Letters




  • Running Scared
  • No-Frills Jesus
  • Cuban Socialism
  • Norman Borlaug


    Running Scared



    Anthony King's analysis of the behavior of members of Congress is both interesting and disconcerting ("Running Scared," January Atlantic). Short House terms, our primary system, and the cost of political campaigns do indeed give an added sense of vulnerability to representatives and senators, and probably limit the effectiveness of our elected officials. Several of the options discussed, such as longer House terms, limited campaign spending with public funding, and some sort of term limits, would help our representatives to act independently in enacting legislation.

    One idea that King didn't include would be to increase the size of the House of Representatives from 435 to 600 or 650. This would be the first increase in more than seventy years and would reduce the average number of constituents per district from about 600,000 to about 420,000. Increasing the number of seats by 40 or 50 percent would probably attract more women and minority candidates, making Congress more truly representative of the population.

    Another way to encourage turnover and new thinking would be to institute mandatory retirement at an age between sixty-five and seventy. The vast majority of Americans are forced to retire from management jobs at sixty-two or sixty-five or seventy, so to apply the same criteria to our elected officials doesn't seem unfair -- or unwise, for that matter.

    George A. Dean



    I believe that Anthony King's article about elections in America misses the mark in arguing that Americans need a little more distance from their "governors" than our elections demand. The idea of elected officials who are more responsive to their own ideas of the common good than their constituents' ideas seems as alien to the American experience as the ideas of nobility and royalty.

    The problem is that our system has too little representative democracy, which is the genius with which the United States began. Originally there were town meetings, and local elections for representatives to state legislatures. When the Union was formed, the legislatures sent representatives, called senators, until a constitutional amendment required statewide elections, and smaller districts sent representatives to the House of Representatives. This amendment, and television, have caused much of the overspending on campaigns and have required that candidates for the Senate get constant exposure.

    Nicholas Kelne



    Anthony King's article on the disease of the American political system is accurate, in my opinion. In fact, the people who wrote our Constitution tried to avoid exactly the pitfalls he identified. They did not trust that power concentrated in any body of government would be used to the benefit of the country. For example, they provided for the indirect election of the President with the electoral college. Their intention -- since they did not foresee the rise of parties -- was that the most respected individuals of the several states would be elected to select our President for us. After parties were formed, the members of Congress nominated each party's candidate for President until the nomination of Andrew Jackson in 1828, when the first convention was held. Similarly, the original Constitution did not provide for the direct election of senators. They were to be elected by state legislators. These approaches would do away with most of the shortcomings stated so clearly in King's article. Only the House of Representatives would represent the people as their agent, as he uses the term.

    Rob Ashton



    Anthony King stresses congressmen's fear of not getting re-elected. Yet most of them do get re-elected, by persuasive majorities.

    Tertius Chandler





    I agree with George Dean that it would be a good idea to increase the number of House members to 600 or 650. I made the same suggestion (somewhat to the audience's surprise) in a speech in Washington a couple of years ago. More members and smaller congressional districts would bring more people into politics and would enable them to serve their constituents better. This might also -- by tending to make congressional districts more homogeneous -- reduce members' dependence on special-interest groups.

    I think Nicholas Kelne is wrong to suggest that representative democracy was "the genius with which the United States began." The United States did not begin with one genius; it began with two genii. One was indeed representative (or even direct) democracy; but the other -- fundamental to the original, 1787 Constitution -- was the Madisonian idea of a system of government that, to be sure, contained a representative element (called, appropriately, the House of Representatives) but at the same time sought to distance the government from insistent and continuous popular pressure. Since 1787, and especially since 1968, the system has been tilted more and more toward direct democracy. I think it should be tilted back. That is Rob Ashton's point. I agree with him.

    Tertius Chandler wonders, quite sensibly, about the apparent contradiction between my emphasis on the vulnerability of American elective politicians and the fact that most of them are actually re-elected. It is an important part of my argument -- spelled out in my book  -- that the contradiction is only apparent.

    In the first place, American politicians, precisely because they fear not being re-elected, go to extraordinary lengths to ensure that they are; they campaign endlessly. In the second place, even though their chances of not being re-elected may objectively appear to be small, American politicians have far too much at stake to operate on the basis of that comfortable assumption. Their political careers are at stake.

    No Frills Jesus

    Charlotte Allen, in her excellent article on the state of cutting-edge New Testament scholarship ("The Search for a No-Frills Jesus," December Atlantic), quotes Burton L. Mack's comment that "Christianity has had a two-thousand-year run, and it's over." Professor Mack may not know the half of it.

    John Kloppenborg's "holy writ" analysis of Q may well be essentially correct in its three-layer picture of that document's evolution, but such a picture should have led to some searching questions on the part of those, like Mack, who so confidently declare that they have excavated a genuine historical Jesus out of Q's subterranean depths.

    If the Christian movement, as Mack and others present it, all began in a teaching Jesus, why does that teacher come to us only through such a meager, tortuous route? There is nothing about such a figure in the entire corpus of first-century epistles, which speak only of a transcendent spiritual Christ, with no historical elements. Gospel-like ethical maxims are offered in James, 1 John, 1 Peter, certain Pauline epistles, and so forth, with no attribution to a human Jesus. Paul and others can even ascribe such teachings to God! (Paul's couple of "words of the Lord" have long been recognized as perceived inspirations from heaven.)

    The scenario that Burton Mack creates in his book is full of very questionable assumptions and conclusions. The theory, now two centuries old, that no human Jesus ever lived and that Christianity began with a belief in an entirely mythical Christ, like all the other savior gods of the day, may soon supplant scholarship's latest avant-garde picture of Christian origins.

    Earl Doherty



    Thanks for making "The Search for a No-Frills Jesus" the cover story of the December Atlantic. It's time this "lost" Gospel, so widely accepted among New Testament scholars, got national exposure outside of academia. However, in such a well-researched article I was dismayed to see Charlotte Allen take an intentional swipe at the "flashy" Jesus Seminar, whose scholars, she says, "vote as if they were at a town meeting." Obviously she did not choose to research the Jesus Seminar before evaluating its procedures -- or its work. If she had done so, she would have known that in preparation for a semi-annual meeting Seminar scholars read and are ready to debate the issues explored in some 300 pages of well-documented technical material printed in advance of each meeting. This hardly resembles voting at a town meeting! I hope that the book Allen is writing on New Testament scholarship and the historical Jesus will not repeat such cavalier treatment of the Jesus Seminar, whose eminent New Testament scholars have spent ten years researching the historical Jesus.

    Wayne Tinker



    Charlotte Allen mentions, as an objection to the concept of Mark and Q serving as the two literary sources of Matthew and Luke, that "only about 42 percent of the words in Matthew's and Luke's putative Q passages are in fact identical." Since Jesus spoke Aramaic, not Greek (much less King James' English), is it not likely that a collection of his sayings would be in Aramaic? If Matthew and Luke were independently translating from this Aramaic Q, with their differing outlooks, is it not natural that there would be differences in their translations? Luke, practical and socially concerned ("Blessed are the poor"), and Matthew, more philosophical and spiritual ("Blessed are the poor in spirit"), would naturally translate Jesus' sayings in the light of their own concerns and preconceptions.

    The fact that Q was in a lesser-known language would also explain its loss over time.

    J. McRee Elrod






    Earl Doherty contends (and there are scholars who agree with him) that Jesus never existed. However, Jesus' contemporary Paul of Tarsus did seem to believe that there really was a Jesus. In his letters to Christian communities in Rome and Philippi -- letters that nearly all scholars agree are authentically his -- Paul exhorted his readers to imitate Jesus' actions and attitude, using language indicating his conviction that Jesus was a human being like the letters' readers.

    I think I made it clear that neither the search for a non-Christian Jesus nor the use of Q as the key to that Jesus is a new development. As I pointed out in the article, James M. Robinson and Helmut Koester have been writing about Q since at least the early seventies. What is fairly new is the effort to discern "layers" of composition in Q and to reconstruct the "Q community" and its presumed history. Furthermore, it is only quite recently that books about Q have started rolling off the popular (not just scholarly) presses.

    Wayne Tinker says I took "an intentional swipe" at the Jesus Seminar when I commented that its members "vote as if they were at a town meeting." There are only two criteria for participating in the Jesus Seminar: a Ph.D. from an accredited university and knowledge of ancient Greek. Some Jesus Seminar participants are New Testament specialists, but others (according to a Seminar spokesperson, Char Matejovsky) specialize in the Old Testament, patristics, archaeology, history, anthropology, and other fields less directly related to the Gospels. All Jesus Seminar participants are presumably interested in the subject and have done their reading homework, but they need not have done their own research on the issues on which they vote.

    Reverend Elrod makes the interesting point that Q might have been written in Aramaic, not Greek. However, the Q hypothesis arose because of close linguistic similarities in the Greek texts of material that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke have in common with each other but not with Mark's Gospel. For that reason, most scholars who accept the Q hypothesis believe that Q was originally written in Greek, or at the very least was a Greek translation of an Aramaic document. There are many possible reasons why so little Q material is exactly identical in Matthew's and Luke's Gospels. Each evangelist might have had a different version of Q in front of him, or used Q material for widely divergent literary and theological purposes (as Reverend Elrod and many others suggest), or not used Q at all but used some other source or sources (as nonbelievers in Q insist).

    Cuban Socialism

    I was appalled by your decision to publish Joy Gordon's manifesto "Cuba's Entrepreneurial Socialism" (January Atlantic). Gordon's piece carefully omitted any discussion of American motivation for the embargo beyond sheer meanspiritedness. She ignores the possibility that the embargo represents an extremely gentle response to an unapologetic totalitarian police state that gladly accepted nuclear-tipped missiles to be pointed at our children in 1962, that may very likely have participated in planning the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, that supported its own Vietnam-like invasion of Angola during the 1970s, that cynically opened its prisons and dumped human garbage on the United States in the guise of permitting free emigration, and that most recently took defiant responsibility for the murder of unarmed American citizens. Gordon characterizes the embargo as "meddling in Cuba's affairs"; some would call it conducting American foreign policy toward an unfriendly government less than a hundred miles from our territory.

    I am amused by the logic of Gordon's argument that the embargo has actually had a salutary effect on Cuba's economy. If this is so, then why is she demanding that it be ended?

    Ray Fadeley



    Couldn't Joy Gordon, while lauding the rest of the system, mention, at least in passing, that Cuba is a state built on the murder of tens of thousands and the jailing and exiling of hundreds of thousands more and the theft of their wealth; that there are still show trials; that no one may criticize or pray freely; that the leader still calmly explains that the country is so democratic that there is no need ever to allow anyone to vote?

    Jonathan Cotter



    Joy Gordon does much to extol the virtues of Cuba's economic progress under the leadership of President Fidel Castro without once mentioning the fact that Cuba maintains one of the worst human-rights records in the Western world, and while also ignoring the fact that only through these abuses does socialism remain intact in Cuba. To suggest that the U.S. economic embargo represents "pettiness" or "harassment and meddling" in the affairs of a country whose citizens are routinely arrested, beaten, and jailed by Castro's police force for peacefully assembling to discuss subjects of a political nature, for speaking openly about reform, or simply for attempting to flee the tyranny in their homeland is to legitimize a regime whose socialist goals have, in and of themselves, wrought financial devastation in Cuba.

    The United States reserves every right to establish its own trade policy toward foreign nations, including nations that mandate that its trading partners adhere to certain policies -- or seek business elsewhere. President Clinton's recent temporary suspension of that clause in the Helms-Burton legislation which permits U.S. citizens to sue foreign companies that trade in properties seized in Castro's 1959 revolution is only in response to moves by the European Union that are conducive to the restoration of democracy in Cuba. This gesture is a first since the initial establishment of U.S. trade embargoes against Cuba, by President Kennedy in 1962.

    To lift these embargoes entirely, in response to international pressure, not only would fuel the Cuban propaganda machine but also would permit Castro full economic freedom to reinforce Cuba's already formidable military and police forces.

    Alex R. Knight III



    I was pleasantly surprised to see such an enlightening article on the situation in Cuba in a U.S. publication. Your readers might appreciate knowing that the U.S. political situation with respect to Cuba is, if anything, even more bizarre than Joy Gordon points out, and seems to revolve around North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms (a co-sponsor of the Helms-Burton bill, which is a clear imposition of U.S. law extraterritorially for reasons of nothing more than extremist right-wing ideology).

    Defenders of the bill frequently accuse Canada and Mexico in particular of "trafficking in stolen U.S. property" (a direct quote from Marc Thiessen, an aide to Senator Helms, on the CBC Radio program As it Happens). What they fail to point out is that the Castro government offered compensation for all appropriated property after the revolution, but the U.S. government quickly passed a law forbidding U.S. companies to accept any such compensation. Two Canadian members of Parliament who claim to be descended from Loyalists from North Carolina have introduced, tongue in cheek, a bill that would keep Senator Helms and his immediate family from traveling to Canada until North Carolina settles its outstanding claims with the estates of Loyalists who left after the American Revolution. (Thiessen claims that Britain settled these debts, which is true, but it was only after North Carolina defaulted.)

    Marc A. Schindler






    Ray Fadeley and others who hold his view may be surprised to learn that my sources include the Columbia Journal of World Business, the CIA's Worldfact Book, United Nations and World Bank materials, and research publications by leading American and European economists in the field. Every single piece of information and every figure cited was confirmed independently by The Atlantic's very thorough fact-checking process.

    In response to Jonathan Cotter's and Alex Knight's comments, I'm inclined to point out the obvious -- that the article is not about Cuban politics or the state. It's about Cuba's economic recovery. But I'm more concerned with the objection insofar as it reflects the view commonly held in the United States that Cuba is a one-issue nation, and that nothing can be said about Cuba -- about Cuban arts, sports, or economics -- if it does not condemn the "evil dictatorship."

    We do an injustice to ourselves and to the Cubans when we view Cuban people as though they were either helpless or brainwashed. The Cubans I have come to know over the past seven years are thoughtful and accomplished; they are steeped in history, and deeply proud of the changes they have brought about since the fall of Batista. They are proud that their children go to school instead of working in the fields, and that their children will grow up to be doctors and engineers, rather than servants.

    Those who object to the embargo on ethical grounds are not necessarily pro-Fidel. An economic embargo, like the siege of a city, is intended to harm the general population directly, in order to pressure those in power indirectly. Economic hardship affects the most vulnerable members of society first and worst -- the elderly, the sick, and the very young. (Healthy adults are much more likely to survive drastic reductions in food and medicine than infants.) Those who are affected last and least are those in power. The moral objection to the embargo is simply that it is wrong to cause direct physical suffering to millions of people who have nothing at all to do with politics, and that to do so in the name of their human rights is patently hypocritical.

    Norman Borlaug

    No one who has worked for many years "in the trenches" on African agricultural development, I read Gregg Easterbrook's article "Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity" (January Atlantic) with interest and sympathy. However, I feel compelled to correct an error in his article: Cassava is indigenous to Brazil but not to Africa; it was brought by the Portuguese to their African colonies and spread from there to other parts of the continent.

    This kind of error is typical of well- meaning environmental organizations, which like to imagine that modern agricultural techniques are displacing or disrupting farming systems that are in some sense indigenous or that somehow do not change the environment. The fact is that agriculture means changing the environment. There is simply no such thing as agricultural production that does not involve some level of control over the land and water resources on which the production is based. This is as true of so-called extractivist rubber tappers in the Brazilian Amazon as it is of highly mechanized farming in the San Joaquin Valley. The trick is to find some way to produce food and fiber which can be sustained over long periods without damaging the capacity of the resource base to generate the same level of output in subsequent years.

    Some physical laws cannot be avoided. If you take a crop from a piece of land, then you must return the nutrients that you have removed if the land is to retain its productive capacity. The main nutrients are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, though others may be important in particular locations. In addition, some aspects of soil structure must be maintained as well. Some of these needs can be met with crop rotation or "green manure," but there are few viable alternatives to the application of conventional fertilizers for others (notably phosphorus, which comes mainly from mineral sources).

    A real issue, and one that is particularly important, is the fact that population pressure on much of Africa has yet to reach the levels seen in India and China. Therefore Green Revolution technologies, which are extremely cost-effective in land-scarce areas such as these, simply don't have the same economic appeal in many parts of Africa. Similarly, green manure and other labor-intensive steps are not practical in situations where labor is the limiting factor. Intensification of production has been shown to occur spontaneously in areas where population pressure becomes an important problem, but it is an open question whether this intensification can be achieved in areas where land is in fact still abundant.

    Steven Kyle



    I strongly agree with Gregg Easterbrook's general conclusion, but he makes a major factual error that casts a shadow on the article. On page 77 he informs his readers that "wheat was [after the Second World War] a foreign substance in India." Wheat has been the staple food grain grown in northwestern India down to and including most of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh for centuries, and probably since the dawn of agriculture.

    John H. Foster





    Steven Kyle faults me for supposing that traditional farming methods have little impact on the land. But my article discussed precisely that problem, noting that traditional slash-and-burn farming can harm land more than high-yield practices do. And in current usage regarding developing-world issues, the term "indigenous" is commonly understood to mean "preceding the industrial or colonial era." Through the far past people, plants, and animals were transplanted in ways that leave researchers unsure in many cases as to what is ultimately indigenous to where. In the time frame that matters to contemporary debate it seems fair to call cassava indigenous to Africa, since it has been grown there for four centuries.

    John Foster asserts that I should not have called wheat a "foreign substance" in post-Second World War India. I urge him to note that my article refers specifically to anti-wheat rioting in Kerala state, not in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, the states he mentions. Having lived in Pakistan, I've eaten my share of the subcontinent's various cereals.



    The Atlantic Monthly; April 1997; Letters; Volume 279, No. 4; pages 10-17.



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