Nicholas Walter and Peter Cadogan: Letters to the Editor (51)

Sir:

You say [IC50, From Hegel-San to Niat] that “nothing is absolutely true.” Is that right? I am assured by my scientific friends that there are two absolutes; the speed of light and absolute zero. This seems to be beyond question.

At another level, however, the matter may be mostly semantic. We still have to liberate ourselves from Victorian language. Words like ‘absolute’ and ‘relative,’ like ‘capitalist’ and ‘socialist,’ belong to a by-gone age.

Yours etc. Peter Cadogan

REPLY
The speed of light is related to the points passed – otherwise it could not be measured or calculated – and to that extent relative. ‘Absolute zero’ is posited as the end-point on a scale of temperatures, and thereby related to the other degrees. In these instances ‘absolute’ is used in specialised senses, it is not intended to mean, as it were, absolutely absolute. The original piece gave the parallel example of ‘absolute monarch,’ a technical term of political theory. Anything that is in any way related to anything else fails to satisfy the definition of the philosophical absolute, which is what the original article was (and said it was) about.

The second paragraph of the letter seems to be defeated by the first, which presents ‘absolute’ as a word used in current science. Neither has the thinking which uses “capitalist” and “socialist” disappeared or shown much sign of doing so.

Sir:

The Editorial Notes in IC50, March 1991, included the following “Members of the committee set up to defend Salman Rushdie’s freedom of speech went sharply into reverse when he used it to declare his conversion to Islam. (Sunday Times, 30 December).”

This gives a completely false impression of what happened. The Sunday Times report of Rushdie’s conversion referred pejoratively to a “literary cabal” and to “many radicals,” but it only quoted comments from four friends – Arnold Wesker, Alan Sillitoe, Fay Weldon, Bill Buford – all of whom regretted his action but none of whom condemned him. Only Wesker is a member of the International Committee for the Defence of Salman Rushdie and anyway none of them moderated their defence of his freedom of speech.

The single member of the Committee who did go into reverse was Francis Bennion, the right-wing liberal, who later resigned with the remark that Rushdie “isn’t worth defending”; but he was completely isolated. As the Sunday Times reported, the Committee had not yet discussed the situation. I attended the well-attended emergency meeting which did so on 2 January. Everyone present regretted Rushdie’s conversion, but condemned Bennion’s attitude, and supported a statement strongly vindicating Rushdie’s freedom of speech.

If you wish to attack liberal intellectuals, you should at least observe basic intellectual standards in doing so.

Yours etc. Nicolas Walter.

REPLY
Salman Rushdie used his freedom of speech first to maintain an independent stand, later to announce his conversion. The consequent change on the part of the Committee, from approval (it had been strong enough to produce Organisation and the expenditure of time and money), to regret, constitutes a sharp reversal. This letter shows that “Members of the committee” should have read “The Committee.” Correction accepted. (For a discussion of some of the issues involved, see Even Liberalism in IC43 and Free Speech or NIAT? in this issue).

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CRITICS of existing society sometimes complain of the way people waste energy in strenuous exercise that produces nothing but muscle, comparing this with the fruitful labour of the past. The change provides no ground for criticism; on the contrary, it shows society now providing a wider range of choices. Until recent times a great many people had to undertake strenuous activity if they were to live, but in the advanced countries now many millions are able to choose for themselves whether to do so or not.

TOTALITARIANISM: Timothy Hyman gives the “customary” definition: “a system of government which permits no rival loyalties or parties”. (TLS 23 Nov 90). Since loyalties (at least in social affairs) and party attachments are governed by ideology, this amounts to defining totalitarianism as a system which permits open, public, political expression of only one ideology.

from Ideological Commentary 51, May 1991.