Letters to the editor

Responses and reverberations

By
The Autumn of Joan Didion

In the January/February issue, Caitlin Flanagan reviewed the writer’s latest memoir, convicting her of a universal crime: getting old. Flanagan also argued, “To really love Joan Didion … you have to be female.” Didion, she said, was young women’s “Hunter Thompson, and Slouching Towards Bethlehem was our Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”

“Writers are always selling somebody out” is a Joan Didion quote that applies perfectly to Caitlin Flanagan’s review of Didion’s book Blue Nights. A good part of her review is based on the memory of the night when Didion was a guest at the 14-year-old Flanagan’s parents’ Berkeley Hills home. “I can tell you this for certain,” Flanagan says of that evening: “the contemporary diagnosis for the young woman at our dinner table would be profound—crippling—social-anxiety disorder.”

I too live in the Berkeley Hills, and during that period I spent time with Joan Didion while she researched the Saturday Evening Post article that became Slouching Towards Bethlehem (my husband, Ted Streshinsky, was the photographer). I can tell you with certainty that she was engaging, interesting, and perfectly self-assured.

I find it appalling that Flanagan—on the basis of what she admits is “a cursory reading of the Didion-Dunne canon”—should decide that Didion repeatedly neglected her daughter. “Where was Quintana when Didion was … bunking down in the Haight? Not with her mother,” Flanagan flings out. I can answer that: Quintana was in L.A. with her father, and Didion called them often. It’s how those of us who chose the writing life managed both marriage and children.

Shirley Streshinsky
Kensington, Calif.

My, what a venomous love letter Caitlin Flanagan has written about Joan Didion. While lauding her as a hero to women, a truly insightful writer who has inspired a generation, Flanagan also manages to zing Didion as a narcissist and a neglectful mother whose knowledge of back issues of Vogue was vital to her career.

I have some of the same mixed emotions about Ms. Flanagan. I seem to find her compulsively readable, despite the fact that she too seems terribly self-involved, and often deeply wrong and facilely sexist. Yet the honesty and directness of her prose is nevertheless fascinating. Ironic, isn’t it?

Jane VanCantfort
Grass Valley, Calif.

Parts of this essay are lovely. But the flat gender baiting is a tired Atlantic trope. Some of us girls got through adolescence with Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas side by side, and they jointly guided us through the melancholy and mania of California. Pitting Didion and Hunter against each other is outrageous.

Ferrous_wheel
TheAtlantic.com comment

It seems to me that Joan Didion’s crime is not that “she got old.” Rather, it is that she has not grown up. We read many elderly authors and benefit from the wisdom they have gained as they mature and develop. Didion has not matured; she has remained an adolescent her entire adult life, and like an adolescent, she’s been focused inwardly, unable to conceive of others’ needs, or even to be empathic enough to consider that her own child had needs.

Barbara Bergier
New York, N.Y.

Caitlin Flanagan replies:

My essay stated that “a cursory [emphasis added] reading of the Didion-Dunne canon” would reveal potential explanations for Quintana’s feelings of abandonment. It was a subject I didn’t want to explore at length, but Shirley Streshinsky forces my hand. Quintana was adopted in 1966. Both her parents wrote extensively about their lives during the crucial first decade of her life, including candid descriptions of their regular discussions of divorce, kicked-down-door fights, sullen silences, nervous breakdowns, psychiatric treatment, psychotic episodes, heavy drinking, and amphetamine-taking. So even when both parents were around, this was hardly an ideal environment in which to raise an emotionally stable and secure child.

To cast John Gregory Dunne as some sort of Diaper Genie modern dad who could keep the household smoothly running while his wife was out of town working is to misunderstand the man—a person of protean talent, ambition, and machismo—entirely. Indeed, in the early 1970s, suffering an acute bout of writer’s block and general domestic frustration, he left the family altogether and moved into a residential apartment in Las Vegas for a year and a half.

For more information on Didion’s understandable anxiety about joining her former professors in the Berkeley English Department, Streshinsky should see her essay on the subject, published in After Henry.

MEASURING MEARSHEIMER

In January/February’s “Why John J. Mearsheimer Is Right (About Some Things),” Robert D. Kaplan posited that the political scientist’s infamous views on Israel—most recently expressed in a blurb of Gilad Atzmon’s controversial book The Wandering Who?—shouldn’t distract from the importance of his “offensive realism” doctrine, and how it can address China’s rising power.

Mearsheimer may have written The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, but he also wrote the blurb, and defended it, and a fully honest essay would have reckoned with this. It would not have reported that the blurb “became a blot on Mearsheimer’s judgment”—it would have actually used the blurb to further blot Mearsheimer’s judgment. Instead, Kaplan’s essay must be regarded as another instance of monocausal and pretty piss-poor social science.

Marc Tracy
Excerpt from a Tablet blog post

Kaplan whitewashes the content of [The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy] and its message; Mearsheimer and [co-author Stephen M.] Walt advance the Mel Gibson theory of foreign affairs, which is to say, the Jews cause all wars. They blame Jews for bringing anti-Semitism on themselves; they fundamentally misunderstand the nature of lobbying; they hold Israel to an absurd double standard, and so on …

I will put aside Kaplan’s inability to reach his own conclusions about Mearsheimer’s intentions and prejudices. (Is Kaplan among the “many others” who think Mearsheimer and Walt provided “potent ammunition for anti-Semites”? Does he himself think Mearsheimer’s endorsement of a neo-Nazi’s anti-Jewish screed is evidence of an “unhealthy obsession with Israel and Jewishness on Mearsheimer’s part”? …)

My issue is with Kaplan’s statement that “the real tragedy of such controversies” is that they divert attention from Mearsheimer’s work. No. No, no, no. The real tragedy is that the University of Chicago provides a national platform for a man who scapegoats and demonizes Jews.

Jeffrey Goldberg
Excerpt from an Atlantic blog post

Mearsheimer proclaims that if Dwight Eisenhower had been president in 1967, he would have forced the Israelis out of the settlements and the captured territories. He bases that “prediction” on how Eisenhower chased the British, French, and Israelis from the Suez Canal in 1956. In actuality, Eisenhower, in his later years, proclaimed that this was the “largest foreign policy mistake” he had made as president.

Sy Dill
Providence, R.I.

[This article] makes a penetrating and robust case for realism in international affairs, an outlook that has been in eclipse in American policy making for the better part of two decades …

Beyond that, it serves as a kind of manifesto on behalf of lively and wide-ranging discourse in the American polity. [Kaplan] lays on the table the Mearsheimer-Walt thesis, then carefully scrapes away its less savory elements for discard and pulls out those worthy of attention. In doing so—in eschewing the tendency of others to reject the whole package as tainted and attack the authors as unseemly—he strikes a blow for measured and balanced thinking in the polemical world.

Robert W. Merry
Excerpt from a National Interest blog post

As things are now, China has too many things going on, and going wrong, within its own borders to have the time, energy, skill, or ambition for much of an “expansionist” world effort. From the outside, it looks like an unstoppable juggernaut. From the inside, especially from the perspective of those trying to run it, it looks like a rambling wreck that narrowly avoids one disaster after another. The thrust of Mearsheimer’s argument is that such internal complications simply don’t matter: the sheer increase in China’s power will bring disruption with it. I am saying: if you knew more about China, you would be less worried … He is saying: “knowing” about China is a distraction; what matters are the implacable forces.

Naturally, I think this view is wrong, or at least too mechanistic; and that while we need to think constantly and seriously about China, a “showdown” would be a result of miscalculation or recklessness on either side, rather than of unstoppable tectonic pressures. On the other hand, I completely endorse Mearsheimer’s (and Kaplan’s) view that we should have been paying more attention to China, and been less bogged down in the Middle East, through the past decade.

James Fallows
Excerpt from an Atlantic blog post

Robert D. Kaplan replies:

Condemnation can be the response to an uncomfortable but palpable truth. The main truth I convey in my article is that it is impossible to have a serious discussion about foreign-policy realism without referencing John J. Mearsheimer’s The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. Academic, policy, and government elites are familiar with this book; intellectual and media elites much less so. Different subcultures have different reading lists. The motive behind the article was to bridge the gap.

Mearsheimer, I contend, is more important for his views on realism than for his views on Israel and Judaism. Foreign-policy professionals agree. A survey of these professionals published in the January/February 2012 issue of Foreign Policy ranks Mearsheimer as third among all academics in terms of “most interesting work” and fourth in terms of “influence on the field.” Ranking above him are Kenneth Waltz, another realist quoted in my article, and Robert Keohane, also mentioned in my article, who blurbed Mearsheimer’s most recent book.

Some insist that because Mearsheimer’s views on Jews and Israel are suspect, his views on everything else are. Let’s burn all his books, in other words. But there is no unity of goodness. People are complex, and Mearsheimer’s theory of offensive realism—agree with it or not—achieves the highest standard of disciplined academic thought. Nevertheless, I am personally deeply disturbed by what I called Mearsheimer’s “unhealthy obsession with Israel and Jewishness.” I thought that by reporting this judgment straight as the consensus of opinion, I had made that clear. The very title of the piece—“Right About Some Things”—is meant to distance the magazine and myself from his unsavory ideas.

To call Mearsheimer wrong on China, as James Fallows does, is to downplay developments in East Asia, where advances in Chinese naval, air, space, missile, and cyber-warfare capabilities are reshaping the strategic landscape. China’s acquisitions demonstrate that it does aspire to be a great military power. It is China’s shop-till-you-drop acquisition of nuclear and advanced diesel-electric submarines that particularly worries Pentagon planners. Naval warfare is going undersea, as surface warships become more vulnerable to missiles and other anti-access technology. China has been acquiring submarines at the rate of 4-to-1 vis-à-vis the United States since 2000, and 8-to-1 since 2005. Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore are all acquiring submarines to counter the Chinese buildup. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has vowed that defense cuts will not come at the expense of America’s Pacific military assets. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has voiced an intention to pivot from the Middle East to the Pacific. President Obama has announced the deployment of 2,500 marines to Australia. Australia, a country of only 23 million, will spend $279 billion over the next 20 years for new subs and fighter jets. These statements and developments are about one thing: countering China’s military rise and the tectonic shifts associated with it.

The larger question is whether internal developments in China will impede its further military growth. Will an economic crisis stoke or defuse Chinese nationalism; increase or decrease defense budgets? No one knows. I have written often that China’s military rise is normal—not illegitimate, like America’s at the start of the 20th century. I do not ignore China’s dire domestic situation, as Fallows indicates; I note this very point in the conclusion of my piece.

FEELING CHEATED

A reader addresses Megan McArdle’s reflections about her business-school reunion (“The Graduates,” January/February).

Megan McArdle’s business-school classmates sipped cocktails and whined about their lost chances during a 10-year reunion, while, according to another article in this issue, “America at Work,” a sheriff’s deputy removed a toddler from a home during a foreclosure eviction and 100 laid-off police officers offered a final salute on their last day of work. Megan and her classmates apparently had no second thoughts about whether the goal they had pursued—making as much money as possible and retiring at age 45—was the right one. They only felt cheated because they had arrived too late in the game.

Scott Zesch
Mason, Texas

SHEDDING LIGHT

In January/February’s “Star Power,” Gregg Easterbrook wrote, about the sun’s future: “Ultimately Sol will explode, scattering heavy elements into the cosmos.”

It is well established that our sun has been fusing hydrogen as a normal, “main sequence” star for about 4.6 billion years, and will continue to do so for another 5 billion to 6 billion years. Easterbrook implied that, after its hydrogen is exhausted, the sun will go out with a bang called a supernova. This is incorrect.

For a star to end its life in a supernova, it must have a mass several times that of our sun. Instead, once the sun depletes its hydrogen, it will experience several short post-main-sequence phases, as heavier elements, such as helium, fuse. It will then expand into a red giant before shedding its outer layers to form a planetary nebula. Only the ashes of the sun’s core will remain, as a cool white-dwarf star.

Meredith Rawls
Astronomy Graduate Student
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, N.M.

Parenting Tweet of the Month

Read @TheAtlantic story to baby. She enjoyed it more than board books. Pretty sure her first word will be “sociopolitical.”

@CGLnyc

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/04/letters-to-the-editor/308905/