Vol. 27 No. 7 · 31 March 2005

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Say no to pokies

I find Ross McKibbin’s remarks on gambling in Australia inadequate (LRB, 3 March). The country itself is a gamble: its existence displays the human inclination to take risks, to attempt new ventures, to explore. But it’s a far cry from these healthy forms of gambling when hundreds of thousands of people spend solitary hours at pokies – fruit machines. The money spent is ill-afforded (most Australian households are in debt), and the profits that go to big proprietors and the few winners far outweigh those that go to clubs. Gamblers in Victoria alone lose over $4 billion a year, and that in a state of five million people. The working classes lose most because they see no other means to economic mobility, and have few if any other legal ways to experience the excitements of risk-taking. State governments now rely on this form of taxing the poor to avoid raising taxes on the rich; meanwhile, programmes for problem gamblers provide livelihoods for the middle class.

Valerie Yule
Mount Waverley, Australia

A liberal writes

Is Sheila Fitzpatrick sure of what she means when she talks about ‘the Bukharin/Darkness at Noon model of confessing everything, no matter how bizarre the accusations, “for the good of the cause"’ (LRB, 17 March)? That was indeed what Koestler’s fictional Old Bolshevik did, but it wasn’t what Bukharin did. Bukharin confessed because his family was threatened. So the confidently inserted forward slash is a mark of falsification, not punctuation.

There are more falsification marks in Slavoj Žižek’s piece in the same issue. Telling us how ‘the “pure" liberal attitude’ of finding Fascism and Communism ‘both bad’ is ‘a priori false’, he leaves, to those of us who think that they were indeed both bad, the task of fighting off the imputation that we are either impure liberals or that liberalism is impure in itself. He should be encouraged to put away his inverted commas until he can use them responsibly. In his very next sentence he even uses them against himself: ‘It is necessary to take sides and proclaim Fascism fundamentally “worse" than Communism.’ Unless ‘worse’ means worse, the sentence means nothing. If it means what it would mean without the inverted commas, then there is a simple answer: it isn’t necessary. Without the slightest bow to Ernst Nolte, you can take sides against both of the totalitarianisms put together. In fact you can’t be a liberal if you don’t.

No kind of liberal, whether pure or impure, needs to waste time deciding which had the harder surface, the hammer or the anvil. As the German Social Democrats of the 1930s discovered when they were caught between them, all that mattered was the impact. Those who survived gave much of the impetus to the ‘postwar European identity’ that Žižek touchingly believes is based solely on ‘anti-Fascist unity’. So that’s what the Bundeswehr was doing: warding off the return of the Nazis.

The Bolsheviks did indeed release all kinds of constructive energies, as did the Nazis in their turn. But in both cases the destructive energies were released simultaneously, and eventually the poison settled the fate of everything that grew. The disturbing thing for liberals now is that there are still so many gauchiste intellectuals who persist in believing that the roots of injustice might be found in liberal democracy itself, and the roots of justice in some version of unlimited, self-perpetuating power. Generously ready to concede that the second thing might sometimes go wrong, they nevertheless earn their living from reminding the first thing that freedom is an illusion. They are free to do so, and will never be short of evidence; but their position is false, and their marks of falsification are the tip-off.

Clive James

Wrapped Gap

Hal Foster says that Christo wrapped or decorated a ‘Colorado valley’ (LRB, 3 March). That isn’t quite right. In 1972, a curtain designed by Christo was put across the Rifle Gap. The curtain didn’t last long: the wind all but blew it away.

Jeremy Bernstein
Aspen, Colorado

Resisting the Patriarchs

David Gilmour defends the progressive role of the British Empire in shaping gender relations in India against the opposition of the conservative Hindu subject population (LRB, 3 March). From Gilmour’s account, it would appear that Indians were either hostile to such reforms or passive recipients of lofty progressive legislation. Gilmour ignores Indian reformers and their role in organising resistance to patriarchal practices, even though a number of Indian activists – ranging from Pandita Ramabai, Ranade and Gokhale, in the Bombay Presidency, to Ram Mohan Roy, members of the Young Bengal movement and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar in Bengal – played a critical role in orchestrating debates, discussions and social movements demanding the prohibition of these practices. Indeed, the imperial bureaucracy after the rebellion of 1857 was far more sympathetic to ‘conservative Indians’ than to Indian social critics and reformers.

Subho Basu
Normal, Illinois

Wrong Step

Christopher Prendergast’s memory of grasping his drunk father by the collar of his coat ‘on the escalator at Tufnell Park’ is curious (LRB, 17 March). There is no escalator at Tufnell Park nor any room for one.

Gerard McBurney
London N7

Which 78 per cent?

‘Having accepted that 78 per cent of Mandate Palestine is irrevocably part of Israel, no Palestinian leader could win majority support for agreeing to cede any of the remaining 22 per cent,’ Rashid Khalidi writes (LRB, 3 February). However, Mandate Palestine included not only Israel and the Palestinian areas, but also what is now Jordan. The intention of the British government, according to the Balfour Declaration, was to establish a national home for the Jewish people in their ancient homeland. In 1921, Britain subdivided Mandate Palestine, drawing a line along the Jordan River to the Gulf of Akaba. The eastern portion, known as Transjordan, was renamed Jordan and became independent in 1946. This state was carved out of almost 78 per cent of Mandate Palestine. Thus, it is the nation of Jordan – not Israel – that comprises 78 per cent of the land of Mandate Palestine.

Myron Kaplan
Rockland, Massachusetts

Obstacles to Seeking Asylum

Katharine Fletcher’s account of the ‘obstacles to seeking asylum’ in Britain is misleading in important ways and places (LRB, 17 March). We know there is torture and persecution going on in the world. We know the victims find their way to Britain – and we are proud that they see it as a place of refuge. This pride turns to shame when we think of them spending months on minimal benefits trying to convince a cynical bureaucracy of their suffering. They deserve better.

But saying they deserve better is different from saying that making it harder for them to qualify for benefits, or increasing the burden of proof, are likely to stop them applying. And yet the striking effect of these changes over the last couple of years has been not on how many claims or appeals succeed but on how many applications are made in the first place.

If the policy is taken at face value, as motivated by a genuine desire to reduce unfounded claims rather than merely to buy off the right-wing media, then rather than being ‘self-defeating’ it actually looks like a success. Moreover, rather than being a mere ‘political strategy’ it looks like a government doing what governments are obliged to do: ensure the law is applied and taxpayers’ money is going to the people who are entitled to it.

Similarly, the distinctions between bogus/ genuine or honest/dishonest asylum seekers cannot be dismissed as mere ‘media designations’. True, there are different shades of ‘dishonesty’ here. They range from, at one extreme, the pretty disgraceful practice of claiming asylum benefits in two EU states simultaneously, or claiming them in one state having been granted refugee status in another; to, at the other, the much more excusable practice of claiming asylum without benefits purely to buy some breathing space to find illegal work.

You wouldn’t guess from the right-wing media that it is the second rather than the first kind which is typical. But in trying to correct this impression we shouldn’t imply that the second kind of case is completely harmless. True, these are not bad people. At bottom they are trying to do what governments around the world exhort young people to do – seek out opportunities and work to better their lot. They are not spongers: often they don’t even apply for the benefits they are entitled to. If they don’t pay tax either, this is usually down to their employer. Overall they probably make a positive contribution to the economy, working in jobs which are hard, often dangerous and badly paid.

But their admirable motives and hard work can’t justify ignoring the fact that they are seeking an unfair advantage over those who apply to come here legally, that they are freeloading by using public services without paying taxes, and most important, that they are abusing the immigration system. Now, many who criticise asylum policy from the left would like to see that wider system relaxed. But conflating that question with the question of whether, until that happens, the current laws should be enforced, is wrong both in principle and in practice. A more sophisticated tack would be to concede that the government’s reforms are not just about stinginess or pandering to the mob but are motivated at least partly by the entirely proper desire to eliminate injustice, but then argue that the price of doing so is to create a greater injustice, that of genuine refugees being turned away.

There must be some kind of trade-off between ensuring genuine refugees are given protection, and eliminating abuse of the system. Fletcher’s case studies remind us of the individual cost of changes in policy or its application, but by their nature cannot tell us anything about the aggregate effects for which governments are rightly held responsible. We need some sense of the numbers, and here Fletcher lets us down. How, for example, are we supposed to square her claim that ‘the system is constructed on the false premise that a very large number of asylum seekers are “abusing the system"’ with her acknowledgment that ‘it is clearly the case that a proportion of asylum seekers are economic migrants.’ Are we simply meant to infer that this ‘proportion’ does not count as ‘very large’?

When she does give us numbers, too often they are out of context. She believes immigration officials are being overzealous in applying the new law against destroying travel documents and passports before claiming asylum. Fletcher cites the 170 people charged in the first four months – but fails to put this in context of the thousands who could potentially have been charged. A prosecution rate of 5 per cent is not by itself evidence that the law is being applied unreasonably. Similarly, she takes her figures on the time asylum seekers are detained – between 129 and 165 days – from the organisation Bail for Immigration Detainees, who naturally concentrate on those detained the longest. In fact, only 10 to 20 per cent of asylum seekers are detained for the kind of time Fletcher presents as typical.

Matt Cavanagh
Former Government Adviser on Asylum and Immigration, London SW1


In my letter (Letters, 17 March) the word ‘Negro’ is printed with a lower case ‘n’. This distinction was conventionally regarded as the difference between a noun and an adjective, but it became an ideological issue some forty or fifty years ago and I always use the upper case; the lower case was not mine.

J.R. Pole

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