June 28, 2008
'68 and feminism
17th May 2008

I enjoyed Anthony Giddens's contribution to your '68 symposium (May), but in emphasising, rightly, that feminism "was the main thing that survived 1968," he ignores an important corollary. Feminism marks the beginning of single-issue politics, and so the fracturing of political debate. When issues are the only thing that matter, visions fly out of the window. The resulting competition for the centre ground is nothing if not boring. No wonder democracy is proving such a hard sell to those peoples without the "democratic lore."

John Gretton
via the Prospect blog

What is an intellectual?
11th May 2008

Those who drew up the shortlist of the world's top 100 "intellectuals" for the poll in last month's Prospect and Foreign Policy seem to have been confused about the meaning of the term. An intellectual is someone whose claim to attention rests not on any institutional position but on a mastery of words and ideas. Al Gore, Pope Benedict XVI and Lee Kuan Yew are therefore not intellectuals. An intellectual is not a policy expert or adviser, however influential. Fan Gang, Nouriel Roubini and David Petraeus are therefore not intellectuals. An intellectual is not a populariser, even of his or her own ideas. Steven Pinker, Steven Levitt and Malcolm Gladwell are therefore not intellectuals. The term "intellectual" has a quite specific meaning, exemplified by figures such as Günter Grass, Eric Hobsbawm, Perry Anderson and Alasdair MacIntyre—none of them on the shortlist.

Edward Skidelsky
Firle, East Sussex

In defence of Asquith
13th May 2008

Andrew Adonis (April) disagrees with his mentor, Roy Jenkins, about the greatness of Herbert Asquith. On the constitution and Ireland, Jenkins has the better case.

In 1911, Asquith secured the first dilution of the House of Lords' veto power over progressive government. True, his government neglected education. But every Liberal education bill before 1911 was mauled by the unelected Conservative Lords. To get Lords reform required the genius of Lloyd George and Asquith's tough negotiation with two kings. It seems harsh to deny Asquith and Lloyd George this huge achievement.

Asquith's Parliament Act did remove Irish landlords' veto over home rule, but a new obstacle arose: the quite unexpected election of Andrew Bonar Law as Tory leader in November 1911. Before long, Law announced that there was "no length of resistance to which Ulster can go in which I would not be prepared to support them." Where, then, was the Irish settlement that Asquith could have achieved in 1912? Until the army's unionist officers had refused to go to the aid of the civil power and the paramilitaries had got their guns, in spring 1914, Asquith's coolness might have prevailed against Law's fanaticism and the king's instinctive unionism. He told the king that failure to grant home rule might lead to more violence than granting it. And he had good reason to suppose that he would win a fourth consecutive general election in 1915—the by-election record supports that. That victory would have left the Ulster Protestants isolated, home rule enacted with Ulster counties given the right to opt out, and Asquith vindicated.

Iain McLean
Nuffield College, Oxford

A maddening Bazalgette
28th April 2008

Peter Bazalgette (May) writes that Mad Men "is created by the writing team behind The Sopranos." No it isn't. Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men, wrote or co-wrote 12 episodes of The Sopranos. The other six writers of Mad Men's first season did not write for The Sopranos. Bazalgette then says: "The men look like a cross between Gregory Peck and Cary Grant." Some do, most don't.

Bazalgette then moves on to television advertising: "Extraordinarily, for another 40 years after the era of Mad Men, the world of advertising barely changed." Seriously? Bazalgette should watch BBC4's superb recent season of documentaries about television advertising, Washes Whiter, or Channel 4's The 100 Greatest Television Adverts (2000). Of Channel 4's top 20 ads, 19 were made between 1971 and 1999. They include smart, funny classics like "For mash, get Smash," Leonard Rossiter spilling Cinzano over Joan Collins, and the Carling Black Label "Dambusters" ad. These are completely different from 1960s ads for reasons Washes Whiter explains. Bazalgette talks about a new golden age in advertising without making it at all clear what's golden about it, especially when most of today's ads seem lumpen and dull beside the best of the 1970s and 1980s.

David Herman
London NW6

The lessons of Belfast
9th May 2008

There is no denying Jonathan Powell's positive role in the Northern Irish peace process, but there are some difficulties with the case he advances (May).

Powell is quite right to say that he and Blair burnt a candle for Trimble long after the Northern Ireland office, Dublin and the US state department thought he was a goner. He is also right that both the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists could have done more to protect the centre ground, and that not all the blame can be pushed towards Downing Street. But nowhere does he deal seriously with the charge that he and Blair overindulged the Provisional IRA and their alleged internal difficulties. Trimble and Seamus Mallon may be said to be parti pris on this point, but what of those senior Irish and American government sources who in effect agree?

Powell romanticises the business of secret contact with the provos, and nowhere takes account of its destabilising consequences. He tends to equate the past intensity of provisional Republicanism with that of radical Islamism today—something on which Tony Blair has publicly dissented from him. He stresses the importance of the absence of selfish strategic interest in Ireland—while of course the middle east is awash with such interests.

Paul Bew
Queen's University, Belfast

What genes remember
2nd May 2008

Philip Hunter concludes his illuminating special report on the new science of epigenetics (May) by predicting that epigenetic theories will lead to a major revision of evolutionary theory. Nowhere will this be more keenly felt than in human evolution and evolutionary psychology. The orthodoxy for the past two decades has been that the human mind is an assemblage of specialised, innate modules whose adaptive parameters were fixed, once and for all, by the environment of our distant Pleistocene-era ancestors. The theory of epigenetic inheritance challenges this, and allows for a much greater constructive role to be played by the environment of the developing organism.

The developmental psychologist Jean Piaget emphasised that epigenetics offers a "third way" between nativism and environmentalism. It does not represent a return to environmentalist theories that organisms begin as "blank slates." The phenotypic organism is much more than just a "printout" of genetic information. Epigenesis itself is subject to Darwinian selection. This is of vital importance in understanding human evolution.

Ours is above all the "epigenetic species"—adapted, as it were, to adaptation, and programmed for constrained variation in culturally evolving, self-constructed niches such as language. It was through augmented epigenesis, and the evolution of human infancy as a niche, that emerging human culture "captured" natural selection, setting in train the co-evolution of biology and culture that is the hallmark of humanity.

Environments do not hold a magic key to the "engineering of the human soul," but this does not lead to the pessimistic and ethically unpalatable conclusion that human agency is reducible to pre-programmed biology. It is what we create in culture that has made, and continues to make, us human.

Chris Sinha
University of Portsmouth

The DDT controversy
16th May 2008

John Quiggin and Tim Lambert's defence of Rachel Carson (Prospect online, May), relies on fabrications and half truths about my organisation, Africa Fighting Malaria (AFM), and misrepresents the way DDT functions in malaria control.

Quiggin and Lambert labelled AFM an "astroturf" group, implying it is funded by industrial or political interests while claiming to be a grassroots organisation. This is ludicrous. AFM was formed in South Africa in 2000. In 2003, AFM set up an office in Washington DC in order to conduct advocacy in the US. AFM continues to work closely with scientists, national malaria control programmes, the WHO, donor agencies and development specialists. We publish reports that promote sound, science-based approaches to malaria control.

In a further distortion, Quiggin and Lambert claim that AFM "convinced many that DDT was a panacea for malaria." Certainly, for many years AFM has defended the use of DDT and other insecticides against many environmentalist groups and even some elements within the WHO. AFM has played a crucial role in encouraging donors to support efforts other than insecticide-treated nets. However, AFM advocates comprehensive, balanced malaria control programmes and has not portrayed DDT as any panacea. AFM has even raised money for insecticide-treated nets for Africa.

Quiggin and Lambert describe the emergence of insecticide resistance to DDT. What they don't do is cite the extensive scientific literature that describes DDT as a spatial repellent, contact irritant and toxicant. Even in the presence of resistance to DDT's toxic properties, the chemical functions extremely well by providing a chemical screen, protecting residents from deadly Anopheles mosquitoes.

Finally, Quiggin and Lambert are incorrect in portraying the malaria-DDT debate as part of US Republican orthodoxy. While some Republican congressmen certainly have supported the use of DDT in malaria control, by far the most outspoken advocates for DDT have come from Africa. Health ministers from South Africa, Namibia, Swaziland, Mozambique and Uganda, as well as Desmond Tutu, have all appealed for DDT to be used in malaria control.

Richard Tren
Director, Africa Fighting Malaria

You can also read a reply to Quiggin and Lambert's article from Roger Bate of Africa Fighting Malaria here