For March’s cover story, “Obama, Explained,” James Fallows, our resident expert on the presidency, assessed Barack Obama’s first term, with an eye toward history.
James Fallows poses the wrong question with “Chess Master or Pawn?” In view of the inflated expectations that brought Obama to power and his thin accomplishments since then, isn’t the public entitled to ask whether it’s been rooked?
Move and counter-move seem to be Obama’s great strength. Take as an example the contraception issue. Obama’s tactic was what I think chess players call a “knight fork.” First the overall policy: contraception must be available to women in Catholic institutions as a matter of policy. Then the reaction: complaints about the intrusion of the state in religious conviction. Then the counter: the insurance companies, not the Catholic institution, would pay. That is a knight fork. The opposition is left with having to say that insurance companies should not be involved in what is no longer a church-state issue. A brilliant piece of psycho-political jujitsu.
I concur with your assessment of many top Obama staff members. During the Clinton administration, I worked in a White House office that, while often chaotic, made impressive progress and was staffed by bright, idealistic, and largely competent individuals who understood teamwork and modern management principles.
When I was recruited to work in the Obama administration in a similar crow’s-nest capacity, I saw quite the opposite. Many of the top-level operatives I observed were way out of their depth, with poor to nonexistent management skills, unbalanced personalities, and vast overconfidence. Further, there is gross abuse of the growing system of contracting, in which highly paid ex-military personnel provide precious little value and are “managed” by staff people who could be doing the work themselves. Taxpayer money is being squandered with far too little to show for it, and there is a dire need for a personnel housecleaning in the top echelons of the government.
The contrast with the Clinton years is painful to watch, and it has damaging consequences for the nation. It is puzzling to me that a leader of Obama’s caliber could have assembled such a mediocre crew, and I sincerely hope he has a second term to afford him time to correct the problem.
Name withheld at reader’s request
San Francisco, Calif.
To paint Obama as somehow a victim of his fans’ unrealistic expectations is simply wrong. He and his campaign deliberately encouraged and fostered those unrealistic expectations to pave his road to victory over the more prosaic Hillary Clinton. Was that totally cynical? And if so, what the heck did he think was going to happen when he collided with reality? If it wasn’t cynical, if he really believed in his own magical “transformative” abilities, we have a much bigger problem.
Sandra Tsing Loh outlined the challenges of caring for an elderly parent in March’s “Daddy Issues.”
Sandra Tsing Loh’s reflections in “Daddy Issues” indicate how much she has detached herself from her ancestral roots. In traditional Chinese culture, the elderly are given a respect that seems to have escaped her moral compass. She has narrowed her conception of family to the overparenting that marks the child-centeredness of American middle-class society.
The development of the intense nuclear family places the elders in a separate class. They are irrelevant to the compelling project of leading the immediate offspring toward future success. The unavoidable grandfather becomes a nuisance, an unwanted drain on precious financial and emotional resources. His antiquity, along with his physical decay, becomes repulsive to the sensibilities of his own children.
Ms. Loh’s remark that she is grateful to him because he was professionally useful is telling, for it seems that otherwise he has no purpose, status, or station. Her father may well be a difficult man. But the problems connected with his decline would not destroy her sense of self if she would thankfully remember that without him, she would have no self at all.
Cornelius F. Murphy Jr.
Sandra Tsing Loh replies:
It is safe to say that from my father’s immigrant generation on down, the Lohs—like many other modern Asian American families—have been picking and choosing which tenets of traditional Chinese culture to adhere to. (For my part, I’m happy to have been spared once-common Chinese practices for girls such as ritual foot-binding or being drowned in the village well.) I’ve come to believe that the (traditional Chinese) image of the elderly person as a dignified and thoughtful sage can be as stereotypical and potentially disappointing as the notion that all Asians are brilliant at math. What has given me enormous relief, however, is to have come to think of my father within another Asian tradition: the trickster Zen teacher who instructs by napping, breaking wind, or loudly retelling the same off-color joke to the grandchildren (whose college funds are being drained, as we bid goodbye to yet another traditional Chinese value).
In March, Kathleen McAuliffe reported that the Czech scientist Jaroslav Flegr has helped determine that T. gondii, a parasite carried by house cats, can cause subtle but significant behavioral changes in animals and humans alike.
I was very dismayed by the presentation of this article. After reading page after page of clinical material about the effects of T. gondii—“causing everything from car wrecks to schizophrenia,” etc.—I became so alarmed that I could barely sleep that night. Not because I was afraid of the parasite but because I was terrified for all the innocent felines—infected or not—who are going to be dumped at the nearest shelter (or, even worse, abandoned) by all the folks you scared the living daylights out of. A couple of sentences on the final page don’t nearly make up for all the damage that went before.
Have scientists considered that different personality traits might predispose people toward different likelihoods of coming into contact with the parasite? Maybe being fearless and not caring about your appearance makes you more likely to engage in risky activities (say, handling cat feces or drinking untreated water) that increase your chances of contracting the parasite. Researchers seem to be assuming that correlation implies causation in these personality studies, which is completely unscientific. For the work to mean anything, it would need to compare people before and after they contracted the parasite.
Dear Jaroslav Flegr,
The other night I went to dinner with a friend, and while she was in the restroom I ate half of her sweet potato fries and then denied it. After I left the restaurant, I backed into someone’s car in the parking lot and didn’t leave a note. Then I went home, bumped my elbow on the kitchen counter, and got so mad I kicked the wall, leaving a smudged, grayish footprint on the white paint. When I move out, I’ll deny that too.
When I fuck up these days, I don’t take responsibility for any of it. No, instead I blame the parasites dwelling in my brain, pulling my strings, the most insidious of puppet masters. And it’s all because of your research, featured in the March issue of The Atlantic, that I have this fabulous new scapegoat for my delinquency. I especially like to blame Toxoplasma gondii, or Toxo for short, a parasite frequently found in cat feces that has been shown to subtly alter human behavior. For relieving me of the crushing responsibility of being a good person, I must thank you …
I will admit, though, that some of the scientifically backed assertions from you and your colleagues are troubling, particularly the fact that infected men experience what has been described in mice as “fatal feline attraction,” or an appreciation for the scent of cat urine. As disturbing as that is, however, I would like to thank you again for helping me establish a healthy boundary that I will never cross in order to get laid …
Let me know whether you’d like to get together for tea sometime and then maybe rip off a gas station or a liquor store and blame it on the parasites. xoxo,
Kathleen McAuliffe replies:
No one, least of all cat lovers like Jaroslav Flegr or me, is suggesting we abandon our feline pets—or responsibility for our own behavior. It would be nice to blame a parasite transmitted by cats for all the disease and evil in the world (especially our own bad deeds), but as my article repeatedly points out, the behavioral effects of T. gondii are usually so subtle that the vast majority of infected people will have no idea they carry it. What’s more, inoculating animals is probably the best method of preventing the parasite’s spread. If you’re fishing for excuses, I recommend the admittedly less original but better-accepted culprits for humanity’s misfortune—lousy parenting, bummer genes, poor hygiene, slobbering dogs, etc.
My copy of The Atlantic came today, and chills of expectation ran up my spine as I turned immediately to Christopher Hitchens’s last review. I skimmed the pages quickly to see how long it ran, and then came to Benjamin Schwarz’s commentary on Hitchens and the circumstances of his production of the review.
I teared up just looking at the photo of Christopher gazing out of the page, suggesting his admonition—nay, warning—to the reader. I don’t have the writerly skills to explain this emotion, except that it saddens me to come to grips with the reality that Christopher Hitchens is gone from us in body and voice—though I still hear him clearly.
To our great good fortune, he lives on with us in spirit and in his magnificent body of literary and critical work.
John L. Wiley
Newport News, Va.
In January/February’s “Torturer’s Apprentice,” Cullen Murphy outlined the sickening parallels between today’s interrogation tactics and those used by the Inquisition.
I once ran across a reference to 13th-century Italian regulations that limited judicially mandated torture to one hour a day and required a physician’s certification that the target was physically fit to undergo the torture. How strange, I mused, to suppose that cruelty could be a tool, coolly and rationally used in the service of justice and the common good. Cruelty has a momentum of its own, and thwarts efforts to use it “moderately.” Smugly, I thought that we modern Americans knew better than 13th-century Italians.
I was wrong.
Reverend James A. Schumacher
I share Cullen Murphy’s distaste for torture, but I was astonished to read the following sentence in his article: “Oklahoma and a dozen other states have introduced legislation to ban the use of Islamic sharia law in any way within their jurisdictions, despite the fact that it has become a problem exactly nowhere.”
Nowhere? Even in Oklahoma we are aware of the millions of tortured and abused Islamic women around the world, trapped in arranged marriages since their early teens. These poor souls would take issue with Mr. Murphy’s statement. A wife in Saudi Arabia, sentenced to be publicly stoned to death for adultery, might also want to say a few words against sharia, as would a condemned thief about to have his hand cut off.
Scott T. Schad
Cullen Murphy replies:
To Scott Schad’s point, the references in that paragraph to “Oklahoma,” “Texas,” and “America today” were meant to indicate that the context is the United States.
In the June 2011 Atlantic, Matthew McGough reported on a cold case gone suddenly hot, as the Los Angeles Police Department investigated one of its own. When a young nurse named Sherri Rasmussen was murdered in 1986, the police suspected a burglary. But 23 years later, in 2009, the LAPD used DNA technology unavailable at the time of the murder to analyze evidence, and closed in on a most unlikely suspect: Stephanie Lazarus, an art-theft detective.
In early March, the former detective (she retired while in jail) was found guilty of first-degree murder. Sentencing is scheduled for May. Lazarus, 51, faces 27 years to life in prison with the possibility of parole. Her lawyer has said they plan to appeal.
In January, The Atlantic received a letter from the Central California Women’s Facility, in Chowchilla, informing us that the prison had denied an inmate (and subscriber) her copy of the December 2011 issue because the cover image was of a member of the Taliban holding a rifle. The letter said:
This is based on a violation of the California Code of Regulations … which states in part, “no warfare or weaponry” …
Please be advised that you have the right … to appeal this issue.
Jeffrey Goldberg, who along with Marc Ambinder wrote the cover story in question, “The Ally From Hell,” did appeal the decision, in a letter to Warden Deborah K. Johnson that he published on his blog. In part, it read:
The photograph has great journalistic merit. It vividly illustrates the challenges American leaders face in Pakistan and the surrounding region. The photograph and story do not glorify violence in any way. Quite the opposite: we published the article, and the accompanying images, in order to highlight the dangers of violence in South Asia.
We believe that The Atlantic serves a valuable educational purpose for its readers, including [this prisoner], and we would encourage you to rethink the decision to deny her access to our magazine.
A month later, the warden responded to Goldberg’s appeal:
It is the policy of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to encourage correspondence between inmates and persons outside the correctional facility …
After further researching the matter it was determined that The Atlantic, December 2011 issue, is not in violation … and will be allowed into the institution.
“The Last Line of Defense” (March) identified a murder victim as both Daniel Swanson and Richard Swanson; the man’s name was Daniel Swanson. “Why Companies Fail” (March) stated that Blockbuster launched its streaming service in 2004; the company launched its online DVD-rental service that year. “How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy” (March) said Jaroslav Flegr is 63 years old; he was 53 when the article was published.
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