Sir: Reading Mr Robert Hughes's review of Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice (7 February), I wondered if one could work out the social and intellectual conditions which make it common for men like Mr Hughes to insist that they believe poisonous nonsense. The main thing, I suppose, is the need to swing; swinging can justify anything, even rape as 'an insurrec- tionary act.' Mr Hughes's fondness for the word 'eschatology' and his use of it in contexts which blur its meaning (e.g., 'instinctively re- jecting the social eschatology of its likely future'), suggests that he is an American academic, and there is further evidence in his inexact biblical reference (was it really Moses who made the sun stand still?) and his sweep- ing logic Coot a Black Muslim and hence not a racist'); But he could well be English; the rot has spread far. In any case, he is comfort- ably isolated from his subject. This he reveals by talking about 'the new generation of Ameri- can blacks' which rejects the white man's chances because its own are more 'existentially meaningful and genitally complete,' and by ascribing to this generation plans for 'taking over a few southern states and forming a black republic within America.' Clearly Mr Hughes is dincerned with his own exciting dreams and even more exciting rhetoric, rather than with what exists or could conceivably happen.
The revolutionary, like Mr Cleaver, whatever the merits of his case, has a certain dignity; he has to act, and to justify himself; he has to believe that in some sense he lives in the last days. But the observer, the critic, who has not been similarly placed but who tries to pretend that he has, who borrows the urgencies and caricatures the rhetoric of his hero—he is a pitiful figure. If the case were nor so common, the proper reaction would be to look the other way. But this increasingly widespread attempt of comfortable academics' to swing in vicarious revolt is destructive of thought and of the clear use of language. Look, at Mr Hughes, cataloguing 'the eschatological terrors of America'—one of them is 'the racist's xenophobia and penis envy.' Work that one out—what is gained by calling a racist xeno- phobic; how does penis envy relate to eschatology? Does Mr Hughes know that 'penis envy' is the wrong phrase for what he means? Was he simply too lazy to find the right one?
One would not quarrel with Mr Hughes's pleasure in exciting himself with Mr Cleaver's urgencies, cheapening them with his babble, were it not for two considerations. The first is that this sort of shallow excitement degrades intellect and weakens the culture which in- dulges in it; the second is that it is an insult to the decent majority of Americans, black and white, who do not, by and large, afford them- selves the sterile and poisonous pleasures of hatred and invective.