Thank you for Joshua Wolf Shenk's insightful and moving "Lincoln's Great Depression" (October Atlantic). This article captures more than just the history of the great man's mental state; it also provides comfort to those of us who suffer depression today. The author saw Lincoln's "melancholy" as part of his character, one playing a primary role in the way he viewed the world and approached the heartbreaking national issues that had defeated so many others. The moment when Lincoln said he desired to live and "link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow man" was pure inspiration. Depression is ugly and deadly, and treatment is often necessary to keep it from becoming catastrophic, but it can express the values we hold and the way we will fight for them.
Lincoln's chronic depression also makes sense of the "pre-cognitive" dream he related three days before his murder. He told friends that in this dream he entered the White House and saw mourners around a corpse with a covered face. "Who is dead in the White House?" he asked one of the attending soldiers. "The president," was the answer. "He was killed by an assassin." Now we can see this dream not as a spooky prediction but instead as a function of Lincoln's melancholy. Anyone who has suffered depression will attest that such dreams are common.
Mark A. Wilson
The pivotal idea in Joshua Wolf Shenk's article is found in his remark "Today the connection between spiritual and psychological well-being is often passed over by psychologists and psychiatrists, who consider their work a branch of secular medicine and science. But for most of Lincoln's lifetime scientists assumed there was some relationship between mental and spiritual life."
Only in modern times has this spiritual component been excised from consideration of mental health. Under today's paradigm Lincoln would have been placed on an escalating regimen of mind-altering toxins, electric shocks to the brain, or both. Under those circumstances where might Lincoln have experienced the discernment, the spiritual insight, the meaningful and integrative struggle?
The spirit is the seat of wisdom and the supreme cognitive agent. We ignore it at our peril.
St. Simons Island, Ga.
Joshua Wolf Shenk's well-reasoned analysis mentions that Lincoln medicated himself with "blue mass," a compound containing elemental mercury that was often prescribed for depression, then known as "melancholia" (black bile). I and colleagues have published evidence that Lincoln took a sufficient amount of this potent neurotoxin to cause many of the signs and symptoms of acute mental distress documented by his friends, especially in the 1850s. Lincoln wisely stopped the medication on his own soon after his 1861 inauguration, because, he said, it made him "cross." We believe he might not have achieved his great leadership in the war years had he continued taking mercury.
Norbert Hirschhorn, M.D.
From his early days sitting around the courthouse, mesmerizing young lawyers with bawdy tales, to moments of levity during the Civil War, Lincoln saw humor as possibly the only way to mitigate the melancholia in his life. Whether using humor as metaphor or just relieving an awkward moment, he used it often. He poked fun at generals, made light of his competition with Stephen A. Douglas for the affections of Mary Todd, needled self-righteous preachers, and never failed to endear himself to others with jokes about his humble beginnings.
While Joshua Wolf Shenk is right that Lincoln's early battles with depression would help him cope with future personal and political struggles, this great man also recognized that humor was perhaps the only antidote at a time when medicine wasn't a suitable alternative.
Corral De Tierra, Calif.
Joshua Wolf Shenk did not mention the prevalent medical thinking that Lincoln was a victim of Marfan syndrome, which may have contributed to his depression.
Although this genetic condition is not highly associated with depression as a single psychiatric entity, those with morphologic deformities of any nature do harbor such a psychopathology when other factors are involved. Depression is seen more frequently when Marfan syndrome strikes someone who has gained a certain level of celebrity, accomplishment, and responsibility, all of which apply to Lincoln.
Because Marfan syndrome is associated with Lincolnesque joint laxity, ocular pathologies, long bone and digital excesses, and arm spans disproportionate to body height, the suspicion that Lincoln had this condition has intrigued researchers for decades. I know of a group that got permission to borrow from the Smithsonian a fragment of Lincoln's skull bone that was retrieved after the assassin's bullet struck. A planned DNA study may one day tell us the full story.
Don Sloan, M.D.New York Medical College
New York, N.Y.
An interesting alternative analysis of Lincoln's mental, neurological, and physiological condition, titled "Abraham Lincoln's Organic and Emotional Neurosis," was published in the April 1952 issue of the A.M.A. Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry. Written by Edward Kempf, M.D., this analysis, though dated, convincingly postulates that Lincoln's mental aberrations may have been symptomatic of brain damage caused by a blow to the head that he received at age ten, when a recalcitrant workhorse kicked him. He was deeply unconscious for a prolonged period afterward, and for a while was thought to be dead. A pronounced indentation on the left side of his forehead is clearly visible in his life mask.
Kempf's article isn't the final word on Lincoln's mental condition by any means, but it successfully connects many disparate mental symptoms, physical traits, and life events.
Joshua Wolf Shenk replies:
Thanks to these readers for their thoughts. To those who wanted more, let me say that I discuss Lincoln's humor, his intersections with nineteenth-century pharmacology, and the Marfan question in my book, Lincoln's Melancholy, from which this essay was adapted.
The horse-kick incident—and the possibility that it contributed to Lincoln's mental makeup in adulthood—is worth considering. But Edward Kempf's work contains some of the most egregious excesses in retrospective diagnosis that I know of. Modern terms can, at times, help us grapple with Lincoln's story; for example, noticing that his experience meets the criteria for what we call "clinical depression" helps us understand its severity. But such a description says nothing about where Lincoln's suffering came from, or how he experienced it, or—perhaps most important—where it led him. No single theory can account for Lincoln's depth and complexity. And on the whole, I believe, the story of Lincoln's melancholy has more to teach modern science than modern science has to teach us about Lincoln's melancholy.
The juxtaposition of Joshua Wolf Shenk's "Lincoln's Great Depression" and Joshua Green's "Roy and His Rock" (October Atlantic) is a powerful commentary on the history and condition of American politics. It seems we have not learned much from Lincoln's theology, or from his example.
George Bush, who has said he strives to follow the model of Lincoln, seems to have fundamentally misunderstood him. Lincoln's greatest strength was his humility—his belief that God's ways are inscrutable, and that it is prideful sin to claim with dogmatic certainty God's allegiance to one's own cause. How else can we explain the words of the Second Inaugural?
It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.
The notion of prideful sin is completely lost on Roy Moore and his version of the Republican Party. Inexplicably for someone claiming to be a follower of Jesus Christ, Moore prefers Moses' Ten Commandments to his own savior's Beatitudes. His certainty in his condemnation of those who envision a life devoid of the punitive justice of Mosaic law defines precisely the corrosive effect of religion on politics today.
The easy answer to Moore comes from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote in The Path of the Law, "The worst reason for doing anything is that it was done in this way during the time of Henry IV." That comment might apply to the time of Moses as well. However, Moore's politics are corrosive mainly because they reward a lack of reflection and promote an unthinking citizenry. In Roy Moore's America citizens are not called upon to evaluate the effectiveness of their institutions in achieving justice, or the usefulness of those institutions in establishing social arrangements and distributing power, wealth, or status. Furthermore, citizens are not required to think carefully about themselves in relation to others. Moore's Mosaic legal order asks no one to be unselfish, to turn the other cheek, or to relinquish his rights in favor of forgiveness and community with others. These are all things for which Americans have striven (even when "knowing that [they] could never be perfectly attained," as Shenk notes of Lincoln). Moore's certainty is simply un-American.
In the end we all could do with a bit more of Lincoln's clarity, and with the knowledge that this clarity flows from uncertainty and humility.
Hans J. Hacker
After reading Joshua Green's article about Roy Moore, I finally understand what religious conservatives have been talking about when they describe a disturbing force weaving its way into American society. It is Moore and his activist followers. How paradoxical that religious conservatives are filled with passionate intensity about supposed demons stripping away their right to worship, just as one of their own is rising steadily to awesome power on a crest of purely biblical fervor. If there really is a liberal effort to undermine religious worship, it lacks all conviction.
During the decades when our government was supposedly controlled by more liberal forces, religious Americans did not see their freedoms abridged. Most liberals, whether religious, agnostic, or atheist, would be appalled at a government that took away the rights of others to worship. However, if the Mooreians were to gain complete power in the United States, I fear they would alter our lives absolutely. Moore believes that he possesses not only the vision of the universal creator but also the purest understanding of the philosophies of our nation's founders, and he has grafted these beliefs onto a frightening anger at political ghosts that he says are out to destroy the pious way of life. Just imagine for a moment all branches of our government run by people like Roy Moore. According to him, his own interpretation of the law, of history, of religion, all deserve greater weight than the collective knowledge and judgments of everyone else.
"Judge" Roy Moore claims to be a lawyer, but his arguments against the courts are wholly untruthful.
The courts have never prohibited prayer. They have prohibited government interference in the religious beliefs and non-beliefs of public school students. As a religious and spiritual people we should rejoice that the courts are protecting us from well-meaning but often blasphemous interference by local school boards and educational bureaucrats.
Joshua Green reveals in passing that the people of Alabama were not, after all, charged for the installation of Roy Moore's marble Ten Commandments. Yet does Alabama law permit the chief justice to decorate the supreme-court building (stealthily, under cover of darkness) according to his private tastes? It's not an idle question.
If not, then maybe Moore's profoundly arrogant action should have been challenged on the more limited ground that he lacked legal authority. Mightn't that approach have denied this cartoon demagogue the martyrdom he so avidly courted?
Kansas City, Mo.
Joshua Green's article refers to George Wallace's stand against federal agents "at the Birmingham schoolhouse door." This stand took place in 1963 at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, not in Birmingham.
Otherwise, congratulations for as clear a description of Roy Moore and his followers as I've seen recently.
Joshua Green writes that Roy Moore attended West Point "on scholarship." I assume Moore provided that information to demonstrate his merit even in his youth. However, everyone who attends one of our military academies, including West Point, does so "on scholarship," if that means not paying tuition. That has been true as long as those academies have existed. Cadets do not pay to attend, and they receive a monthly stipend.
Julia BeltLieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Joshua Green writes, "In every Moore crowd an undercurrent of messianic zeal is detectable, and here a few zealots buttonholed passersby, animated by communist infiltrations and dark tidings of the Bavarian Illuminati." But he provides no explanation of who the Illuminati are.
Adepts believe that the Illuminati are a shadowy cabal of European Jewish bankers and secret fraternities such as Skull & Bones that have stage-managed world events since the late eighteenth century. This notion of Jews' managing the world is the same one that appears in the old Russian forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Martin B. Rosensky
Silver Spring, Md.
In "Roy and His Rock," Judge Rochester's old signs with the slogan "Like a Rock" were presented as evidence of Roy Moore's hold on the state. Yesterday I called Judge Rochester. The slogan was a play on his name and a shortened quote from Thomas Jefferson. Judge Rochester is a Democrat and might even accept the liberal label. We aren't all Roy fans in Alabama.
Roy Moore may be many things, but duplicitous is not one of them. I applaud his honesty and his contribution to the marketplace of ideas (the frightening quality of his ideas notwithstanding). While some of his fellow evangelicals try to disguise their preference for governmental displays of religion (for example, by arguing that several hundred Decalogues posted on public property are not public endorsements of religion but, rather, mere artifacts of Cecil B. De Mille's 1956 scheme to promote The Ten Commandments), Moore brings his arguments in through the front door. If we are to have a national debate about the role of religion in public life, it should be in such candid terms.
W hen I read the piece on Judge Roy Moore, I was treated to an amazing piece of trivia: the curious "fact" that the granite monument, while on the road, was subject to "what truckers call 'fuck bugs' (Plecia nearctica to entomologists), which swarm in copula for hours at a time, especially near the Gulf, and as a consequence—truckers and entomologists agree—make twice the splat of anything else you're likely to encounter."
It is just a little odd to find the F-word in the leading paragraphs of an article about the Ten Commandments. And a little odd that in my lifetime I have never heard them referred to as anything other than "love bugs." (My father-in-law is a retired trucker, and surely he would have let that one slip somewhere along the line.)
They don't actually pack twice the splat, either. There's not much to them—it's just that there are zillions of pairs of them hurtling to their little deaths from roughly Memorial Day to the first cool days of fall.
Baton Rouge, La.
Joshua Green replies:
David Dunlap raises an interesting question, and one that Moore anticipated and answered in his book: Who gets to decorate the Alabama Supreme Court? Moore claims that state law (Alabama Code 1975, Section 41-10-275) grants the chief justice an additional title—lessee of the Alabama Judicial Building—that gives him the right to designate office and parking spaces and decorate the building.
Julia Belt is right, of course, to point out that all West Point cadets are "scholarship" students. My use of the phrase was intended to emphasize that Moore could not have attended college without financial support—in his case richly deserved. My thanks to Thomas Scales for the correction, and to Martin Rosensky for illuminating the Bavarians
Clive Crook's article "Does Oil Have a Future?" (October Atlantic) concludes that "the best remedy … is a tax that pushes those costs back to the consumer … a gas tax. Its time is coming." The analysis is correct and the proposed solution moves in the right direction, but it is inadequate. What's needed is not a flat gasoline tax but a graduated tax aimed at consumption excess.
When Congress refused to discourage the national proclivity for SUVs and big pickup trucks, it demonstrated that it would not do anything to impede the American love affair with the automobile. Efforts to get Americans out of their cars and onto public transport have been signally unsuccessful. And Americans have had little incentive to conserve gas or come to grips with the pollution created by automobile use. Gas has been cheap until recently, and individual ownership of cars gives us unparalleled personal mobility. Auto use is also driven by our tendency to live far from our work.
Yet the current experience of paying more than $3.00 a gallon for gas foreshadows the possibility of change. We could provide a market incentive for smaller and more efficient gasoline-powered cars by adopting a gas tax that charged drivers according to the efficiency of their vehicles.
Under this system a car getting fifty miles to the gallon might be taxed for gas at $2.00 a gallon, whereas a car getting forty miles to the gallon would pay, say, $2.50 a gallon. A Hummer getting fifteen miles to the gallon would be taxed at something like $15 a gallon. The tax could be graduated literally by the mile and should increase geometrically. The technology would involve implanting a chip in the gas tank of every vehicle, which would be encoded with its gasoline consumption per mile. Every gas-pump nozzle in the United States would carry a chip that could read the chip embedded in the car, and set the tax accordingly.
This sort of tax would have an immediate effect on drivers' choice of vehicles. It would also reduce "externalities" in the form of pollutants.
William H. Friedland
Santa Cruz, Calif.
Clive Crook's comment on the future of oil is sensible and to the point. But he makes a serious error in stating that energy companies "are big investors in clean or renewable fuels such as wind, solar, hydrogen, and biomass." Hydrogen is not a fuel. It is manufactured, largely from natural gas, at a cost of more than twice the energy recovered when it is burned in a fuel cell. So for every 1,000 BTU expended you get less than 500 BTU back. Using electricity from renewable sources to extract hydrogen from water is even less efficient: only one third of the original energy is recovered from the fuel cell. Storing energy in a lead-acid battery is much more rewarding.
In the same issue of The Atlantic, Dow Chemical has an ad bragging that GM's hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles have "nearly twice the efficiency of a conventional vehicle." That is true, but because hydrogen production has an efficiency of less than 50 percent, the final energy consumption is the same for both.
This is not a trivial complaint. Billions of dollars will be spent on developing fuel cells and associated hydrogen infrastructure, with substantial government support. This is bad public policy, because it is a fake solution to our energy problem. Since well over 90 percent of hydrogen production will be from natural gas, conversion to hydrogen-powered vehicles will do little to reduce fossil-fuel consumption and carbon-dioxide production. It merely shifts our sights away from oil as our primary energy source—a goal that could be accomplished by using natural gas itself as an automobile fuel.
A. R. Martin
Fort Myers, Fla.
Clive Crook says that the use of ethanol for fuel "isn't very clean." I have also noticed other energy experts declaring that production of alcohol fuel has a negative energy return. Either these people don't know chemistry or thermodynamics, or they don't know how an old-fashioned still worked. They are probably referring to synthetic ethanol. You don't have to burn hydrocarbon fuel or use electricity to make alcohol.
Ethyl alcohol—the drinking kind as well as fuel—is made by fermenting natural plant carbohydrates. The grains or juices that are fermented are produced by plants using sunlight, water, carbon dioxide from the air, and nitrogen and minerals from the soil. Oxygen is released as the plants grow. If you burn the plant material or use solar energy to power the distillery, you get energy from the alcohol that was created totally by solar energy. When the alcohol is used as fuel, you combine the carbon with the oxygen that the plants generated in the first place. The minerals (ashes) from the plant material can be returned as fertilizer. The water is returned to the atmosphere, and the heat taken from the sun is returned to the environment. The nitrogen oxides from the plant combustion may have to be scrubbed, but these can be handled. At the end of one growing season nothing has been done to the environment.
Big Cove, Ala.
Though I agree with much of what Clive Crook presents in his critique of the recent energy bill, I must take issue with his statement that "the science of global warming is nothing like as settled as the environmental movement's spokesmen and media followers would have people believe." Within the community of peer-reviewed science no debate remains regarding global warming. It is considered scientific fact. Look at the fate of glaciers globally, the increased intensity of hurricanes, the global increase in seawater temperatures, and the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Only research backed by oil and coal funding still supports the idea that global warming might not be induced by human beings.
By the way, Portland has decreased its emissions of greenhouse gases and has more than complied with Kyoto Protocol reductions.
Clive Crook's conclusion that a gas tax is exactly what the United States needs is as true and timely as it is unpopular. Like Crook, I have found myself arguing for the immensely unpopular position that some things are best handled by government, and that issues such as energy use will require some taxation. His suggestion that doubt persists about global warming, however, is one I find a tad disingenuous.
Clive Crook says that even if we were certain of global warming it would be hard to say "exactly what one ought to do about greenhouse-gas emissions." But for years concerned scientists have advocated a number of steps that we should take—measures that would be to our benefit even if global warming did not occur. We know many things we ought to do; all we need is the will to do them.
When our supply of oil was threatened by a Saudi Arabian embargo in the 1970s, we promptly reduced our oil consumption by requiring auto manufacturers to increase their miles-per-gallon ratings. These CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) standards are still in existence. With the recent development of hybrid engines and other technologies we could substantially tighten the CAFE standards, and this time we should include pickup trucks and SUVs.
We are successfully producing some of our energy from wind turbines and could produce much more if we made permanent the modest subsidy this now receives. We know how to manufacture more energy-efficient appliances and build houses that require less energy, but the payout does not make most of these options attractive. We need government regulation to reduce our use of oil.
I liked Clive Crook's article until the last paragraph. A gas tax is the wrong thing at the wrong time. First, a tax on gasoline at the pump is a regressive measure that I reject on moral grounds alone. It is a flat tax (always immoral), which requires poor people—who must have gas for survival—to pay at the same rate as the wealthy do for their RVs, SUVs, Hummers, and other wasteful playthings. Second, it is ineffective; the poor, the rich, and the upper middle class will not change their consumption. Only the lower middle class will feel the pinch. Third, it will increase crime in the form of drive-aways, siphoning, and even a black market.
I propose just the opposite of Crook's solution: We should ban all taxes on gas at the pump and restore the lost revenue by taxing vehicles. Excluding only heavy commercial trucks, construction and farm equipment, and commercial buses (all of which require special attention), we must impose a surcharge or bonus on vehicles based on their EPA mileage figures, as follows:
10 mpg $30,000 surcharge
10—19 mpg $20,000 surcharge
20—29 mpg $10,000 surcharge
30—34 mpg $5,000 surcharge
35—39 mpg $5,000 bonus
40—49 mpg $10,000 bonus
50—59 mpg $20,000 bonus
59 mpg $30,000 bonus
(not to exceed purchase price)
Bonuses would be paid only when a new vehicle is purchased; surcharges would be paid at every resale as well. Moreover, all vehicles subject to a surcharge would require a $1,000 to $5,000 annual license-and-registration fee, while vehicles subject to a bonus would have these fees waived, would be exempt from sales taxes, and would get reduced insurance rates.
Like the energy bill he dissects, Clive Crook fails to grasp the market transformation taking place in the energy industry. A narrow focus on commodities such as oil misses the move away from centralized production and processing to "distributed energy"—a model based on small-scale, network-oriented technologies at or near the customer's home or business.
We are in the beginning stages of a technological revolution much like the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. Technologies such as solar energy, fuel cells, sensors, batteries, and power electronics will have the same impact on how we live and work as autos and light bulbs did when they were introduced. Why? Because they are more efficient: by using less to make more, these technologies promise a less polluting, less costly future while providing more heat, more comfort, more convenience.
If this vision is to be fully realized, increasing the gas tax is not the answer. Government intervention in pricing has caused endless distortions in the market, making it difficult for customers to evaluate new technologies against old ones. Energy policy, insofar as there needs to be one, should focus on leveling the playing field for new technologies.
Jamie WimberlyCEO, Distributed Energy
I question Clive Crook's views on the Kyoto Accord. Anyone who looks at the long list of states that ratified and brought it into force would know that Europe's commitment to that treaty is shared by dozens of states around the globe, including our enlightened neighbor Canada.
No one would seriously argue that the Kyoto Accord goes far enough to effect the reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions so urgently required. But it is a start, and it provides an important arena for international cooperation. In this sense the Kyoto Accord is most certainly not a "bad model."
Crook's proposed heavy tax on petroleum products certainly has merit, but only if the burden is shared by those businesses that profit from the production and use of fossil fuels. Placing the entire burden on the consumer is as regressive as the idea of substituting a sales tax for our current progressive income tax.
Christopher Hitchens ("Triumph at Trafalgar," October Atlantic) mentions that in June a mock sea battle took place in the waters off Portsmouth, and the rival fleets were code-named "Red" and "Blue" in order to avoid offending the French. I believe this may have been the intention of Tony Blair's pusillanimous government, but things did not turn out that way.
From my seat in the main hospitality area overlooking the Solent from Southsea Common, I listened to a robust commentary provided by BBC Radio Solent, while the tall ships approached each other as darkness fell. The commentator told it like it was when describing what Nelson and his fleet were up to, as well as what was happening on Admiral Villeneuve's ships. His graphic account gave us all the gory details of this famous victory, with no mention at all of Red and Blue fleets.
Alas, although Christopher Hitchens may have visited HMS Victory in Portsmouth as a small child, his memory of this most holy of British shrines is imperfect. Nelson's Victory, the world's oldest commissioned warship, is indeed in Portsmouth, but it is not, as Hitchens says, "moored as a floating museum." Rather, it is permanently enshrined in Dry Dock No. 2. The U.S. Navy proudly and correctly claims the USS Constitution as the world's oldest commissioned warship afloat.
In his review of Seize the Fire, Christopher Hitchens characterizes Spanish sailors as "little better than serfs," led by an incompetent officer corps. This assertion completely ignores modern research into the organization and operation of the Spanish navy, the most accessible of which is John D. Harbron's Trafalgar and the Spanish Navy. When Nelson famously said, "The Dons may make fine ships; they cannot however make men," after visiting the Spanish fleet in Cadiz in 1793, he was referring not to the quality of Spanish sailors but to the lack of them, for as often as not crews were diminished by disease and other factors. Until 1800 the most famous one-eyed, aggressively brilliant naval tactician and amputee who died from wounds sustained during his final battle was Spain's Admiral Blas de Lezo, who turned back the British fleet at Cartagena de Indias in 1741.
Larrie D. Ferreiro
Fairfax Station, Va.
Christopher Hitchens refers to the Napoleonic War as "the first of the world wars." Not so. The Seven Years War was the first world war, simultaneously fought in North America, Europe, the Caribbean, and India.
Seduced by the pull quotes in the October issue of The Atlantic, I was eager to become the fly on the wall in the room where we would learn, as promised, "What separates [Bernard-Henri Lévy]—radically—from Bill Kristol?"
Instead, after Lévy dismisses Kristol as an intellectual lightweight by virtue of his American-style attractiveness and vivaciousness (unbecoming an intellectual as envisioned on the Continent), he tells us that he "senses" Kristol is annoyed when he mentions something about the Weekly Standard; that he "senses" Kristol thinks a European can't handle the mingling of politics with the "trash" of the Clinton scandals; and, finally, that "Bill Kristol is listening to me, but I sense I'm not convincing him."
I wish I could have some sense of what Bill Kristol actually said, so I could judge for myself. I sense that, as so often on this journey, Lévy went to Kristol with a very clear idea of what he was going to find, and that there was no sense in not finding it.
Ronald D. Coleman
New York, N.Y.
W hen Bernard-Henri Lévy says that he "can't imagine the principle of precaution so poorly applied" in his country as it is in the United States (in reference to natural disasters such as Hurricane Andrew), I wonder if he has forgotten France's lack of response to the August 2003 heat wave, in which 14,802 people died! To my knowledge no natural disaster has ever caused such loss of life in the United States. In Georgia we have air-conditioned "heat shelters" (typically churches or community centers) that serve many elderly people. Thanks to these shelters we rarely have heat-related deaths among the elderly, even though the temperature rises above 100 on many days in a typical summer.
Julia S. Key
Though his series of articles was enjoyable, Bernard-Henri Lévy has missed something essential: that the business of America is business. He spent his time with journalists, academics, politicians, and a few of the "common people," but not with the business leaders who provide so much of America's creative energy in all spheres, including government policy, intellectual thought, and the arts. Though Lévy strives with some success to relate to the American world view, this omission is classically French in its oversight. The best and brightest in America are not always (not often, some would convincingly argue) found in politics or academia, as they are in Europe; rather, they are found in the dynamic enterprises that are reinventing human communication, creating new fields devoted to things such as the assessment and financing of risk, and providing the management skills needed to maintain vibrant artistic and academic institutions. Did Lévy try without success to meet such people, or did he simply overlook them?
Shaker Heights, Ohio
Bernard-Henri Lévy (July/August Atlantic) links Americans' defense of the constitutional right to own and carry guns to Nazism, simply because he observed a few people selling Nazi artifacts at a Dallas gun show. I detect bias in this view.
As a longtime gun owner I have a pretty good handle on what motivates these people, and it isn't Hitler. Most gun owners don't own Nazi paraphernalia and are appalled by Nazism; they enjoy hunting and shooting, and understand that guns don't cause crime but, rather, reduce crime rates.
Caitlin Flanagan's review of my book Raising Boys Without Men ("Boys Will Be Boys," November Atlantic) says little, if anything, about my findings but speaks volumes about the widespread, fear-based ideology that stigmatizes single mothers and two-mother couples. Buried deep in her review is a grudging admission that single mothers throughout history have often raised their sons with great success. Otherwise Flanagan completely misses the point.
The experience of actual families clearly demonstrates that non-nuclear families are neither more nor less equipped to raise healthy sons. Parents who succeed do so because they are caring and supportive, spend time with their children, and nurture those children's independence. The mothers I studied have not "decided to stop cooking and let the kids nuke potpies for dinner." On the contrary, they spend more time with their children than heterosexual couples do, and are home for dinner more often.
That "masculinity arises naturally" is not my belief; it is a scientific finding that was as surprising to me, as a straight mother, as it is to Flanagan. Reality often has the power to surprise. What surprised me more was that Flanagan thinks I am afraid of straight men, because I have been married to one for many years and raised two strong, healthy children with him. If I thought boys raised without men were actually better off, I would have a lot of explaining to do to my twenty-six-year-old son. The real question is, Are the sons of single mothers and lesbian couples worse off (as so many people assume), or can these mothers succeed in raising strong, healthy, independent sons?
Ideology aside, the answer is a resounding yes. That's a good thing, because the proportion of American families headed by women has grown by 50 percent since 1980. At the same time, families headed by heterosexual couples now represent just 23 percent of all households, and that number is shrinking every year. We can argue about the reasons until the cows come home. But if we really care about children, we will stop denying reality and judging their parents, and start supporting families of all kinds.
Peggy Drexler Weill Medical College of Cornell
New York, N.Y.
As a single father raising two teen- agers, I finished reading Caitlin Flanagan's review of Peggy Drexler's Raising Boys Without Men with a rousing You go, girl! that startled the dog out of his Sunday slumber.
Flanagan describes a very real perception that straight men either get in the way of or lack the critical attributes needed for successful parenting. Because of this perception, as she notes, both men and women flee from the hard work necessary to build loving and stable homes with shared responsibilities for parenting and homemaking. The consequences for our culture are enormous. The idea of mutual responsibility for our selves, relationships, and homes (and eventually our communities) falls away when the father walks out, or when the mother decides she doesn't want the hard work of a marriage and a relationship.
The burden of this cultural approach does fall primarily on women and children. Even with more women in the work force, more women with higher incomes, more women with stellar educational credentials and professional success, we've created a Boomer and post-Boomer culture in which women are still the go-to guys on all things family. As a straight guy who can cook, do the laundry, throw successful house parties, clean, garden, and arrange flowers and candles, I've lost count of the number of times I've been "helped" by, or received "suggestions" from, well-meaning mothers of all ages in the supermarket, Target, Pier I, and other stores, and I've lost count of the number of times I've seen mothers of all ages overwhelmed by crying children, overflowing grocery carts, ten-page to-do lists, or chaotic kitchens while the father just stands idly by looking lost and confused.
Successful child-rearing is a shared responsibility that involves both masculine and feminine elements expressed by both men and women. The sooner we build a culture that recognizes that, the better off we'll all be.
Caitlin Flanagan replies:
Peggy Drexler's letter repeats, in microcosm, the fuzzy thinking at the heart of her book. Her argument: Traditional two-parent families are no better equipped to raise sons than are "non-nuclear families," and this is good news because there are more female-headed households than ever.
Now let's consider the facts: Fatherlessness is the single biggest crisis facing American boys. It is the No. 1 predictor of poverty, criminality, dropping out of school, and impregnating girls outside of marriage.
How do we reconcile her happy talk with my grim reality? By remembering that as a gender scholar, Drexler is pushing an agenda shaped by the concerns and lifestyle choices of upper-middle-class feminists, gays, and lesbians. Championing the parenting skills of affluent single mothers—a maternally capable, if statistically insignificant, cohort—is not indefensible. Suggesting that the success of these wealthy families means that fatherless boys across the nation are in good shape is reprehensible. Who is speaking for those boys whose lives have been made pitiful because of paternal abandonment and the breakdown of marriage—those boys who have no fathers to protect them, or to teach them how to be men? Not Peggy Drexler.
I would like readers to ponder the following fact: Peggy Drexler's "groundbreaking study," which was the subject of her dissertation and which brought her to her patently ridiculous conclusions about fatherhood, was based on her interviews with sixteen lesbian couples—all of whom lived in the San Francisco Bay area, and all of whom were wealthy. If a university physics department or a school of medicine were conducting research that way, we would all cry foul. Why aren't we questioning what's happening in America's gender-studies departments? I would strongly recommend that anyone who is considering donating money to his or her alma mater find out if the gift will help fund one of these intellectually bankrupt departments. Universities hate "restricted giving" because it holds them accountable for the way they spend our money. I think we should do exactly that.
Cristina Nehring ("Latex Conquers All," October Atlantic) describes a safe-sex technique outlined in the latest edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves as "a macabre combination of high-level surgery and elementary art class." Nehring seems to believe that using latex barriers during sex automatically removes passion and personal connection from the encounter.
As an HIV-prevention educator I was appalled to see this remark printed in your magazine. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 88,815 women were believed to be living with AIDS in 2003. Women are one of the fastest-growing populations affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, rising from eight percent of those affected in 1985 to 27 percent in 2003. Some are unaware of their partners' risk of infection, fear physical violence or abandonment during sexual negotiations, or have limited access to health care.
For Nehring to speak out against safe sex as "dull lies" is truly disheartening. Instead of attacking responsible behavior in an uncertain world, she could have better spent her time promoting a book that celebrates a woman's right to negotiate within a fair sexual arena, to advocate for herself, and to reduce her risk of contracting a life-changing disease.
Cristina Nehring replies:
I am not against safe sex—I am against the fetishization of safe sex. I am also of the opinion that when a caress has to be made through a dismembered dishwashing glove, as described in Our Bodies, Ourselves, it is better abandoned. Sex is a pleasure, not an obligation. It is one means of communicating with those to whom we are close; it is not the only means.
We live at a moment when many people feel as guilty for not having sex as their ancestors felt for having it. The bedroom has become a battlefield—a place we go to prove ourselves, a place we go (frequently in full combat gear) to demonstrate our fitness and liberation. Somewhere along the line love has gotten mixed up with war. It is this phenomenon (this sign of the times, if you will) that I assail, Mr. Murphy. Not the little disk in your wallet.
Benjamin Schwarz made a small, understandable error in his review of Pétain (Editor's Choice, November Atlantic) when he claimed that no U.S. statesman has ever been forced to choose between surrender and total destruction. Although he is technically correct, he forgot to mention that in 1865 quite a few former Americans, most notably Robert E. Lee, did in fact face a similar dilemma, courtesy of your previous issue's cover boy.
Benjamin Schwarz replies:
Like Justin Palmer, I'm always sensitive to the fact that the Confederate States of America suffered defeat at the hands of those damn Yankees, and when I wrote the Pétain review, I was very much aware that the leaders of the CSA faced the dilemma I describe. That is why I deliberately used the term "U.S. statesman," not "American statesman." The Confederate States of America was a political entity separate from the United States of America—which, after all, was why the war was fought in the first place.
I am an attorney representing Werner Erhard, and it has come to my client's attention that in "Lost in the Meritocracy," by Walter Kirn (January/February Atlantic), the author writes, "Working under a young crew boss who belonged to a self-improvement cult led by Werner Erhard, the founder of est …" While I am aware that much of Kirn's article was lighthearted and tongue-in-cheek, the implication that est was a cult is neither light nor humorous.
Werner Erhard has defended est and himself from such allegations on a number of legal fronts, with the help of testimony from numerous experts. For instance, Margaret Singer, the foremost authority on cults in the United States and the author of the book Cults in Our Midst, has testified under oath that est was not a cult.
Despite the fact that Erhard has never been the leader of a cult, articles like the one in your magazine perpetuate an "urban legend" that damages Erhard's reputation and character, and continues to cast him in a false light. Kirn's comments are hurtful, unfounded, and inaccurate. Even if made in jest, they are misleading and cause Erhard and est to be held up for ridicule and contempt. It is well known that a reference to something as a "cult," even if inaccurate, leaves a stigma that is hard to overcome. To make such an allegation unless one has solid proof is a serious error in judgment.
Terry M. GilesGiles & O'Malley
Sandra Tsing Loh ("The Secret of the Old Saw," October Atlantic) has offered a convincing argument that the fictional sleuth Nancy Drew has two mommies. She might have added that Nancy Drew had a male parent as well. Three of the early Nancy Drew novels were written by Walter Karig, who ought to fit anyone's definition of a two-fisted he-man. Karig (1898—1956) was a U.S. Navy commander who reported directly to Dwight Eisenhower.
I read Tsing Loh's appraisal of the Stratemeyer Syndicate with great interest, because I, too, am one of the unsung and ill-paid authors who wrote pseudonymous novels under its auspices: in 1991, for Archway Books, I authored The DNA Disaster, a novel in Stratemeyer's ongoing series about the boy scientist Tom Swift. While writing this book I was approached to write a Nancy Drew novel, and the Stratemeyer Syndicate gave me a copy of its in-house "bible" listing the taboos that must never befall Nancy Drew and her fictional chums. The list is deeply intriguing. Apartheid was still going strong in 1991, and so was communism; Stratemeyer authors were specifically forbidden to write any adventures sending Nancy Drew to South Africa, but had no constraints against adventures set in Russia or China. If the plot of a novel requires that the villain render Nancy Drew unconscious, this may occur only by means of a blow to her head from behind; no chloroform, no needles. The villain is likewise permitted to imprison Nancy, but only by locking her in a room in which she is able to move freely. No bondage, no manacles for our Nancy!
F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Minffordd, North Wales
Mark Steyn ("Great Scott," October Atlantic) writes of a competition among Scottish towns to erect a plaque to commemorate the birth (in the twenty-third century) of the Star Trek character Mr. Scott. He says it would be "the first time a memorial has been put up in someone's birthplace 217 years before he was born."
Unfortunately for James Doohan, his bête noire, William Shatner, has beaten him to the punch. The town of Riverside, Iowa, has since the mid-1980s proclaimed itself the future birthplace of Captain Kirk. It has erected an Enterprise-shaped memorial, dubbed the USS Riverside. The town wanted to put up a bronze plaque of Kirk, but balked at the $40,000 licensing fee Paramount wanted to charge. Coincidentally, Kirk will be born on Shatner's 302nd birthday—March 22, 2233.
According to MapQuest, the United States has ten towns named Vulcan, including two in Ohio. Which one will be the first future birthplace of an alien? It's the logical next step.
The Reverend Mtumiki Njira (Letters to the Editor, October Atlantic) makes the claim that traditional polygamy is superior to the "serial polygamy" supposedly practiced by men in the West, "in which each successive wife is cast out." On the contrary, the majority of divorces in the West are initiated by wives. Western women are in a position to cast out unsatisfactory husbands because they have education and financial independence. They do not need a man for survival, security, or social standing.
In his support of polygamy Njira ignores the issues of choice and equality. When women have genuine choice in the matter, they are highly unlikely to tolerate a polygamous husband. They don't have to.
Once again Robert D. Kaplan offers an important analysis of the shortcomings of Pentagon transformation ("Imperial Grunts," October Atlantic). Kaplan's tour with Army Special Forces in the Philippines and Afghanistan demonstrates that the technologies that give our personnel "situational awareness" must not replace the training and education that give them "cultural awareness." In particular, Kaplan understands that language deficiencies undermine unconventional warfare and compromise intelligence. As one Marine recently told me in plainer terms, "After you kick the door in, you've got to know what to say." Sadly, we continue to give short shrift to language training and refuse to repeal the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy that removed capable linguists from the Defense Language Institute.
Representative Steve Israel (D-N.Y.)
Alex Beam ("The Greatest Stories Never Told," November Atlantic) attributes the quote "Ladies and gentlemen, here they are!" to the sportswriter Curry Kirkpatrick's article on Morganna, the "kissing bandit." But decades earlier Jack Paar used the same line when he introduced Jayne Mansfield on The Tonight Show.
Richard A. Clarke ("Things Left Undone," November Atlantic) believes the focus in homeland security should be not on chasing the terrorists but on creating large-scale federal programs to protect us from attack. Having had experience with such programs as a private-sector employee, I offer this response: George Bush's goal of establishing a democratic government under the rule of law, where people can develop economically and morally, has a better chance of protecting us from terrorists than the federal measures taken recently to protect us here.
Clarke quotes an analysis saying that security upgrades for 361 U.S. ports would cost as much as four days in Iraq. I used to work for a company that had commercial piers on the Great Lakes. As part of the Maritime Security Act, the Coast Guard reviewed the status of one of these piers, located in a relatively undeveloped region, and concluded that it needed hundreds of thousands of dollars in enhancements. We had to put in electronic monitoring systems at our buildings and bring in security guards while vessels were docked. The Coast Guard also requested, backed by the force of law, that we put in substantial amounts of fencing, even though much of the dock was bordered by very dense, prickly vegetation that would have discouraged anyone from traversing it. (The rationale was that since we thought no one would go through it, we'd better put up a fence, because someone might try it for the element of surprise. It didn't occur to the Coast Guard that someone with motivation to walk through it would also have motivation to cut a fence.) Meanwhile, a short distance from the pier was a public boat launch, which had little security and easy access. Anyone with malicious intent could launch a boat full of explosives from this spot and go after our facility. The hundreds of thousands we spent under Coast Guard mandate did nothing to alleviate this risk.
Oak Park, Ill.
I found it ironic that in the November issue Bernard-Henri Lévy argued that David Brock should be drummed out of journalism like Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass, but Thomas Mallon ("No Ordinary Tome") praised Doris Kearns Goodwin and her new book. In my view, Goodwin violated the fundamental standards of her profession, and should be treated at least as severely as Blair and Glass.
Even today Goodwin maintains what the writer Timothy Noah calls a "poor me" attitude about her plagiarism, and continues to insist that her "errors in transcription" were inadvertent. Oh, darn—somehow she accidentally omitted the quotation marks from multiple passages in multiple books. Such a claim is entirely preposterous, and only calls into question whether she actually wrote her own books.
James D. Perry