Vol. 22 No. 6 · 16 March 2000

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The Uninvited

Without ever quite declaring it, Jeremy Harding (LRB, 3 February) persuasively differentiates sub-Saharan African refugees from all others. Kurds, Iraqis, Albanians, Sri Lankans, Romanians, Russians etc are fleeing the disruptions of war or the upheavals of post-Communism. Sub-Saharan Africans, on the other hand, are fleeing sub-Saharan Africa as such, or at least its governance. Sometimes there is war or bloody dictatorship as well, but even without either the normal operation of almost all sub-Saharan states impoverishes the already poor, because – legally or illegally – politicians, bureaucrats and soldiers extract relatively large resources for themselves from the population, without providing useful public services. The problem, moreover, cannot be solved by democratic forms, for it derives from the very existence of Western-type state structures in societies that lack a Western-type culture of public service, even rather bad and rather corrupt public service. In their case, non-feasance rather than misfeasance is the problem. Only the hollow pretence of their correctibility justifies the African policies of the US, UK, EU and so on, all of which legitimise extortionate state structures. I realise that re-colonisation, the only efficient remedy in theory, is not an option, but I am curious to learn what Harding's solution might be.

As for the fast patrol boats of the Italian Guardia di Finanza and their futile chases of even faster Albanian people-smuggling rubber boats, I am sure that Harding realises that it is not at all a matter of relative speeds. Coastal interdiction cannot, in any case, be performed by outracing intruders. If done in earnest, surveillance, detection and interception must be followed by warning shots and then sinking shots, if the intruders do not stop on command to surrender. The GdF has the weapons, of course, but is strictly prohibited from using them. Only a fraction of the Italian political élite really opposes illegal immigration, and a yet smaller fraction would sanction the use of force to stop the people-smuggling trade by shooting up the rubber boats after they had unloaded their human cargo. The Roman Catholic Church favours any and all immigration to replace the vanishing Italians, whose fertility is the lowest in the world, or near enough. As for the governing coalition, it wants to do no more to limit illegal immigration than is absolutely mandated by Italy's obligations under EU accords. Even in the opposition, Berlusconi's Forza Italia opposes effective controls, leaving only the ex-Neofascist Alleanza Nazionale and Bossi's Northern Leagues to oppose illegal immigration. Because Italian public opinion is increasingly antagonised by Albanian and Roma petty and not so petty crime, the insouciance of their betters is provoking a populist reaction. Haider is already a hero to many in north-east Italy, which has been particularly exposed to the new immigrant crime wave for obvious geographic reasons – that is where the Roma and many Bosnians and even Albanians first arrive. Public attitudes are not predictably or conventionally racist, however. The belief that the Roma have an exceptionally high criminal propensity is hardly a hostile fantasy. At the same time, there is more tolerance for black Africans than for brown North Africans, while the lily-white Albanians are perhaps the most widely disliked at present. The ineffectual games played by the GdF and Italy's other frontier police forces reflect élite preferences, not those of the public. Nobody should be surprised if Italy's stand-ins for Haider do rather well in the next elections.

Edward Luttwak
Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Washington DC

I had hoped that Jeremy Harding’s article would do what so many similar articles written in the wake of Bosnia and Kosovo have failed to do: namely, state clearly that the greatest mass expulsion in European history occurred between 1945 and 1950, and that those affected were ethnic Germans. To refer to the expulsion of 13.8 million Germans, 2.1 million of whom died in the process, as the ‘return’ from Poland and Sudetenland makes me wonder why he bothered to mention the subject at all.

Theresa Wells-King
East Wittering, West Sussex

Jeremy Harding claims that ‘enormous numbers of Jews’ were ‘driven west by tsarist and Polish pogroms’ and speaks of ‘hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from the Pale of Settlement and Poland’. There was no Poland at that time. The country had been divided by her three ungrateful neighbours and had suffered with her many Jewish citizens from the actions of the Russians, Austrians and Prussians. Jews, having suffered in Western Europe, had found a home in Poland for over 600 years.

Donald John Lachowicz
Shelby Township, Michigan

Say hello to Rodney

Rodney, the hermit crab who illustrates Peter Wollen’s piece on kitsch (LRB, 17 February), appears to be a fine specimen of a Nature Gem. I grew up in Lake Jackson, Texas, a ‘science town’ which houses companies such as Dow Chemical. One of these companies, now defunct, was Iminac – short for ‘Imagination in Action’ – which produced a series called Nature Gems in the early 1970s. They contained all sorts of flora and fauna, including orchids, sea critters, tarantulas, and the head of a rattlesnake poised to strike. They were, I recall, very expensive and made in rather small numbers. My father, a plant manager, had one on the credenza in his office. (I believe it was also a crab.) Its rather plain geometric appearance and lush hardwood base matched the office’s carefully maintained tone of 1960s corporate Modernism. Indeed, this was the intended setting for Nature Gems. They all had the severe lines and plain, polished hardwood base that can be seen in the picture of Rodney. The technically interesting thing about them was the gel-like gunk inside which was chemically inert, transparent and had the same index of refraction as glass. If Celeste Olalquiaga had tapped Rodney’s dome, she might have noticed him shiver. I do not contest her characterisation of Rodney as kitsch, but he might crab about this reduction in social class and claim that he should be counted among the élite objects of a cool, austere Modernism.

Freeman B. Crouch III
Marble Falls, Texas

Whites Only

Pity Elizabeth Lowry. First Faye Crompton accuses her of not having been to South Africa (Letters, 25 November 1999). When it is pointed out that Lowry was born and brought up there, Charles Landon (Letters, 17 February) accuses her of not having been to Pietermaritzburg. But Landon’s objection is really to Lowry’s remark that apartheid ‘began as an extensive affirmative action programme on behalf of the Afrikaner’. If ‘apartheid’ is to mean more than just ‘any occurrence of racial segregation’ (Landon’s use of the word) then it must surely mean ‘the policy of the South African Government from 1948 to 1990’ (Lowry’s use of the word). The policy of apartheid in the latter sense had a number of elements. The carrying of racial segregation to legal and bureaucratic extremes was one of them. Another was to introduce a republican form of government. Another was to solve the poor white question by giving them semi-sheltered employment in the civil service. It is to this that Lowry, not at all ‘misleadingly’, refers.

Richard Thompson
Bloemfontein, South Africa

Charles Landon is himself misleading when he accuses Elizabeth Lowry of being misleading about apartheid. Gandhi did not want to abolish apartheid. He simply did not want it applied to Indians, going so far as to urge Indians to support whites in the war against the Zulus in the hope that this would induce whites to give Indians white status.

Julian Burgess
Forncett St Peter, Norfolk

Hedging His Bets

While I agree with Paul Mountain (Letters, 6 January) that Marvell was to a sometimes worrying extent ‘a politician who hedged his bets’, the first of his three Cromwellian poems, the ‘Horatian Ode’, cannot be dismissed quite so easily as ‘political sycophancy’. But at least this argument concentrates on the politics of the ‘Ode’ and its historical moment – the immediate aftermath of Cromwell’s genocidal excursion to Ireland. What makes the ‘Ode’ so much more satisfying than the later two Cromwell poems is precisely the way in which it shows the pros and cons of granting admiration to the political strongman. Its greatness as a political poem lies in the way it deals with issues of power, political morality and leadership, which are treated in a fashion far too robust for today’s Common Room radicals. Marvell’s anti-Catholic bigotry, his political mobility, his celebration of the crushing of political dissent (the ‘accursed locusts’ of ‘The First Anniversary’) are inconvenient warts on the republican portrait, but they do not invalidate the force of this poem.

Nicholas Murray
London WC1

Do they drink the oil?

I have sparred happily with Aidan Foster-Carter (Letters, 2 March) before, and it is no secret that his disillusion with Kim Il-sung colours his now rather conservative attitude towards all innovative programmes of Third World development. I do not share his view that because Venezuela has a lot of oil it has no right to ‘defy globalisation’. Selling oil, which the Venezuelan state does competently and with comparative advantage (over, say, the Caucasus), is an activity that long preceded the onset of globalisation, and continues to take place under President Chávez. So far he has had the wit to reactivate Venezuela’s participation in Opec, leading to a cut in production and a higher oil price, and to take literally the old Venezuelan ambition to ‘sow the oil’ by putting the emphasis on rural development. I am as familiar as Foster-Carter with the failure of comparable schemes elsewhere in the world, but this one is clearly a bit different, and seems worth a try. Chávez is far more benevolently disposed towards the private sector than the statist autocrats Foster-Carter mentions, and any country that tries to move towards self-sufficiency in food production still gets my vote.

Although Chávez, like General de Gaulle, gave the coup de grâce (through a constituent assembly) to the moribund political institutions of Venezuela’s fourth republic, most people would agree that these institutions, through corruption, cronyism, and the wilful squandering of public money, had already withered on the vine before the Colonel appeared on the scene. Paradoxically, in view of Foster-Carter’s belief that ‘those who overthrow established institutions to pursue economic chimeras are the worst menace of all,’ the beginnings of the collapse of the old Venezuela can be dated very accurately to 1989, the year when the ancien régime imposed the economic policies drafted by the International Monetary Fund – a far greater menace to established institutions than the emerging programme of President Chávez.

Richard Gott
London W11

Unreliable Friends

David Dyzenhaus’s attack on Anthea Jeffery for her book, The Truth about the Truth Commission, and its predecessor, The Natal Story: Sixteen Years of Conflict, abounds in distortions and misrepresentations (Letters, 25 November 1999). His allegations about The Natal Story have zero foundation in fact. The book’s objectivity was widely acknowledged by reviewers. Mondli Makhanya, writing in the Star, described it as an ‘unbiased account’. Z.B. Molefe wrote in City Press: ‘The book’s strongest feature … is providing both the ANC and Inkatha equal platforms to state their positions.’ Graham Linscott, in the Mercury, described the book as a ‘meticulous and scrupulously objective catalogue of horror’. Mokgadi Pela, writing in the Sowetan, said Jeffery had ‘used her skills to unravel this complex low-intensity war in a strictly non-partisan way’.

As for her analysis of the TRC’s report, all manner of invective has been levelled at her by various critics. They have not, however, defended the charges made by Jeffery, which still stand uncontroverted.

John Kane-Berman
South African Institute of Race Relations

Neil Wilson (Letters, 20 January) implies that Canada’s treatment of aboriginal people means that Canadians have no right to comment on the injustices of South Africa. Apartheid looks pretty good, apparently, in contrast to the genocide of indigenous populations elsewhere in the New World, as though we should applaud South Africa for not having eliminated the black population altogether. The letter accuses David Dyzenhaus – a resident of ‘nice, safe and overwhelmingly white and wealthy Canada’ – of not knowing what he is talking about. But Dyzenhaus is also a South African whose writings on the South African justice system prompted the TRC to ask him to appear as an expert witness. Last year he published a book on the TRC and the role of judges in South Africa.

Inaccuracies also abound in the claims about Canada: far from being overwhelmingly white, it is in fact one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world and, far from restricting immigration, has an immigration policy so ambitious that 16 per cent of its population is foreign-born.

Christine Sypnowich
Kingston, Canada

What’s wrong with estate agents?

Terry Eagleton (LRB, 2 March) finds a few patches of common ground in his bracing assault on Stanley Fish. One of these brief meetings of minds occurs on the subject of hate speech. Odd then, to find the hate speech Eagleton wants silenced cropping up in his own rhetoric, when, after comparisons with a variety of bad guys including Dan Quayle and Slobodan Milosevic, he describes Fish as having the ‘mind of an estate agent’. I am scandalised that the otherwise impeccable political manners of Eagleton – with, what is worse, the connivance of the LRB – should descend to such loutish prejudice.

Lindesay Irvine
London E5

How did Kate Croy get home?

Christopher Dolan's letter (Letters, 17 February) answered my questions about Henry James and the Underground with, as James himself might have put it, a beautiful completeness. It also made A.E. Roberts's letter in the next issue rather off the point, since it is now clear that in this instance James was neither incompetent nor muddled; he was right in making Kate get off at Bayswater station, aka Queen's Road. Roberts also asks the larger question, why bother? A possible answer is that readers of novels in the realistic tradition, such as The Wings of the Dove, have an implied agreement with their authors to respect what one might loosely call the facts about the world we inhabit. If a novelist seems to get a fact wrong, it could be the result of unimportant error or ignorance (or even, as in the instance I raised, reflect the reader's ignorance); or it could be deliberate. I think it is worth asking if it might be, and if it is, what it signifies.

Bernard Bergonzi
Leamington Spa

Bennett Notebook

It is true, as Pat Hutley (Letters, 17 February) writes, that Sylvia Wright coined the word ‘mondegreen’ in an article in Harper’s magazine in 1954. But she was not a British writer. Sylvia Wright (1917-81) was an American writer and my sister. Moreover, in the original article (later included in the book Get away from Me with those Christmas Gifts) she did not make an ‘admission’. Indeed she proudly maintained that the misheard version of many phrases is better than the original.

Phyllis Wright King
New York

Pat Hutley describes the ‘mondegreen’ as the result of the unintentional mishearing of a word or phrase, but there have also been deliberate attempts to produce them. Frank Muir and Denis Norden were each given a phrase at the beginning of My Word and had to produce a ‘mondegreen’ of it by the end, 30 minutes later. My favourite was Frank Muir’s version of ‘honesty is the best policy’ which, by circuitous allusion to the optimum method of making flag-poles for golf greens, became ‘on his tee is the best pole I see.’ Another example was the TV ad for Maxell cassette-tapes which involved a young man – copying Bob Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ video – holding up cards purporting to be the lyrics to various songs, including Desmond Dekker’s ‘Israelites’, one of which reads: ‘Uh, oh, my ears are alight.’

Michael Coates
London N19


In his review of Johnny Got His Gun (LRB, 2 March), Theo Tait says that On the Waterfront uses ‘messianic imagery to glorify Joe Doyle’s decision to testify to the “Crime Commission"’. The messianic imagery is applied rather to his betrayer, Terry Molloy, who eventually decides to testify too – Joey dies before he can approach the Commission. All informers are sanctified: the film is only one of Kazan’s wriggles around the fact that he betrayed his friends to save his career. The editors should also have noticed that the Hollywood Ten pleaded the First Amendment, not the Fifth.

Jim Cook
Stoke on Trent

Straight or Curly?

As another doomed to curly hair, I was amazed to read in the contributors’ notes (LRB, 2 March) that in Jenny Diski’s latter years her hair has gone straight. What happened? Was it shock – as some people are said to turn white overnight? Or just the weight of years? And at that reading when a woman came up to her and said, ‘I really love your hair,’ was it straight or curly?

Diana Hendry

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