I have drunk quite a bit of wine tonight at a university occasion. I ought to be preparing a document for a meeting I have tomorrow about my academic probation. But instead I am going to pour myself a bottle of beer, and write about my dear friend Patrick Riley, the news of whose death reached me this afternoon.
So many years ago, in 2002, I wrote this on this blog:
This week’s New Statesman comes with a special supplement on “Ken’s London”, the usual pullout which doesn’t have a great deal of interest in it, except (this time around) for an article on the decline of the Charing Cross Road. Not having lived in London for ten years now, I haven’t really been paying attention, but the story Richard Lewis tells is a very sad one. The Charing Cross Road Bookshop closed two years ago, what used to be the excellent Waterstone’s is boarded up, the Silver Moon Bookshop is moving inside Foyle’s, moving off its old premises after being faced with a rent rise of 65% from its landlords at the Soho Housing Association which also affects some of the other specialist shops there.
In the late 1980s, the strip of bookshops along the Charing Cross Road was the middle of London for me: virtually all visits would follow the same pattern, of walking over Hungerford Bridge from Waterloo Station, heading up the Charing Cross Road, and not quite knowing where to go by the time I reached Centre Point. (Often enough to the British Museum, if it was still open by the time I got there). Collett’s, of course, is long gone and much missed: it was firebombed for stocking The Satanic Verses in 1989, and I don’t think it ever really recovered from the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. And there are too many chains towards the northern end of the road. But these recent changes seem more fundamentally threatening to the character of the place. Fleet Street stopped being Fleet Street a couple of decades ago. It will be a great shame if the Charing Cross Road follows suit.
And I repost it here because Ashley Pomeroy has just added this comment–thirteen years on–and it would be a shame if nobody ever saw it ever:
2002. Thirteen years ago although my instinct is that 2002 was only three years ago. Google brought me here while I was writing a blog post of my own; thirteen years later Charing Cross road is still clinging on, although it seems in terrible shape.
The Crossrail extension has transformed the northern end of it into a building site and post-2002 the rents skyrocketed, and a lot of the shops have either closed or seem to have been gutted spiritually.
It’s interesting because I’m nostalgic for the Charing Cross Road that Chris Brooke gave up on. I fondly remember the large Borders and the shops selling used synths and DJ gear and guitars; but even then I remember thinking that the new-fangled internet and eBay was going to wipe them out, and nothing since 2002 has convinced me that there is a future in used bookshops in central London, or any shops apart from shoe shops.
But as this post suggests, Charing Cross road has been in decline forever. I wonder if people in the 1980s were convinced that Charing Cross road’s heyday was the 1960s? And perhaps people in the 1960s fondly recalled the 1930s, etc forever.
[Letter by Bonnie Honig, hyperlinks added by CB]
I wrote to you when I heard about the Steven Salaita case a couple of weeks ago and hoped you would reconsider. As I told you then, I am Jewish and was raised as a Zionist, and I was moved by the case. I write now in the hope that you might find some measure of empathy for this man. Please bear with me for 2 pages….
I do not know Prof. Salaita, but I must say that as I read about the case I was struck by what I can only describe as a certain smug and uncivil tone in his critics, who seemed very assured about what sort of speech is within the bounds of propriety, and what is not. To be clear: I do not grant that speech that lacks propriety justifies the treatment Prof Salaita has received. I leave that point aside since others — John Stuart Mill, Brian Leiter, others – have ably addressed it.
I want to draw your attention to the issue of “empathy.”
This is what I thought at the time this story first broke: Here is a man of Palestinian descent watching people he may know, perhaps friends, colleagues, or relatives, bombed to bits while a seemingly uncaring or powerless world watched. He was touched by violence and responded in a way that showed it. In one of the tweets that was most objected to (Netanyahu, necklace, children’s teeth), Salaita commented on a public figure who is fair game and who was promoting acts of terrible violence against a mostly civilian population. I found that tweet painful and painfully funny. It struck home with me, a Jew raised as a Zionist. Too many of us are too committed to being uncritical of Israel. Perhaps tweets like Prof. Salaita’s, along with images of violence from Gaza and our innate sense of fair play, could wake us from our uncritical slumbers. It certainly provoked ME, and I say “provoked” in the best way – awakened to thinking.
That is what I thought. I also, though, felt something. I felt that whoever wrote that tweet was tweeting his own pain. And I felt there was something very amiss when he was chided for his tone, by people who were safely distant from all of it, while he was watching people he maybe knew or felt connected to die as a result of military aggression. This, frankly, seemed evil. And then to have the major charge against him in the UIUC case be that he lacked empathy: now that seemed cruelly ironic. The real charge, it seems to me, is that he suffers from too much empathy.
What kind of a person would Prof Salaita be if he did not respond more or less as he did!? What kind of a teacher? What kind of community member?
Meantime, even under duress, he is careful about a key thing: His published tweets distinguish Zionism from Jews and others. In the one tweet about anti-Semitism, he puts that term in scare quotes. I don’t know if I would be as nuanced were I in the same situation. Certainly many of my Zionist or Netanyahu-supporting friends and relatives are not: they do not take the trouble to make the analogous distinctions in their commentaries on the situation.
Anyone involved in this case who is incapable of empathy for Salaita at the moment could themselves perhaps learn something about empathy from the very person who has been charged with lacking it. May I ask you: Surely you are not incapable of empathy for his plight, both now (stranded between institutions) and in July (watching from afar as people to whom he presumably feels connected die or are wounded)?
May I add, further, that, as befits the picture I have here painted, there is no actual evidence in the teaching record that Prof Salaita lacks the empathy and tolerance expected of teachers in the classroom. The repeatedly stated ‘concern’ that he is lacking in this way is not only unpersuasive. It is also painful because it may well stick: based on nothing but ignorant or self-serving fears, it may well have a lasting impact on a blameless person’s career and fortunes.
Can you not find a way to resolve the situation to the advantage of both UIUC AND Prof. Salaita? Decisions like this one are the sort that haunt the people who make them for years to come, so I hope you will indeed be able to open your heart in your consideration of the matter. It is not too late. At the very least I urge you and UIUC to stop charging Prof. Salaita with being wanting in vague and either irrelevant or personal ways. That just adds insult and injury to injury. Another irony there: your stated position is that words matter, so much so that other commitments must fall before them. So the responsibility to choose them carefully seems to me to land especially heavily on you and your institution. I do not see you rising to that challenge. This too, I want to suggest, should be hard to live with.
In the meantime, I stand in solidarity with the thousands of academics worldwide who, regrettably, cannot accept invitations henceforth to speak at UIUC or to do any other sort of support work (tenure or promotion letters etc) for your institution. I say regrettably because I have been happy to visit in the past, as a keynote speaker and lecturer. I hope you can understand my position. Simply put, to act in any other way would be wrong.
Thank you for your consideration.
Bonnie Honig, Nancy Duke Lewis Professor, Brown University, Providence, RI
From Society in America (1837), vol. 2, pp. 127-8:
In England, the prevalent dissatisfaction must subsist a long time before anything effectual can be done to relieve it. The English are hampered with institutions in which the rights of individual property are involved in almost hopeless intricacy. Though clear-sighted persons perceive that property is the great harbourage of crime and misery, the adversary of knowledge, the corrupter of peace, the extinguisher of faith and charity; though they perceive that institutions for the regulation of outward affairs all follow the same course, being first necessary, then useful, then useless, pernicious, and finally intolerable,— that property is thus following the same course as slavery, which was once necessary, and is now intolerable, — as monarchy, which was once necessary, and is now useless, if not pernicious: though all this is clearly perceived by many far-seeing persons in England, they can do nothing but wait till the rest of society sees it too. They must be and are well content to wait; since no changes are desirable but those which proceed from the ripened mind and enlightened will of society. Thus it is in England. In America the process will be more rapid. The democratic principles of their social arrangements, operating already to such an equalisation of property as has never before been witnessed, are favourable to changes which are inched necessary to the full carrying out of the principles adopted. When the people become tired of their universal servitude to worldly anxiety, — when they have fully meditated and discussed the fact that ninety-nine hundredths of social offences arise directly out of property; that the largest proportion of human faults bear a relation to selfish possession; that the most formidable classes of diseases are caused by over or under toil, and by satiety of mind; they will be ready for the inquiry whether this tremendous incubus be indeed irremovable; and whether any difficulties attending its removal can be comparable to the evils it inflicts. In England, the people have not only to rectify the false principles of barbarous policy, but to surmount the accumulation of abuses which they have given out: a work, perhaps, of ages. In America, the people have not much more to do (the will being once ripe) than to retrace the false steps which their imitation of the old world has led them to take. Their accumulation of abuses is too small to be a serious obstacle in the way of the united will of a nation.
From the Autobiography (US ed., vol. 1, p. 247):
He [= Sydney Smith] was not quite the only one of my new friends who did not use my trumpet in conversation. Of all people in the world, Malthus was the one whom I heard quite easily without it; — Malthus, whose speech was hopelessly imperfect, from defect in the palate. I dreaded meeting him when invited by a friend of his who made my acquaintance on purpose. He had told this lady that he should be in town on such a day, and entreated her to get an introduction, and call and invite me ; his reason being that whereas his friends had done him all manner of mischief by defending him injudiciously, my tales had represented his views precisely as he could have wished. I could not decline such an invitation as this: but when I considered my own deafness, and his inability to pronounce half the consonants in the alphabet, and his hare-lip which must prevent my offering him my tube, I feared we should make a terrible business of it. I was delightfully wrong. His first sentence, — slow and gentle, with the vowels sonorous, whatever might become of the consonants, — set me at ease completely. I soon found that the vowels are in fact all that I ever hear. His worst letter was l : and when I had no difficulty with his question, — “Would not you like to have a look at the Lakes of Killarney?” I had nothing more to fear. It really gratified him that I heard him better than any body else; and whenever we met at dinner, I somehow found myself beside him, with my best ear next him; and then I heard all he said to every body at table.
From the Autobiography (US ed., vol. 1, pp. 174-5):
From the time of my settlement in London, there was no fear of any dearth of information on any subject which I wished to treat. Every party, and every body who desired to push any object, forwarded to me all the information they held. It was, in fact, rather ridiculous to see the onset on my acquaintances made by riders of hobbies. One acquaintance of mine told me, as I was going to his house to dinner, that three gentlemen had been at his office that morning;— one beseeching him to get me to write a number on the navigable rivers of Ireland; second on (I think) the Hamiltonian (or other) system of Education; and a third, who was confident that the welfare of the nation depended on it, on the encouragement of flax-growing in the interior of Guiana. Among such applicants, the Socialists were sure to be found; and Mr. Owen was presently at my ear, laying down the law in the way which he calls “proof,” and really interesting me by the candour and cheerfulness, the benevolence and charming manners which would make him the most popular man in England if he could but distinguish between assertion and argument, and abstain from wearying his friends with his monotonous doctrine.
So I spent part of the morning reading stuff by the eccentric eighteenth-century Welsh philosopher (and friend of Brissot) David Williams, as one does, in which he more or less calls for the Hanoverian political system to be replaced with something that looks quite a bit like what the Marxists later called democratic centralism. Anyway, I liked the rhetoric of this bit, towards the end of the sixth of his 1782 Letters on Political Liberty:
It will probably be said, that the revival of this mode of establishing political liberty would have all the effect of innovation; and that innovations, even on the most perfect principles, are hurtful, because they press on the prejudices of the people.
This is always the shallow pretence of political Jesuitism. The throne is daily innovating; while every step presses out the blood of the most industrious and excellent among the people. A standing army is an innovation against the prepossessions, habits, and judgement, of every independent man in the nation; and yet it has been established. Is it to be imagined, the people will object to the very little trouble attending to such an arrangement, as will afford them an intire security against the encroachments of the Crown, and the depredations of fluctuating parties in their legislature, who plunder them in succession? If they were to arm themselves slightly, they would also have a police on the best footing; and be perfectly secured against the collusions of thieves and thief-takers, watchmen, constables, church-wardens, overseers, trading justices, and the whole train of expensive appendages to the science of robbery.
Josephine, over at the LRB blog.
The National Geographic has written up the Great British Beaver Debate over here.