Letters: October 2020

Readers respond to the Aug/Sept edition
September 3, 2020

Cosmopolitanism can work

Paul Collier rejects the premise of my book that cosmopolitanism is compatible with rebuilding community in western countries where it has been eroded (“Getting somewhere,” Aug/Sept).

In doing so, he attributes to me the view that “the income distribution is all we need to understand the backlash against globalisation.” But I am at pains to survey the many dimensions of polarisation beyond individual income and wealth, including the “gross spatial inequality” which Collier rightly denounces, and the divergence these inequalities cause in lifestyles, in workplace security, in health and in values. In a nutshell, my claim is that while the object of people’s anger may be cultural, the cause is economic. That implies that rewriting the economic social contract carries the promise of diminishing cultural tensions.

There may be the rub of a visceral reaction against a liberal taking on “belonging.” Collier’s fear may not be that when cosmopolitans take community seriously they should fail to address its problems, but rather that they should succeed—preserving economic openness by making it work for everyone. For a certain kind of communitarian, that may not be revolutionary—or, perhaps, reactionary?—enough.

Martin Sandbu, FT. A longer version of this response appears here


What’s past is passed

I enjoyed Ivan Krastev and Leonard Benardo’s piece on coming to terms with the distant past in a time of vicious memory wars and polarising propaganda (“The politics of atonement,” Aug/Sept). It’s something I’ve been exploring recently in Ukraine, where my team at the LSE conducted, among other things, focus groups with diverging opinions on the Second World War and the Soviet Union. These historical topics are the focus of much propaganda, especially Russian, that tries to divide the country.

But we quickly found that the official historical identity markers weren’t really what contributors were emotional about. What was vital were more recent traumas from their own lifetimes, such as the sudden loss of social status and economic security in the 1990s.

While western countries have not faced such a drastic collapse of certainties and social identities as Soviet countries did then, they have seen a gradual erosion of old social roles and economic stability. It’s this loss of people’s sense of their place in the world that propagandists can play on, and history can be used as a foil for more recent trauma. If you want to have a serious discussion about the past, that’s always good. But be aware that what can seem to be memory wars are actually sublimations of the present.

Peter Pomerantsev’s latest book is “This is Not Propaganda” (Faber)


Monitor the labs

Peter Frankopan evokes sci-fi nightmares about research into biological hazards going wrong (“The next pandemic,” July). How much transparency can we reasonably expect from laboratories? Of course, secrecy is required because of overlap with defence programmes and the risk of breach by a hostile actor. But we do at least have a right to expect a system of sound risk management and accountability, that regular checks are carried out by an authoritative body, and that systemic weaknesses, if identified, are rapidly dealt with.

The question is who does all this. Should laboratories self--police? If trust in oversight is undermined then—as with anything secretive—conspiracies proliferate, leading to a further fall in trust. The common thread in Frankopan’s examples is not a malign actor but clerical error or accident. We need a global regulatory authority we can trust, empowered to reach into defence establishments. Identifying and preventing trouble may be less a job for the WHO than something akin to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Suzanne Raine, Cambridge


A diminished office

Simon Brown is right to bemoan the recent diminishing role of lord chancellor, traditionally our constitutional guardian (“Letters,” Aug/Sept). But another ancient office also requires scrutiny. Like that of the lord chancellor, the attorney general occupies an anomalous constitutional function, as a politician who sits round the cabinet table, but at the same time as a lawyer of the crown who fulfils a number of important independent functions within the justice system.

Before taking the role earlier this year, Suella Braverman raised eyebrows with incoherent arguments for “empowering the people” over the judiciary and preventing the “disenfranchisement of parliament,” before citing two cases where the courts actually reasserted parliamentary sovereignty over executive power. Since becoming an office holder, she has made inappropriate political statements regarding Dominic Cummings’s “eye test” in Durham, when the matter was still being investigated by the authorities, as well as disparaging comments about the independent bar’s work ethic.

As the government reviews the role of the judiciary and any “political rulings,” the concerning signs are that we lack both a constitutional guardian and a competent lawyer within the cabinet.

Jake Richards, 9 Gough Chambers


Think again

Regarding your summer special, will you ever give up on the ludicrous “World’s top 50 thinkers” lists? There are billions of people on the planet and I very much doubt you know anything about the thoughts or utterances of the smallest fraction of them.

This isn’t a criticism of your decision to inform us about what the individuals are up to, and it isn’t a call for more diversity. But at the very least you should call your list something else—“50 people you should know about” or similar.

I know it’s “a bit of fun,” but it’s the province of the pseudo-intellectual pub bore to assert a right to tell us who the 50 greatest thinkers are.

There. Off my chest.

Gregor Hamilton, via email


Gloomsters and doomsters

Shade in cities is not always to be regretted (“Daylight robbery,” Aug/Sept); in hot countries, shade and narrow streets are used as environmentally-sound ways of providing lower temperature and cooling breezes without air conditioning.

Nor can it always be avoided. The notion of urban darkness will be familiar to anyone who’s been to the high-rise parts of cities such as New York. London, of course, is not yet predominantly a high-rise city. But the site-by-site nature of development within its existing planning system makes it almost impossible for each building to take account of others nearby, where light is concerned.

Moreover, there is a trade-off between light and the need to build on green land just outside the city. Tower Hamlets accommodates its population at eight times the density of Milton Keynes. If all new buildings were small enough to protect the light of those around them, London would sprawl.

Tony Travers, LSE


Civil war

Jonathan Powell writes (“The governance of Britain,” Aug/Sept) that when Labour took power in 1997 it encountered a big problem with civil servants’ lack of can-do attitude. When she was PM Margaret Thatcher felt exactly the same. Pointing out problems with ministers’ latest policy wheeze is indeed a common feature of advice. But rather than seeing this as a bug in the system, as Powell seems to do in his otherwise sensible article, perhaps it is a feature we should prize?

Ministers have many qualities, but rarely experience of running a huge organisation. Things that look simple to them often aren’t, and ideas that look good often turn out in hindsight to have been anything but. Officials speaking truth to power is a valuable feature of our constitution. If ministers valued their advice more highly, then government might work better.

Hugh Pemberton, historian


Selling James short

Joyce Carol Oates offers as her favourite quotation “The rest is the madness of art” (“Brief Encounter,” Aug/Sept). In isolation the phrase suggests an antic creativity quite alien to the mood of its source, Henry James’s short story “The Middle Years.” “We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have,” says “poor Dencombe” on his deathbed. “Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”

Troubled by novels unwritten and artistry unachieved, Dencombe takes comfort in the company of one Doctor Hugh, an ambiguous figure encountered at a convalescent seaside resort. Part physician, part psychological fancy-man, the handsome “Doctor” abandons his employer, a talentless countess, in favour of Dencombe, whose books he admires.

Oates recalls embarrassment when an ample audience “melted away” from a book signing. Gratifyingly, Doctor Hugh attends Dencombe to the last; his defection brings on the countess’s demise, though not before she has disinherited her faithless retainer.

Not, then, a Dionysiac story as the truncated quote suggests, but the melancholy tale of a writer’s final illness.

Victoria Coulson, York

In fact

In France, 100,000 to 200,000 pets are abandoned each year; in the UK, around 16,000 are.

BBC News, 9th August 2020

Despite dropping £112m since last year, Corona remains the world’s most valuable beer brand, with a valuation of £6.3bn.

Morning Advertiser, 17th August 2020

Of the 24 UK prime ministers to take office since 1900, 14 became PM without winning a general election and 17 left office for reasons other than defeat in one.

“Choosing a Prime Minister” by Rodney Brazier (OUP, 2020)

In the past year or so, 27 human genes have been renamed because Microsoft Excel misread their alphanumeric symbol (eg MARCH1) as a date (1-Mar).

The Verge, 6th August 2020

From 1990 to 2019, the average pickup truck in the US increased in weight by 1,142 pounds.

Wall Street Journal, 1st August 2020

The rate of global warming means that in terms of temperature, everyone in the northern hemisphere is effectively moving southwards at about 12.5 miles a year, or half a millimetre a second.

New York Review of Books, 20th August 2020

Scottish football club Ross County has three goalies: Ross Munro, Ross Laidlaw and Ross Doohan.

SPORTbible, 3rd August 2020