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29 November 2023

Letter of the week: Precedent for pipsqueaks

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An excellent essay from Phil Tinline and a fine cover (Cover Story, 24 November). There is another connection: President John F Kennedy’s narrow victory in the 1960 US presidential election was followed by not entirely implausible accusations of voting fraud in Texas and Illinois, where Lyndon Johnson and Richard J Daley respectively ran powerful and well-oiled Democrat party machines.

When President Nixon decided not to challenge the result he showed surprising wisdom, arguing that such a move would set a bad precedent. “Every pipsqueak politician,” he reportedly said, “would start claiming fraud when he lost an election…” Step forward, Donald J Trump!
David Perry, Cambridge

[See also: The immigration dilemma]

Reductive stereotypes

Your editorial (Leader, 24 November) blames Boris Johnson’s failure to understand Covid in part on his being a humanities graduate. You express approval by contrast of China’s preponderance of STEM graduates in high office. Should we attribute China’s disastrous initial denial and evasions over Covid to STEM, then?

Please, let’s escape such reductive accountings, and substitute a more consequential and accurate one. Johnson didn’t understand Covid mainly because he didn’t want to. His unwillingness to act with precaution emanates primarily from ideology, not incompetence.

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I studied philosophy alongside Johnson at Balliol College, Oxford. My degree equipped me well for understanding the need for swift action in dealing with a rising pandemic. Alongside colleagues such as Nassim Taleb, I lobbied the government in February 2020 to act precautionarily. It chose to ignore us because of an adherence to laissez-faire ideology. Many thousands suffered and died unnecessarily as a result.
Dr Rupert Read, author of “A Timeline of the Plague Year”, Rockland St Mary, Norfolk

Your recent editorial lamented the dominance of humanities graduates in British politics and called for greater scientific literacy in politicians.

At one level, I wholeheartedly agree. The British school system narrows students’ choices too early; everyone would benefit from a wider, more multidisciplinary education. But why are there so few science graduates in politics? There is no obvious barrier preventing them from following this path. I assume scientists are no less public-spirited than those who study humanities. Might it be that the broadening of disciplinary horizons needs to go in both directions? Perhaps science students need a stronger grounding in the humanities to bolster the skills required for politics.
Dr Carl Thompson, director of research, School of Literature and Language, University of Surrey

Left hypocrisy

It was to be expected that John Gray would provide an astute assessment of the left’s ambivalence towards Islamist atrocities (These Times, 24 November). It was especially pleasing that he avoided any reference to “useful idiots”, that lazy and misleading description of progressives who give succour to anti-Semitism and the sadistic actions of groups such as Hamas.

Here in the UK, it should always be remembered that, at the last two general elections, Labour was the most popular party among university graduates and won a huge majority from graduates aged under 30. Far from being “idiotic”, these voters were surely aware that the then Labour leader regarded Hamas as “friends”, or that countless Labour MPs and activists had already accused their party of racism (a claim later corroborated by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission).

It seems reasonable to conclude that, despite according huge importance to anti-racism, the progressive bourgeoisie is not especially bothered by anti-Semitic violence. As Gray indicates, some might even regard its perpetrators as allies in the long march against a Western culture rooted in capitalism, colonialism and racism. It remains to be seen how the values of democratic socialism can be squared with an indulgence of theocratic savagery. But I think we know what Clem and Nye would think.
Richard Kelly, Manchester

Literature in crisis

Finn McRedmond (Out of the Ordinary, 24 November) writes that the Booker Prize is becoming as irrelevant as the English literary novel, and proclaims a “twilight of English literary fiction” in regards to a lack of exciting books eligible for the prize over the past few years. Might I suggest that the solution lies in your very own pages? The Goldsmiths Prize, run in association with the New Statesman, shows English literary fiction continues to be innovative and vital.
Graham Fulcher, Reigate, Surrey

Finn McRedmond’s column struck a chord. A few years ago, having set myself the task of reading all the Booker-winning novels, I admitted defeat after about a dozen.

With a few notable exceptions, such as Life of Pi, most are very put-downable. Wolf Hall, even before the sequels, was the final nail in the coffin for me. I’ll stick to Anthony Horowitz and Bond books from now on! Happy reading.
Mark Richardson, Ashby cum Fenby, Lincolnshire

Tales of the Bard

Spare a thought for poor Thomas Overbury. I was dismayed to read in Elizabeth Winkler’s piece (Critics, 24 November) that his handsome face is now being used spuriously as part of a Shakespeare rebrand. An aspiring poet himself, Overbury was sent to the Tower of London and then poisoned by his dashing patron when he threatened, not unjustly, to derail his marriage plans. The man can’t catch a break.
Joel Singer,  London SE13

Elizabeth Winkler’s article about Shakespeare’s portrait was unpleasant. In what universe does she consider it acceptable to talk about its “deformities”?
Simon Jarrett, author of “Those They Called Idiots: The Idea of the Disabled Mind, from 1700 to the Present Day”, Harrow

Praise for Rachel Cooke

There is a touch of Clive James in Rachel Cooke’s reviewing. Of Jason Isaacs’ attempt to replicate Cary Grant’s tan (Critics, 24 November), she writes that he “looks like he’s been marinated in cumin: stick him in the oven and eat him with naan bread and mango chutney”. Wonderful.
Simon Turnbull, Rowlands Gill, Tyne and Wear

A logophile orthographises

I would like to offer a balance to Mark Bignell’s complaint about vocabulary (Correspondence, 17 November). It’s one of the things I love most about the New Statesman. If I need to pull out the dictionary I learn a new word, and that makes my day. Please don’t dumb it down.
Violet Snell, Brookwood, Surrey

Snail mail

I wish to congratulate the Royal Mail. This week’s issue arrived only two days late – an improvement as the previous one arrived the following Tuesday. Will more fines or a five-day-a-week service make a difference? I doubt it. Another failure for privatisation.
Martin White, Sheffield

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[See also: Letter of the week: Peerless foreign secretaries]

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This article appears in the 29 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Being Jewish Now