Vol. 38 No. 12 · 16 June 2016

Search by issue:


Beatrix Campbell conflates not sharing a platform with Germaine Greer with denying her one (Letters, 2 June). I opposed no-platforming Greer in Cambridge last year, but that isn’t to say I would want to debate with someone who thinks I am mistaken in believing that I exist. The person inside my head isn’t at all confused about who she is, and is disappointed only that the flesh doesn’t conform as well as it might (which is true of many sixty-somethings). If trans women feel strongly about such views, it isn’t surprising, so might any other group who found a core part of their identity challenged in this way.

On the same page, Moira Dustin appears to believe that gender has to be socially constructed, because the consequences of its having a biological element would undermine years of progress on sexual equality. That is hardly a scientific view: the way the world is cannot be a function of the consequences of its being so. I would simply observe that animals need a programme – a built-in repertoire of feelings and behaviours – to ensure that they reproduce. That programme has to include, at a minimum, mechanisms for identifying potential mates and competing with others of the same sex for access to them, as well as playing an appropriate role in the production (and sometimes nurture) of offspring. For social animals, it includes the ability to recognise others as ‘my sort’ or ‘not my sort’. For me, that is a good, working, biological definition of gender. Humans have a unique ability to ornament gender differences socially, culturally and technologically, but that doesn’t change the underlying truth that they are necessary for the continuation of the species. It is a small step from there to recognising that on occasion an individual of one sex may develop with at least parts of the programme appropriate to the other. This is observed in other animals as well.

Does my having the ‘wrong’ code mean that I am mistaken about my identity? To me mistakes are things like approving of Tony Blair, or getting a bit of algebra wrong. I try to avoid them, and to correct them where I can. I am perfectly happy to agree that in some sense I am a mistake, but it’s nature’s error and not mine. However, I really can’t accept anyone else, who can’t see inside my head, telling me that I am mistaken about who I am, which is very much where Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel and others are coming from. Undoubtedly some aspects of my life would have been easier if I had lived the life suggested by my body. ‘I’ have always been unwilling to sacrifice ‘myself’ – or indeed my self – to do that. Neither do I buy into the idea that I should somehow redeem myself by rejecting gender altogether (which I think means stop claiming a female identity) and devoting myself to creating a brave new world in which gender is irrelevant. My gender is important to me, but it’s only one part of my identity: it’s my day job as a physicist that pays the mortgage.

Rachael Padman
Newnham College, Cambridge

Beatrix Campbell reinstates the certainties and divides that are undone and exquisitely crossed by Jacqueline Rose’s essay on trans. ‘The sexual revolution wrought by feminist and gay activism has, of course, changed the political landscape in which trans lives can be lived,’ Campbell writes, as if the reverse were not also true; as if trans lives could not be and were not part of this activism; as if feminist, trans and gay were somehow mutually exclusive categories. Campbell slaps Rose down for the empathic identification with transsexuality that is for me the most moving aspect of her essay. After relating some feminists’ annihilation (among them Greer’s) of transsexuals’ right to identification and existence, Rose reflects: ‘Were I transsexual, I wouldn’t want Greer on any platform of mine.’ Campbell’s comeback: that Rose ‘isn’t transsexual and public platforms … belong to the collective we – the public’ – is a symptom of her not allowing herself to follow Rose’s immersion in trans or the invitation issued by Rose’s title, ‘Who do you think you are?’ – ‘the question anyone hostile to transsexual people should surely be asking themselves’. This analysis of non-trans is perhaps one reason for Rose’s ‘15,000 word’ essay, whose length seems to ‘fox’ Campbell. The crossing of all kinds of divides in the essay – of gender, of sex; of gender/sex; trans/cis; home/strange; complete/mutilated; private/public; trans/feminist; and ultimately of the very structures of the psyche – is a dynamic deserving the term ‘trans’ if ever there was one.

While I am also with Rose on her clearly stated position of generally not supporting no-platforming, I too would refuse to join on a public platform anyone, whoever they are (so insistently secure in their own identity), who denies my right to exist. You can’t have a conversation with someone who thinks you aren’t there.

Jay Prosser
University of Leeds


Alex Harvey has misunderstood the denouement of Aldous Huxley’s After Many a Summer (LRB, 5 May). He writes that the ancient fifth Earl of Gonister, preserved by a diet of fish guts, has become a ‘foetal ape’. That’s the wrong way round. Huxley is playing with the idea of ‘neoteny’: evolution proceeding by the retention of juvenile features, so that the adults of one species resemble the infants of the species from which they are descended. Hence, the theory goes, domestic dogs resemble wolf cubs, and humans, all of us, resemble foetal apes. Uniquely, the fifth earl, having lived two hundred-odd years, has matured into a full-fledged ape.

Larry Niven used a similar conceit in his 1973 novel Protector, in which it emerges that humans are the immature form of an extraterrestrial species which visited the earth millennia ago; we can achieve our full potential, metamorphosing into our hyper-intelligent, ape-like adult form, by eating a particular kind of fruit. Huxley, with his enthusiasm for cleansing the doors of perception, would have got the idea.

Robert Hanks
London E8

Poor Roosevelt

Gavin Francis writes that there is a ‘norm’ for blood pressure, and quotes a single reading for it (LRB, 2 June). But unlike core temperature, which in health shows scarcely any diurnal variation, blood pressure varies constantly and hugely in every single person. Poor Roosevelt lived before there was much knowledge of what to do about dangerously high pressure, however often it was or wasn’t measured. A little over ten years after his brain succumbed in part to the apparently terrible levels that Francis cites, clinical scientists in Oxford were demonstrating that normal young men could easily have measurements as high as Roosevelt’s first 188/105, and some of them much higher, when having sex or being subjected to a ‘painful stimulus’, i.e. a pin stuck into the buttocks. It’s a merciful advance that today’s hypertensives are not started on powerful drugs after one high reading, but are given time to show what their body does over several days.

Simon Barley
Bradwell, Derbyshire

Europe’s Sullen Child

Jan-Werner Müller says that ‘Brussels has very limited legal means of intervening to safeguard democracy and the rule of law in member states’ (LRB, 2 June). Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty sets out the values to which members must adhere: ‘The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.’ Article 7 sets out the procedure for addressing breaches of Article 2. It is long-winded and bureaucratic but could lead to suspension of the voting rights of the state concerned as well as any benefits obtained from the EU, presumably including payments. This procedure seems to have been initiated recently with regard to Poland though little has been heard of this since. It is difficult to see just how much further a non-elected institution can go with respect to a democratically elected government.

This is the heart of the matter; that at the centre of the EU there is a blatant lack of democratic authority. How it confronts the growth of fascism in Europe (let’s not mince words) is going to be a major problem for us, in or out of the EU.

Michael Prior
Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire

The Heaneid

James Brophy would have Colin Burrow pay better heed to Seamus Heaney’s rendering of Palinurus’ ‘nunc me fluctus habet versantque in litore venti’ in Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid as ‘now surf keeps me dandled/The shore winds loll me and roll me’ (Letters, 19 May). Brophy argues that Burrow fails to recognise that Heaney’s ‘sonic’ felicities here ‘chime[s] admirably with [the] original’. Perhaps they do, but not at all with the context.

Aeneas spots Palinurus’ ghost at the start of his visit to the underworld, and asks it to tell him what happened when he went missing overboard. Palinurus responds, saying in the line at issue that his murdered body now lies on the Italian coast buffeted by wind and sea, and pleads with Aeneas to give him ritual burial so that his soul can get across the Styx and be at peace. Burrow’s view that Heaney’s metaphors here are ‘too overtly … simple and childlike’ is correct. The connotations and lullaby effects of ‘dandled’ and ‘lolls’ are completely out of place and out of tune with Palinurus’ restless state, and with Virgil’s language for it. Virgil’s Latin is more appropriately, if not perfectly, rendered: ‘Now onshore breezes keep rolling me in the surf.’

Peter John Robertson
Morrisburg, Ontario

Let them drown

What is one to make of Naomi Klein’s claim that our governments’ ‘refusal to lower emissions’ would have been ‘impossible’ without ‘institutional racism’ and ‘Orientalism’ (LRB, 2 June)? The three central facts of international climate change policy are that China is now overwhelmingly responsible for the rise in global emissions, that India is becoming a duplicate case, and that the economic policies they have adopted are acts of their sovereign wills.

Having visited Beijing a number of times over the last 25 years, I need no persuading of the environmental harm that China’s policy is causing. But China and India are determined to repeat the industrialisation of the now advanced capitalist countries. Industrialisation isn’t just a matter of ‘sacrifice zones’ or the like. In focusing entirely on capitalism’s costs, Klein disparages or ignores its benefits, and thereby renders her criticisms ineffective. What has caused left-wing thought to erase Marx and Engels’s appreciation of capitalist achievement so completely that Klein can now seriously advocate a climate change policy that would deny the benefits of industrialisation to billions in poverty? It is fundamentally because of this denial that international climate change policy in its current form has no prospect at all of success.

David Campbell
Lancaster University

Naomi Klein says: ‘the climate crisis … might just be the catalyst we need to knit together a great many powerful movements.’ For everyone’s sake, I hope she’s wrong. A catalyst is a substance that speeds up a chemical reaction without being permanently changed itself.

Martin Sanderson

Naomi Klein writes that ‘climate change isn’t just about things getting hotter and wetter … it’s about things getting meaner and uglier.’ But that need not be so, not even under our current economic and political model. For dangerous climate change, as actually experienced by, for example, flood victims, is not primarily a matter of a slow rise in temperature: it is above all a matter of climate disasters. And, as Rebecca Solnit has argued, it may well be that the human capacity for building community and solidarity in the wake of disaster is going to be an enormous silver lining to the storm-clouds of our worsening climate.

Klein probably has trouble seeing this because of her excessively pessimistic analysis in The Shock Doctrine of what happens in disasters. She rightly points out how neoliberal opportunism seeks to turn disasters into opportunities for elite profit. What she misses, thereby depriving the subjects of disaster of their agency, is the extraordinary and often successful spontaneous resistance to such opportunism on the part of the affected citizens. Classic examples are the popular response to the great San Francisco and Mexico City earthquakes; but much of the same was seen in the on-the-ground responses to Katrina and Sandy too.

Rupert Read
University of East Anglia, Norwich


Karl Whitney’s piece on the underground fires at Ryton Golf Club took me back to an intolerably hot day in 1988, when I was in eastern India working on a story about the Jharia coalfields, where scores of such fires have been blazing for more than a hundred years – and will continue to do so for perhaps another hundred (LRB, 2 June). The scene was like a vision of hell, with flames and choking black smoke shooting into the air from hundreds of fissures in the scorched earth. A cautious peek revealed crimson embers bubbling just below the surface: huge dumper trucks were scooping up the red hot mass for disposal elsewhere. On the way out of the fire zone, I stumbled and one foot went into a shallow crevice: within seconds, my walking boot began to smoulder and I had to abandon it to the flames.

Philip Jacobson
London SW15


Ferdinand Mount gives an excellent commentary on Britain and the EU but what surprises me is how rarely anyone refers to what I would regard as the major reason for the creation and maintenance of the EU – the prevention of war (LRB, 19 May). ‘Peace is maintained by Justice rather than War,’ William Penn wrote in 1693. ‘Justice is a fruit of government, as government is from society and society from consent.’ He proposes a parliament of representatives from the states of Europe, with numbers allocated according to the approximate value of the country – the Empire of Germany would have 12 representatives, France and Spain ten each, Italy eight, England six, Sweden four, Denmark three and ‘if the Turks and Muscovites are taken in, as seems but fit and just they will make ten apiece more.’ He suggested that ‘to avoid quarrels over precedency, the room may be round,’ with many entrances and exits, the presidency should be rotating and the votes by ballot, ‘to prevent the ill effects of corruption … Nothing should pass, but by three quarters of the whole.’

He suggests that the benefits of such a project would be many: ‘To prevent the unnecessary spilling of so much blood … the reputation of Christianity would be in some degree recovered in the sight of infidels, which by the many bloody and unjust wars of Christians, not only with them, but with one another, has been much impaired.’ Money would be saved ‘both to the prince and the people … towns, cities and countries, that might be laid waste by the rage of war are thereby preserved; a blessing that would be very well understood in Flanders; another benefit would be ‘the ease and security of travel and traffic’.

Democratic states may be more difficult to come to agreement with, but since the creation of the EU, peace has been maintained between former enemies for more than sixty years.

Patricia Stapleton
Beaumont du Ventoux, France

How to Modernise a Russian Man

David Jackson mentions Mayakovsky’s observation that Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International was ‘the first Russian monument without a beard’, and suggests that this was a comment on the increasing number of women artists (LRB, 19 May). But Mayakovsky’s comment may also be an echo of Peter the Great’s introduction of a beard tax in 1698 as part of his attempt to modernise Russian men. The token that men had to carry to show that they had paid the tax and were allowed to wear a beard had on it the words: ‘The beard is a useless burden.’ Tatlin’s tower was firmly revolutionary in its form and in its message. No beards allowed. The tax was not repealed until 1772.

Martyn Chalk

Turn off the TV

‘Why is autism being diagnosed so commonly these days?’ is the question which, as a paediatrician practising in the field of child development, I’m most often asked. Daniel Smith mentions two reasons: the broadening of the diagnostic criteria and the increased public awareness of the condition (LRB, 19 May). Another possibility is social change. Autism spectrum disorder is associated with difficulties in the areas of social skills and language skills. These two abilities share a critical period of development in the first few years of life. In the past these years were spent with our families and peer groups, and we learned language from a living person – a sibling or a stay-at-home parent. We learned social skills such as turn-taking and sharing from them as well.

In a generation there has been a dramatic change. Instead of interacting with a responsive human being, children from an early age ‘interact’ with a screen. A recent study has shown that on average, children under the age of two spend two hours a day in on-screen activities. This probably has little effect on the ‘neurotypical’ but may have a profound effect on children on the autism spectrum, providing part of the answer to the apparent increase in incidence of the condition.

Nils Hanson
Meryla, New South Wales

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences