May 19, 2006
Grovelling Europeans
27th March 2006

Anatol Lieven (March) wants Europeans to practise self-censorship lest they offend somebody he describes as "the Prophet." There are a great many prophets and not all are dead—several gentlemen offer business cards describing themselves as such in Seoul, a hotbed for that sort of thing. Believers in anyone can describe him, her or it in any way they want, but a non-Muslim journalist writing in a non-Muslim journal who concedes such primacy to a particular individual is exceeding respect—he is grovelling. Are Europeans to grovel? What about the duty of bearding fanatics and exposing their madness?

Edward N Luttwak
Chevy Chase, US

Moral bombing?
2nd April 2006

Michael Axworthy's claim (March) that the area bombing of German cities in the second world war was not a crime rests on two arguments. First, that in a situation like that of Britain in 1940 and 1941, all means were justified to avoid defeat. Second, that area bombing was the quickest way to win the war according to contemporary knowledge. But Axworthy skates over the difference between avoiding a defeat and winning a war, and ignores the fact that when America joined the conflict in 1941, it ensured that Britain could not lose. It was only after America joined the struggle that area bombing started in earnest. Was that because British leaders could be sure from that moment on that they would not fall into the hangman's hands?

Bernd Schlarmann

Ignatieff on torture
22nd March 2006

What a pity that Michael Ignatieff (April) lost his nerve over condemning torture and inhuman treatment in the face of those bogus arguments—"torture works" and "the ticking bomb." The fact that many regimes use torture does not mean we can therefore presume it "works." Interrogators have had access to truth drugs for decades, the injection of which causes no pain. These are far more reliable than any amount of ill treatment if what you want is accurate information. Experienced terrorists will know that a flow of misleading information offered at the first infliction of pain will muddy any real information that might be later extracted. As we have seen at Abu Ghraib, Bagram and Guantánamo, inhuman treatment is regularly applied, not to extract useful information, but to cause humiliation, physical suffering and psychological harm. Liberals should not attribute more rationality to torturers than they deserve.

As for the "ticking bomb," the logic of "greater good from some harm" surely does not stop at torturing suspected terrorists. After all, really innocent people might have much more useful information than some suspected terrorists, and be much less able to continue (through loyalty, fear, honour, or any other reason) withholding it under pressure. Why not seize and torture bin Laden's relatives if you really want to know what makes him tick?

David Elstein
London SW15

Cricketing probabilities
24th March 2006

The Cruncher (April) would do well to steer clear of talk on betting if his understanding of probabilities is so sketchy. Many factors would have influenced the bookmakers' decision to offer 150-1 rather than 2,348-1 on South Africa beating Australia's record total. A shortlist might include: the fact that a team pursuing a total reaches it x out of y times; that a team had just reached a record-breaking total on the same day on the same pitch; and that records (especially in cricket) keep getting broken. Interestingly, it is likely that the online betting exchanges offered the punter a price somewhere between the two extremes mentioned, because their odds are set by an almost perfect market.

Pete Smith

University teaching
31st March 2006

Robert Jackson (April) refers to the difficulty of sustaining British universities' historic emphasis on good teaching, with growth in student numbers outpacing funding. The difficulty is not just financial but cultural. It has always been assumed that university lecturers, as good researchers, will automatically be good teachers. This false assumption was less damaging 50 years ago, when only a small, self-confident number of school-leavers, better prepared for self-study, went on to university. As staff-student ratios worsen and universities concentrate on research to attract funding, the trend is to more teaching by postgraduate students, assistant lecturers and part-timers. Surely lecturers entering the profession for the first time should now have to pass a one-year postgraduate certificate of education teaching qualification. Beyond this, universities should consider a separate career track for gifted lecturers who prefer teaching to research.

Joseph Palley

A Palestinian narrative
11th April 2006

Alastair Crooke (April) is right to argue that the narrative of the Palestinian Arabs should be recognised alongside that of the Jews of Europe. So also should that of the Jews who were displaced from Arab lands in roughly equal numbers to the Arabs displaced from within Palestine. Unlike the Arabs, however, the majority of the displaced Jews lost not only their land and their homes but were, in addition, systematically dispossessed of most of their remaining possessions before being formally expelled. Another difference is that the fledgling state of Israel took them in and supported them in building new lives. For the Arab states and the Arab leadership within Palestine, the value of Arab suffering as a diplomatic and public relations tool outweighed their concern for the suffering of their fellow Arabs. Accordingly, care was taken to avoid measures which might alleviate it.
If, as Crooke legitimately advocates, the Palestinian Arab narrative is to be recognised, then the wider narrative, including the total pan-Arab opposition to Israel's existence, to which he makes not a single reference, must be fully recognised. Otherwise, the hatred which has existed for generations will persist for as long into the future.

Michael Kagan


Working girls 1
22nd March 2006

According to Alison Wolf (April), IPPR's recent report "Population Politics" "virtually ignores the well-established relations between education and childbearing."

It was a central tenet of our report that improved education and labour market opportunities have reduced fertility fastest for middle-class women. In fact, throughout the report we asked why and how other countries tailor their population policies almost exclusively towards middle-class, better-educated women. And far from ignoring the differential impact of childbearing on parents' prospects, "Population Politics" also identified a £315,000 "fertility penalty" that low-skilled women face over their lifetime, compared to high-skilled women, as a result of having children. We showed how this penalty contributes to inequality and to 70,000 children living in poverty. Our recommendations—affordable childcare, better maternity and paternity leave, employment support for low-skill parents—were designed to help women and men at all skill levels to balance career and family.

Mike Dixon and Julia Margo


Working girls 2
2nd April 2006

Alison Wolf asserts that economic and social norms steer educated women away from socially beneficial occupations, and that this is largely because of the impact of feminism on the job market. The most significant impact for educated women of my generation, born in the 1970s, is choice. I left my "elite" career (with the potential to equal my husband's earning power) six months ago in order to pursue a more fulfilling lifestyle. I now work part-time in the public sector, run a Girl Guide unit, support the local primary school and iron my husband's shirts—I have made the choice to pursue a more socially and emotionally fulfilling lifestyle. Equality in the workplace and the success of feminism have empowered me to make those choices, choices not available to previous generations.

Helen Hastle
Lambourn, Berkshire

Working girls 3
9th April 2006

Alison Wolf's excellent article reminds us that class—not just gender—was and remains a key determinant of women's experience. As inequality has grown, so have differences in women's experience. Wolf may be too gloomy on the death of voluntarism—despite Frank Prochaska and Frank Field's dire warnings about the collapse of religion as the ethical backbone of reform, there are other bases for duty and care.

Indeed, does it matter that high-achieving women breed less? What does matter is the real decline across all classes in the time and attention given to the hard work of raising children. How we tackle the nurturing crisis is the issue. But she is right that we have been looking in the wrong policy place for too long.

Jean Seaton
University of Westminster

Working girls 4

10th April 2006

Alison Wolf identifies the rise of new opportunities for women as a problem for the whole of society—yet offers no solutions. Instead, she leaves the casualties of female empowerment hanging as unresolved blights on the landscape of feminism. The most pressing issue she identifies is the most concrete one: the disincentives women face today to have children. The fact that women are finding it difficult to accommodate children in their lives is a practical problem in need of a practical answer. Regressing to a time of higher birth rates by restricting female aspirations is neither desirable nor possible. Women's lives have changed with the dissolution of gender boundaries, allowing them more varied roles in the labour force. But this shift from the home hasn't been balanced by a male shift into the family.

We desperately need to recalculate the relevance of the family in modern life. Wolf's implicit conservatism may signify something important here. We must be careful about rubbishing all that is old when it comes to kin relations, and equally careful about embracing all that breaks with the old. Although dependency was once undesirable, fervent independence has generated a frustrating type of individualism. In a context of greater gender equality, the partnership generated by the family unit presents a far greater likelihood of fostering more equal parenting and better accommodation of work and family for both men and women.
Anastasia de Waal