BARD BY THE BEEB 21st January 2003
John Morrison (February) castigates the BBC for broadcasting only two Shakespeare plays in five years. Such bluster has the opposite effect from the one he hopes-it confirms the BBC’s determination to disassociate itself from the shibboleths of ageing white fogies. Morrison’s vision of a titanic struggle between The Merchant of Venice and EastEnders obscures the real issue-how good is contemporary drama on the BBC? How much does it challenge, inspire and educate its audience? If we wish to prove that standards have dropped, we should be analysing the merits and demerits of what is being written now, not harping on about the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Michel Faber Fearn, Ross-shire
KANT AND ATHEISM 27th January 2003
AC Grayling and Thomas Mautner are both confused about Kant’s atheism (Letters, January & February). Kant certainly thought the existence of God could be neither known, nor disproved. This radical suggestion may well have put him at odds with the authorities of both his university and native town. But, contra-Grayling, Kant makes it abundantly clear that faith in the existence of God is not optional but necessary in order to understand the claims of morality upon us. So Kant believed in God and thought it was a belief any rational being was required to hold, but also believed that it could not be known to be true or false. This is clearly not atheism, but a revolutionary departure from traditional theology nonetheless.
Tom Startup Wembley, Middlesex
TAX IN BRUSSELS 27th January 2003
Manneken Pis (February) says “EU commission officials… pay income tax of 15 per cent.” Would it were so. The tax on my commission pension is 20 per cent overall. Why? Rather than have a network of double tax agreements, in 1968 the commission, which needs to send people to work in every member state, found it simpler to exempt officials’ pay and pensions from national tax and instead have a stripped-down single system. It may be the only one in the world fully described on three sheets of A4-size paper. It has 14 steps, from 8 per cent marginal tax to 45 per cent, and almost no allowances.
Ted Rawes London W8
CLEAN FUELS 29th January 2003
Philip Ball’s article on clean cars (February) talked a lot about different types of engine but rather little about cleaner fuels. But both ethanol and biodiesel, produced from surplus food crops and food wastes, are becoming increasingly popular and can be used in the existing vehicle fleet with only slight modification. Pollutants from the latest low-emission petrol and diesel vehicles running these fuels is minimal. Much of Europe is embracing these biofuels; unfortunately the tax regime in Britain seems to be holding us back.
Darren Hill Leatherhead, Surrey
FRENCH RURAL SCHOOLS 2nd February 2003
Tim King (February) in his review of the documentary ‘?tre et Avoir’ refers to the “exclusion and bullying of any child whose parents are different” in French rural schools. This was not at all the case when my Australian companion and I put her two children into the village school in 1983, nor at any other point in their education. Our exoticism was, if anything, a point in our favour. As for the “unexplained presence” of a Chinese girl pupil, she is more likely Cambodian and her presence needs no explaining for a French audience: it is common knowledge that French families adopt in Asia, especially in countries with which France has historical links. In my experience, even in the deepest recesses of the countryside nobody takes much notice any more.
John Tittensor Lyon, France
AUSTRALIAN UNIVERSITIES 21st January 2003
I read with interest your roundtable on higher education (January) but would like to correct an important error in the comments of Steven Schwartz. Schwartz says that participation rates in Australia by students from the low-income quartile stands at around 30 per cent. In fact, recent Australian government figures show that this group makes up 14.5 per cent of the student population-a slightly smaller proportion than in 1991. People from rural areas and indigenous Australians are all under-represented in colleges.
In Australia, university fees repayable through income-contingent loans have not opened the door to students from low-income families. Neither have they solved the funding problems faced by universities. Rather they have functioned to offset government funding which now stands at around 44 per cent of all university revenue. The government is also contemplating allowing universities to charge top-up fees in addition to the government-set fee, which is already far higher than that charged in England. While there are many wonderful things about Australian higher education, its student financing model should not be taken at face value as a model for increasing opportunities for participation.
Julie Wells RMIT University, Melbourne
FREE TRADE AND ASTRONOMY 11th January 2003
Michael Lind’s comparison between neoclassical economics and Ptolemaic astronomy (January) is interesting but he could have taken it further.
It did not need the Hubble telescope to show the flaws in Ptolemaic astronomy. Its practitioners were good enough observers and mathematicians to see them long before Copernicus. Their problem was that they were committed to a theory so attractive and so much in tune with the way they felt the universe ought to be that they could not allow the facts to shake it.
Modern science rests on two principles: that all facts are equal and that if any fact conflicts with any theory the fact is always right and the theory wrong. By contrast the medieval approach was to see a hierarchy of facts, some being inherently significant and others inherently trivial or anomalous, and to see some theories as metaphysically superior to facts, to the extent that they could never be refuted by mere observation.
It follows that the worldview of the neoclassical economists, which sees the deep structure of the economic world as being made up of rational individuals acting within free markets and the contrary facts as being merely surface phenomena which cannot impinge on the underlying rightness of the theory, is essentially a medieval relic.
It may be asked why, in this case, it is still so important in the real world and has not taken its place as a quaint survival like astrology. The answer, I believe, is that when the evidence became overwhelming that the heavenly bodies did not travel in circles, there was nothing the Ptolemaic astronomer could do to change them. By contrast, economic actors are subject to pressure and can be made, one way or another, to act in the way that theory predicts. As Joseph Stiglitz has recently pointed out, studying economics itself seems to change behaviour in this direction.
If one asks why around the world cheap and effective non-market approaches to social problems are being replaced by expensive, inequitable and inefficient market-based approaches, the answer cannot be given simply in terms of corruption, stupidity and greed. Underlying these is a genuine, though perverted, intellectual exercise; an attempt to change the world until the theory describes it correctly.
Rory O’Kelly Beckenham, Kent
IMMIGRATION IN BRITAIN 1 3rd February 2003
Bob Rowthorn is a colleague and longstanding friend of mine. It is thus with a degree of sadness that I find him underwriting theses and views that will give comfort only to conservatives and racists. I confine myself here to just one aspect of the intellectual sleight of hand that marks his essay throughout. Rowthorn counters the claim that immigration might be part of the solution to renewing a wealth-creating labour force in the context of an ageing indigenous population with the argument that immigrants in work will themselves grow old and thus be a burden on the stretched resources of a demographically skewed society. It is indeed true that immigrants are not exempted from mortality. But it is also true that, en route to dust, they are likely to reproduce and thus contribute to the reproduction of an economically active generation. This point is tendentiously elided in his account. One must therefore inquire into the reasons for this elision. It clearly has nothing to do with the economy, and everything to do with “culture”: “the presence of ethnic minorities has made it more difficult to teach a coherent national history.” Some of us might think this is a definite plus. Teaching a coherent national history is the worst possible history imaginable. The question for Bob, then, is why this idealisation of national history? What’s so special about that? Is this, for him, the only viable form of what he refers to as “community”? If so, perhaps you could invite him to supply some cogent reasons for holding to this view, while explaining to us the respects in which it differs from that of Norman Tebbit.
Christopher Prendergast King’s College, Cambridge
IMMIGRATION IN BRITAIN 2 27th January 2003
As a 24-year-old, third generation Briton, I take particular interest in Bob Rowthorn’s use of nationalist symbols-the Battle of Britain, the Union Jack, the Christian foundations of the state-and his claim that the newly “assertive” immigrant population will reject or seek to usurp such symbols, with a resultant backlash by the “historic majority of the country.”
I suspect, however, that these symbols have long since been abandoned by this country’s youth-both indigenous and immigrant. History in my schools was a woeful affair; few of my friends under 25 can name any prime minister before Margaret Thatcher, few could tell me which modern states formed the British empire, and fewer still care about the grand political processes of this nation.
Rowthorn’s claim that many immigrants are economic leeches I find particularly offensive. I have been financially successful and I am about to start my second period of higher education, this time at Cambridge. I am the older brother to a dental student, a business student, a law student, a beautician and a very bright nine year old. We are all proud Britons, liberal, cosmopolitan and appreciative of the secular nature of this country. The values of Pakistanis, Saudis and Iraqis are less alien to us than they might be to the “historical majority,” but surely this form of cultural respect will enhance and not detract from Britain’s leadership role in a globalising world.
If some national symbols have to be abandoned, then so be it. In future, the Notting Hill carnival, our first black prime minister and the multiracial campuses of our great universities, breeding the leaders of a globalised tomorrow, will be the symbols of the failure of white nationalism, whether supported by racist thugs or famous economists.
Imran Ahmed London N4
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