Vol. 29 No. 24 · 13 December 2007

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Resistance is surrender

Convinced, nay, chastened by Slavoj Žižek’s arguments for a new realism on the left, I shall be campaigning over the next months to dissuade those planning to ‘save their beautiful souls’ in street protests against the bombing of Iran from doing any such thing (LRB, 15 November). And I have written a letter to my congresswoman (she’s a bit of an anti-war firebrand, so Žižek will forgive me if my intervention fails to have immediate results), along the lines: ‘While respectfully recognising the US state’s representation of my interests, and its right and duty to protect them by force of arms, might I propose that you propose that the strike against Iranian facilities be limited to 50 bunker busters per nuclear installation, with a total TNT not exceeding, say, half the Hiroshima device per site? And could I put in a plea for restraint in the use of depleted uranium? I realise this may be intruding too far on the administration’s prerogatives, but would you perhaps suggest, to those in the know, double-checking of intelligence before the targets are finally decided on? Oh yes, collateral damage … Couldn’t we make a strictly between presidents offer of undercover medical help, Quds force to Quds force, in the unlikely event?’ These seem to me ‘strategically well-selected, precise, finite demands’. They’re sure to do the trick.

T.J. Clark
University of California, Berkeley

‘Sit at home and watch the barbarity on television’ seems to be Slavoj Žižek’s new slogan for fighting capitalism. He writes of the million-strong demonstration against the war on Iraq: they ‘served to legitimise it.’ All that happened was that ‘the protesters saved their beautiful souls.’ Žižek’s brilliant dialectical insight allows us to see that all struggles that do not fully achieve their objectives sanctify the status quo. So the events of May 1968 in France must have legitimised the Gaullist regime, the Cuban revolution continued US domination of Latin America, the independence of India the British Empire, the revolutions of 1848 European reaction, the civil rights movement American racism. And if the US now attacks Iran we must at all costs not take to the streets against it. Perhaps the philosopher should go beyond interpreting the world in confusing ways and try to change it.

Chris Harman
International Socialism Journal, London E8

Reading Slavoj Žižek’s strangely giddy defence of Hugo Chávez, I was reminded of Woody Allen’s Bananas, in which Allen’s character, a product-tester named Fielding Melish, joins a group of guerrillas in the mountains of ‘San Marcos’, a right-wing Latin American military dictatorship. The guerrilla leader brandishes his gun, his revolutionary slogans and his Che beard with equal aplomb, and promises that the day of liberation is near. Once the guerrillas triumph, he changes the official language to Swedish and announces that everyone must wear their underpants outside their clothes. Venezuelans aren’t speaking Swedish yet, but Chávez’s drive to concentrate power in his own hands brings them one step closer. I prefer the Subcomediante Marcos.

André Bénichou
Nanterre, France

In Tavistock Square

‘Virginia Woolf,’ Deborah Friedell writes, ‘said that her books would have been “inconceivable" without the death of her father: she needed him to die before she could write about him in To the Lighthouse’ (LRB, 15 November). But it was clearly her mother she was writing about in To the Lighthouse. ‘Until I was in my forties,’ she wrote, ‘the presence of my mother obsessed me. I could hear her voice, see her, imagine what she would do or say as I went about my day’s doings … Then one day walking around Tavistock Square I made up, as I sometimes make up my books, To the Lighthouse … when it was written, I ceased to be obsessed by my mother. I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her.’

David Robinson
Swanage, Dorset

Clarity begins at home

David Runciman’s observation that charities are hamstrung by demands for transparency while the business of governments remains opaque should be repeated to every gathering of trustees and in every charity boardroom across the UK (LRB, 29 November). Runciman deals mostly with charitable activities in the international context, but these aren’t the only ones that suffer disabling scrutiny. The difficulties involved in making clear that a donation to a children’s charity directly helps a child drive UK charities into pathological introspection. Promoting the need to end cruelty to children, for example, butts up against the need to prove that that is precisely what one’s organisation is trying to achieve.

I would, sadly, warn Runciman against any optimism. Polling evidence that the company I now work for has been generating for a decade shows that in 1998 two thirds of the UK public was unable to name an organisation that existed to protect the environment. In late 2007 the number was exactly the same. Polled in the same study last September, 63 per cent of the respondents were extremely or very concerned about ‘charities being open and fair, honest and legal in their fundraising’, as against 45 per cent being extremely or very concerned about ‘climate change’.

Chris Greenwood
nfpSynergy, London EC1

Charities choose to be increasingly transparent and accountable not just as a result of government regulation, but because to exist and legitimise themselves they need to maintain the confidence of both their beneficiaries and those who make resources available. This increasingly collaborative and transparent space is much more likely to encourage the sort of political engagement that grapples with the problems addressed by charities than the opaque and unaccountable institutions to which we have become accustomed.

Richard Marsh
ImpACT Coalition, Institute of Fundraising, London SW8

Southern Gents

It isn’t really the case, as Nicholas Guyatt implies, that John Scopes’s trial in Dayton, Tennessee put reason on trial against unreason; nor was his conviction ever overturned (LRB, 15 November). Soon after the law against teaching evolution in schools had been enacted, the American Civil Liberties Union looked to have it annulled by a higher court. They first needed a test case, with a volunteer who could be sure of being convicted. Scopes was happy to be the one. During the trial theatricals, the judge constantly reminded everyone that nobody was there to judge Darwin or the Bible; they were there merely to ascertain whether Scopes had broken the law. But even after the guilty verdict had been handed down, the ACLU didn’t get any further. The Tennessee Law Court had probably seen too much of the Dayton circus and turned down the appeal, noting that it saw no reason to further such a bizarre case.

The law was never enforced again. When the Tennessee legislature took another look at it in 1967, it was pitched out with little fuss. In 1972, in my Nashville high school, I heard my Baptist biology teacher say he himself did not believe in evolution. But, he said, we were going to learn it, because it was in the textbook and part of the course. He said it graciously, without the slightest hint of a whine, like a Southern gentleman calmly deferring to a demanding stranger.

Nicholas Blanton
Shepherdstown, West Virginia

Good, Bad and Ugly

I was intrigued by Michael Wood’s suggestion that the western genre is to do with the way men behave when the law of the land is absent (LRB, 18 October). But I would have expected him to have nodded, at least, in the direction of the sub-genre which took that idea to its limit, and was responsible for the death of the Hollywood western in the mid-1960s. It’s hard to recall now just how subversive Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars was in 1964, with its nameless, cigarillo-chewing hero, who hasn’t shaved for some days, riding into town on a mule and committing a string of casual killings for personal gain. And in Once Upon a Time in the West, the blue-eyed Henry Fonda who until then had never done a dirty deed on screen, is revealed to be a callous child killer. For six years or so, hundreds of versions of this in-your-face hyper-amorality, good, bad and ugly, rolled out of Cinecittà. It was their influence that delegitimised the American western. Over the past four decades, Hollywood has found barely enough cash and imagination to make a couple of westerns a year, each one of which is inspected with forensic attention to determine whether or not it displays genuine signs of life.

Tony Barrell
Balmain, New South Wales

Film v. Still

David Simpson recalls the famous photograph of the 1968 shooting of a prisoner by the South Vietnamese chief of police as showing blood spurting from the wound (LRB, 29 November). I too remember this image: it was to be seen in a film clip of the event but it is missing from the photo, which I guess was taken a second too soon. Or perhaps the photo is an early frame taken out of the film clip. It seems the clip may be even better remembered than the still photo.

Jim Grove
Cowbridge, Glamorgan

Among the Republicans

‘Even Nelson Rockefeller got on the bandwagon, dispatching an emissary to the 1980 Republican Convention to quell opposition among liberal Republicans to a party platform that would have been considered extremist just four years earlier,’ Greg Grandin wrote in the LRB of 29 November. While Nelson Rockefeller’s powers were surely vast, even he would have had difficulty intervening at a convention that met nearly eighteen months after his death on 26 January 1979.

David Karol
University of California, Berkeley

Greg Grandin writes: Apologies. I should have said David Rockefeller, or Rockefeller interests. The person in question was Richard Rosenbaum, who had been a fixture in New York liberal Republican politics, and a close ally of the whole Rockefeller clan. Both in the 1976 and the 1980 Republican Conventions, he served as liaison between the Reagan conservatives and the Rockefeller moderates (as well as between D’Amato Long Island Republicans and the Rockefellers), and in 1980, according to the New York Times, was ‘instrumental in quelling dissent in the New York delegation over the platform planks on equal rights for men and women, abortion and the federal judiciary’. And he described his peace with Reagan as a ‘conversion’. In fact, if I had caught this, it would have made for an even more interesting point. Rosenbaum asked the convention if they would have a moment of silence for Nelson: ‘We have to make room for decency in politics,’ he said. The convention organisers refused, though they did make time for Kissinger, Nelson Rockefeller’s friend and adviser, to praise Reagan, his former adversary.

Nice Mrs T.

Tom Paulin seems not to know that Philip Larkin was indeed offered the laureateship in December 1984 (LRB, 29 November). Several of his letters at that time included such comments as ‘Mrs T. was very nice about my not wanting it,’ ‘very nice and understanding about it all’, ‘sorry to disappoint’ and so forth.

Anthony Thwaite
Low Tharston, Norfolk

Or as Larkin put it to Amis, ‘the thought of being the cause of Ted’s being buried in Westminster Abbey is hard to live with.’

Page Nelson
Cambridge, Massachusetts

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