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4 March 2020

Letter of the Week: Serving suggestions

A selection of the best letters received from our readers this week. Email to have your thoughts voiced in the New Statesman magazine.

By New Statesman

Felicity Cloake writes of the frequently specious relationship between images of food and the contents of the box bearing them (Back Pages, 21 February). As Jean Baudrillard writes in The System of Objects, consumption is far from being a passive process of absorption and appropriation, but is rather an active form of relationship to objects and, by extension, to the wider world.

No longer a material practice, consumption has become an activity consisting of the manipulation of signs. To become an object of consumption, the object has to become a sign: external, arbitrary and deriving its meaning from the abstract relationship it has to all other sign-objects. The picture we see on the box is a personalisation, the sign itself ultimately replacing the object and implying a relationship of consumption. 

Baudrillard reminds us of Marx’s analysis of the language of the commodity: needs, feelings, desires, passions, culture and knowledge are integrated as commodities into the order of production. Consumption has to keep surpassing and repeating itself in order to remain what it is: a reason for living. This is why, in the digital age, in cookbooks and elsewhere, “photographs” – as Cloake reports – “have become more important than recipes”.

Richard Staines

Battling the floods

It has been devastating to witness more large-scale flooding in West Yorkshire that has ruined many homes and livelihoods at the heart of rural communities, and our sympathies go out to all those affected (“How floods divided Britain”, NS online, and see page 30 this week).

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However, we must resist attempts to try to portray this as a struggle between “wealthy landowners” in the uplands and locals, as Edward Platt does in his piece, and instead focus on how we can work together. In recent years considerable efforts and changes in moorland management have been made aimed at helping flood alleviation downstream.

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Our members on the moors above Calder Valley have been working to slow the flow of water off the moors. This includes restoring the habitat to make the bog more resilient and able to retain more water, the blocking of grips and accelerating the recovery and coverage of sphagnum moss.  Though we will not be able to prevent all flooding, through consensus and innovation we can help limit its impact.

Amanda Anderson
Director of the Moorland Association
Austwick, North Yorkshire

Ignoring obesity

While it is reasonable to castigate the British government’s choice to pursue austerity since 2010 (Leader, 28 February), in an Institute of Health Equity Report, Michael Marmot’s conjecture that “austerity was highly likely the cause of our worsening health picture” turns a blind eye to the rise in obesity in the UK, which predicated our diminishing life expectancy long before austerity was imposed. Surveys show that obesity is most prevalent in our poorest areas and contributes directly to health-care inequality and early deaths through diabetes and its co-morbidities.

The report suggests that poverty causes poor diet choices, but obesity driven by poor diet choices has risen in all socioeconomic levels of society. Citing obesity as a major factor in limiting UK life expectancy may lack a politically fashionable edge, but this does not reduce its importance. 

The Institute of Health Equity report’s readers should be aware that it is essential to combat the health-care issues caused both by poverty and independently by obesity to increase the health status of all sectors of society and boost our future life expectancy.

Professor Tim Hardingham
Faculty of biology, medicine and health,
University of Manchester

Soul searching

In his review of John Cottingham’s book-length essay In Search of the Soul (The Critics, 28 February), John Gray argues in favour of episodic selfhood and against a common core of moral convictions among human beings. He also argues, citing Darwin’s The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals, that “our moral responses can be traced back to our evolutionary kin”.

Aren’t these claims incompatible? If humans have much in common with animals, they must also have much in common with each other. That Darwin’s selfhood could have mutated between books is at least tenable, but Gray’s seems to have done so between paragraphs.

Bill Myers

John Gray seems to anthropomorphise animals as much as humans anthropomorphise divinities. Though animals have appetites and affections, they do not have the linguistic powers requisite for long-term reasoning and deliberation of abstract concepts. This ability is necessary for the development of morality. As Aristotle says, human beings are the only animal species that has logos: reason and language.

Edward Greenwood

John Gray’s dismissal of the ontological argument for the existence of God as a “feeble gambit” because “many of us have no such idea” of the “perfect being” presupposed by Anselm and Descartes is itself a feeble rebuttal. The argument fails philosophically because it is a tautology – and it was Kant, ironically, who delivered the coup de grâce when he demonstrated that existence is not itself a predicate.

Paul Thomson
Knutsford, Cheshire

John Gray makes the extraordinary assertion that “the idea of a single self or soul only makes sense in a theistic world”. This confuses the idea of the self with the idea of a soul – which is normally taken to be in some way non-material – and makes the idea of that self dependent on God.

I would contend that the idea of the self derives from a continuum of consciousness. Consciousness, after Damasio, can be defined as “the feeling of what happens” (or “happened”). It is the continuity between past and present feelings that gives rise to the conviction that there is a self. I cannot help feeling that Gray’s assertion is associated with his often stated rejection of free will. If free will is taken to be the ability of a human to make decisions and take action based solely on her current state then the rejection of a single self disappears.

Alan Howard
Kings Bromley, Staffordshire

Current affairs

Paul Salveson’s comments endorsing Jason Cowley’s “mutual rail” concept (Correspondence, 21 February) will find support from staff and older passengers who are mindful of the third wave of railway closures from 1969 to 1981. Link routes were axed and community needs overruled by cash-strapped British Rail.

Had more enlightened and socially aware transport strategies prevailed half a century ago, southern region routes would be electrified on the 750V direct current system, providing diversionary routes for main lines.

Rail users in the Midlands and North cram aboard short-formation diesel trains built without inter-unit corridor connections. This reduces the potential carrying-capacity of the recently electrified Manchester-Blackpool and Wigton-Huyton routes. Home Counties commuters travel in 12-car trains comprising three four-car formations.

Northern Powerhouse planners must ensure that the £3.1bn TransPennine upgrade has funding for a rolling electrification programme.

Jon Honeysett

Privacy on parade

The “toxic business model” at the heart of John Naughton’s brilliant analysis of our all-encompassing digital nightmare (“Slouching towards dystopia”, 28 February) is partly dependent on information being given away for free to consumers. It is a lie we’ve been fed by media companies such as the Guardian, of which John Naughton is, ironically, a paid columnist. The sooner that payment models once again become standard practice, the less inevitable it will be that our every move is spied upon.

Grant Feller
London W4

Toxic Twitter

Pauline Brown’s response to my letter about Twitter astonished and saddened me for its naivety (Letter of the Week, 28 February). It seemed to be the work of somebody who has confused exchanging tweets with real relationships and warmth. Far from being a genuine defence of Twitter, the letter acknowledged Twitter’s negative aspects and reasoned that the platform should therefore be used only by those who confine themselves to the impersonal. One wonders why anyone would bother at that level. As a friend said to me, Twitter is a “pit of poison”.

Guy de la Bédoyère
Grantham, Lincolnshire

Spirit of kindness 

Amelia Tait’s call for people to “Be Kind” online has a long history (Out of the Ordinary, 28 February). In his letter to the early Christians in Galatia, St Paul placed kindness at the heart of the fruit of the spirit, where it is preceded by love, joy, peace and patience, and followed by generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. A hashtag for all of these might be good for us all.

Rev Charles Chadwick
Witney, Oxfordshire

Not so radical

With all due respect to the great Kraftwerk and Jon Savage (The Critics, 21 February), I was rather amused by the idea that the second phase of their career – of remixing and touring –constituted anything as radical as “a postmodern strategy of avoiding closure with a fixed work of art”. If anything, this period is almost parodically identical to many other major rock acts: departure of original members, declining inspiration and no new songs, switching of revenue streams to greatest hits tours, remixes in expensive box sets for dedicated fans. All very familiar to followers of Led Zeppelin, the Stooges, the Stones and many others. 

David Hawkes 
Via email

Who the X is Alice?

Simon Callow was impressed by Ms Boyle’s interpretation of Alice in a new opera (The Critics, 14 February). But I am forced to wonder: they seek her here, they seek her there. Is she Claudia or is she Claire? Suitably confusing for Lewis Carroll.

Hazel Harrison

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This article appears in the 04 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Inside No 10