George Walford: Ideology in the Reviews (61)

NOTING the absurdity of the belief ‘that it is a sign of economic and spiritual vitality to have lots of people digging for coal, even if it means digging deeper than anywhere else,’ Robert Skidelsky ascribes its persistence to the legacy of Soviet economics and idealization of the working class by left-wing academics. (Review of W.D.Rubinstein: Capitalism, Culture and Decline in Britain 1750-1990, Routledge, TLS 7 May 1993).

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Fran Coleman, Editor of Evidence for Old English (Edinburgh: Donald), remarks in her Introduction that ‘there is no fact independent of theory’ and the reviewer calls this astute.[1] Is it not time this was accepted as orthodox, the idea that there can be facts independent of theory relegated to the dustbin of academia? [1] TLS 6 November.

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NIAT: ‘The universe requires no creator because ultimately “there is nothing in the universe at all”; “we, like mathematics and like it or not, are elegant, self-consistent reorganizations of nothing.”‘(John Leslie, reviewing P. Atkins’ Creation Revisited OUP).

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PROMINENT among pathetic fallacies stands the belief that the oppressed necessarily have higher moral standards than their oppressors. Not Captain Bligh but Fletcher Christian, leader of the mutineers, tolerated the slaughter of more than a hundred islanders after the mutiny and allowed several old island women to be flung overboard. (G. B. Milner, reviewing Mr. Bligh’s Bad Language (CUP) by G. Dening).

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In the Boer war Boer bullets killed 7,000 British soldiers, dysentery 13,000. The American soldier of the Revolutionary War had a 2% chance of dying on the battlefield but a 75% chance of perishing after treatment in hospital. In the same conflict 90% of American deaths were caused by disease. (Richard Holmes, reviewing A History of Military Medicine, by Gabriel and Metz).

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Savory and Moore, Mayfair chemists, contributed to the 1916 war effort by advertising ‘a useful present for friends at the Front’ – boxes of gelatine sheets soaked in cocaine and morphine. The Army objected, and that started criminalization of drugs in Britain. By 1918 London drug traffic was developing, with opium parties in the West End and Noel Coward’s Vortex adding to the fuss. But things calmed down, and by 1920 there were only five prosecutions a year. (E. S.Turner, reviewing Marek Kohn’s Drug Girls; the birth of the British drug underground, Lawrence & Wishart, TLS 1 January).

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The (German) Reserve Police Battalion 101 consisted of ordinary conscripts, mostly middle-aged. Between July 1942 and November 1943 they shot and killed 38,000 Polish Jews and sent another 45,000 to Treblinka. Some 80 to 90 per cent of the Battalion took part in these activities; the others did not (and suffered no dire consequences for their refusal). Christopher R.Browning has now interviewed the surviving members of the Battalion, trying to find the reason for this difference in behaviour. He concludes that while more than one factor was relevant the vital one was conformity to the group; the minority who refused to take part acted as individuals, while the majority found it easier to shoot than to break ranks. (Alan Bullock, reviewing The Path to Genocide), TLS 5 Feb

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Commenting on a claim by Francis Crick and Christof Koch that ‘the problem of consciousness can now be approached by scientific investigation of the visual system’ Christopher Longuet-Higgins points out that any such attempt assumes what it sets out to investigate: ‘consciousness is not a scientific phenomenon, open to public observation, but the precondition for a person to observe anything at all… that is the problem of consciousness, against which “scientific” observation will hammer in vain.’ (TLS 8 Jan).

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DAVID Bromwich points out that the factors making for success in war, such as cohesion, conformity and group solidarity, are exactly those which make for failure in thinking. He favours thinking, and objects to the idea that education should transmit values, on the ground that it implies passive recipients. (NYR 11 Feb 93 13).

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Although nobody knows for certain, it seems likely that some 27,000 species are being eliminated every year, thousands of them before having been described or named. The large land animals went first; giant wolves, sabre-toothed cats, mammoths and many other species had gone before agriculture began, disappearing as humanity spread around the globe. Far from having started the destruction, this present society is the first to make any organised attempt to restrict it.

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Elizabeth Tonkin provides yet another instance of the widespread tendency for early modes of behaviour to persist as more sophisticated ones emerge; she draws attention to the way story-telling still plays a major role in contemporary Western culture. Providing the backbone of daily conversation and television documentaries, it also gives the press expose most of its bite. Here, as elsewhere, the persisting early mode undergoes repression and disvaluation: ‘Telling a good story is undoubtedly an art. But be cause we conceive ourselves and value our culture as “literary” it is an art which is rarely seriously analysed. Even in so-called oral cultures, the focus of Western scholars has been on the most formal genres, which have been selected for special admiration as forms of “oral literature”.’ Paul Thompson, reviewing Narrating Our Pasts, the social construction of oral history, Cambridge UP, in TLS 1 Jan 93)

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Reviewing Bright Air, Brilliant Fire; on the Matter of the Mind, by Gerald M.Edelman (Basic Books), Oliver Sacks compares its theory with chemical, computational or quantum accounts of mind and finds it more satisfying. A biological theory, it presents an evolutionary process that takes place within each particular organism and during its own lifetime, carried on by competitive selection of cells.

Noting that values are experienced internally as feelings, the reviewer reports Edelman’s view that the infant, working with its own values, uses them to create its own categories and construct its own world. ‘Every perception is an act of creation.’ (NYR 8 April)

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Reviewing Colin McDowell’s Hats; Status, Style and Glamour (Thames & Hudson), Gordon Burn reports some of the rituals and their role in class-distinction. The Victorian gentleman would uncover in the bank, for a banker had professional status, but not in his wine merchant’s, for a retail wine merchant was a tradesman.

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Speaking well, on the whole, of Grove’s Opera, Charles Rosen yet notes one limitation: it does not say which Tosca, leaping to her death, bounced back above the battlements from the hidden trampoline. (NYR 22 April, 10)

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THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE KALASHNIKOV: Reviewing Arms and the Woman, by Kate Muir, Alison Halford reports that in Scandinavia, Britain, Canada and America, women now serve as fighter pilots, work in battleships alongside men, and take up arms with frontline infantry. Noting the confused response this arouses among people accustomed to thinking of women as nurturers, she yet finds it reassuring that in organising for killing, as well as in more gentle roles, women ‘are defying male domination.’ [2] Is it permissible to suggest that people who train to use weapons, whatever their sex, are themselves intending to impose domination, even coercion? [2] Observer 21 February 93.

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H. G. Wells looked forward to a world ruled by science while Bertrand Russell shuddered at the prospect, concluding his book The Scientific Outlook with a chapter of warning. Brian Appleyard continues Russell’ s theme, his book Understanding the Present; science and the soul of modern man, urging that science has already done ‘appalling spiritual damage’ and threatens to unbalance civilization; we must resist.

The resulting argument has tended to turn on the question whether science does threaten damage or offer benefits, whether it displays a spiritually corrosive amorality or a spirit transcending self- interest, more fully human than the machinery of governments. Unsurprisingly the literati, including William Rees-Mogg and Fay Weldon, have tended to support Appleyard’s thesis, with the scientists, including Nature and Jacob Bronowski, in opposition.

Reviewing the book, Timothy Ferris asks just what Appleyard means, and finds him implying ‘that to be surrounded by machines is to be immersed in science,’ a view that turns every telly-watcher into a student of electronics. Observation does not in fact show any particular connection between science and moral degradation; crime does not infest the laboratories, nor sophisticated research win much attention in prisons and crack houses. To quote the reviewer: ‘Is it really plausible to assert that science permeates an American society in which only one in five high-school graduates has taken a physics course, only one in four citizens has heard that the universe is expanding, 21 per cent think that the sun orbits the earth, and nearly half the public (and a quarter of all college graduates believes that “God created man pretty much in his present form within the last 10,000 years.)”

These observations do not provide Appleyard and those who think like him with much long-term reassurance; they supply no obvious grounds for confidence that science will not spread much more widely in future. Systematic ideology presents a more definite picture. Standing about half-way up the pyramid, centred in the ideology of Precision, the group ideologically inclined towards science has little chance of coming to outweigh either the authoritarians or the expedients. We can reasonably expect these tendencies to set the main outlines of social behaviour in future as they have done in the past, with science doubtless a substantial influence, but still a subsidiary one.

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Malthus argued that the means of subsistence grow arithmetically while population increases geometrically; in the time taken for the corn supply to increase enough to feed two thousand more people, the population will have grown by eight thousand. If valid, a grim prospect, but social affairs seldom move in this simple fashion. Malthus had no basis for his figures, they were invented to counter the prospect, held out by William Godwin, of a world in which individual people would control themselves for the general good.

Humanity, Malthus argued, would always be subject to external restraints, among them ‘war, misery and vice.’ Since his time students of population have recognised ‘the demographic transition,’ a point reached by the USA, Japan, Germany and much of Eastern Europe, at which the birth rate drops to a figure barely sufficient to keep up with mortality.

Kennedy’s method of prediction relies on the assumption that present trends will continue. It leads to some horrible consequences, but that assumption has only limited validity. It did not, for example, predict the breakdown of the Soviet Union. To go by the record, our future may be worse or better than straight-line extrapolation would indicate; among the least likely outcomes is that it will be on the line. (Kennedy P., Preparing for the Twenty-First Century, Random House, reviewed by Alan Ryan, NYR 13 May).

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Kevin Phillips reports on recent changes in USA incomes: here at least the rich are getting richer, and the poor poorer. Since 1978 the number of annual incomes over $1M has risen from under 9,000 to over 60,000. Of additional income generated between 1977 and 1989, more than half went to the top 1 per cent of households. Since 1978 the proportion of family incomes between $25K and $75K (constant dollars) has dropped from 58.4 to 53.9 per cent.[3]

If this movement has been continuous for more than one or two decades, the previous condition must have been close to total equality. [3] Phillips K. Boiling Point; Democrats, Republicans, and the decline of middle-class Prosperity, reviewed by A.Hacker, NYR 13 May 33)

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Stalin is now universally condemned in the West; it becomes hard to accept that a substantial Stalinist movement persists in Russia, comprising for the most part solid elderly people who have worked and suffered and fought the Great Patriotic War. [4] The ideology of domination requires a leader, especially under the stress of war, and Stalin played the part in Russia as Hitler did in Germany and Churchill in Britain. And in peacetime the demand does not disappear; much of the dissatisfaction with Major and Clinton arises from their failure to provide an image to fill the role. [4] John Bayley, reviewing Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire by David Remnick, Random House, in NYR 12 August).

from Ideological Commentary 61, August 1993.