Letters to the editor

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Most-Responded-To Articles in September Issue:

1.“My Big Fat Straight Wedding”By Andrew Sullivan

2.“Rhetorical Questions” By James Fallows

3.“The Front- Runner’s Fall” By Joshua Green

4.“Reconcilable Differences” By Ronald Brownstein

5.“Gut Reactions” By Lisa Margonelli

Husband and Husband

I always thought that civil unions for homosexuals were the way to go. Marriage was after all an affair between a man and a woman. After reading Andrew Sullivan’s heartfelt commentary (“My Big Fat Straight Wedding,” September Atlantic), I am corrected. Marriage is for two persons, regardless of sexual orientation, who are willing to make a commitment to a long-lasting relationship. It is a joyous event with family and friends as witnesses. No one ought to be denied that joy.

Betsy Plette
San Jose, Calif.

Andrew Sullivan thinks we have made a great leap forward by unraveling from that venerable cultural heirloom known as marriage a single strand—lifelong companionship—and forcing it to stand for the whole. I rather think that we have simply descended with Alice into the nominalist Wonderland where a word “means just what [we] choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

If, analogously, the courts were to decide that from now on we must refer to bats as birds, maybe we would become more kind toward bats, but we wouldn’t be any wiser. In time, we might begin to forget the difference. No matter how stupid we would get, however, those brown, furry ones still wouldn’t grow feathers.

Douglas Taylor-Weiss
Auburn, N.Y.

In his encouraging commentary Andrew Sullivan, perhaps still in a state of postnuptial euphoria, may have gotten somewhat ahead of the facts in citing “an emergent cultural consensus” in favor of the right to same-sex marriage. While any rational and enlightened person would no doubt agree with the language and rationale of California’s May Supreme Court ruling, and could not fail to be stirred by Hannah Arendt’s declaration that marriage is an “elemental human right,” those sentiments are not shared everywhere. Twenty-five states by my count still have anti-same-sex constitutional amendments on the books. And just two years ago, the Commonwealth of Virginia, home of the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, passed an incredibly draconian constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions. One wonders how long before Mr. Sullivan’s cultural consensus will emerge in those states, and how much longer than that before their medieval constitutional restrictions on marriage are reversed.

Robert Anthony
Richmond, Va.

Paper Trail

Joshua Green’s article (“The Front-Runner’s Fall,” September Atlantic) is the most comprehensive compilation of facts surrounding Hillary Clinton’s demise in her race as “the inevitable” candidate that I have read to date.

What continues to confound me is that we, the public, are still even interested in reading and talking about her and her failed campaign. That, coupled with recent TV and radio coverage of her prominent position at the convention, is the political conundrum of the century for me.

Charlene E. Lee
Temple, Texas

Standing Orations

James Fallows (“Rhetorical Questions,” September Atlantic) notes that Barack Obama displayed great skill and confidence in his debate back-and-forths with Alan Keyes during the 2004 U.S. Senate race in Illinois. Fallows appears puzzled as to why Obama did not step up to the same level in his debates with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination: “What had changed since 2004?”

Mr. Fallows displays some rhetorical skill of his own by immediately asking another question: “Was it that Keyes, for all his virtuosity, was never a serious contender, so Obama had nothing to lose?” He then offers many other hypotheses, concluding, “We can’t be sure.” Yet “nothing to lose,” the most obvious answer, is the correct one. Obama knew that the Illinois electorate saw Keyes as the carpetbagger he was. Polls throughout the election showed Obama with an enormous lead. He wound up winning 70 percent of the vote. The foregone conclusion of the blowout allowed Obama to be, as Fallows says, “a relaxed, funny politician unafraid to go jab for jab.” Obama’s race against Clinton a few years later, an uphill battle, did not give him the same liberty.

Fallows asserts, “For Obama the key is: look at John McCain, and see Alan Keyes.” However, Obama himself would probably point out to Fallows that the circumstances of a race dictate the rhetorical tactics. A nail-biter demands caution and deliberation; a cakewalk allows a candidate to relax and let fly a few zingers.

Obama will not “look at John McCain and see Alan Keyes,” because his race with McCain is very tight. The caution and circumspection that served him so well with Hillary Clinton will again be his play of the day—and should be. At the debates, Obama and McCain both have more to lose by making mistakes than they have to gain by displaying wit. As Fallows notes, people usually remember the gaffes more than the bons mots.

John Erdos
Harrisonburg, Va.

James Fallows’s excellent article on presidential debates ends on a perfect note: “For better and worse, if Obama wins, a thinking president is what we’ll have.” Whether that’s what the American electorate wants, of course, is another matter.

As someone who remembers the Cuban missile crisis only too well, I found Fallows’s final thought reassuring, in sharp contrast to what might have happened to the world in October 1962 had, say, Bush-Cheney been calling the shots.

Ironically, it also brought to mind a lighthearted experience that one of Obama’s fellow Illinoisans, Adlai Stevenson, had when seeking the White House. While Stevenson—who, as UN ambassador under JFK, would play a crucial role in defusing the missile crisis—was on the stump, a woman stood up and declared, “All thinking people should vote for Governor Stevenson!” To which the ever-witty candidate dryly replied, “Thank you, madam, but I would prefer to have the majority vote for me.”

Stevenson, as it turned out, was buried by not one Eisenhower landslide, but two. Which, if nothing else, makes you think.

Gene Krzyzynski
Tonawanda, N.Y.

Neuroskeptics

Jeffrey Goldberg (“My Amygdala, My Self,” July/August Atlantic) explains how, in an fMRI study, his brain responded to images of politicians, celebrities, his wife and his boss, the polemical and the highly arousing. His researchers, however, oversimplified the interpretation of his brain scan by inferring backward, from brain activation to psychological state. There is no evidence to suggest that the brain respects our notions of discrete emotional states.

Goldberg’s researchers, who have been working together for years, include Marco Iacoboni of UCLA and several people affiliated with FKF Applied Research, a neuromarketing firm. Last November, the New York Times op-ed page published the results of a study—uncannily similar to Goldberg’s—done by the same researchers. The participants, swing voters, underwent brain scans while viewing photos or videos of presidential candidates. Three days after its publication, 17 cognitive neuro­scientists responded in The Times, decrying the study’s method of inferring particular mental states from the activation of particular brain regions.

Matthew Bowers
Allston, Mass.

The popular 19th-century science of phrenology promised to uncover our actual inclinations and predispositions by examining the bumps and ridges of the skull. In 1848, The London Medical Gazette published an account of leading phrenologist Franz Joseph Gall’s visit to the Salpêtrière mental hospital, in Paris. Initially, Salpêtrière psychiatrist Jean-Étienne Esquirol “recounted to Gall the histories of the different lunatics … and Gall explained, by a reference to the conformation of the head, the cause of the malady of each.” Then, “Esquirol requested Gall to observe the conformation first, and afterwards to tell him the character of the malady. Before this test Gall, of course, was struck dumb.” A student wryly observed at the time: “With complete certitude, he was able to step up from the effect to the cause, but in no instance could he descend from the cause to the effect.”

Jeffrey Goldberg seeks to investigate his own “actual inclinations and predispositions” using the latest instrument of the day, fMRI. The scientists Goldberg enlists are puzzled when they discover that a photo of Ahmadinejad elicits activity in the ventral striatum, a structure in the brain that is believed to process pleasure and reward. In reaction to this surprising result, his examiners bend their theories to accommodate the incongruity, attributing to Mr. Goldberg a mental life he didn’t know he had. Before Esquirol required Gall to make predictions, the phrenologist was free to concoct any explanation to fit the situation. Similarly, the experts quoted in Goldberg’s article engage in ad hoc storytelling. This is a dangerously misleading form of analysis since it renders a theory untestable, pushing it outside the realm of science. Just like Gall’s phrenology.

Carl Schoonover and Greg Wayne
Ph.D. candidates in Neurobiology and Behavior Columbia University
New York, N.Y.

Corrections

Beirut was bombed in 1983, not 1993 as indicated on page 51 of the October Atlantic. Also, although Darwin’s theory of evolution was first read at a meeting of the Linnean Society, this did not occur in the room pictured on page 123 of the September Atlantic, as the photo caption indicated. We regret the errors.

To submit a letter to the editor, please e-mail us at letters@theatlantic.com. Include your full name, city, and state.

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