Contents | November 2002
The Atlantic Monthly | November 2002
Letters to the Editor
Brooks on Niebuhr
want to applaud David Brooks ("A Man on a Gray Horse," The Agenda, September Atlantic) for reminding us of Reinhold Niebuhr in these troubled times. As one who studied at Union Theological Seminary in the 1960s, I wonder nearly every day (and not just since 9/11) what Niebuhr would say about America's role in the world. Fortunately, he does appear to have influenced writers whose views of the world are not, in Brooks's phrase, "small and wonky." For me that list includes Robert D. Kaplan, E. J. Dionne Jr., and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., among other chastened optimists.
From the archives:
Robert D. Kaplan
A collection of Robert D. Kaplan's articles in The Atlantic Monthly
But Brooks deserves one loud cheer instead of three. He mistakenly claims that Niebuhr naively underestimated the human need for zeal, hope, and confidence. To suggest that Niebuhr lacked enough zeal to draw self-centered people into politics ignores the theologian's status on the college circuit as well as on the national scene. The uncomfortable truth is that the inspiring power of love requires the coercive power of justice as an ever-present corrective. The figure whose trenchant analysis of social evil informed the dream of Martin Luther King was scarcely naive about how to engage a society. He just knew that the gains of idealists are short-lived unless and until they can be backed by law. In the 1940s that realism fired up America to do battle with Hitler. In the twenty-first century a comparable Niebuhrian realism would doubtless oppose terrorism, but not without trying to mitigate our complicity in the violence we oppose.
We enact our hopes best when our eyes are fully open.
found David Brooks's analysis of Reinhold Niebuhr's work to be succinct and accurate save on two points:
1) No student of Niebuhr would ever accuse him of being "naive." The whole thrust of his thought was to combat the naiveté and sentimentalism of both religious and political liberals. The root of this naiveté for Niebuhr was man's fatuous assumption that love of neighbor was a simple human possibility. Niebuhr knew that man's self-interest always distorts his ability to love disinterestedly and to really perceive the needs of his "neighbor," be that neighbor an individual or another nation. Niebuhr defined "sin" as this self-centeredness and in later years expressed regret that he had used the term "sin" instead of "selfishness."
2) Brooks fails to understand Niebuhr's zealous promotion of the need to work for justice and democratic ideals. In his younger years he ran for Congress, and he was a co-founder of Americans for Democratic Action. Niebuhr believed that democracy would not work in a culture where citizens did not audit and chasten their lives by values that transcend self-interest, and he felt that the Judeo-Christian tradition provided such values and, at its best, inspired such self-criticism. The problem is that such ruthless self-criticism is absent from sentimental, self-serving versions of religion, and sentimental religion seems to be the order of the day, from Bush to fundamentalists of all varieties.
Larry A. Jackson
rguing for more moral passion, David Brooks claims, "Slavery would not have ended without the zeal of the abolitionists." How does he know that? My reading of American history suggests that the often arrogant zeal of the abolitionists served mainly to harden slave owners in their moral blindness and make inevitable the Civil War, with its tragic consequences reaching down to the present day. Other contemporaneous slaveholding nations gave up slavery without civil wars. In due time—without the benefit of zealots—might we not also have done the same?
have read with interest David Brooks's article on Reinhold Niebuhr, in which Brooks accuses the theologian of lacking idealism when idealism is the creative force of history. "Slavery would not have ended without the zeal of the abolitionists." It is certainly true that for Brooks as for Hegel, great things cannot be accomplished without idealism—the necessary fire that defeats the human inertia that is part of man.
Niebuhr was not against idealism as such but against the idealism removed from the world of reality. As an example, he saw the realization of perfect justice as an illusory idea, but at the same time, he was in favor of "proximate justice," which is vividly expressed in his statement that "the saints are tempted to continue to see that grace may abound, while sinners toil and sweat to make human relations a little more tolerable and slightly more just."
Niebuhr, as a believer in the view that "man is a sinner in his deepest nature," could not bring himself to state that justice, happiness, and perfection are obtainable, though he encouraged the attempt to come close to them. This does not negate idealism, but it gives idealism a quality grounded in reality and not in dreams or illusions.
The theologian also saw in this search for the realization of perfection the effect of human deception: the human deception in thinking that perfect solutions to historical problems are within our control. Thus Niebuhr, especially now that the United States is on the brink of taking far-reaching decisions in foreign policy, strikes me as being a profound and cautious guide.
Angelo A. De Gennaro
San Antonio, Tex.
fter reading Charles C. Mann's description of Bruce Schneier's opinions about the application of technology and the importance of human beings in security ("Homeland Insecurity," September Atlantic), I was struck by the similarity of his portrait to much of what is wrong with modern medicine. Bureaucrats, managers, lawyers, legislators, most lay persons, and many physicians try to pigeonhole patients in some algorithm that they understand, or anchor them to some statistical analysis they are familiar with. It doesn't work, because each patient is unique, and human judgment must be applied to individual circumstances. One in a million doesn't matter if you are the one.
The computer (and fiber optics) provides us with fabulous new eyes to see and fix human ailments and creates enormous amounts of data about each patient. Nevertheless, an inquiring mind need only ask "Why?" two or three times to again be at the edge of knowledge. Then human judgment, a good brain, and a kind heart must apply multiple algorithms to the one person who matters—the patient with you at that moment.
John R. Dykers Jr.
Siler City, N.C.
harles Mann makes the important distinction between brittle and ductile security systems: the former are more centralized and subject to significant failure; the latter are compartmentalized and adaptive—a breach in the security of one component does not threaten the entire system. Locks on the doors of airplane cockpits, and passengers willing to take on hijackers, offer ductility, whereas centralized databases of personal information, whether for intelligence or business purposes, do not (in the extreme). I was surprised that Mann did not mention one incredibly ductile system, with which we are currently at war: al Qaeda. Its autonomous-cell organization and generally decentralized command structure make it an excellent example of an adaptable, hard-to-breach system. (Robert Heinlein describes this sort of organization in his novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.) The U.S. government, with recent efforts to create a centralized Department of Homeland Security, appears to be moving toward increased brittleness (though wrangles over turf might actually forestall some of this). Can we hope to combat al Qaeda's threats with such a move, even in the very long term? In the end we will probably realize that we are left with less security and less freedom. Perhaps we need to work in the opposite direction, as Mann's article implies.
Reed L. Wadley
harles Mann makes a very valuable point regarding our national soul-searching on homeland security—namely, that the essential element of a good security system is what the military calls the "Mark I eyeball," the human factor. The cop on the beat, the alert neighbor, the with-it guard, are capable of judgments that can't now be translated into magic hardware fixes, no matter how eager the sales forces of the gadget companies may be.
Incidentally, the points made in this piece were realized long ago by the U.S. military in its nuclear-weapons program. No matter how much a job was suited for technology (being dull, dirty, or dangerous), the military decided explicitly not to take human beings out of the chain. No computer or gadget makes a final choice: under the "two man (person) rule," two separate people have to consent to take action, or nothing happens. For all this time, and through many disasters, the system has worked like a charm.
A couple of things you might add: In the nuclear program you want very high-quality people—people who are screened, checked, watched, trained, oriented—and you need lots of them. This is expensive, and somebody's got to front the dough and the time and the effort. The just-passing-through, low-retention rent-a-cop is not the solution. And in a case like nuclear security, if you are really serious about your job, you have to be ready to make good on your system. Nuclear facilities are, I think, still denoted with the ominous warning "Use of deadly force authorized." I don't think such force has ever been used, but if the choice is to shoot someone or lose a weapon, nuclear-security personnel will shoot. Protocols, databases, codes, encryption, and so forth are great, but they can go only so far.
Kevin N. Lewis
The Rand Corporation
Santa Monica, Calif.
was very heartened to read "Homeland Insecurity," and I could not agree more. One technological solution that could make sense: a system allowing a pilot to hit a switch that would put the plane on irreversible autopilot, forcing it to land automatically at a preselected airport. Some risk of an accident, but not much; autopilots in commercial aircraft are pretty good.
Our management solutions stink: shutting down for three days (thereby causing excessive economic damage); taking all potential weapons from passengers (when the knives used on 9/11 seem to have been planted on the aircraft prior to boarding); and now proposals to centralize security procedures. Our response has been hugely expensive and either useless or counterproductive.
I fly internationally a good deal, and I know that one can easily get just about anything onto an aircraft. We are not more secure now, and we won't be without allowing for the possibility of human response. Anyone who has a background in security will tell you that. Our present policies imagine four possible ways to protect an aircraft in flight: guards, flight personnel, passengers, and pilots.
As we have seen, in the instance on 9/11 when an aircraft didn't hit its intended target, passengers made an effective response. Passenger response is what we should work to enhance. It's free, and it is the only thing likely to work.
The Bilbao Effect
itold Rybczynski's fine article about public competitions for architectural commissions was right on the money ("The Bilbao Effect," September Atlantic). Museums in particular are subject to egregious silliness when it comes to the design of new buildings, additions, alterations, and so forth. This is true for two reasons: architects are usually given carte blanche to do what they want, regardless of what is needed, and people who know absolutely nothing about museums think these unique institutions can serve purposes for which they are totally unsuited.
No one can fault architects for taking advantage of opportunities to showcase their talents. But the consequences are often problematic. The East Wing of the National Gallery, in Washington, D.C., provides an excellent example. It is a cold, banal waste of space, with exhibits relegated to obscure corners. This is not unusual. For many current architects of museums, the buildings are more important than what will be seen in them. To make matters worse, the public is given an even lower priority than the contents. Visitors are made to trudge though empty and unattractive spaces, up and down stairs and ramps, while seeking exhibitions, bathrooms, elevators, and exits. The staff members of these new museums often struggle with impractical architectural schemes that in time will prove expensive and troublesome.
Steven H. Miller
Morristown, N. J.
agree with Witold Rybczynski, especially with respect to the pictured, and described, planned addition to the Corcoran Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C. He writes, "Show-dog architecture, especially in a signature style, is unlikely to pay much attention to its surroundings."
The proposed huge scrunch of metal foil could be "interesting" on a hilltop somewhere, but it would be totally out of place near the center of our nation's capital, among very differently designed buildings that reflect our nation's history. Nor is the proposal comparable to I. M. Pei's addition to the National Gallery of Art, which, although "modern," reasonably fits the Mall scene.
John A. McVickar
itold Rybczynski's opinions on architecture and his preference for the understated are all fine and good, but in no way do they indict the splendid, the grand, and the spectacular in great buildings. How impoverished the world would be without its most obvious architectural examples of the "wow factor": the pyramids of both Egypt and the Americas, the temples of Luxor and Angkor Wat, the stupendous cathedrals of Europe. Add to these in our time the Sydney Opera House, I. M. Pei's work at the Louvre (and everywhere else), Arthur Erikson's Law Courts in Vancouver, and, indeed, Gehry's great Guggenheim at Bilbao, along with a satisfying list of other candidates, and you have an embodied and stunning counterargument to any notion that such works can be trivialized by reductive name-calling. By his own standards, Rybczynski's use of such phrases as "Look at me," "one-night stands," and "the wow factor" could easily be applied to the Taj Mahal!
How much better and more appropriate it might have been to challenge and decry the desperately tiresome uglification visited on virtually every American city over the past twenty or so years by the stillborn architectural aesthetic of Michael Graves. Why doesn't Rybczynski say what needs to be said?
Bucking the Herd
rthur Allen's "Bucking the Herd" (The Agenda, September Atlantic) avoids the hard questions on vaccinations. Allen repeats the usual assumptions, taking for granted that the benefits of all vaccines outweigh their risks, and implies that anyone questioning vaccines is misguided and selfish. He reduces an exceedingly complex medical-political-social debate to a simple sound bite: vaccines are good—just say yes.
But the nagging questions remain. Swedish research in 1984 found that the death rate from whooping cough was equally low in all industrialized countries, whether they vaccinated or not. And other research has shown that vaccinated children have two to five times more asthma than unvaccinated children. The Lancet, a highly respected medical journal, published research in 1999 showing that in two European Steiner schools—the Swedish counterparts of the Shining Mountain Waldorf School targeted by Allen in his article—only 5.8 percent of the children had asthma, compared with 17 percent of the children in the two control schools. This threefold difference in the asthma rate was attributed to lifestyle differences, including vaccine acceptance. In the only large study in the United States comparing vaccinated with unvaccinated children, Eric L. Hurwitz, of the UCLA School of Public Health, found that children given the DTP or tetanus vaccine had twice as much asthma as unvaccinated children. Several hundred children die each year in the United States from asthma-related problems. What role might vaccinations play in these deaths?
The whole point is that we don't really know if the benefits of the whooping-cough vaccine outweigh its risks for U.S. children today, for the simple reason that no one dares to do the definitive research to find out. Too much is invested in the outcome.
Philip F. Incao, M.D.
s a physician, an employee of a federal regulatory agency, and the father of a child with developmental problems that may have been caused by the mercury used as a preservative in childhood vaccines, I would like to add some perspective to Arthur Allen's article. Opposition to mandatory vaccination, one of Allen's themes, is not new; in fact, anti-vaccine movements are as old as vaccination itself. What is new, and explains why some of today's parents are reluctant to vaccinate their children, is the fact that mercury—a known toxin to the brain—accumulated in vaccines to potentially damaging levels before regulatory authorities belatedly identified the problem, in 1998. Because vaccine manufacturers, astonishingly enough, had no evidence, even from animal studies, that the amount of mercury present in the routine childhood vaccine schedule was safe, they had little recourse but to reduce or eliminate the mercury in their vaccines.
This remedial action was too little too late, however. When an august body of scientists assembled by the U.S. Institute of Medicine concluded that the mercury present in childhood vaccines could have caused neurodevelopmental disorders, including autistic spectrum disorders (conditions far more devastating than measles, mumps, or whooping cough), parents' confidence in vaccine safety was predictably and justifiably shaken. In the wake of the mercury debacle, some parents, unsurprisingly, have opted against routine vaccination.
rthur Allen unfairly insinuates that a single alternative school and alternative health care are solely responsible for the endemic nature of pertussis in Boulder. No doubt about it, pertussis is a nasty and scary illness to have or to witness. Certainly, both conventional and alternative measures are necessary to keep this disease and others under control. But Allen neglects other factors specific to Boulder and endemic disease, such as a highly transient population (be it college students, tourists, or illegal immigrants), terrible air pollution, and Boulder's arid climate and high altitude, which makes tender lung tissue more susceptible to infection.
Upper Black Eddy, Pa.
Arthur Allen replies:
My article was conceived as an inquiry into the ecology of a non-vaccinating community, and was not intended to brand all who resist vaccination as selfish or misguided. People in Colorado and other states have the legal right to decide that the risk-benefit ratio favors non-vaccination. But I don't think it's unreasonable to reflect on the impact of their actions. As P. Lynch points out, not every pertussis germ in Colorado has been traced to the Shining Mountain School. But case histories and epidemiological data clearly point to Boulder, and Shining Mountain in particular, as the site of the original outbreak. The evidence that Philip Incao presents to raise questions about the benefits of vaccination is very selective. He omits larger studies in Sweden, Finland, New Zealand, and Britain that found no linkage between vaccination and asthma, or found that children who get whooping cough are more likely to become asthmatic. A body of research indicates that certain bacterial proteins stimulate the immune system to prevent the development of an allergic response, but this "hygiene hypothesis'' is quite complex and contested. Does Dr. Incao really believe that the return of free-roaming whooping cough would improve the health of Americans? As for Eric Colman, I agree that the public-health authorities are at fault for failing to take action, or perhaps even to notice the tiny but theoretically dangerous levels of ethyl mercury in vaccines sooner. This will be all the more infuriating if research bolsters the argument that vaccinal mercury caused an increase in autism. Alternatively, if the theory fails, the removal of mercury might be interpreted as emblematic of the care taken to make sure vaccines are safe. It is hard to weigh known ills, such as vaccine-preventable diseases, against evils that are speculative but potentially much worse, especially given the difficulty of predicting the point at which herd immunity will fail and serious diseases will return. But non-vaccination is risky, and that's what this article was about.
More on Ansel Adams
enneth Brower's review of "Ansel Adams at 100," in your July/August issue, is misguided and inaccurate. It is also meanspirited toward an art curator, and a mischaracterization of the curator's catalogue essay.
I first met Ansel Adams in 1970—some years after Brower, as a nineteen-year-old, was acquainted with him. A year later I became his first and only business manager. Since 1975 I have served as a trustee of the trust Adams established to maintain the integrity of his work and to continue its publication. Although I spent seven years of this period in Washington, D.C., as the chief executive of The Wilderness Society, my association with Adams during the last thirteen years of his life, and with his work in the eighteen years since, has been both intimate and continuous.
Among the misconceptions inscribed upon Brower's youthful mind, and presented to us as gospel nearly forty years later: that Adams was a nocturnal "sybarite" whose "regimen had left him with a paunch and had compromised his health, delicate since childhood." This characterization would surely astonish those adults who actually knew him. Ansel Adams was the hardest-working and most productive human being I have ever known. He climbed mountains, traveled the country tirelessly, made 40,000 photographs, gave hundreds of lectures, taught myriad workshops, made a living as a commercial photographer—and devoted nearly half of his time to environmental activism. He wrote more than three dozen books, along with hundreds of articles and essays. He wrote more than 100,000 letters and notes, and personally printed more than 10,000 photographs in his darkroom. He worked seven days a week, never taking vacations, until he was eighty. It is impossible to imagine such activity in a person of "compromised health." Ditto for the notion of "delicate since childhood."
Brower says that John Szarkowski "perpetuates some myths" about Adams as "a [financially] struggling artist until late in life." Well, Brower is wrong. At age seventy, after fifty years of phenomenally hard work, Adams and his wife, Virginia, had no savings or investments other than some shares of Eastman Kodak stock that Virginia had inherited. They had no retirement fund other than Social Security. The cottage in Yosemite of which Brower speaks was owned by the National Park Service. Their Carmel residence was bought with the proceeds from the sale of his home in San Francisco supplemented by a gift of land and a loan from a generous former student. Adams's correspondence, at the University of Arizona, readily reveals his unceasing concern throughout his career about making the next mortgage payment or the next tuition payment or financing a photography trip. He lived, literally, from assignment to assignment.
Brower says, "By 1964, when I roomed in the Carmel house, Adams was getting a yearly retainer of $75,000 from Polaroid for just fooling around in his spare time with the company's cameras and film." In reality, Adams was paid $12,000 per annum as Polaroid's principal photographic consultant! And he wasn't just "fooling around." He was a close and regular adviser to Edwin Land. He wrote some 4,000 technical memoranda for Polaroid—often lengthy and based on considerable research and testing.
In the context of wondering about the choice of John Szarkowski as curator, Brower declares that "MOMA was anathema to Adams." If so, then why did Adams select the museum—and John Szarkowski—for what he believed to be one of the three most important exhibitions of his career (MOMA 1979)? If so, then why did he and Virginia, on his seventy-fifth birthday, create and endow the Newhall Curatorial Fellowship at MOMA? The initial gift of $250,000 represented a significant part of Adams's net worth at a time when he had barely become financially secure. It was also a virtually unprecedented step for a major artist—to actually make a substantial cash donation to a museum.
Brower repeatedly criticizes Szarkowski for his failure to include mural-sized prints (twenty or more square feet) in the exhibition. And Brower repeatedly invokes his "inside" knowledge of Adams's passion for exhibiting these huge prints. Wrong again. Adams would not have included such prints in his centennial exhibition. For a limited period he made mural-sized prints for commercial clients—and from time to time one or several were included in exhibitions (particularly the "Eloquent Light" exhibition of 1963 that so transfixed Brower). But he came to feel that the prints distracted the serious viewer by their very size. More spectacle than art. He also felt that print quality—absolutely central to his work—deteriorated at such high magnification. John Szarkowski set out to show Adams's best prints—not his biggest.
William A. Turnage
The Ansel Adams Trust
Mill Valley, Calif.
Kenneth Brower replies:
William Turnage may be right that Polaroid paid Ansel Adams $12,000 a year as a consultant, and not $75,000. I remember hearing that higher figure twice in conversation with Adams in the early 1960s, but memory is notoriously unreliable, and forty years is indeed a long time. I'm grateful to Turnage for the clarification. In all his other objections, however, he is wrong.
Turnage makes much of the fact that he knew Adams well, whereas I knew him hardly at all. In fact I knew Adams from my infancy to the time I saw him off at his memorial. (I did not make his acquaintance at nineteen, as Turnage's careless reading of my story suggests.) Turnage did not meet Adams until two decades after the photographer had become a creative burnout—if we are to believe John Szarkowski's evaluation in the exhibit catalogue that Turnage defends. Turnage does not like the word "sybarite," but Adams was one. Artists often are. He drank and talked and partied hard. Anyone who knew Adams after six in the evening would laugh at Turnage's assertion.
Adams did have lifelong troubles with his health. Not one of his biographers has failed to mention the breathing problems and nightmares of early childhood, the pre-adolescent illness that forced him from a career as a pianist into photography, the nervous breakdown at mid-career, the persistent heart troubles in the second half of his life. By middle age he was indeed out of shape, and often lamented it. Again, his prodigious accomplishments are all the more remarkable for his bouts of bad health. As for Adams's deeply troubled, up-and-down relationship with MOMA, all his biographers refer to it, as do his letters. In old age, happily, he reached a rapprochement with MOMA, but that doesn't negate the anguish of his youthful relations with the museum.
Adams, the struggling artist of Turnage's account, owned one of the most magnificent houses I have ever seen, perched above a stretch of the most magnificent coast on the planet, and he entertained extravagantly there. He worried about money, like most of us, but he was never the sort of fellow reduced to roasting pigeons over a candle in his garret.
Turnage has decided that in my objection to the absence of "large" prints in John Szarkowski's exhibit I meant "mural-sized" and "huge." What I meant was "large." I agree with Turnage that Adams's mural-sized prints got too big. I did not miss those. What I missed in "Ansel Adams at 100" was prints I did not have to squint at.
Big Sur Digs
arbara Wallraff used many superlatives to describe her visit to Big Sur ("The Romance of Big Sur," September Atlantic), including justifiably choice ones about her stay at the grand Post Ranch Inn. However, Wallraff neglected to mention the Post Ranch's alarmingly prohibitive rates: as of June 1, 2002, accommodations ranged from $675 to $975 a night. A description of viable alternatives, including Big Sur's fine nearby campgrounds and motels, would have been of more practical use.
Barbara Wallraff replies:
Overpriced resorts appall me, too, but I recommended the Post Ranch Inn as a high-end place that gives guests good value for their dollar. And the article both discussed the much less expensive Big Sur Inn and pointed readers toward the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce Web site, where all the area's lodging possibilities are listed.
Advice & Consent
argaret Talbot ("True Confessions," The Agenda, July/August Atlantic) takes us on a harrowing ride through the historical and present-day problems our judicial system has in sending innocent people to prison and death row. Yet she failed to address two issues: First, how many of the death-row cases overturned by DNA evidence sparked new investigations? Practically none. The prosecutors and the police in almost every case were so bent on keeping the conviction at all costs that even after the cases were overturned they refused to consider the possibility that the crime had been committed by "someone else." And second, prosecutors from different counties in Texas had reams of DNA evidence from old cases destroyed after a Texas inmate won his release through DNA testing.
Robert L. Williford Jr.
would like to commend Lawrence Weschler on his excellent article "The Jewel of Poland" (July/August Atlantic). However, though the paragraph on the salt mines outside Kraków is poetic, the words "workhorses were winched down steep shafts, never to see the light of day again" are inaccurate. For the past five months I have been an international student at the Warsaw School of Economics, and I participated in a study tour at the Jagiellonian University, in Kraków. Unless the English-speaking guide with twenty years' experience was lying to me and my classmates, the horses "winched down steep shafts" were brought to the surface for one day each month. Otherwise they would have become blind, owing to the lack of exposure to light, and thus useless for work in the underground chambers.
From the archives:
"77 North Washington St." (August 1997)
"Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon, have delivered puzzles of increasing deviousness and sophistication every month since [September 1977]."
ll good twenty-fifth-birthday wishes for the Emily Cox-Henry Rathvon Puzzler! In addition to the many pleasant hours it has given me, I have a special reason for gratitude for its existence. Ten years ago I had brain surgery to remove a large, benign tumor. Though assured by the neurosurgeon after the operation that I would have no "intellectual deficit," I did not relax until I had called for, and completed, the most recent Atlantic Puzzler.
Some time later I mentioned this to a colleague (I am a physics professor). He laughed, and told me that under similar circumstances he had set for himself, and passed, the same test.
J. D. Memory
Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 2002; Letters to the Editor; Volume 290, No. 4; 12-21.