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Oscar for stewart

3rd September 2003

Congratulations to Ian Stewart (September) for the most lucid description of quantum theory I have ever read. He deserves an Oscar.

Les Spong

Solihull, West Midlands

complacent prospect

2nd September 2003

There is a tone of sleepy complacency about your September foreword that staggers me. To suggest that “the real reasons for British participation in Iraq were too geopolitical for popular consumption” aligns you with every demagogue and dictator since wars began. Read the testimony of Hermann Göring at his Nuremberg trial: “It is always a simple matter to drag the people along… All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same for any country.”

Your pious hope that “a decent, progressive British government does not suffer too much damage for its decision to join the US” is not good enough for Prospect.

Angus Wright

Monoblet, France

armchair africans

30th August 2003

I was bemused by Mark Ashurst’s long attack on my views about Africa-written from London WC1 (Letters, August). Those of us who try to tell the truth about what is going on here-and of course one can get it wrong, nothing is simple-are frequently put in our place on politically correct grounds by indignant letter-writers from W4, WC1 and NW3. All such writers, it turns out, are great experts on Africa, have made a quite deliberate decision not to live here, but are indignant that someone who has made that choice has views about it that do not conform with theirs. Does anyone else see this as comic? How would Prospect readers react if an article trying to set out some difficult truths about Britain was followed by indignant letters from Johannesburg, Harare or Durban, by people who claimed to know all about Britain, had chosen not to live there but were indignant about the views of someone who did because he wasn’t positive enough about the place he had chosen but they hadn’t?

RW Johnson

Cape Town, South Africa

defending wahhabism

4th September 2003

John Bradley’s thoughtful commentary (September) on the reform programme being pursued in Saudi Arabia under Crown Prince Abdullah, and the challenge it poses to conservatives in the political and clerical establishments, contributes a helpful perspective to a topic where misunderstanding is compounded by prejudice.

One point, however, merits further clarification. For all its justified reputation for pietist intolerance and iconoclasm, the Saudi Wahhabist movement has not in recent decades been an instrument of political violence. Within the kingdom, the grand mufti issued last month a religious ruling asserting that the killing of non-Muslims was a sin and that reform did not come through violence and fanaticism. He also warned the young against the siren call of extremists for violent jihad. As for Osama bin Laden-the renegade member of a respected Hijazi/Yemeni family-and those young Saudis attracted by his message of Islamist supremacy, their recourse to terror probably owes more to the militant philosophy of the Muslim Brotherhood, with its origins in Egypt, than it does to Saudi home-grown Wahhabism.

Alan Munro

Former ambassador to Riyadh

customised humans

31st August 2003

Raymond Tallis (September) picks up the baton from Matt Ridley and runs with it in great style. However, like Ridley, he too stops short of the finishing line: he doesn’t quite explain how humans create culture. The story surely goes something like this: genes and environment (the evolutionary factors) endow early man with a freakishly large brain, the different parts of which break through to communicate with each other. This allows us to make comparisons, perceive similarities, think metaphorically. We become able to judge the likely consequences of our actions-the true test of free will. But a Hobbesian state of nature would still get us nowhere, so we turn instead to (in Tallis’s words) “instinctive behaviour… regulated by often quite abstract customs and rules… collectivised experience forming the basis for the creation of a world of signs, symbols and artefacts distant from nature.” The point about a system of rules is that, although finite and often very simple in itself, it can operate on a limited vocabulary of objects to generate a potentially infinite number of outcomes or utterances, which can then be recognised as having some reference to the “real” world outside the system.

This is how language works, and is, I suggest, the model for all our cultural activities, from football to religion and back via the stock market and pub quizzes. Was this an inevitable process, or were we just lucky? It has helped us to survive and to make life worth living; will it go on doing so?

Roger Owen

London SW19

framing films

13th September 2003

Mark Cousins (September) is wide of the mark when he suggests that filmmakers should imitate the oval shape of human vision. A film is a window on life and as such needs a frame. Very few paintings have oval (or square) frames, as a rectangular shape is far more conducive to good composition. But here lies a real snag, as since the advent of widescreen in 1953 we filmmakers have not had a standard frame within which to compose our images. Widescreen formats vary between 1.66:1 (more common in Europe) and 1.85:1 (US), and it is quite possible to see the same film in two different frames, as it were, in adjacent cinemas, quite regardless of the format chosen by the filmmakers. Hence the element of composition has been almost entirely absent from films for a long time now-more’s the pity.

Walter Lassally

Richmond, Surrey

the spam solution

12th September 2003

Jonathan Rauch (September) resorts to convoluted means to stop spam e-mail. Of course everyone is fed up with spam, but it is as surreal to charge the public to use your e-mail address as it would be to deny the use of your street address. Does Rauch not receive spam through his letterbox? Frankly, we will have to put up with this nuisance until a sensitive and sensible filter becomes available. But where do spammers get our addresses?

Taner Baybars

Saint-Chinian, France

two years of gibberish 1

3rd September 2003

It’s fun to bash the left, and it’s frequently deserved as Geoffrey Wheatcroft makes clear (September), but the most dangerously powerful voices in the US today belong to the Christian religious right. The most prominent voices I heard saying “America deserved this” belonged to Reverends Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who said that the attacks were God’s judgement on us because abortion is legal, we tolerate homosexuality, and so on. These are also men whose views resonate strongly in this White House, unlike, say, Michael Moore.

Wendy Leibowitz

Washington DC

Two years of gibberish 2

4th September 2003

I was mightily relieved to read all about 20th-century history from Geoffrey Wheatcroft. Thank goodness the descendants of the Stalinoids have all morally disappeared in the ashes of ground zero. The thought that a disciplined and ruthless cadre of intellectuals bent on the transformation of the world might still be morally at large is too frightening to contemplate.

We can never be too vigilant. I suggest that you continue to publish articles warning of the danger that members of the literary-academic intelligentsia might at any moment morally reappear and menace the world by not knowing very much about the subject in hand, by losing their temper, or saying something silly.

Dan Hind

London W6

anglo-irish rapprochement

15th September 2003

Alvin Jackson’s Home Rule, reviewed by Stephen Howe (September), presents a compelling narrative of the steady progress of British and Irish politics towards mutual rapprochement over the last 100 years. Setting himself against the familiar story in which Anglo-Irish relations are taken to have been bedevilled by inevitable hostility and antagonism, Jackson charts the persistence of a tradition of constitutional compromise in British and Irish political thought and action. On this view, the 1998 Good Friday agreement is less a sudden breakthrough, and more like another episode in a long history of convergence.

However, surveying the past century of Anglo-Irish politics (as I do in my new book, Peace in Ireland: The War of Ideas), the stark reality of divergence is equally in evidence. Jackson is well aware of this. But such divergence, he insists, was neither necessary nor preordained: it was the product of historical contingency. The real question then becomes: which contingent factors allowed for such belligerent divergence in the midst of ample possibilities for political accommodation? This question is vitally important in the current climate; it is habitually assumed by contemporary pundits that some irreducibly “ethnic” conflict or a clash of “civilisations” is required to spark a modern conflagration. Yet the recent history of Ireland undermines these bland assumptions, and so begs the question of how the descent into acrimony and war is at all possible in the context of a broader tendency towards social and political convergence between cultures.

Richard Bourke

London SW1

the wto in canc?n

21st August 2003

Congratulations to Kevin Watkins (August)-a significant piece from a leading opinion-forming NGO that combines moral concern with sound economics, history and politics. Watkins rightly explains the problem of trade inequality as one of bad government and bad governance. In the north, the problem is weak governments that penalise their own populations and the rest of the world in favour of their highly organised big farmer and big pharma lobbies. In the south, the problem is weak governance that favours personal or factional gain over growth and the interests of the nation as a whole. Watkins rightly recognises the immense potential of the WTO, as a rules-based international organisation, to attack bad governance, low growth and poverty. He correctly emphasises that realising that potential depends on national governments, and on the pressure brought to bear on them. In the 1970s the objects of protest were nations: the US in Vietnam, Chile, South Africa, the juntas. Globalisation has changed little. How nation states-whether developed or developing-operate internally, and how they co-operate remain the key determinants of global growth, poverty and inequality. What Nike, McDonald’s, the IMF or the World Bank get up to is trivial by comparison.

Andy Batkin


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