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4 December 2019updated 08 Jun 2021 7:59am

Letter of the Week: Making young philosophers

By New Statesman

Gavin Jacobson’s description of the work of Martin Hägglund, professor at Yale, comprised sentences on a jumble of topics – eternal life, capitalism, democratic socialism, climate catastrophe, Richard Dawkins, negative concepts of freedom, secular faith (Observations, 29 November). I didn’t understand it.

This mystification of philosophy by academics reinforces the feeling that its inclusion in the school curriculum would be inappropriate. It’s a shame, as the introduction of philosophy (perhaps from around Year 7, age 11/12) alongside maths, languages, science, religious and sex education would aid insight and understanding. It would have done that for me.

Getting an early exposure to the study of general and fundamental questions about knowledge, existence, values, reason, mind and language is surely the way to give individuals the best shot at addressing life’s personal
and global challenges. Let’s make philosophy accessible and not exclusively the property of elites.

Steve Cummins
Bradford

 

On anti-Semitism


An open letter to Sir Richard Evans

Dear Richard,

I see that you made an intervention yesterday [25 November] in the election. You tweeted your support for Labour. You will vote for the party notwithstanding the “cancer of anti-Semitism that has infected” it. Later in the day, you tweeted that responses have prompted you to ask your Labour candidate “for her views on the controversy about anti-Semitism in the party”. You have not asked me for my views, but in the spirit of the exchanges we had when you were an expert in the Lipstadt case, let me give them to you anyway. Please think again about how you cast your vote.

Let me remind you, on the subject of the Jews, the party has become cruel, malicious, stupid and dishonest. The cruelty has been persistent and extreme – death threats, shouted abuse at branch meetings, online trolling. The malice has been patent, incontinent and pervasive. As with Trump, we are inured to party (and Corbyn) outrages, because they are so frequent. But recall Corbyn’s disparagement of “Zionists who, having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, they don’t understand English irony”. My friend David Hirsh got it right: Corbyn was enjoying the old, sneery English view of Jews, and he was doing it to humiliate the Jews he was talking about. They live among us but they’re not really one of us. This wasn’t Corbyn’s usual political anti-Semitism, it was a spillover into ordinary old-fashioned English anti-Semitism. It was as if the political requirement to humiliate the “Zionists” found its words in the anti-Semitic subconscious of an English middle-class man. This, from the “lifelong campaigner against anti-Semitism”, as a Labour spokesperson described him, following the Chief Rabbi’s recent intervention.

Anti-Semitism is stupid. It makes people stupid. It is not a coincidence that the least accomplished leader of the Labour Party is also its only anti-Semitic one. If you live in a world of conspiracies, if you think the world is divided into the blamelessly good, the victims, and the unqualifiedly evil, the oppressors, then anti-Semitism is for you. It is the commonest outcome of just such conspiratorialist, Manichaean thinking.

As for the dishonesty, look at party equivocations on the number of disciplinary cases against members. The unapologetic Corbyn says that there are none left to resolve (“we’ve investigated every single case”); by contrast, a spokesperson is only able to quibble over the precise number outstanding. Corbyn’s ignominious career in relation to Jews has been recast by a party spokesperson as the career of a “lifelong campaign against anti-Semitism”. Is anybody really fooled by this? Is there anything more threadbare – indeed, Trumpian – in the insouciance of the party’s response to its own anti-Semitism? This is not a party that cares about the concerns of the Jewish community, save insofar as those concerns might have a damaging impact on its electoral fortunes.

In response to your second tweet, about individual candidates: Anti-Semitism, long a fugitive, has acquired institutional authority in today’s Labour Party. Within the party itself, compelling evidence exists of extensive spoken and online abuse of Jewish party members; exclusion of Jewish members from participating in party activity; signalling by the party leader that anti-Semitic views are acceptable; the failure to implement processes to protect Jewish members from anti-Semitism; hostile responses to those calling out anti-Semitism; and appointment of anti-Semites to positions of power (indeed, as the Panorama investigation exposed, interfering in disciplinary processes “to let off their mates”, reported a whistle-blower). This anti-Semitism taints the passive enablers in the party – to start with, the whole front bench. This is how the Corbyn period will be remembered. This is
his legacy to the party.

This anti-Semitism concerns us all, Jews and non-Jews. A party that cannot be trusted in relation to Jews cannot be trusted at all. No party of reform and justice can be trusted if it makes exceptions of a minority community. British Jews have heard for some weeks now the argument that the anti-Semitism is all very unfortunate; it is limited (to the leader, to a small fraction in the party enabled by him); there are bigger issues (Brexit, austerity, etc). There is even an implication that it is a little parochial – perhaps even, selfish – of Jews to insist on their own special suffering, their own local fears, in these times of national crisis. So what if the party is contaminated by Jew hatred if it is also the party that will save the country?

Of course, formulating the question in this way does more than justice to the capabilities of the Labour Party. But the point goes deeper. Anti-Semites cannot be social reformers. Their anti-Semitism incapacitates them. As a result, anti-Semitism does not just injure Jews. It encourages misconceptions about the causes of social conflicts – of human suffering and social deprivation – and therefore prolongs their existence, to everyone’s loss. By denying Jews the opportunity of making contributions to society, anti-Semites injure all of us. Anti-Semitism corrupts political discourse; it taints political life; its injustices towards Jews are precedent-establishing – people who start with the Jews do not end with the Jews. Anti-Semitism even injures anti-Semites, because
it degrades them.

To purge the party of anti-Semitism will be the work of a generation. The evidence that the political will exists to undertake this task is not compelling: members are not yet ashamed enough of their party’s anti-Semitism. The driving out of leading Jewish (and non-Jewish) politicians from the party, who cited its anti-Semitism, did not have a substantial impact on party morale, still less commit its officials and elected members to decisive action. We cannot leave the work to the party itself. Supporters have to lend a hand. Depriving the party of a vote is a start.

Yours,
Anthony

Anthony Julius is the deputy chairman of Mischon de Reya and the chair in law and the arts at University College London.

Editor’s Note: In response to this letter Richard Evans said he would not now vote Labour.

 

Future of England

There really is no need to make such hard work of the future of England (“Three Lions and a Unicorn”, 29 November).Why not just let the people of England decide? If, as Jason Cowley and Katy Shaw observe, “England doesn’t have its own distinct political institutions or parliament” then let England create them. More people support a parliament for England than oppose. A clear majority want English laws only to be made by English MPs. The 70 per cent of England’s population who identify as “more English” or “Equally English and British” back both options heavily. (YouGov/CEIP July 2019).

The problem is that people who identify as English are not, in general, the people who are in power in England. Whether we look at left-wing cultural theorists or the business elite, the Whitehall technocrats, the media commentariat, or the people who drafted the main party manifestoes, the dominant voices are the 11 per cent – yes just 11 per cent – of the population who say they are “British not English”. It is they, not the English, who have such trouble with Englishness and claim it variously to be imperialist, racist, little Englander, xenophobic or neo-Nazi. Their own status and power are tied up with denying that England really exists.

Of course, the polls may be wrong and there are a lot of “don’t knows”. It is after all an issue that is rarely the subject of public debate. Let’s have a genuine constitutional convention for England, informed by a properly resourced and representative citizens’ assembly. Let the people of England decide how they wish to be governed.

Of one thing I’m sure: they won’t want England carved up into regions (as Alex Niven argued in a recent Observations interview) that have no basis in history, geography, culture, economics or identity.

Professor John Denham
Centre for English Identity and Politics,
University of Southampton

 

As Jason Cowley and Katy Shaw point out, the pressures of Brexit and nationalism in Wales and Scotland are forcing the English to reconsider who they are. Something else is going on as well.

The Conservative Party is being forced to reconsider what it stands for and who it represents. Short-term electoral calculations are leading to an astonishing change. In order to stay in power the Conservatives have to win the support of Brexit-supporting, working-class voters in long forgotten towns and cities, especially in the north. Conservative strategists have been acquainting themselves with Robert Peel and their party’s slender but significant tradition of progressive reform.

At the same time, significant numbers of the descendants of working-class families who lived in areas that have now become marginalised and neglected are to be found in anti-Brexit constituencies in the south. The phrase “the cunning of history” comes to mind.

Ivor Morgan
Lincoln

 

I hadn’t thought about Englishness, or lack of it, until it reared its head in the post-referendum debate. Perhaps this Brexit crush on nostalgia stems from the fact that today, apart from the occasional Ashes win, we have little to be proud of or get excited about. Our football clubs are dominated by foreign players deemed superior to English youths and our most celebrated clubs are now owned by foreign investors. We build cars for the Japanese and, to add insult to injury, the redesigned Mini, once an English icon, for the Germans. Our public transport and utilities services have been sold off to foreign companies.

Is this why we English feel alienated, sold out? When the Tories talk of taking back control, isn’t it too late? And wasn’t it them that sold us off in the first place?

Nigel Bailey
London TW10

 

Congratulations on your recent series on “The Closing of the conservative mind” and now the “Disunited Kingdom”, which have provided fantastic food for thought, as ever.

In the shitstorm of unfolding history it is a relief to see the NS regularly referenced in the news agenda and fighting a rearguard against the closing of minds more generally; meaningful cognitive shifts can only really occur through reliable information. What I particularly enjoy about the magazine is its breadth of cultural and historical reference – both in the features and the reviews – and this was exemplified in Jason Cowley and Katy Shaw’s article.

What I have picked out from recent features is a narrative in which the triumph of collective endeavour and centralised planning in the Second World War established a cultural and technological trajectory for the country that was fulfilled in the 1960s by expressions of what could be interpreted as British pre-eminence, which included: the Beatles, Swinging London, the Mini, Concorde and the Harrier jump-jet, and James Bond – a “classy” expression of military power.

The World Cup “home” victory in 1966 – with the Queen handing out the trophy at Wembley – could be blurred into an illusory national success story (yes, even for a Scottish schoolboy such as myself) that was almost grand enough to dress the postwar loss of empire as British largesse.

Graham Johnston
Via email

 

Bleak midwinter

I have been reading the New Statesman on and off since 1967. I’m afraid it was more off in the New Society years because, although I agreed with the viewpoint, many articles were so full of sociological jargon that they were tedious to read. As editor Jason Cowley has done a brilliant job of producing a magazine full of interesting and enjoyable articles and I look forward to reading his core writers every week.

My only criticism is that perhaps I find it not partisan enough. Which is why Amelia Tait’s article on Christmas adverts really leaped out at me (Out of the Ordinary, 22 November). It felt passionate and angry as it demolished the sentimental, faux-generosity of those ads and the way they are designed to make us feel as if we are good, caring people as we vote for more food banks and a 60 per cent increase in child poverty.

Veronica Porter 
London SW8  
 

 

Graphic novel

I am not unsympathetic to the health anxiety induced in Nicholas Royle by Dr Phil Whitaker’s medical columns (Correspondence, 29 November). But I wonder if Mr Royle considered the psychological sensibilities of his own readers when he wrote such graphic depictions of self-mutilation in his novel Counterparts? I will spare NS readers the details but suffice to say that, some 25 years after I read that book, those scenes still give me the willies.

Martyn Bedford
Ilkley, West Yorkshire

 

Worth the wait

Whenever I am visiting doctors’, dentists’ or hospital waiting rooms I take my latest copy of the New Statesman. I know I can look forward to three hours or more of good reading if the waiting is extensive! Your recent issue on the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (8 November) reached me in front of an overnight hospital stay, and I was not disappointed – what great stories and analysis.

Andrew Nelson
Chatswood West,
New South Wales, Australia

 

English exclusion

John O’Dowd asks by whom was devolution “granted” to Scotland? (Correspondence, 29 November). The answer is the parliament of the United Kingdom, in which MPs elected by the Scottish people sit and vote. England does not have its own parliament and so does not “possess” Scotland. MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have the opportunity to vote on matters that affect only England, whereas English MPs are excluded from a say in the devolved parliaments.

Moira Sykes
Didsbury, Greater Manchester
   

 

No green ink

It is surely unfair to label Joe Haines as “disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” (Correspondence, 29 November). It is a term of condescension used against letter writers. There is no evidence that he writes his letters in green ink, and while I don’t often agree with the views expressed, they are always clear. Defend the Tunbridge Wells One!

Keith Flett
London N17

 

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