Letters

  • The Cost of Fame
  • Capital Punishment
  • Information Revolution
  • Advice & Consent
  • Editor's Note

    The Cost of Fame

    I was interested in Sue Erikson Bloland's discussion of the illusions created around fame ("Fame: The Power and Cost of a Fantasy," November Atlantic). I felt, however, that her deconstruction of her father's intellectual passions into his longing for his lost parents and fear of his own emotion and intimacy with his daughter undermined the strength and potential development of Bloland's argument.

    The truth is that the majority of children, and therefore adults, suffer from neglectful parents, fear of intimacy, and a desperate need to be noticed, and sometimes one of these people is an Erik Erikson, a Charlie Chaplin, or a Laurence Olivier. But that is rare, and does not establish a link between internal conflict and emergence as an artist or an intellectual. Although childhood trauma and a need for validation can be used to fuel creativity or achievement, they don't "explain" artistic passion.

    Michele Beck

    Sue Erikson Bloland's interesting article reminded me of a dinner party in 1956 at a restaurant in Heidelberg, Germany, at which Erik Erikson was the guest of honor. The party was hosted by Alexander Mitscherlich, an eminent German psychoanalyst who directed the University of Heidelberg's Psychosomatic Clinic. The occasion was the celebration of the hundredth anniversary of Freud's birth. The food was served in a garden lit by colored lanterns; the wine flowed freely.

    Erikson's personality was scintillating and his talk stimulating. In the after-dinner discussion, which went on for hours, a topic for friendly disagreement was psychic determinism. The card-carrying Freudians insisted that free will is a delusion and that all our feelings, thoughts, and actions are determined by reciprocally urging and checking forces beyond our awareness and control. The existentially oriented analysts argued for freedom of choice and the consequent awesome responsibility of each individual to choose the right feelings, thoughts, and actions. Although we argued loud and long, we arrived at no consensus, which is not surprising given that the debate continues to this day.

    Bloland apparently belongs to the psychic-determinism school of thought: she explains her father's perceived emotional inadequacies and her own neurotic feelings of shame as the ineluctable effects of defective or inept parenting. To the contrary, some philosophers -- for example, Robert Kane, at the University of Texas -- still champion the cause of free will and personal responsibility. Kane argues quite persuasively that although antecedent events may incline us toward certain feelings, thoughts, and actions, they do not determine our choices, which remain free.

    I am nonetheless forever beholden to Bloland for reviving the memory of that delightful Heidelberg evening forty-three years ago in the company of her gifted father.

    Jack R. Anderson

    I played directly into the idealizing trap described by Sue Erikson Bloland during a brief opportunity I had to observe her celebrated parents spending a semester in residence at the college I attended in the 1980s. I vividly remember the white-haired figures of intellectual royalty making infrequent dining-hall entrances to the awe of whispering undergrads, myself included.

    Bloland deftly punctures her father's Nobel pretensions while leaving the dignity of his Pulitzer achievement intact. She reminds us that the inevitable process of idealization expands its object by diminishing its subject, often with merciless consequences. Bloland redresses this imbalance with a democratically empowering model of psycho-cultural health. One imagines that in a more centered, nurturing, and transparent milieu the articulation of such a clear and healing vision would have made her father proud.

    Aaron Edison

    Capital Punishment

    Thank you for Alan Berlow's excellent article about the flaws of capital punishment ("The Wrong Man," November Atlantic). As an attorney and an activist against the death penalty, I was alarmed to read that Paul G. Cassell, a professor of law at the University of Utah, dismisses the likelihood that innocent people have been executed by saying "There is no documented case of a factually innocent person who has been executed for at least the last fifty years." As a law professor, Cassell knows that there is no such legal standard as "factual innocence" in criminal matters, any more than there is a legal requirement that defendants be proved factually guilty. The question we should be asking when people are put to death despite strong evidence of innocence is whether the prosecutor's case could have been proved "beyond a reasonable doubt" had all the relevant evidence been presented at the time of trial. In an increasing number of cases we simply cannot answer "yes" with any confidence.

    Two cases especially come to mind as examples of the execution of men for acts they probably did not commit. In 1995 the State of Texas executed Jesse Jacobs even though prosecutors no longer believed that he had committed the killing for which he was condemned. Jacobs had participated in an abduction during which a woman was killed, but had consistently proclaimed his innocence of the actual killing. After securing his death sentence, prosecutors ultimately agreed with him. They convicted another person of the crime, but allowed Jacobs's execution to go forward. In 1990 the State of Florida executed Jesse Tafero owing largely to the testimony of his companion at the scene of a double homicide, who was a convicted felon. Tafero's common-law wife, Sonia Jacobs, was also present at the scene, and was convicted on the basis of similar testimony. Two years after Tafero's execution Sonia Jacobs's conviction was overturned, because prosecutors had withheld crucial exculpatory evidence, including the companion's jailhouse boast that he had sent two innocent people to death row and forensic evidence demonstrating that only the companion's hands showed any signs of having fired a gun.

    In these cases and many others like them it is doubtful that prosecutors could have proved their cases for capital punishment "beyond a reasonable doubt" with a full and accurate presentation of evidence. No doubt this knowledge led them to manipulate or withhold evidence in the first place. For Cassell to claim that no mistakes have been made because there is no proof by his fictional standard of "factual innocence" is chillingly disingenuous.

    Cassell also overlooks an important reason why we should be concerned about condemning "the wrong man" -- it ensures that the truly guilty will go free.

    Barbara Hood

    The wrong men are imprisoned for so many serious crimes because once a suspect is apprehended, the police and prosecutors operate under a presumption of guilt. At a fairly early stage in the criminal-justice process they stop re-examining their case and focus instead on proving and winning it. The defense attorney, who is charged with raising any argument that might possibly work, is regarded as an impediment to obtaining a conviction. The judge is charged with determining which arguments the jury will be allowed to hear. The jury, receiving only the information it is allowed to know, is supposed to guess at the truth. No one before the jurors has that responsibility.

    When it functions correctly, the adversarial system may be the best protection against rampant abuse, but it is not the best means of discerning truth. What is needed is some way of re-examining a case before everyone is committed to his or her role in the game. If someone can figure out a way to do this so that the police don't perceive the re-examiner as "anti-cop," then the problem will be solved (more or less).

    William Baker

    Information Revolution

    I am writing about "Beyond the Information Revolution," by Peter Drucker (October Atlantic). Drucker's comparative analysis of the Industrial and Information Revolutions was insightful, but his focus on e-commerce and neglect of the impact that the Information Revolution will have on social phenomena was disappointing. Around the turn of the century Durkheim, Tönnies, and Weber all wrote about the sweeping social transformations that accompanied the Industrial Revolution. Similarly, Drucker noted the impact that the Industrial Revolution had on social phenomena (e.g., families and the class system), but failed to address like effects of the Information Revolution.

    For example, the relationships made possible by e-mail and online chat rooms are neglected by Drucker, as are potential changes in familial structure. Will "knowledge workers" have to relocate every few years (dragging spouse and children along) as today's corporate workers do, or will they be able to remain in one area and develop community ties? What about existing concepts of community and personal relationships? Will online chat rooms develop into online support groups? Is a virtual community possible? Will johndoe@whatever.com be considered a personal friend?

    Then there are the effects the Information Revolution may have on education. Will the resources available on the Internet fuel the growth of home schooling? Will high schools start offering online classes? How about religion? Can a priest receive confessions by e-mail? Can a congregation exist online? What impact will the Information Revolution have on the existing class system? Will members of the lower socioeconomic tiers (who often depend on unskilled jobs to scrape out a living) be better or worse off?

    Ben Brown

    In his comparison of e-commerce with the Industrial Revolution, Peter Drucker glosses over the tremendous social instability unleashed by industrialization. Although the Industrial Age's technological advances enhanced productivity, technology also fostered obscene social inequalities -- inequalities that led to the growth of political instability, the rise of unions, and the advent of communism.

    Similarly, if e-commerce is as revolutionary as Drucker claims, social dislocations will follow. At a minimum, the income gap between rich and poor will widen as low-skilled individuals find themselves unable to survive in an information-based economy. At least the poor of the Industrial Age could use their physical labor to perform factory work. What jobs will be open to the modern poor who lack the skills to manipulate information? If these people can't earn a living, what forms of social unrest will be loosed upon society?

    John Quinterno Jr.

    Ben Brown and John Quinterno are absolutely right: the social and political (and psychological) consequences of the Information Revolution will greatly outweigh its economic and technological consequences. But anyone who tries to predict these consequences will surely be dead wrong. Not one of the predicted social and political effects of the Industrial Revolution (or, 250 years earlier, of the printing revolution) came true. The most illustrious example is that of the greatest philosopher of the modern age, Immanuel Kant. Analyzing the Industrial Revolution, Kant predicted with absolutely irrefutable logic that it would usher in eternal peace (in his little book Zum ewigen Frieden, which appeared in 1795, at the outset of the Napoleonic Wars). Fifty years later Karl Marx was just as wrong -- and yet Marx was (and still is) the most brilliant analyst and historian of the Industrial Revolution, then already fifty years old. It is reasonably certain that any predictions now made about the social, political, and psychological effects of the Information Revolution will be equally far off the mark.

    Advice & Consent

    I am in full agreement with the use that Alan Wolfe made of the evidence contained in my book The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research (1999) in his article "The Mystique of Betty Freidan" (September Atlantic). I would, however, like your readers to know that I am not, as Alan Wolfe mistakenly states, an advocate of sociobiological determinism. This is a doctrine of which I have always been an outspoken opponent, as, for example, in my paper in Sociobiology Examined (1980).

    Derek Freeman

    T ought to explain to its readers that the photograph of Eugenio Pacelli illustrating the review of John Cornwell's Hitler's Pope ("The Holocaust and the Catholic Church," by James Carroll, October Atlantic) was taken in 1927, just after Pacelli had presented his diplomatic credentials to President Hindenburg. From the tone of James Carroll's review and the title of Cornwell's book, the nonperceptive reader (notice the absence of swastika armbands on the soldiers of the Wehrmacht flanking Pacelli in the photograph) might assume that Pacelli traveled to Berlin to call on Hitler after his election as Pope Pius XII, in 1939.

    Carroll's review fails to mention that after the 1933 concordat with the German state, the reigning Pope, Pius XI, issued an encyclical in German condemning Nazism, "Mit brennender Sorge" (1937). Although Carroll is correct that this concordat was signed with the understanding that the Catholic Center Party would disband itself, he is incorrect in his assertion that the Catholic Church then acquiesced in the face of Hitler's evil (as documented by the above-mentioned encyclical).

    Rafael E. Tarragó

    I was amused by the recent discussion in your pages (Word Court, November Atlantic) concerning whether the terms "male" and "female" -- in the context of electrical plugs and other interfaces -- are politically incorrect or otherwise offensive. This persnickety debate has existed far longer than you may realize, and has even reached outer space. In the 1970s, when NASA spacecraft performed docking maneuvers in orbit, the Apollo and Saturn modules consummated their couplings with the aid of a very large (but quite simple) male plug and female socket. The Soviet space agency of that same period equipped its Soyuz vessels with a male-female interlink almost identical to NASA's. However, for the linkup between Apollo 18 and Soyuz 19, in July of 1975, U.S. and Soviet aerospace engineers designed an incredibly complex (and inefficient) set of docking clamps that bore no resemblance to the genitals of any known sex. This was necessary for one reason only: on that historic "first date" between the two rival space agencies, neither participant was willing to take the "female" role, which would require its spaceship to be penetrated by the other nation's "male" hardware.

    F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre

    Editor's Note

    Much of the research for "The Health-Care Economy Is Nothing to Fear," by Charles R. Morris (December Atlantic), was underwritten by the Century Foundation, as part of its ongoing review of senior entitlement programs.


    The Atlantic Monthly; February 2000; Letters - 00.02; Volume 285, No. 2; page 10-13.

  • Presented by

    How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

    Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

    Join the Discussion

    After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

    blog comments powered by Disqus

    Video

    How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

    Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

    Video

    Before Tinder, a Tree

    Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

    Video

    The Health Benefits of Going Outside

    People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

    Video

    Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

    Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

    Video

    Yes, Quidditch Is Real

    How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

    Video

    Would You Live in a Treehouse?

    A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.
    More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

    Just In