Letters to the editor
Richard Brookhiser's article "The Mind of George W. Bush" (April Atlantic) was refreshing. Most of the time, in religious circles, the President is either demonized as evil, patronized as stupid, or divinized as a savior. Brookhiser's portrait was of a full human being. I am not sure, however, that the unknown quantity is imagination. I fear that we have evidence of its absence at the very center of the President's faith. Brookhiser writes, "Practically, Bush's faith means that he does not tolerate, or even recognize, ambiguity: there is an all-knowing God who decrees certain behaviors, and leaders must obey. Such beliefs, however much they may alienate him from opinion-makers, are part of his bond with one other leader—the devout Anglican Tony Blair." Spiritual maturity requires a high tolerance for ambiguity, because although God is all-knowing, we aren't. Tony Blair, I hope, is aware of this distinction. The world would be a safer place if leaders could tell the difference between God's will and their own.
The Very Reverend Alan Jones
Dean of Grace Cathedral
San Francisco, Calif.
Our Constitution has for more than 200 years provided us with assurance that we have the rights to assemble, to publish, read, and speak freely, and to worship as we choose. That document also erects a wall between Church and State protecting some of us from religion. Accordingly, I am disquieted by the role that religion plays in President George W. Bush's decision-making process as described by Richard Brookhiser. Bush's religious beliefs are, of course, as protected as any other citizen's. However, do we want our most important and powerful decision-maker to render those decisions against the background of a belief that "there is an all-knowing God who decrees certain behaviors, and leaders must obey"?
East Greenwich, R.I.
The subhead to Richard Brookhiser's detailed analysis "The Mind of George W. Bush" concludes, "The unknown quantity is imagination—the imagination to foresee consequences, the imagination to be a wartime President." If the author had been able to dispel the widely held perception that George W. Bush is an intellectual lightweight, the imagination question would have become moot.
Jerome C. McMahon
Ormond Beach, Fla.
Richard Brookhiser's article seems to suggest that George W. Bush has qualities of character and intellect found in Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Winston Churchill. Harry Truman and the first President Bush are conspicuous by their absence from the list.
During the Civil War, President Lincoln, unlike Bush, demonstrated a certain humility, expressing concern that we be on God's side rather than He on ours. Roosevelt, despite his conviction that the United States should go to war against Hitler, understood the need for public support before taking up arms. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, realized the strategic importance of fighting the war in concert with our allies, including the Soviet Union and a recalcitrant Charles de Gaulle. Kennedy certainly had sufficient cause to invade Cuba in October of 1962 but chose instead to achieve the removal of the missiles without going to war. Nixon, a man who rose to political prominence as a hard-line anti-communist before he was President, achieved rapprochement with both China and the Soviet Union. And whereas Reagan said, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!" he did not say, "Or I will do it for you!"
Harry Truman, the first American President of the Cold War, realized the need to oppose a communist takeover of Korea through the then fledgling United Nations. The present President's father, at the time of Desert Storm, also recognized the importance of working through the UN.
As for Winston Churchill, I think Brookhiser has set the bar much too high for George W. Bush.
John A. Viteritti
What are we to make of Richard Brookhiser's curious article, which offers an exhaustive discussion of decision-making style yet is willing to substitute the notion of a "phantom framework" for a serious examination of the values that underpin decisions? When professed values and actions are as strikingly discordant as they are in the President's case, it is integrity, not imagination, that seems to be lacking. Irony doesn't get much more painful than it is when Bush invokes Jesus Christ as his favorite political philosopher. Many terms come to mind to describe a man who mocks the clemency plea of a death-row inmate, but "Christian" is not one of them.
Great Barrington, Mass.
Richard Brookhiser implies that all graduate schools of business follow the case method of instruction. In fact Harvard Business School is unusual in this respect. Most graduate schools of business follow the Wharton School approach, which is to teach fundamentals.
Brookhiser mentions Peter Drucker, who many years ago introduced an approach to managing organizations called "Management by Objectives," which is still widely followed under other names. If Bush had followed this method of management, he would not be in the mess he is in today. His analysis would have shown that he needed to support the efforts of other nations to treat global warming instead of angering all of Europe by trashing the Kyoto treaty. He would have supported similar efforts of the leading world powers to deal constructively with other global problems, instead of irritating long-established allies by taking the position that he was always right and they were always wrong. He would have given greater support locally and internationally to activities to combat terrorism, made certain that world opinion supported the need for regime change in Iraq, supported the desires of France, Germany, Russia, and China to share the leadership of the United Nations, made certain that NATO would support his efforts and assist in the postwar recovery of Iraq, produced acceptable evidence that Iraq was an imminent threat to peoples in other nations, held off amassing U.S. military power to engage in a pre-emptive attack, and so on. In fact, especially in Iraq, he made the mistake common to many failed businesses. He did not have a well developed plan that would lead to attainment of his objective.
R. L. McDonald
Castle Rock, Colo.
The surprising thing about David Brooks's Agenda essay on male chauvinism ("The Return of the Pig," April Atlantic) is his omission of the key factor in the revival of cynical attitudes toward women: the complicity of us women in our own degradation. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." How true!
Without female participation (sometimes shockingly enthusiastic) the whole edifice of misogyny would collapse. Some men may read pornography, but we women consume a milder and still insidious version of porn (for example, Cosmopolitan) that also essentially degrades and objectifies women. I recently walked out of the film Chicago in disgust after two minutes of watching Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renée Zellweger thrusting their abdomens in a poor and vulgar imitation of 1920s wildness. (Real flappers had much more class.) How many actresses willingly participate in the degradation of women by playing such roles? How many women tacitly support the women-hating images in pop culture by spending money to consume it?
David Brooks's piece lamenting the rise of "retro-sexism" in popular culture fails to note a critical distinction between old-fashioned male chauvinism and the new sexual ethos Brooks criticizes. The modern sexual politic, as presented in Maxim and its imitators, is mostly devoid of the ideological freight of past eras (in which, not coincidentally, nearly all sexual imagery and references were taboo). Nowhere in Maxim—or, indeed, in even the most explicit rap music—is the message either stated or implied that women belong only in the home, should not do "men's work," should limit their contribution to society to raising children, and so forth.
Traditional sexism was a combination of such prescriptive tenets and lascivious sexual talk and imagery. Now we have only the latter, divorced from its previous pernicious sentimentality and blinkered ideology about women. In addition, in a traditionally sexist society access to explicit discussion and presentation of sexual subject matter was permitted only to men. As Brooks points out, sexual imagery, sexual self-presentation, and sexual objectification of the opposite sex are now equally available and socially validated for women, a development that appears to spring more from the younger generation's experience with the real—as opposed to the academically idealized—dynamics of day-to-day "coed" activities in business, education, and other spheres previously segregated by sex.
David Brooks lumps together as "blatant sexism" the demeaning of women by gangsta rappers and the appreciation of women's bodies. My dictionary defines sexism as "discriminatory or abusive behavior towards members of the opposite sex." Surely visual appreciation to the point of lust is not, in and of itself, sexism. The cited example of Lara Croft is particularly interesting. Here is a woman in a nontraditional job, kicking butt action-hero style, and yet men are supposed to feel guilty for enjoying her looks? Is James Bond similarly a product of sexism? I don't mind confronting a rapper on misogynistic attitudes; but it seems to me a loser's game to try to convince straight men that they should be ashamed of their very heterosexuality.
Very early in his attack on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia ("The Fall of the House of Saud," May Atlantic), Robert Baer mentions "a recent report commissioned by the UN Security Council [indicating] that Saudi Arabia has transferred $500 million to al Qaeda over the past decade." This report was never commissioned by the UN Security Council; it was presented to the council by an unaffiliated source and neither confirmed nor taken seriously. The writer is a consultant to the plaintiffs' lawyers in the 9/11 lawsuit and obviously has an interest in promoting a specific picture of Saudi Arabia.
Baer's portrait of the Saudi economy is not in line with reality. What the author describes is a stagnant, inefficient, corrupt economic system. The reality is vastly different: Saudi Arabia is the nineteenth largest exporter and the twentieth largest importer in the world. More than 280 Saudi-U.S. joint ventures exist. Since April of 2000 the Saudi Arabia General Investment Authority has approved 1,203 licenses for projects worth about $11.65 billion. Negotiations with international oil companies for investments totaling more than $26 billion in the kingdom's energy sector are close to being completed. Privatization and economic-diversification efforts have been given priority since the establishment of the Supreme Economic Council. Saudi Arabia's stock market has grown rapidly over the past ten years and, with a capitalization of more than $80 billion, is now the largest in the Arab world. This figure is expected to multiply as more companies are privatized. The non-oil portion of Saudi Arabia's GDP has increased from about 30 percent in the mid-1970s to more than 60 percent today. The number of operating factories has risen from 199 in 1970 to more than 3,300 today, with a total investment of $90 billion. Saudi businesses export products to more than eighty countries. This is not the picture of a stagnant and inefficient economy.
Baer calls the rule of law in Saudi Arabia "a sham." Would several thousand foreign companies engage in business or invest in the kingdom if this were the case? Would the country have one of the lowest crime rates in the world if its laws were a sham?
Baer claims that "popular preachers all over Saudi Arabia call openly for a jihad against the West." This goes against the grain of the consistent and public positions taken by the most senior religious scholars. The Council of Senior Ulama, the highest religious body in the kingdom, several months ago issued an opinion stating that "the acts of shedding the blood of innocent people, the bombing of buildings and ships, and the destruction of public and private installations are criminal acts and against Islam." In the same opinion the council stated that incitement and the labeling of people as "infidels" contravene the teachings of Islam and that "Islamic Law clearly prohibits leveling such charges against non-Muslims, and warns against following those who carry such deviant beliefs."
Robert Baer misrepresents Saudi Arabia's efforts in the war on terrorism. He contends that "as of this writing there hasn't been a single Saudi arrest related to 9/11—not even of a material witness." In fact Saudi Arabia has questioned more than 2,000 people and made more than 300 arrests, and last month it referred ninety suspects to the courts to stand trial. Many of the arrests of major al Qaeda operatives around the world were made with Saudi assistance. Just this past February, CIA Director George Tenet stated, "The Saudis are providing increasingly important support to our counterterrorism efforts—from arrests to sharing debriefing results." Senior American officials, including the President, have publicly and consistently praised the kingdom's positive contributions to the war against terrorism.
Saudi Arabia has proven over the past six decades to be one of America's most reliable and steadfast friends. It has made important contributions to peace, stability, and security, not only in the Middle East but on a global level. A serious, thoughtful, and informed discussion of this important ally is needed.
Director of Information
Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia
"The Fall of the House of Saud" contained much good information but one glaring error. Robert Baer claims that the growth of trade from "$56.2 million in 1950 to $19.3 billion in 2000" represents an "average annual growth rate of nearly 70 percent." The author lost more than a couple of decimal points somewhere; at that growth rate for fifty years a nickel would increase in value to more than $16 billion. The correct growth rate for the trade figures Baer cites should be approximately 12 percent.
Robert Baer states that the Carlyle Group "has been conducting immensely profitable business with Saudi Arabia." This is false. As a leveraged-buyout firm, Carlyle makes the lion's share of its profits from the sale of companies and a much smaller amount from investment-management fees. Carlyle has no investments in Saudi Arabia and only a handful of investors from that country. Baer did not receive this information from Carlyle.
Christopher W. Ullman
The Carlyle Group
Robert Baer replies:
The report alleging that Saudi Arabia transferred $500 million to Osama bin Laden was written at the request of the Colombian ambassador to the UN, who at the time was the president of the UN Security Council. The report's author has also been a consultant to French intelligence on bin Laden. This of course does not mean that the author's figures are necessarily precise or complete. Nonetheless, I and other commentators on bin Laden have used the author's calculations as an approximate reference, because they accord with the best estimates. But more to the point, anyone interested in tracking Saudi funding to bin Laden is forced to rely on reports like this because Saudi Arabia has declined to offer better ones. Saudi Arabia has never provided a credible accounting for money that has passed through its charities or international government-aid programs.
Very recently I made my own quick calculation of Saudi money going to bin Laden and his supporters. I arrived at a figure a lot higher than $500 million—by adding the hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of free oil that Saudi Arabia covertly sent to the Taliban in the 1990s. The oil propped up the Taliban, which in turn hosted bin Laden. Without the support of the Taliban, and presumably of Saudi subsidies, bin Laden would not have had a base from which to prepare for the September 11 attacks. Earlier in the nineties, when bin Laden was hosted by Sudan, similar amounts of money went to that country, largely through Saudi Arabia's General Intelligence Directorate and royal-family-backed charities.
Saudi Arabia may try to dismiss this aid as too indirect to matter, but what absolutely cannot be dismissed is the charity money, overseen by the royal family, that we know ended up in bin Laden's war chest. The most notorious case involved the International Islamic Relief Organization, which funded bin Laden's cell in the Philippines. The head of the cell went on to carry out the 9/11 attacks. Another instance occurred in the mid-1990s, when the Muslim World League sent tens of millions of dollars to a Central Asian conduit, which passed the money to bin Laden to buy weapons. The IIRO and the Muslim World League are nominally under the supervision of Prince Salman, a senior Saudi-government official. He has never been held accountable. And until Salman talks, or Saudi Arabia provides a credible explanation for these and numerous other questionable transfers to bin Laden, I will have to stick with the approximate figure of $500 million.
Likewise, although Saudi Arabia may have arrested hundreds of bin Laden associates, it has offered no proof that it has arrested a single member of the bin Laden cell involved in 9/11—and Saudi citizens seem certain to have been involved. A Saudi who was arrested in Pakistan crossed the border into Dubai to deposit money in an account used by the hijackers. Did he act alone or with the help of other Saudis? Two Saudi citizens hosted two of the hijackers in California. They left the country before the attacks, and their whereabouts are unknown. Finally, who recruited the fifteen Saudis who died in the 9/11 attack? I truly doubt that they just woke up one morning, on a whim decided to commit mass murder, and answered a bin Laden ad on the Internet. I believe that someone in Saudi Arabia encouraged them to come to their decision. If we consider what we know about Germany's and Pakistan's assistance in the 9/11 investigation, Saudi Arabia can only be described as uncooperative.
According to U.S. government figures, 90 percent of Saudi Arabia's export earnings are from petroleum and petroleum products. Only 35 percent of its GDP comes from the private sector. And with high-double-digit unemployment, Saudi Arabia will be viewed as a one-commodity republic for some time to come.
Regarding Saudi Arabia's judicial system, execution for sorcery (consider the Naqshabandi case) suggests a sham to me.
Numerous Saudi clerics have called for a jihad, and Saad al Burayk, who accompanied Crown Prince Abdullah to visit President Bush in Texas last year, called for the enslavement of Jewish women. This does not reflect the tolerant Islam I know.
John Tietjen is correct. I definitely moved that decimal too far to the right. I calculate the annual growth rate at seven percent, not 12 percent (and certainly not 70 percent), but I've always been better at languages than at math. My apologies.
The Carlyle Group has its hand in many pies, but it has had a long and highly profitable relationship with the House of Saud. For instance, in one of its first big successes, back in 1991, Carlyle paved the way for Saudi Prince Al Walid bin Talal to buy nearly $600 million worth of Citicorp stock. For much of the nineties the defense contractor BDM International, in which Carlyle then had a controlling interest, received $50 million annually to provide training and operational and logistical services for the Saudi Arabian National Guard, the Saud family's bodyguards. (Carlyle sold its stake in BDM to TRW in late 1997.) Until the end of 2001 Carlyle also served as an adviser to the royal family on its Economic Offset Program, which purports to encourage foreign investment in the kingdom.
In addition to buying small defense contractors and selling them at a profit, Carlyle spent about $180 million of its own money to acquire United Defense in a 1997 leveraged buyout. Four years later, in late 2001, Carlyle sold slightly more than half the stock in United Defense to the public. In May of 2002 The Washington Post estimated that Carlyle had gotten a roughly five-for-one payoff on its United Defense investment. Along with Egypt and Kuwait, Saudi Arabia virtually makes the market for U.S. fighter planes, missiles, tanks, armored vehicles, and other weaponry and support services. The kingdom was also the sole foreign market for the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, which was for many years the mainstay of United Defense's product line.
We can quibble over what constitutes "immensely profitable business" for a high-powered leveraged-buyout firm with a sideline in investment management, but the public record leaves little doubt that the Carlyle Group has pursued and nurtured close ties with the Saudi ruling family and other superwealthy Saudis, and has been handsomely rewarded for its efforts.
In response to David Brooks's excellent essay "What Whitman Knew" (May Atlantic), I must say I had to laugh aloud when I got to his lines "It's hard these days to put that much faith in poets and writers. The geniuses Whitman envisioned have not arrived." The counterargument is Whitman himself, along with contemporaries such as Dickinson, Hawthorne, and Melville. Then we have the plethora of twentieth-century greats, among whom Faulkner (whose Nobel Prize acceptance speech alone would qualify him), Steinbeck, and Frost surely stand up to writers of any time and place. I think Brooks may need to revisit American literature.
hat Whitman Knew" locates the inspiration for our current foreign policy in Whitman's idealization of democracy. However, David Brooks fails to mention the darker side of that vision. To Whitman, and to President Bush, American democracy is an absolute measure of civilization. It should govern as well as inspire the future. We are justified, therefore, in using our military along with our economic power to carry this society of societies to the farthest corners of the world. It is no wonder that Europeans are not enthusiastic about this dream of limitless power.
There is another Whitmanesque quality to our international relations that our friends as well as our enemies find objectionable. Although Whitman celebrated the people en masse, he thought that he was complete in himself. Such imagined self-perfection is at the root of our unilateralism. It leads us to be contemptuous of the cooperation that nations with more-tragic histories have come to realize is indispensable to global order.
Cornelius F. Murphy Jr.
It was good to find David Brooks paying respect to Whitman's prophetic "Democratic Vistas"—a "nuanced" work, Brooks writes, that veers between extremes of prophetic optimism and dread that the American democratic experiment may fail. True enough. What does not come through in Brooks's equally nuanced piece, however, is the extent to which Whitman, having witnessed the divisions and horrors of the Civil War, saw a far more serious crisis confronting the Republic in the growing division between America's haves and have-nots, between America as a democratic hope for the masses and America as a corrupt marketplace run by the unscrupulous and the privileged.
The depravity of the business classes in our country is not less than has been supposed but infinitely greater ... In business (this all devouring modern word business), the one sole object is, by any means, pecuniary gain. The magician's serpent ate up all the other serpents; and money making is our magician's serpent, remaining today sole master of the field. The best class we show is but a mob of fashionably dressed speculators and vulgarians.
The most powerful prophecy typically takes its strength from its deadly accuracy rather than from nuance.
St. Louis, Mo.
Jonathan Rauch is most certainly wrong to assert, "Religion ... remains the most divisive and volatile of social forces" ("Let It Be," May Atlantic). Although this belief gets a fair amount of airtime, it simply will not stand up to scrutiny. The most evil, murderous characters on the stage of history have done their deeds in the name of politics, power, and philosophy—not religion. Hitler, who gassed more than six million of Rauch's (and my) kinsmen, did not claim religion as his motivation. Nor did Stalin or Mao for their slaughtering. In fact their inspiration, Karl Marx, could be identified much the same way Rauch defines himself—as an "unrepentant atheistic Jew."
For all it may have to claim for itself, apatheism at its root is no more than indifference. Our world needs and deserves a better solution than the one Rauch proposes.
Notwithstanding Jonathan Rauch's presumptuous assertion that he, along with his fellow "apatheists," is standing at the pinnacle of cultural evolution looking down at the rest of us poor folk still caught up in some backward form of religious zeal, quite a strong case could be made that indifference toward religion, even under a new name, is neither new nor innocent. For example, the areas of pre-war Germany in which religious practice was at its lowest correspond almost precisely to the areas in which National Socialism gained its greatest support. Many other examples of collusive indifference could almost certainly be found throughout history.
Furthermore, it is difficult to see why apathy toward religion should be considered an independent form of apathy. Voter turnout is in decline. Voluntary service organizations don't seem to be popular with young people. My experience as a teacher indicates that apathy toward religion most often reflects an indifference to ideas and social reality generally, and in this sense I agree with Rauch that it seems to be growing, although I can't say I feel any enthusiasm about it. It is not uncommon now in class discussions to hear two diametrically opposed opinions expressed back to back without anyone's feeling the necessity to pursue the controversy. This is not reassuring.
Finally, religious fervor, perhaps a less prejudicial word than "zeal," has not had as thoroughly black a record as Rauch would have us believe. In fact, strong arguments could be made in favor of spiritual fervor as a necessary and sadly absent ingredient in improving the state of the world. Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama, and Desmond Tutu are only the most recent and the most public among a multitude of people with strong religious convictions who have unquestionably made the world a better place to live.
It is true, of course, that practitioners of various religions have promulgated narrow-mindedness, hatred, and violence far too often. Their crimes have been identified and catalogued, and feed the now commonly held belief that humanity will be safe only when the last religious beliefs have died out. On the other hand, as Rauch points out, militant atheism is no less hot-blooded. This is why indifference has a definite appeal. It may be, however, that the victims of indifference are simply more difficult to identify and quantify. Although the self-destructive behavior characteristic of many Western societies involves no clearly identifiable perpetrator, future social scientists may one day examine our world with different eyes and make causal connections that we might find surprising, not to say incriminating. Ultimately, they are the ones who will be in a position to decide whether Rauch and like-minded apatheists were indeed at the cultural forefront of our time.
Christopher Hitchens's review of works about Islam in the April Atlantic ("Holy Writ") is introduced with the words "Recent writers on Islam need to be more stringent in their criticism." I submit that some of Hitchens's analysis needs to be more stringent. He makes the fuzzy assertion that "[Islam] confirms and reasserts the tenets of Moses and Jesus and the Virgin Mary." What is that supposed to mean? Tenets assert that something is true or that something has happened. Is the tenet of Moses about his existence or is it something he taught? Can that question even be asked about the Virgin Mary? Does "tenet" have any consistent meaning, even an implied meaning, for Hitchens?
He reveals more serious confusion by saying that Islam "confirms and reasserts" these elements of the Judeo-Christian tradition. I have been reading Muslim authors on such matters and listening to Muslim speakers in my region, even the regional imam. Without exception they have failed to show understanding of either Jewish or Christian sources and traditions. They may use the names of prophets and the name of Jesus, but in no way do they confirm or reassert what Jews or Christians mean by them.
Hitchens is clear enough in describing his secularist position. He needs to be clearer in describing positions he rejects.
Christopher Hitchens demonstrates some of the problems encountered by non-Muslims in understanding Islam.
I should like to offer the following hypothesis: Westerners hate Islam because it reminds them of the primitive doctrines and practices of their own Judaism and Christianity. Islam has, much better than Judaism or Christianity, preserved the original Abrahamic religion in all its splendor as well as its squalor. It is not permissible for Christians and Jews to express openly the disdain they often have for their own religious tradition, which has in many ways oppressed and controlled them for centuries—a religious tradition that flouts common sense and many natural human instincts. Instead of assaulting this tradition directly, in the manner of Friedrich Nietzsche, they have chosen, probably unconsciously, to use Islam as a surrogate target. The hatred for Islam is hatred of the Judeo-Christian biblical tradition from which many are striving to escape into freedom.
Christopher Hitchens is mistaken when he writes, "Finally, of the three monotheistic systems of spiritual obedience, Islam contains in its mandates and injunctions the most frequent references—indeed, exhortations—to proselytization." Insofar as "monotheistic systems of spiritual obedience" refers to religious traditions that confess adherence to one ultimate or supreme God, at least two independent traditions in the religion commonly referred to in the West by the all-embracing name of Hinduism are "monotheistic": the Vaisnava tradition, which confesses adherence to the one supreme god Narayana, and the Saiva tradition, whose members believe that Siva is the only true God.
In the interests of the multiculturalism he professes to support, might it not be appropriate for Hitchens to stop acting as if Judaism, Christianity, and Islam had a monopoly on the concept of monotheism? Do only the Abrahamic faiths count as "systems of spiritual obedience" in his multicultural world?
Caitlin Flanagan makes many interesting points in her funny and thought-provoking essay on "the wifely duty" (January/February Atlantic) as portrayed in several new books, among them a collection of original personal essays I edited (The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth about Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage). But I take issue with her assertion that "what makes [these essays] so satisfying to women is that they are utterly humiliating to husbands." And her statement that for the writer Jill Bialosky "Clearly, sticking it to [her husband] was part of her intention when she wrote and published the piece" is utterly absurd.
It's a huge and, frankly, baffling leap for Flanagan—a writer herself—to assume that because Bialosky told the truth about her marriage without using a pseudonym, she wrote the piece as an act of aggression against her husband. (In fact, only after her husband had read the essay and agreed that she should publish it under her real name did Bialosky do so.) What's more, much of what makes Bialosky's essay both striking and stunning is that she does reveal, with clarity and candor, the sexual facts of her marriage (and, as Flanagan's piece reminds us, of countless other contemporary marriages), even at the risk of exposing herself or her husband to judgment.
Perhaps Flanagan doth project too much when she concludes that all our husbands (I include my own, who, as he puts it, "took a slight drubbing" in my introduction) are "humiliated" by these essays. Let's face it, these are men (many of them writers themselves) who fell in love with feisty, opinionated, writing women—men who, unlike Flanagan, seem to have realized that whereas a bad or mediocre writer may well have as her most important goal to protect those she loves, a good writer's first goal is to write a good piece.
Many marriages may be like the ones described by Caitlin Flanagan, where the resentful wife deliberately withholds sex. But I bet that in at least as many basically happy marriages sex just isn't as important to either partner as all the other glue that makes the relationship successful, including quiet time together and the enjoyment of children.
Flanagan says, "The reason abortion rights hold such a sanctified position in American political life is that they are a critical component of the yuppie program for maximum personal sexual pleasure." This statement is offensive. Many proponents of choice want abortion to be legal because they wish to avoid a return to botched, septic, back-alley abortions, which were performed on many distinctly non-yuppie girls and women prior to 1973.
La Jolla, Calif.
Caitlin Flanagan's otherwise brilliant discussion of contemporary "sexless" marriages omits two important pieces of survey data, confirmed repeatedly over the past decade: married couples report more sexual satisfaction than sexually active singles, and higher-income married people report more satisfaction than those in lower income brackets. Either the numbers are way off or Flanagan has wildly exaggerated the degree of "sexlessness" in yuppie unions.
I'll put my money on the numbers. We double-income professionals may not be hotties anymore, but we're not stone-cold either.
Caitlin Flanagan's wonderful contemplation of the current state of the American marriage bed is lucid, balanced, funny, and compassionate—a welcome voice of reason in the confusing and often hostile arena of contemporary gender relations. I suspect it will even be life-changing for those men and women who take its observations to heart.
Des Moines, Iowa
Christopher Hitchens ("The Perils of Partition," March Atlantic) ranges freely across continents and centuries in his critique of British "divide and rule" tactics as they relate to ongoing regional conflicts. However, Hitchens's analysis of the partition of India is woefully inadequate. Certainly, the case can be made—as Hitchens, borrowing from Auden, makes it—that the British made a hash of the actual line-drawing. What Hitchens neglects to mention, however, is that the impetus for partition came from the Indian side. Muslim separatism began not with Mohammed Ali Jinnah in the 1920s but with Sir Syed Ahmad Khan in the 1860s. Moreover, as the British responded to Indian demands for devolution of power with the first hesitant steps toward democracy and home rule, a policy of reservations based on religious affiliation was already set in place, largely at the insistence of Indian Muslims. Thus India's decades-long quest for independence was marked at every stage by some degree of tension between faith communities over which the British had little control. And although it is true that the Muslim League never represented the hearts and minds of a majority of the Subcontinent's Muslims, much the same can be said of the Indian National Congress and the majority Hindu community. Such has been the conclusion, at any rate, of postmodern and subaltern historians over the past decade, who have deconstructed the Indian national movement into so many fragments that one wonders how it achieved such a stunning victory in the first place.
The tragedy of Indian partition is not to be minimized, but neither can it be cynically ascribed to a failed British stratagem for holding onto power at any cost. If anything, it represented a last-ditch effort to prevent civil war. And though it failed miserably, one might argue that by at least fixing the borders of the new countries, partition forestalled still greater bloodshed. At any rate, the suggestion that it may have been possible to prevent all strife had only the lines been drawn differently on the map is an absurdity.
Christopher Hitchens's liberal roots are showing in "The Perils of Partition." His vivid examples only illustrate the basic socialist-liberal stance: everything that Western civilization has ever done is wrong. Of course, Hitchens does not offer any alternatives. Gertrude Bell's "tracing the new boundary of Iraq ... with her walking stick" is an entertaining image. What would Hitchens have done after World War I? Left the Ottoman Empire in charge? Would the Ottoman Turks have been concerned about "social justice"?
Do we really need more liberal, smarty-pants Western-civilization bashing? People were fighting over borders long before the British Empire spoiled the world.
Nevada City, Calif.
In "Kicking the Secularist Habit" (March Atlantic), David Brooks describes his conversion from arrogant secularism to a humbler point of view. But his transformation is pretty limited and his characterization of secularism well wide of the mark. Like Hume before him, it seems, Brooks had imagined religion as a spent force; worse, he identifies secularism with that fantasy. But he was wrong on both counts, and apparently remains wrong on the second.
Brooks's revelation of the ongoing power of religion extends only to the first degree of religious involvement: religious beliefs. But his six-step program goes no further than this. For example, in step four he suggests that the State Department and the CIA should be looking for nonsecular explanations of events in the world. But he doesn't suggest (as perhaps President Bush would) that they should adopt a religious point of view of their own; only that they should acknowledge the importance of (and the difficulty of quantifying or predicting) "religious ideas, impulses, and actions." This is perfectly compatible with a fully secular view of the world. All it claims is something that should have been obvious all along: very often people's beliefs and actions cannot be described or explained without taking their religion into account. But we can accept others' religiosity as a fact without sharing it. Only someone foolish and reductionist enough to dismiss religious beliefs as irrelevant to the "real" wellsprings of action would object.
Surely secularism should not be confused with the extravagant claim that religious belief is itself unreal, or (more credibly) that it is just a bizarre epiphenomenon, a froth of surface foam irrelevant to the real workings of human psychology. Secularism, as I have always understood it, is the belief that the world of common human experience, the world that science studies and (with great though as yet imperfect success) explains, is all there is; it dismisses the supernatural, but not the obvious, important, and perfectly secular fact of widespread belief in the supernatural. In this sense I remain an unrepentant secularist—as, I suspect, Brooks himself does.
David Brooks confuses rising numbers of religious followers with the increasing popularity of religion. An increase in the numbers of Christians or Muslims, for example, is a result of population growth and recruitment from other religions. In making his case he cites figures of 10 million Christians in Africa in 1900 and 360 million Christians today. So what? Population growth and switching religious affiliations do not indicate that religion itself is more attractive or important in Africa today than it has been at any other time.
The growing number of atheists and nonreligious people around the world indicates that, yes, the world is becoming more secular. A thousand years ago one would have had to search long and hard to discover a few atheists. Today, however, people without religion are tens of millions strong (nearly 30 million in the United States alone, according to a recent survey by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York). The gross numbers of religious followers may be up, but the ratio of believers to nonbelievers is slipping.
Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands
In "Long Shot" (May Atlantic), Gregg Easterbrook says, regarding a satellite in orbit 22,300 miles above the Equator, "In this orbit an object hangs the same distance from Earth as Earth is around."
In fact the period of an Earth satellite in a circular orbit (around the Equator) depends only on the radius of that orbit. If you want the period to be one day, then the height of the satellite above the Equator is indeed about 22,300 miles. If Earth turned faster or slower than it does, to keep the satellite geostationary the height of its orbit would have to be changed. But in no case is there a relationship between the radius of the orbit and the circumference of Earth, which is (at the Equator) about 24,900 miles.
James Wood's excellent discussion of Henry James's "fruitless flirtation with the theater" ("Cult of the Master," April Atlantic) stopped short of considering the success of James's works as television plays, particularly those staged for television by the BBC. (Movies have been a different story altogether.) Of the many James works successfully dramatized for television, The Spoils of Poynton, with Gemma Jones unforgettable as Fleda, revealed the author to be a master dramatist who finally found the medium he needed.
In her otherwise splendid review "The Baby Experts" (May Atlantic), Sandra Tsing Loh says that John Broadus Watson's writing style was like that of his "college classmate H. L. Mencken." Sadly, neither Watson nor anyone else had the pleasure of Mencken's company as a student; Mencken did not go to college.
Constantine von Hoffman
Julius Lester's letter to the editor (April Atlantic) says that "Malcolm X appeared on the Pierre Breton show ..." "Breton" should have been "Berton." Pierre Berton was not only a distinguished broadcaster and interviewer but also one of Canada's most beloved authors.
Iteach a graduate course in team building and engage my students with real-life work situations in which they must try to resolve conflict. With considerable joy I read them the cell-phone incident in "Wynton's Blues," by David Hajdu (March Atlantic): how Marsalis's performance was rudely interrupted by a cell-phone melody and how he handled it: first playing it note for note; then improvising it until he regained the audience's attention; then resolving it and returning to the precise point where he had left off in the ballad he'd been playing; and finally being rewarded by an ovation. You could have heard a pin drop in my class when I finished reading. Connection recovered; magic shared. Where would we be without artists?