Among the Gilets Jaunes
Just two points to add to Jeremy Harding’s excellent piece on the continually surprising gilets jaunes (LRB, 21 March). First, the durability of general public support for the movement is, I think, largely owed to the daily visibility of ordinary people demonstrating at road junctions and roundabouts throughout the country. The sight of (mainly older) careworkers and pensioners standing out in the cold and wet with their placards, barbecues and picnics inspires a cheerful respect from a great number of people who would be completely put off if they were aware of the movement only through media coverage of the violence that takes place on the fringes of the weekly actions in the big cities.
Second, the movement is a powerful demonstration of the near bankruptcy of party politics in France. Since the electoral collapse of the Communist Party, all the traditional parties have struggled to attract viable levels of membership or significant non-state funding and are now widely perceived as tools for a tiny minority of the wealthy and/or educated to exercise power without any real engagement with the mass of the population. The success of Macron and his centrist party in 2017 was itself a symptom of the widening gulf between people and politicians. As Harding points out, Macron’s adoption of a right-of-centre neoliberal position once in power was a fundamental cause of the rise of the gilets jaunes. Perhaps more significant, however, is the complete failure of both the extreme right (the recently renamed Rassemblement National) and the extreme left (Mélenchon’s France Insoumise) in their attempts to infiltrate and recuperate the gilets jaunes. Not unlike much of the support for Brexit, the movement is a massive and simultaneous rejection of all current political offerings.
Crisis in Venezuela
I’m not surprised Malcolm Deas disagrees with my assessment of the situation in Venezuela (Letters, 7 March). But I do take issue with his suggestion that I attempted to ‘disguise’ the nature of the crisis there. I simply described the actual character and positions of the Venezuelan opposition, and highlighted the less than pure motives of the external actors who have involved themselves in Venezuelan affairs.
As for his claim that the crisis ‘certainly is about restoring democracy and prosperity to Venezuela’, I would ask Deas, as a distinguished historian of Latin America, how many instances of US-driven regime change in the region he can identify that have improved the lot of the population as a whole. The weight of historical examples, from the removal of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 to the coup in Honduras in 2009, tilts overwhelmingly in the other direction, with regime change bringing neither prosperity nor democracy, but instead decades of poverty, dictatorship and in some cases genocidal wars. (I leave aside notable examples from outside the region such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya etc.) Like it or not, any realistic assessment of what is going to happen next in Venezuela must at the very least reckon with the strong possibility of a similar outcome. Pace Deas, it seems ‘absurd and perverse’ to pretend otherwise.
Daniel Soar writes about Christopher Hitchens (LRB, 21 March). Hitchens, along with his brother, Peter, attended The Leys school in Cambridge in the 1960s. The Leys is a Methodist foundation. Shortly before Hitchens died I was organising a reunion at the school for his years. Although he hadn’t been in contact at all since he left, he flew in from New York for the occasion. During the day it is our habit to arrange a chapel service, attendance voluntary (there was of course compulsory daily chapel in his day). It is well attended, though some go off to the pub. This particular year, shortly after the service had started, Christopher slipped in at the back. Afterwards I expressed my surprise. He responded: ‘I learned more in that building than in any other place in the school.’
Dry Drayton, Cambridgeshire
The Vice President’s Men
Marc Dubin’s Latin American specialist declared that his career had been compromised because of his principled refusal to draw up a feasibility study for a nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union (Letters, 21 March). The notion that nuclear strike plans of any sort would be drawn up by a Latin America specialist or any number of them is fantastical in itself, and of course by the time Ronald Reagan became president and rejected them all, there were any number of nuclear strike plans.
It seems that even after all these years the idea that Reagan was not a John Birch Society nuclear warrior but its exact opposite is still hard to swallow for some – much as Trump’s persistent pressure to withdraw US troops from futile wars in hopeless countries is studiously overlooked by his critics, who are determined to find fault with absolutely everything he does.
Chevy Chase, Maryland
Marc Dubin expresses his shock that the US State Department was looking at plans for a first-strike nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. I spent some time in the summer of 1957 at the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica. There were departments devoted to Russian history and others to hydrogen bombs. There was Herman Kahn informing us that even if we suffered a few megadeaths we would come out OK in the end. Stanley Kubrick read all the reports; in Dr Strangelove he named it the Bland Corporation.
You can’t call it that
Ferdinand Mount refers in passing to the Ecclesiastical Titles Act 1871, one of Gladstone’s many contributions to a better world (LRB, 21 March). Replacing the overtly anti-Roman Catholic Act of 1851, it enabled the Roman Catholic Church to establish dioceses throughout the UK, and to name them after actual places, although, following strong lobbying from the Church of England they could not be given the same names as existing C of E dioceses. So, for example, Clifton not Bristol, and Westminster not London (this one was highly controversial in that it implied a Roman Catholic archbishop might have some authority over Parliament).
A few decades later, the Church of England discovered that it needed to establish new dioceses to deal with the increase of population in industrial areas, a phenomenon that had previously escaped its attention. This time round, as the new dioceses were established, the die-in-a-ditch attitude that ‘Our dioceses can’t have the same name as Roman Catholic dioceses’ dropped away, and we got the Anglican dioceses of Southwark, Portsmouth, Birmingham, Liverpool and, as recently as 2014, Leeds – all with the same names as the relatively recently established Roman Catholic dioceses.
St Albans, Hertfordshire
Even the Buzzard
In his review of Stephen Moss’s book about how birds got their names, Francis Gooding omits to mention the analysis of the etymology of British bird names undertaken by W.B. Lockwood, which Moss himself credits as ‘a constant inspiration’ (LRB, 21 February). The prime sources for Lockwood’s lifetime’s work (consolidated in The Oxford Book of British Bird Names, published in 1984) were dictionaries – the OED, but also dictionaries of Middle English, English Dialect, Scots etc – as well as the standard ornithological treatises. Lockwood, usefully, also had an extensive command of North and West European languages, including Proto-Indo-European, Proto-Germanic, Faeroese, Icelandic, Frisian and various Celtic tongues. While Moss’s coverage of British bird names is partial and selective, Lockwood discusses the etymology of 257 British species and another 1250 local and dialect names in a concise dictionary half the length of Moss’s volume. Moss’s readers will look in vain for the etymology of evocative and intriguing names such as twite, siskin, avocet, cormorant, garganey, gadwall, pochard, scaup, capercaillie, ptarmigan, goshawk, osprey, and even buzzard.
A Country Emptied
Ian Jack asks what made possible the lack of compassion on display throughout the period of the Highland Clearances (LRB, 7 March). We should be able to understand it, since we display the same determination to characterise our wishes and interests as economic necessities. In the global South farmers are today being deprived of their land and their water so that these limited resources can be used industrially to provide us with salad leaves. But the refugees from modern agriculture have no empty spaces to go to across the seas, no snug Canadian cabins.
Ian Jack says ‘the Sutherland evictees eventually left the country.’ Not all of them. Nancy Dorian has shown that the descendants of some of the evictees stayed in Brora, Golspie and Embo, and continued to speak Gaelic until recently.
But for the Poles
Laura Beers mentions the ingratitude shown by the British immediately after the Second World War to the Polish servicemen who fought for the country (LRB, 7 March). The ingratitude was particularly egregious in light of the vital contribution made by Polish fighter pilots in the Battle of Britain in 1940. The outcome rested for some time on a razor’s edge; had it ended in defeat, Britain might well have fallen. Britain was down to its very last airframes and pilots. But it did have the Polish pilots, who were more experienced and combat-ready than most of the British pilots, and had better tactical skills derived from prior experience against the Luftwaffe. ‘Had it not been for the magnificent work of the Polish squadrons and their unsurpassed gallantry,’ the commander-in-chief of Fighter Command, Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding said, ‘I hesitate to say that the outcome of battle would have been the same.’
Not all the conclusions reached about new forms of political legitimacy after the 1848 Revolutions were as benevolent as those Christopher Clark identifies (LRB, 7 March). King Louis Philippe of France, deposed in February that year after his soldiers fired into a crowd, watched from exile as the new government brutally put down radical uprisings in June and mused, ‘Republics are lucky: they can shoot people.’
The Son, Not the Father
In my recent piece on Justinian’s Code I inadvertently misstated the point at issue in the central theological controversy (LRB, 21 March). This was indeed Christological, dealing solely with the problem of God the Son and having nothing to do with God the Father. The question was whether the son had two different natures, divine and human, in one indivisible divine person, or was one nature, single and indivisible.
Pennsylvania State University
When will it end?
In the LRB of 7 March there is a long review by Adam Phillips of a book about misogyny. There are 11 further pieces by men, and two pieces by women. And the letters? 100 per cent of them by men. Where does it begin and when will it end?
University of York