Letters to the editor

Letting Go of Roe

In "Letting Go of Roe" (January/February Atlantic), Benjamin Wittes asserts that "in Gallup polling since 1975 … about 80 percent of respondents have consistently favored either legal abortion in all circumstances (21 to 34 percent) or legal abortion under some circumstances (48 to 61 percent)." He argues that if the legality of abortion becomes a legislative issue, public opinion will continue to favor pro-choice voters.

However, relying on poll data as reassurance that most states will not outlaw abortion is extremely dangerous. Responses to current polls are based on the presupposition that the legality of choice is mandated by the Supreme Court. To put it simply, Americans respond to the "framing" of issues by "elites"—public figures whose discourse shapes the way in which average people see things. Elite discourse about abortion now occurs in the context of debate about the degree to which abortion should be allowed, generally accepting that it should be allowed at least sometimes.

If Roe were reversed, the entire frame of elite discourse would be shifted, presuppositions would be challenged, and poll results would very likely reflect these changes. Though measures of public opinion show us now that most people are pro-choice, we cannot predict how these measures would shift in the face of an event as profound as the end of Roe. It's possible that polls would show less support for choice, and that politicians would respond to this decrease; the legislative consequences could be devastating.

Betting the future of a woman's right to choose on polls is not a risk I am willing to take.

Ryder Kessler
Cambridge, Mass.

Benjamin Wittes replies:
Ryder Kessler is certainly correct that one cannot know what the end of Roe would do to public opinion on abortion. My guess on that subject is indeed just a guess. And many pro-choice voters will doubtless share the sentiment that wagering the right to choose on such an unpredictable instrument as democratic government is too dangerous to be seriously entertained. I ask only one thing of liberals who take this position: that they grapple seriously with Roe's costs—the costs to liberalism of fueling a permanently energized pro-life constituency that can be neither politically satisfied nor politically defeated; the costs to the courts of having the judicial-nomination process dominated by an issue so marginal to the judicial function; and the costs to democracy of removing from the policy arena a question close to the hearts of so many voters with so little constitutional warrant. I believe that if more pro-choice voters considered Roe's costs seriously, the currently powerful instinct to defend the decision would wilt.

What Amy Would Do

I just finished reading "What Amy Would Do," by Sridhar Pappu (January/February Atlantic), and was stunned to see the following sentence regarding Ann Landers: "When she did stop in, former colleagues have said, she was sometimes volatile and intemperate to those around her."

I was Eppie Lederer's right arm for more than thirty years. She rarely came to the office, because she was a night owl, often working until 3:00 A.M. and sleeping past noon. Since her staff left at 5:00 P.M., the trip seemed hardly worth the effort. On those infrequent occasions when she came to the Tribune, she was accompanied by her driver or one of her assistants. If she had ever been "volatile" or "intemperate," I would have witnessed it or heard about it. Eppie was unfailingly kind and gracious, even to complete strangers. The only possible basis for this comment might be that Eppie was deaf in her right ear, and may have inadvertently ignored someone who spoke to her from that side.

Attaching the words "volatile" and "intemperate" to Eppie is the greatest fabrication since "once size fits all."

Kathy Mitchell
Chicago, Ill.

Sridhar Pappu's article prompted me to wonder: Will Amy Dickinson ever have a piece written about her that does not involve the name Ann Landers? She would feel better about it—and so would I.

Margo Howard
Cambridge, Mass.

Thieves of Baghdad

Lauren Sandler's "The Thieves of Baghdad" (November Atlantic) is, judging by the details in the story, based on one visit to Iraq, apparently in June of 2003. Sandler says 3,000 items were stolen from Iraq's National Museum, which was the official museum and U.S. Customs inventory count as of late June 2003, and does not give the figure of 14,000 that was in Colonel Matthew Bogdanos's report for the Department of Defense and in Andrew Lawler's Science article of August 2003. As for Jaber al-Tikriti, president of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, and Nawala al-Mutawalli, the director of museums, they can be faulted for many things, including their administrative capabilities and style, but the charges of criminal action are not believable.

At the time when Sandler was in the museum, a special investigative unit (the Bogdanos task force) made up of U.S. prosecutors, U.S. Customs agents, FBI agents, and police officers had been assembled to determine the facts about the looting. Very little was left uninvestigated. The Bogdanos report mentions negligence (carelessness with keys and leaving one storeroom door unlocked) and concludes that inside knowledge was required for thieves to go to the precise right part of one storeroom to take cylinder seals and other objects. But no finding in that report charges that top-level museum and Antiquities Board officials had anything to do with the thefts. The inside information could have come from anyone who had worked at the museum in the preceding fifteen years, even a cleaning person. Just before the 2003 war the museum staff did, in fact, hide the great majority of objects that had been on display in the museum's public galleries. Muyaad al-Damirjy was assigned by the minister of culture to head that effort because he had done the same thing in 1991, and he and four other people were the only ones who knew where the secret store was. Weeks after Bogdanos arrived, enough mutual trust had developed to allow the museum director to disclose the location of the secret store, which Bogdanos then inspected. Of course Muyaad was uncommunicative when talking to reporters before this disclosure. Officials of an occupied country are understandably going to be suspicious of occupiers.

Sandler suggests that the museum was conspiratorially kept closed throughout the 1990s, so that pieces could be taken out by Saddam's bodyguard and brother-in-law Arshad Yassin with the collusion of Nawala and Jaber. You get the idea in the article that the museum displays were all there, but that no one was allowed to see them except through bribery.

The chief thrust of Sandler's article is that Arshad Yassin was able to get Nawala and Jaber to help him steal objects from the museum in the 1990s. He was undoubtedly involved in smuggling antiquities out of the country, and for this he was removed from his positions by Saddam and banished from the inner circle. Whether he continued to deal in antiquities I do not know, but to do so would have been dangerous.

The looting of the Iraq Museum started on April 10, 2003, and Arshad Yassin may have played a role in the work of the professional group that operated mainly in one set of storerooms. But to say that Nawala and Jaber had a hand in it is, in my opinion, absurd. They are professionals and take their obligations seriously. Whether they were good administrators or made the right decisions in the face of an invasion can be debated. The fact that the great majority of the objects on display were saved is to their credit. That the entire collection of almost 40,000 manuscripts under the museum's responsibility was safely stored in an air-raid bunker, along with the most important books from the museum's working library, must also be seen as wise.

The most interesting part of the article is at the end, where Sandler traces the movements of the man who took the Warka Vase out of the museum. Her version is quite different from the story he has told to journalists who speak Arabic. According to them, he approached the museum people very soon after the museum was secured from looters, saying that he had important pieces to return. All parties agreed that he would not bring the pieces back until the museum was guarded. About a month after the Marines arrived, he returned them.

McGuire Gibson
Professor of Mesopotamian Archaeology
University of Chicago
Chicago, Ill.

As the head of the investigation into the looting of the Iraq Museum, I read with interest Lauren Sandler's provocative article "The Thieves of Baghdad." As to the central question of how many missing antiquities were actually stolen before the war, I cannot quibble with Sandler's facts, but I can offer a broader perspective leading to a different reading of those facts.

First, there were clearly differing levels of cooperation among members of the museum staff. Some, but most especially Jaber al-Tikriti (the chairman of the State Board of Antiquities), Nawala al-Mutawalli (the director of the museum), and Donny George (the director for research), were particularly cooperative and forthright. Other staff members were decidedly uncooperative, and their statements frequently proved false. Most of the staff fell somewhere in between.

Second, significant discord within the staff manifested itself in many ways. For example, staff members were inconsistent in attesting to when an item had last been seen. Some of these inconsistencies were easily explained, and some were not. Without access to more witnesses, more museum documentation, and the government officials whose names appeared on various orders to remove certain antiquities, we were forced to leave many discrepancies unresolved. Staff members also leveled accusations against other staff members. Some were justified; others were not. Some were sincerely believed; some were a function of past grievances, political differences, or simply a desire for the accused's job.

Third, we found evidence that the staff had removed many items from the museum at the direction of the Hussein government, but very little evidence of why the items had been removed. In a brutal dictatorship the government does not ordinarily explain its actions, and its populace does not ordinarily ask for explanation, or disobey such directions.

Finally, although some members of the museum staff had apparently removed items for private gain, and although the thieves must have had the directors' master keys to access several areas from which antiquities were stolen, we never uncovered evidence implicating any of the three most senior museum officials in the theft of any of the antiquities.

Matthew Bogdanos
Colonel, U.S. Marine Corps
Baghdad, Iraq

Lauren Sandler replies:
I reported this article for several months in both the United States and Iraq, where I spent nearly two months, in August and September of 2003. Although I was accompanied by an interpreter, many people I interviewed were fluent in English.

Many different methods have been used to catalogue the museum's contents, resulting in different figures for the objects looted after the fall of Baghdad. (Is a necklace one object, or is each bead an object? Is each cylinder seal an object, or does a collection share one number?) The figure I used (3,000) and the figure in the Bogdanos report (14,000) point to the same conclusion: the initial reports that 170,000 artifacts were stolen in April of 2003 were highly overstated.

What I wrote regarding Dr. Jaber al-Tikriti and Dr. Nawala al-Mutawalli was the result of a great deal of reporting, much of it involving conversations with people who spoke to me on the condition that they would not be named. I would not have included these two officials in the story had the allegations not been substantiated by a significant number of people I came to trust during my time in Iraq.

My article does contradict Matthew Bogdanos's report, which I reviewed and discussed with various people, including Colonel Bogdanos, before I traveled to Iraq. During our conversation he told me that he was quite proud of the close relationships he had developed with people in power in the Department of Antiquities, most notably Dr. Jaber. I was not surprised, therefore, when many people who held less power at the department and in the museum told me they did not feel safe telling Bogdanos all they knew, or believed they knew, about these people.

The admission of foreign scholars to the museum for research has nothing to do with the fact that Iraqis had to pay bribes to see objects relating to their own history. I did not visit the museum until 2003, so I cannot give an eyewitness account of what the galleries looked like before then. But many people I interviewed told me what the museum looked like during their years of work there.

I am aware that my account of the theft of the Warka Vase differs in some respects from the one given by Arab journalists. This is not a matter of translation; it is a matter of compression. Some details deemed less important were cut for length and continuity. Their absence does not change the truth of what I wrote: that three men (who had never been let into the museum before they entered as looters), when unable to fence what they had looted, returned invaluable objects, such as the Warka Vase, to the museum with the utmost care.

Books & Critics

I am disappointed with Cristina Nehring's review of Will in the World, Stephen Greenblatt's biography of Shakespeare ("Shakespeare in Love, or in Context," December Atlantic). Nehring uses her review to voice two major complaints: first, that because Shakespeare failed to live as dramatic or theatrical a life as some of his fellow dramatists, such as Christopher Marlowe, the facts about his life are both sparse and dull; second, that Greenblatt is a practitioner of the "new historicism" in literary criticism, a movement whose philosophy Nehring has loathed for a long time.

With regard to the first complaint, biographical information is sparse even for Shakespeare's more colorful contemporaries (except Ben Jonson), and as Greenblatt and other recent biographers have pointed out, Shakespeare's kinship to families with Roman Catholic loyalties probably caused him to be extremely careful about putting personal information in writing.

With regard to Nehring's animus against the new historicism, her diatribe against Greenblatt's theory and practice proved thoroughly alienating for me. Although I undertook graduate study of Elizabethan drama in the age of the "new criticism," augmented by literary theory steeped in "myth criticism," I frequently find studies that put literature in a cultural context to be useful.

Nehring claims, as well, that Greenblatt focuses on historical trivia while ignoring Shakespeare's inner life. But this complaint is not really fair, since Greenblatt stresses both the psychological insecurity Shakespeare probably felt because of his family's Catholic connections and his constant obsession with dispossession and loss, which probably began with his father's business reverses.

Nehring might have provided a more helpful review of Will in the World if she had compared the book with other recent biographies of the Bard, by Michael Wood, Anthony Holden, and Ian Wilson, to name a few. As I am familiar with these books, I can say that they are like Greenblatt's in relying heavily on a description of Shakespeare's historical context.

Edgar L. Chapman
Professor Emeritus
Bradley University
Peoria, Ill.

Although I found Cristina Nehring's review of Will in the World informative about both Shakespeare and the new historicism, I was troubled by her casual assumption that William Wordsworth was guilty of incest.

Although some psychological critics have speculated about Wordsworth's feelings toward his sister Dorothy, I am unaware of any evidence in scholarly sources that offers factual support for this claim. If I have missed the evidence, I hope that Nehring will fill in this gap for me.

Walter S. Minot
Professor Emeritus
Gannon University
Mobile, Ala.

Cristina Nehring replies:
Edgar Chapman's defense of Shakespeare and Greenblatt rests on a remarkably thorough misreading of my article.

Chapman believes that I think Shakespeare led a boring life and therefore am bored by a biography of him. My point is exactly the opposite. I find it riveting that Shakespeare's life was so quiet and conventional while his drama is so passionate and anarchic. I find it riveting that the man who primly disinherited his daughter for sexual indiscretions should portray—so sympathetically—bold young women defying their fathers for love. It is this paradox that fuels a fair part of my fascination with Renaissance biography: the tamest lives often produce the most turbulent art, and the most adventuresome of men are frequently the least adventuresome of writers.

Chapman further faults me for my criticisms of the new historicism, a movement he says I have "loathed for a long time." (How does he know?) Even an old bear like himself, trained on earlier modes of literary analysis, can see that "studies that put literature in a cultural context can be useful." I agree; only when that context displaces the literature do we have a problem. Only when a work of individual inspiration and universal resonance is rendered as the sum total of the rites, regulations, and customs of one particular social milieu do we lose our way. When Hamlet comes across as a sort of community project—the immaculate conception of "social energy"—I begin to object. That said, Greenblatt is undoubtedly the most eloquent exponent of this sort of view; far from loathing him, I admitted to being all but seduced by his voice—if not its message.

"Somewhere in the world … a book on Shakespeare is published every day," writes Anthony Holden in one of the
biographies that Chapman would have had me compare and contrast with Greenblatt's. Very few will ever win the notice of general or even scholarly readers; very few offer a new perspective. Greenblatt's is one of those, which is why I elected to give
Will in the World the bulk of my attention.

If Walter Minot is looking for the stained blue dress, he won't find it: hard evidence of incest in the eighteenth century is difficult to come by. What we have instead, in the case of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, is an abundance of well-founded speculation. It is the rare biographer who does not expound on Wordsworth's peculiarly intense attachment to his sister. This is the woman, after all, who slept wearing his wife's wedding ring the night before his marriage, and succumbed to hysteria—"neither hearing nor seeing anything"—during the church ceremony. This is the woman on whose shoulder Wordsworth regularly napped and who probably inspired "Strange Fits of Passion" and other love lyrics.

Whether one calls the relationship "unquestionably, profoundly sexual," like the poet's best-known modern biographer, Stephen Gill (William Wordsworth: A Life); "strange" and "unhealthy," like Hunter Davies (William Wordsworth: A Biography); or clearly "incestuous," like F. W. Bateson (Wordsworth: A Reinterpretation), is a matter of opinion. I do not mean to weigh in on this debate.

I take exception to the opening sentence of Mona Simpson's review of Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson ("The Minister's Tale," December Atlantic). Housekeeping is a fantastic book, but "one of the ten best novels of the past century"? Be serious. In a century of works by Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, Willa Cather, William Faulkner, Marcel Proust, Albert Camus, Günther Grass, Gabriel García Márquez, Ralph Ellison, and E. M. Forster—to name just a dozen authors who have written better books?

Rob Franciosi
Allendale, Mich.

Mona Simpson replies:
I meant what I said. Although I certainly wouldn't dispute the place of The Tin Drum, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Absalom, Absalom!, Remembrance of Things Past, To the Lighthouse, and Ulysses (though I prefer Dubliners) on a list of the ten best novels of the past century, I would not include fiction by Camus (though it's charming that someone still reads it). I like and re-read Cather, Lawrence, and Conrad, but no single work of theirs strikes me as exceptional on the level of The Great Gatsby (a work Rob Franciosi excludes from his list). Even though Franciosi doesn't mention Henry James, whose work I love, some could argue that he is a twentieth-century novelist, because many of his novels were published in their final form, collected as the New York Edition, in the early twentieth century. But I go by the original publication date, so I place his most enduring works in the nineteenth century. Of course, stunning books such as the memoirs of W. G. Sebald, Levi's Survival in Auschwitz, and almost all the collections of Alice Munro are precluded from silly lists like this simply because they are not novels.

In your December issue Benjamin Schwarz (Editor's Choice) calls Willa Cather "probably the finest lesbian American novelist." This seems a bit like calling Abraham Lincoln "probably the greatest bearded American president." The qualification seems pointless—and unnecessary.

Robert Bagley
Princeton, N.J.

Benjamin Schwarz replies:
Is Robert Bagley willfully missing my point? In my review I criticize the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains because it has "politically correct" categories like "gender" along with categories for literature, music, etc. I said that this makes for a lot of confusion—for example, some black saxophonists are listed in the "African Americans" section, while others are found in the music section. I wrote that given the PC nature of the organizing scheme, I expected to find Cather, who was probably the finest American novelist who was a lesbian, under "gender" (where another female Nebraskan novelist is listed), but was happy to find her instead in the literary section.

My entire point was that historical figures shouldn't be categorized by their race or gender, which seems also to be Bagley's point. But on the other hand, qualification in this case doesn't seem pointless. Cather isn't the greatest American novelist; she is the greatest novelist who was a lesbian—not an unimportant distinction.