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20 March 2024

Letter of the week: In search of empathy

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I read Howard Jacobson’s response to Jonathan Glazer’s Oscars speech (Another Voice, 15 March) with interest, but also with a kind of weary sorrow. Behind Jacobson’s finely wrought arguments, I detect an indifference to the pain our fellow Jews have inflicted on Palestinians in the past 75 years. My revulsion on hearing of the 7 October attacks does not eclipse my dismay about Israeli oppression of the Palestinians: the land grabs, the domicide, the killings. Full disclosure: I’m the child of Holocaust survivors.

I am sure readers of this paper are familiar with the human rights abuses committed in the occupied territories by both the Israeli army and illegal settlers. As for the carnage in Gaza, in this latest and most ferocious assault on the Strip: well, I suppose one can always turn off the TV and radio, can dismiss these “alleged” atrocities as Hamas propaganda. Deep down, though, I envy Jacobson. How fortunate he is, to feel able donnishly to analyse Glazer’s language, rather than feeling – and expressing – a visceral horror and shame. We Jews, of all people, should know better.
Vera Lustig, Walton-on-Thames, Surrey

How are the kids, really?

What a contrast between Ed Smith’s review of Jonathan Haidt’s The Anxious Generation and Lyndsey Stonebridge’s review of Judith Butler’s Who’s Afraid of Gender? (The Critics, 15 March). For Stonebridge and Butler, essentially “the kids are all right”. Both wear their respectful hearts for their students’ “teaching” on matters of gender on their sleeves. We are encouraged to think about the young’s bemusement at us tired old boomers with our inadequate concepts, to appreciate the ironic, playful nature of their gender choices. By contrast, Haidt and Smith paint a gloomier picture of anxious young people, deprived of play-based childhood and now hooked on anxiety-producing smartphones that seem to have levelled their intelligence and ability to concentrate. These visions of contemporary youth seem incompatible with each other. Which is right?
Adrian Matthews, Cambridge

Lyndsey Stonebridge’s review (The Critics, 15 March) of Judith Butler’s latest offering appears merely an attempt to misrepresent those who think biological sex is real and sometimes matters. Concern about “gender-neutral” provision doesn’t mean we think all men are dangerous, but that exclusion of men from, for example, women’s changing rooms and domestic-abuse refuges has ensured the abusive ones aren’t getting in. Conservative thinkers are not seen as “allies” by gender-critical feminists; we know about their agenda to box women back in.

“Those who shout loudest about gender are usually middle-aged and older” because we speak from experience, and women in work have their lives made difficult if they assert the importance of sex. As for trans women of colour being most subject to violent crime, this is largely to do with Brazilian trans prostitutes, scarcely a statistic of relevance to women’s experience in the UK or elsewhere.
Alice Bondi, Alston Moor, Cumbria

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I enjoyed Lyndsey Stonebridge’s recent biography of Hannah Arendt, We Are Free to Change the World. But it was surprising to see Stonebridge refer to Arendt’s gender throughout, rather than her sex, because the latter was the word Arendt would have used. It was less surprising, therefore, to find Stonebridge declaring in her review of Judith Butler’s book that she disagrees with JK Rowling. Am I to assume that it is a necessary prerequisite to discussing Butler’s ideas that academic philosophers refute the material reality of male and female biology?

Were Stonebridge to step outside her intellectually privileged world to discover some of the consequences of Butler’s philosophising, she might give more credence to Rowling’s realistic assertions.
Margaret Bluman, London N19

Lyndsey Stonebridge, in her generous review of Judith Butler’s new work, disposes rather conveniently of critics of gender ideology by labelling us old radical feminists cosying up to the right – last-century thinkers, lacking the language to address the conditions our young people are facing. On the contrary. We have brought up two generations, and we can see clearly that today’s kids are definitely not all right. The ontological questions of our young are being answered by a medical-technological complex hiding behind rainbows and pronouns.

When we were young, disturbed girls starved to delay growing up. Now girls hear that they can cut off their breasts, take testosterone and avoid womanhood altogether. We have been labelled Terfs and driven out of the parties of the left. We are the politically homeless with nothing to lose. We are telling the truth. We must be getting through. Otherwise, what would Butler’s new book be for?
Kate Gilbert, Wolverhampton

Men in the shadows

Andrew Marr gave an intriguing look at those groups on the Labour right seeking to influence Keir Starmer (Cover Story, 15 March). However, he missed an important issue: where is the democratic legitimacy when figures such as Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson from Labour’s past still want to control the direction of the party?
Owen Clark, Stockton-on-Tees, County Durham

Andrew Marr refers to two factions seeking to influence the next Labour government. In identifying those closest to Keir Starmer, he goes on to name check a dozen people. All bar one, Sue Gray, are men. And she is the target of “poisonous briefings”. Can we look forward to an article that examines the power of a faction at the heart of Labour with 11 women and one man?
Martin Stott, Oxford

Going to Townes

Your lovely article on the great Townes Van Zandt (The Critics, 15 March) captures so accurately his gift for melancholy. I am similarly melancholic that you didn’t mention his version of “Dead Flowers”, which turns the Rolling Stones’ gentle mockery of country music into a few of the most wonderful and wistful country minutes ever. Sitting here in my silk-upholstered chair.
Simon Ollerenshaw, Newport, Essex

Bloom vs gloom

What a delightful column by Alice Vincent (Gardening, 15 March). It quite lifted my spirits above the prevailing political gloom. Here, in Hereford, the streets in recent years have been lined with planters which display attractive foliage even when flowers are few and far between. The varied plantings remind me of various deserts, steppes and forests I have visited in Central Asia.
Dr Geoffrey Harper, Hereford

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[See also: Letter of the week: Together we fall]

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This article appears in the 20 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special 2024