righteousness’, a ‘moral and intellectual bankruptcy’, a ‘knee-jerk anti-Americanism’, a ‘bending-over-backwards placating of the bin Laden lunatics’, and other such designations. It is good form, of course, after printing Marjorie Perloff’s letter, to give her critics their turn, and then the critics of her critics. But the hyperbole is striking and calls for some attention. I would like to think that what is triggered here is some deep sympathy for the dead, as it seems to have been for Todd Ojala in his dignified follow-up letter (Letters, 1 November) describing his own understandable ‘sadness and anger’. But this does not catch the tone of much of the other correspondence. The passionate abuse may well be overdetermined, but I’m guessing that one factor might be the possibility that 9/11 (as it is now called) might lead to a reconfigured US foreign policy that no longer supports client states without reference to their civil and human rights records, or pursues short-term goals without reckoning on longer-term effects (recall the CIA funding of the proto-Taliban), or underwrites any and every Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories. George Bush’s vague but promising mention of a Palestinian state may be a sign of new thinking and a departure from tradition. Many here, where there is a good deal less flag-waving and more serious debate than you might think, would welcome that. Others would not – hence the 89 Senators and Congressmen who petitioned the President not to put any pressure on Sharon. Why this prospect causes such panic is another topic – and one that might bear thinking about again. It may have something to do with the motives for misreading that have been at work in the Letters column. We shall have at some point to take up Andrew Rawlinson’s elegant mandate (Letters, 29 November) to avoid the high horses and puzzle out the politics (almost certainly displaced) of the responses to 9/11, as well as the horror of the event itself. It is inevitable that the dead become figures in other people’s narratives, narratives which pre-exist and only become more urgent and contested. Some of them carry unignorable historical weight. I was calling for some awareness of that fact, and the point bears making again.
University of California, Davis
What did Negri do?
Malcolm Bull, in his review of Empire (LRB, 4 October), describes the arrest and conviction of Antonio Negri: ‘The pentiti accused Negri of complicity in only one action,’ Bull writes, ‘and that was more a hideously bungled prank than an act of terrorism: in the “kidnapping” of a Potere Operaio supporter by his friends to extract money from his wealthy parents, a chloroformed handkerchief was held for too long over the young man’s face.’ Why is the word ‘kidnapping’ in quotation marks? Was it not a kidnapping really? Did the victim follow his friends voluntarily? And what about the death, if that is what it was? What does he mean that the handkerchief was held over the victim’s face for ‘too long’? Did it make him sneeze? If the victim died, I would rather that Bull had said so directly. Negri is said to be ‘complicit’, but what exactly he did is left unexplained. Did he mastermind the whole thing? Did he have second thoughts and leave before any harm was done? It makes a difference.
Explosion in Toulouse
Paul Seabright rightly criticises the inadequate recognition by the French authorities of the risk posed by the 1249 ‘Seveso’-type chemical plants (i.e. plants containing substantial amounts of inflammable liquids or explosives) located in French towns (LRB, 1 November). But help may be at hand. If the ‘phasing out’ of CAP subsidies, reluctantly accepted by France at the WTO meeting in Doha, ever happens, French farmers will eventually have to stop dumping excess cereal production on the world market, and there will be less need for the chemical fertilisers produced in such plants. Farmers in the Third World will be pleased; France’s urban inhabitants will sleep easier in their beds; and country-dwellers will benefit from an end to the system of hyper-productivist agriculture which has been turning the once beautiful French countryside into a treeless, hedge-less, chemically-polluted wasteland.
José Bové and Jean-Michel le Métayer both arrived at Doha in the baggage train of the French ministerial delegation, and were lumped together by international observers as ‘French farmers’ representatives’. They are in fact the leaders of two farmers’ unions representing diametrically opposed visions of the future of French agriculture. Bové’s Conféderation Paysanne does not support the CAP regime of agricultural subsidies. Le Métayer’s FNSEA does, but it has tapped into the anxiety about food quality and the craving for a return to traditional food represented by Bové’s campaign against McDonald’s, and turned it around as propaganda in defence of the CAP. The Conféderation Paysanne is opposed to the overproduction of cereals, and the destruction of hedges and copses and excessive use of nitrates which it entails. This form of agriculture is sustained by the dumping of excess production on the world market, a practice only the WTO can stop. The marriage between the CAP and the WTO, consummated in the Cold War epoch, should now be taken to the divorce court.
I read Conor Gearty's review of A.W.B. Simpson's Human Rights and the End of Empire (LRB, 29 November) with the recognition that I am one of the offenders who used forced labour, in 1938-39 in Northern Nigeria. Over several weeks I constrained villagers to clear the shade trees from streams where their womenfolk drew water so that they would no longer be bitten by tsetse flies and become infected with sleeping sickness. Later, I organised bands of villagers to destroy locusts in the hopper stage before they devoured their crops. This was technically forced labour, as was the porterage of my basic necessities from one area without a motor road to another (for which the carriers were paid). I feel no contrition for my offence, only despair that these efforts continue to be described with so much ignorance and malice.
Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire
In her article about J.R.R. Tolkien, Jenny Turner (LRB, 15 November) mentions that ‘Tolkien was immediately and enduringly popular, unlike the writers of OuLiPo or the Black Mountain School.’ I don’t know what OuLiPo is, but I must yell out as one of the few Black Mountain writers left on foot. I read The Hobbit in 1940, at the age of ten, and Lord of the Rings in my twenties. The other great fan in our circle was the poet Robert Duncan. Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn and Joel Oppenheimer wouldn’t read stuff like this. Leave it to the fruitcakes! It puzzles me to read Turner (and Philip Pullman on several occasions) going on about Tolkien’s ‘dreadful prose style’. Tolkien is even taken to task for using the word ‘noisome’. Gosh all hemlock, as people used to say. Philip Sidney used ‘noisome’. And a decade or two before Tolkien, H.P. Lovecraft used ‘noisome’ like there was no tomorrow. I have reread Lord of the Rings maybe five or six times over the past forty years and every time I am thrilled by the language. The style is direct, transparent and unadorned, making it perfect for all the descriptions of the landscapes, while the characters say affectionate and modest natural things to each other. What could be better?
Highlands, North Carolina
According to Michael Dobson (LRB, 15 November), aside from possessing various Shakespearean items, Indiana University is ‘of little interest except to basketball fans’. The last time I checked, Indiana had a world-class music programme and some other departments of more than common interest. Hard as it may be to believe, learning can flourish even in the remote and exotic locale of Bloomington, Indiana.
American Academy, Berlin
As a British exile, I was both astonished and embarrassed (for him) by Michael Dobson's gratuitous dismissal of Indiana University. I have never heard of Dobson's home base (my mother tells me Roehampton was at the end of the number 22 bus line), and it may well be a distinguished university, but it is hardly honoured by Dobson's insults. Although not in the field of literary studies, I have heard of many well-respected literary scholars and critics at Indiana, and had the pleasure of getting to know one of them, the late Irvin Ehrenpreis, while he was visiting Harvard.
Roderick A. Jacobs
Blunt shows his hand
Nicholas Penny's review of Miranda Carter's biography of Anthony Blunt (LRB, 29 November) mentions that Picasso was one of Blunt's heroes. The lecture on Guernica that Blunt gave to first-year undergraduate students at the Courtauld Institute was a revelation. The passion with which our chilly and remote Director delivered his account of that painting showed us another man entirely.