Letters

  • The Great Disruption
  • Napoleon in Rags
  • The Great War
  • Killing Whales
  • Advice & Consent

    The Great Disruption

    Francis Fukuyama ("The Great Disruption," May Atlantic) remarks that "in fact the great American postwar crime wave began in a period of full employment and general prosperity." Precisely. Prosperity results in modernization, and modernization has various consequences. One of those consequences was the rise of a new urban underclass.

    Our urban underclass consists of displaced southern peasants and their descendants. In 1945 much of southern agriculture, notably cotton, was still dependent on hand labor, mediated by the sharecropper-tenancy system. In Alvin Toffler's terms, these workers were still in the first wave, rather than the second. Depression and war had forced southern agriculture to defer modernization for twenty years. In the postwar period southern landowners had the money for new equipment, especially combine cotton harvesters. Southern landlords evicted their tenants, destroyed the tenants' houses, and bought new combine harvesters.

    The refugees of this displacement process arrived in northern cities only to find that northern industrialists had also been buying labor-saving machinery and that the existing industrial labor force had first claim on whatever jobs were available. Eventually some industrial jobs opened up, when the northern working class no longer wanted them (having sent their children to school to become policemen, teachers, and so forth), but that took time. In the meantime, many of the displaced peasants turned to crime and violence.

    Many European countries (and Japan) have taken the stance that allowing people to evict peasants is simply not profitable from a societal point of view. Peasants can adapt to the city only if they are allowed to arrive at their own pace, with the option of returning to the farm if urban life does not agree with them. Even when European peasants did not own land, they were protected by appropriate legislation. Of course, often they did own land, because as early as the sixteenth century central governments began enforcing rent control, eventually expropriating the landlord in favor of the peasant.

    Andrew D. Todd

    In "The Great Disruption," Francis Fukuyama writes, "A dynamic, technologically innovative economy will by its very nature disrupt existing social relations." I find this statement difficult to reconcile with his claim that "social order, once disrupted, tends to get remade," and even more so with his optimistic assertion that such a process of social regeneration may have already begun.

    The technological explosion to which Fukuyama attributes the rampant individualism at the heart of our social disorder is the product of neo-liberal democracy and market capitalism, both imbued by Fukuyama with an aura of Hegelian inevitability, and both totally committed to the excessive individualism he deplores. Clearly, it is not in theirnature to encourage the "trade-off between personal freedom and community" that he feels is so essential to rehumanizing society, so one is at a loss to identify the source of his optimism.

    Fukuyama fails to consider that the collective psyche of the late twentieth century has been so deeply imprinted with the ideology of individualism that even those who are conscious of the need for trade-offs between personal freedom and community tend to back away when faced with the price to be paid for their professed ideals. This is the real victory of late capitalism over the hearts and minds of its adherents.

    Until Fukuyama addresses this collective psychological fact, his belief that the Great Disruption may have run its course will remain little more than wishful thinking.

    Howard Bluth

    Sometimes one article is worth the year's subscription price. For me it is "The Great Disruption."

    Richard E. Appel

    Andrew Todd points to the migration of rural blacks to northern cities as the source of what I labeled the "Great Disruption" -- that is, the descent into social anarchy and family breakdown that emerged in many inner cities by the 1980s. But poor blacks were being drawn north, as Nicholas Lemann showed in his book The Promised Land, by plentiful low-skill jobs in the 1940s and 1950s; intense social pathology didn't emerge for another fifteen to twenty years. I believe that it is less the migration itself than the disappearance of these jobs in the 1970s that is at the root of the problem, exacerbated by a welfare system that rewarded single-parent families.

    Howard Bluth seems to think that intensive individualism is the product of a certain type of late-twentieth-century "neo-liberal"capitalism. In fact it is deeply embedded in the whole Western Enlightenment, which has been ongoing for at least the past three centuries, and is part and parcel of the individual freedoms we all enjoy. As I explain at greater length in the book on which my Atlantic article was based, capitalism both destroys and creates social capital, and on balance is, as Adam Smith argued, a moralizing force in commercial societies. But the ultimate reason for my optimism is that we human beings by our very natures don't like individualism carried to extremes, and tend to moderate it by creating new social rules that bind us in communities. Whether I'm right this time around, only time will tell.

    I am, of course, very grateful that Richard Appel feels he got his money's worth in subscribing to The Atlantic.

    Napoleon in Rags

    I was very disappointed in Francis Davis's "Napoleon in Rags" (May Atlantic). I am simply not interested in hearing why the music someone loves (often the music with which he or she came of age) is more profound or meaningful than someone else's music.

    Davis's article presents opinions as facts and is both unattractive and misguided. An example: Davis says "As songwriters, John Lennon and Paul McCartney were surprisingly traditional; they brought a youthful cheekiness to pop, but in terms of lyrical sentiment and melodic structure their songs of the sixties merely updated Tin Pan Alley conventions." Very few composers or musicologists would agree with such an irresponsible and inaccurate statement, because, of all things, the Beatles were extremely original in their progressions.

    Alexander Wood

    Francis Davis refers in passing to "Positively 4th Street" as "a song from Highway 61 Revisited," the 1965 album often praised as Dylan's masterwork. It isn't.

    Glenn Hughes

    A couple of factual notes: The song "Positively 4th Street" is not on Highway 61 Revisited. Also, the quote from "Like a Rolling Stone" isn't quite correct -- it's "Napoleon in rags and the language that he used."

    Stephen Wacker

    Perhaps believing "Tin Pan Alley" to be a pejorative, Alexander Wood misunderstands what I said about the Beatles, whose music I preferred to Dylan's when I was a teenager and still do. Unlike Dylan's quasi-folk ballads and blues, Lennon and McCartney's early numbers were in the same 32-bar format as Jerome Kern's and Irving Berlin's, but with an updated beat. Their chord progressions were sometimes "original," if by this Wood means inventive, though not necessarily more inventive than Kern's or Berlin's.

    Glenn Hughes and Stephen Wacker are right about "Positively 4th Street," which was recorded at one of the sessions for Highway 61 Revisited but did not appear on that LP. Dylan often changes the lyrics to his songs in performance; to my ears, it sounds like he sings "the language that he'd use"on both the 1965 hit of "Like a Rolling Stone" and the version from Manchester, England, on Live 1966.

    The Great War

    "There was in fact a great deal at stake for Britain in the Great War," Benjamin Schwarz writes ("Was the Great War Necessary?," May Atlantic.) "Even assuming a benevolent German order on the Continent, the result of Germany's victory would have been that British independence as a great power would have been greatly diminished." But Britain ostensibly "won" the war, and its independence as a great power was greatly diminished in any case.

    Britain's efforts from September of 1939 to 1942 to contend with the German and the Japanese armed forces are laughable -- whether we are talking about France or Singapore. Britain was saved from German conquest in the Second World War by the Americans and the Soviet Union. The fact of the matter is this: Britain in August of 1914 had already entered a steep descent toward being a second-rate power, whether economically or militarily. But the British government and the majority of Britain's ruling class could not face the reality of this decline, because then they would have had to reflect on the reasons for this descent: principally an unwillingness to absorb and utilize modern technology, an educational system backward at all levels, and the physical weakness and illiteracy of Britain's working class. War seemed a good alternative to facing these realities. Glory could cover up reason.

    could have prevented Britain's decline in the twentieth century relative to Germany, the United States, and Russia. But the country's social and political leaders would not face this cruel fact, which indicated plainly that nothing was to be gained from war with Germany in 1914, and much was to be lost. Niall Ferguson is right.

    Norman F. Cantor

    In Benjamin Schwarz's review of Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War one looks in vain for a discussion of the major deficiency of the book. It treats the reasons the British had for entering the First World War as though these were the only important things to examine when one considers the casualties incurred, without ever considering the incompetence of Britain's generals and the political choices made in choosing those generals and keeping them in charge.

    It is as though a seriously ill person were hurt in an auto accident while being driven to the hospital by a reckless driver. One cannot examine only whether one would have been better off staying at home; one should consider whether one could have chosen a better driver.

    The reckless drivers for Britain in the First World War were its generals. Hundreds of thousands of men were senselessly slaughtered in obedience to a reckless macho doctrine called "élan vital." Few of the commanding generals acted on the self-evident fact that charging bravely back and forth across strategically worthless land will not win a war against shells, machine guns, and poison gas.

    Stephen E. Adler

    I agree with Norman Cantor's assertions about pre-war Britain's weaknesses. But his letter mixes apples and oranges. The historians who have most carefully diagnosed those weaknesses (Correlli Barnett, whom I discuss in my article, and Paul Kennedy) disagree with him and agree with me about what was at stake for Britain in the Great War. Certainly Britain's relative decline was inevitable; that does not mean that it would have been wise of British statesmen to stand aside and accept the dominance of Europe by a single power. Statesmanship, after all, is about managing"inevitable" changes in the international system. Britain found itself in such a terrible predicament during the Second World War because its interwar leaders failed to manage their country's relative decline, not because its leaders in 1914 wouldn't place their country's security and prosperity at the sufferance of Germany. Of course, Britain's independence has been greatly diminished since the Second World War; but thanks to British statesmen on the eve of the First World War, London has been under the sway of a (relatively) benign hegemon across the Atlantic Ocean rather than an unpredictable and strident one across the English Channel. Finally, although Professor Cantor is a fine medieval historian, his suggestion that Britain's leaders conspiratorially committed their country to war to "cover up" internal weaknesses is unsupported by any historical evidence.

    If Stephen Adler's assessment of the peculiar incompetence of British generals were correct, how do we explain the fact that Britain suffered far fewer casualties than Germany, France, Russia, and Austro-Hungary? From 1914 to 1918 the British army learned at hideous cost a new kind of warfare that baffled even experienced Continental armies. Incompetent generals there certainly were, as there are in every war. But the terrible truth -- the tragedy -- of the Great War was that the wealth that was available to the great powers for war-making, together with the state of military technology, meant that no masterstroke of strategy would swiftly or at low cost terminate the struggle.

    Killing Whales

    In the May issue of The Atlantic, William Aron, William Burke, and Milton Freeman argue that whales can be killed under hunting restrictions for years to come ("Flouting the Convention"). Yes, they can, but should they be killed at all? On purely sentimental grounds I stand with the whales in the debate. I draw support from the voice of the Irish storyteller Sean O'Faolain, who reminds us that "we are for a great part of our lives at the mercy of uncharted currents of the heart."

    Whales are awesome. A sperm whale dives a mile deep in the sea and holds its breath for more than an hour. The blue whale (the largest mammal) outweighs the pygmy shrew (the smallest) by a factor of ninety million, yet the two have similar tissues and organs, and both, I presume, nurse their young with a certain tenderness. Whales live in families and play in the moonlight; they talk to one another in distress. They are more complete and successful in their world than we are in ours. They deserve to be known and cherished, not for their potential as meatballs but as a collective inspiration for humankind. The thought of managing them for their spiritual value alone seems far more civilized than is the thought of managing them to satisfy a tiny fraction of the world's insatiable demand for marine products of commerce.

    Victor B. Scheffer

    We cannot accept the view that caring about human beings is antagonistic to being concerned for plants and animals. It is our responsibility to see that our ecosystem is preserved. Implicit in this is a recognition of the importance of all life forms, including those used for food as well as those enjoyed for their beauty or their role in preserving biological balance. A healthy and inspiring world, however, requires more than biological diversity; it is also strongly dependent on cultural diversity.

    We plead for understanding of those cultures different from our own. We share with Victor Scheffer his awe for whales. They are magnificent. He clearly states that his views are sentimental; he is a distinguished marine scientist, but his cultural perspective on whales, too, merits respect. Such sentiments, in our view, do not outweigh the needs of other cultures and communities whose ongoing dependence on whaling can be demonstrated. As long as they conduct their food-getting activities in a nonwasteful, ecologically sound, and lawful manner, we cannot believe there is any legitimate basis for thinking that the world is too small to accommodate such cultural differences.

    The fact that people may choose to eat a particular animal does not imply disrespect or even indifference. In fact, many hunters speak of a special closeness to the animals they hunt -- something that many nonhunters find hard to understand.

    Advice & Consent

    As someone who makes a living growing and selling apples, I read with some concern your June Almanac item on food [regarding the level of pesticide residues in certain fruits]. A typical consumer might conclude that eating U.S. produce poses a serious health risk. Far from it. Using a broad brush to paint a negative picture, and inflammatory statements such as "potentially unhealthy to children" and "domestic produce in general is more contaminated than imported," the author uses tabloid tactics to alarm, rather than inform, the public.

    Robert Harvey


    The Atlantic Monthly; August 1999; Letters - 99.08; Volume 284, No. 2; page 8-12.

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