David Simpson (LRB, 20 May) is the only commentator I have read on the widely reproduced snapshots or stills emerging from Abu Ghraib who pauses, however briefly, to note that they have been airbrushed for popular consumption. The results of this fatuous piece of censorship are certainly absurd, offering us as they do the faces of American prison guards salaciously leering as their fingers point to sexual organs that have been tastefully expunged. It's as if the censor felt we were not yet grown up enough to be shown what was being pointed at even if we were grown up enough to be shown the utter degradation of those doing the pointing. It would be helpful to know who decided on the air-brushing. Were the pictures reproduced anywhere without being tampered with? And if they were, are we to suppose that each individual publication that carried them decided independently it should be done? Air-brushing out what certainly weren't the naughty bits in these particular camera shots assimilates them to the presumed fakes that appeared in the Mirror, purportedly showing British soldiers engaged in the same sort of bestial illegalities as their American counterparts. Those fakes played alas into our government's hands, by allowing the sanctimonious exposure of them to give the impression that our own lads in Iraq have never done anything like that. Unfortunately, however, the serious charges against our soldiers come not from the tabloid press but from the Red Cross, and those aren't going to be so conveniently airbrushed away.
Too Fair to Gazprom
Neal Ascherson’s generously balanced portrait of Vladimir Putin (LRB, 20 May) looks dubious in the light of the Putin administration’s current recalcitrance over the signing of the Kyoto Protocol. Two of the things that elicit Ascherson’s praise – Putin’s ‘Europeanism’ and his lack of toleration for the oligarchs – now look questionable. it’s not particularly European to side with the US and against the rest of the world on the question of toxic emissions. In Putin’s defence, he may not have much choice. Gazprom, Russia’s biggest energy company, accounts for 23 per cent of global gas supplies, and a large part of the national income. Gazprom’s biggest shareholder, at 38 per cent, is the Russian Federation, and over the last few years this controlling holding has – happily – enabled the government to force concessions for ordinary Russians: Putin’s administration has prevented Gazprom from selling energy at its global market value, keeping it to a level that Russians can afford. Or so it would seem. But the public fights Putin has recently staged with Gazprom, ostensibly to promote ‘transparency’ in shareholding, also seek a gradual convergence with global prices. Gazprom will get richer, and so will the shareholders – including the Russian government. But Russians will be poorer.
The chairman of Gazprom’s management committee, Aleksei Miller, who has served as Russia’s deputy energy minister, was installed in Gazprom by Putin (whose deputy he was in Petersburg) in 2001. The size of Miller’s shareholding in the company, unlike most other directors’, is as yet undeclared. But his influence is clear: he has successfully defended Gazprom’s interests against all comers, Europe and Kyoto included. Ascherson – inadvertently? – mentions the provenance of the people who, after unfavourable coverage of the Kursk affair, arrested the media baron Vladimir Gusinsky in April 2001 and closed down his TV station: ‘armed security guards from the Gazprom conglomerate’. Ascherson’s third reason for praising Putin – his loyalty to his friends – is indisputable.
Who got rid of Aristide?
Peter Dailey writes that presidential elections in Haiti in November 2000 were ‘boycotted by the opposition and only 10 per cent of those eligible turned out to vote’ (Letters, 20 May). More than 60 per cent of voters registered and voted in the 2000 presidential elections, as carefully documented by numerous independent observers (see www.nationmaster.com/country/ha/Democracy). In 2002, a USAID Gallup poll showed Aristide to enjoy over 60 per cent of popular support. In this suppressed but leaked poll, it is noted that the political opposition enjoyed less than 10 per cent of the popular vote. As for the opposition ‘boycotting’ the elections, this was a good strategic move on their part, considering they stood no chance of winning and the boycotting of elections is a familiar destabilisation tactic (see Jamaica under Manley).
Dailey cites Human Rights Watch, the National Coalition for Haitian Rights and Transparency International as credible institutions. Transparency International has been described as ‘a tool to destabilise governments for corporate interests under the guise of exposing corruption’ (see www.blackcommentator.com/62/62_ haiti_1.html). As for NCHR, I met with a member of the organisation as part of a larger delegation investigating the political and social situation in Haiti at the end of March. He told us that NCHR was unwilling to investigate reports of massacres carried out by international forces and Haitian National Police against Lavalas supporters.
Dailey is correct, however, when he says that these groups helped to ‘isolate Aristide’s Haiti from the international community’. Grants, loans and aid were indeed suspended by the US, the EU, Canada and others, to the tune of $1 billion. In 2001, CARICOM pleaded with the international community to release these funds. But, CARICOM, like Haiti, is not white, so its demands do not need to be taken seriously.
Dailey doesn’t mention the human rights abuses that continue to take place in Haiti. The director of the state morgue in Port-au-Prince told a National Lawyers Guild delegation that they had received more than a thousand bodies in March, five times as many as usual. Many had bags over their heads, hands tied behind their backs, bullets in the head.
Sam Goff, Brian Concannon and Father Luis Barrios took part in an International Action Committee investigation into the Dominican Republic’s role in the coup. They were able to determine that the Haitian rebels – former military and FRAPH members – were incorporated into the Dominican army in 2000. These paramilitaries were initially trained by the Dominicans, and funded by the International Republican Institute and the National Endowment for Democracy, the CIA front group established by Reagan in 1983. They later also received training from US special forces.
Paul Farmer writes: ‘Toussaint died of exposure and tuberculosis in 1803. Every Haitian schoolchild knows his last words by heart’ (LRB, 15 April). Farmer knows better than I do that fewer than 52 per cent of the Haitian population can read. There are no statistics on who goes to school. However, according to Jean-Robert Cadet, himself an ex-slave, there are some 200,000 domestic child slaves in Haiti. I should like to know what Aristide did during his years in office to confront, let alone resolve this problem.
Unfair to Revenants
In accusing me of mischaracterising the settler population in the West Bank, Yisrael Medad (Letters, 6 May) misquotes my article. The full sentence read: ‘Nor does the problem lie with the minority of settlers in “Judea and Samaria” who are indeed gun-toting religious zealots (mostly from the US), even if their domestic political influence is daunting.’ I had meant to highlight, not obscure, the minority status of the extremists who, in stereotype, are the face of settler intransigence, while explaining why this minority has unique political leverage. Certainly the settlers are ‘secular in the main’. In briefly acknowledging that many of the most militant are from the US I intended an oblique reference to their insulated origins, which have fostered a particularly chauvinistic attitude toward Arabs. The term ‘revenants’ that Medad prefers for that majority (as reflecting a ‘return’ to ‘ancestral homes’ and a right to sovereignty after ‘a long hiatus’) indicates more graphically than I could have managed that where the land is concerned the secular settler world-view is not so very different.
Hobart and William Smith Colleges, New York
Why did he bother?
Readers would expect James Wood to review Randall Stevenson’s The Last of England? more or less exactly in the way he did: to lament the lack of value judgments and deplore the materialistic, ideological listings, the ignoring of aesthetics (LRB, 20 May). I can’t help wondering how Wood could bring himself to read as much of such a big book, so grimly unappealing to him, as he seems to have done. And I wonder why it never occurred to him to call for an end to the publication of big books for which there’s no justifiable need.
Wood’s reference to ‘untutored readers’ struck me as offensive: it supposes the importance of some sort of tutoring, the lack of which dismisses you from the company of those with proper creditation. It also weakens the attractive notion of seeing yourself as one of a host of common readers.
Llandrindod Wells, Powys
Everyone except the Dog
My main point about Dogville was that it was an incoherent amalgam of religious archetypes, Hollywood violence and dodgy fantasy, masquerading as avant-garde cinema. Vincent Deary suggests that the film is a coherent ‘parallel’ to the Passion, with Grace as Christ (Letters, 6 May). I don’t recall Christ saying: ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me and be gunned down by my daddy’s henchmen while I blast a hole in my lover’s head.’ Equally, I can’t remember Christ being raped by his neighbours. Deary suggests that I misunderstand Grace’s ‘active, redemptory act of sacrifice’ as ‘the exploitation of a helpless victim’. it’s not clear to me how being chained to a bed and repeatedly raped makes Grace ‘active’. And who do these rapes ‘redeem’ – the rapists? Grace herself? Faced with these un-Christlike elements, Deary picks out another ‘parallel’ in Dogville – to Judgment Day. Had he gone on, he could have read Dogville as a ‘parallel’ to the whole Bible, with Tom and Grace as Adam and Eve, the gangsters as cherubim and seraphim, Grace as Moses, Grace as Job, Chuck as Potiphar’s wife, Tom as Ruth, the gooseberry patch as the burning bush, Jack as Lazarus, Tom as John the Baptist, Vera’s children as the Pharisees, Grace as Mary Magdalene, Tom as Judas, Tom’s father as Pontius Pilate, Chuck as the Whore of Babylon and the gangsters as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. I can only assume that the Dog would, in this parallel, be God.
M.J. Hyland (LRB, 6 May) tells a story that is rapidly becoming a cliché: that of the miserable Irish child of even more miserable Irish parents who finds emotional and material salvation in a foreign country: Angela's Ashes in an Australian accent. What such stories reveal, contrary to the intentions of their authors, is that there is nothing uniquely awful about awful Irish childhoods: they are typical instances of child abuse anywhere, which at the same time confirm the host country's belief that theirs – Australia, America, wherever – truly is the land of opportunity. That is questionable; what is not is that the Irish tradition of moaning (which can be beautiful when played as a lament) carries on, resisting the forces of modernity and wealth, the decline of religion and the provision of counselling services.