Letters to the editor
After the success of the Iraqi elections, I'm afraid that William Langewiesche's tendentious piece "The Accuser" (March Atlantic) reads rather badly. The reporting on Hania Mufti and her tireless work in documenting the horrors of Saddam Hussein's regime is very interesting, and the revelation of the double standard of the "human-rights" agency is extraordinary: Yes, document the atrocities, but no, don't accept that invading Iraq will actually stop them, when nothing else can; and yes, insist on trying Saddam, but in that oh-so-efficient court of The Hague (which has had such notable success in nailing Milosevic, after all) and not, heaven forbid, in an Iraqi national court, when everyone knows the Iraqis are stupid and vengeful, like all Arabs! But the whole carping tone of Langewiesche's piece—with, for example, scare quotes around the word "liberated"—made me see red. Either you are with the much maligned, much oppressed, much patronized Iraqi people or you aren't. They were liberated indeed, from the regime of a monster. Saddam's reign of terror is ended forever, and his sons will never be able to take over. Whatever one may think of the mistakes of the Bush administration in Iraq, that simple fact will never change.
What's more, the Iraqis are showing, with extraordinary dignity and fortitude, just what they are capable of. I think the trials will continue to show that. Or does Langewiesche, like so many well-meaning people, think only Westerners are capable of a true sense of justice?
In "The Accuser," William Langewiesche quotes a report on Iraqi prisoners who were deliberately bled to death: "The amount of haemoglobin remains very low (2—4 ml per 100 mm)." This is an obvious error in translation, on a level with referring to a number of eggs in units of watts per inch. Earlier in the same article herefers to thallium as a lethal powder. Thallium is a metal, and cannot be made available in powdered form because of its reactivity with air. Powdered compounds of thallium have been used as poisons. But they areas distinct from thallium as sodium metal (also reactive with air and thus not available in powder form) is from common table salt.
Marshall E. Deutsch
I am the subject of April's twenty-three-page cover story, "Host," by David Foster Wallace.
Ifelt it was both very interesting and, for the most part, quite truthful. But the reporting included several minor inaccuracies, and a few important misimpressions were created in the telling of the story.
My biggest complaint, however, is that despite my pleas that it do so, The Atlantic chose not to update readers on what happened in the eight months after Wallace stopped shadowing my radio show: the ratings skyrocketed in the spring and fall of 2004, and thanks to this success my showwas moved up to the 7:00 P.M. time slot, replacing the local legend Phil Hendrie.I have also completed a book called The Death of Free Speech, which will be in bookstores in July of this year.
Choosing not to update the reader on what occurred in the extremely long period between research and publication (especially in an age when day-old news is considered ancient) was much like telling the story of World War II and stopping after Pearl Harbor.
But as disappointed as I was that Atlantic readers would not know how the story is currently turning out, I was even more disappointed by Wallace's decision to decline an invitation to appear on my show. After being given a month's worth of free access to my show and my life, I thought Wallace would have the decency to answer a few simple questions about his writing. He apparently lacks the courage to do so.
KFI Radio Los Angeles
I found the format of the article "Host" too cute by half and extremely annoying. Perhaps it was an experiment worth conducting; I commend you for your willingness to innovate. But please never repeat it!
I was delighted to read "Host." Not only was the content wonderfully tragicomic and well written, but the colored highlights offered a nice creative and practical effect.
A passage in "Host" incorrectly implied that the daily installments of Dr. Laura Schlessinger's radio program airing on KFI in Los Angeles are pre-recorded rather than broadcast live. Although a taped version of the daily broadcast airs in some markets, The Dr. Laura Program is carried live by KFI.
The whole aim of David Foster Wallace's article was to provide a deep description of life at a radio station in a narrow moment in time. Wallace therefore did not describe subsequent events affecting any of the people presented in this cross section.
Wallace has turned down a dozen requests to do radio interviews. He works in print.
David M. Kennedy ("What 'W' Owes to 'WW,'" March Atlantic) is right on target in pointing out the intellectual debt President Bush owes to President Woodrow Wilson. Unfortunately, he did not pursue the differences between the two.
Wilson sought to accomplish global organization through other than military means. The proposed League of Nations, whatever its subsequent inadequacies, was built on the idea that U.S. power had to meet that of other nations in an international political concert. The Bush administration's "my way or the highway" approach violates the principles that Wilson was promulgating.
The differences between Wilson and Bush are startling. Rather than undertake the difficult and tedious work of building coalitions, Bush has demonstrated, ever since the rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, a new form of unilateralism and isolationism that has led the United States into an impasse in international political life.
William H. Friedland
Isebill V. Gruhn
University of California at Santa Cruz
David Kennedy omits reference to Woodrow Wilson's involvement in the American military interventions in Nicaragua (1912, initiated by Wilson's predecessor, William Howard Taft), Haiti (1915), and the Dominican Republic (1916), which combined elements of realpolitik and what FDR's Latin America expert, Sumner Welles, described as "the role of the evangel … to reform … the conditions of life and government of the … sovereign republics of the American hemisphere."
Kennedy effectively traces the ideological continuity instilled in American foreign policy by the idea that "these values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society." But the dubiousness of that credo is underscored by the aftermath of those three Caribbean interventions, in which Wilson played such a prominent role:
These three cases demonstrate how good intentions, reinforced by money and the military, can be frustrated by cultures that are not congenial to democratic institutions. The idea that "these values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society" ignores not only the three cases cited but also the more general problems of democratization in the Islamic world, Africa, and Latin America. The credo also ignores the wisdom of Alexis de Tocqueville: "I am convinced that the luckiest of geographic circumstances and the best of laws cannot maintain a constitution in despite of mores, whereas the latter can turn even the most unfavorable circumstances and the worst laws to advantage. The importance of mores is a universal trust to which study and experience continually bring us back."
Lawrence E. Harrison
The Fletcher School, Tufts University
David M. Kennedy replies:
Professors Friedland and Gruhn rightly note that George W. Bush's version of Wilsonianism in fact egregiously out-Wilsons Wilson, who had a historian's skepticism about the universal application of democratic practices and institutions. Indeed, some of the very interventions in Latin America that Professor Harrison cites were known to Wilson and undoubtedly tempered his missionary impulse. But Wilson also believed that, for better or worse, his countrymen were all but incapable of conducting any consistent foreign policy under conditions of duress and duration absent the legitimating rationale of "making the world safe for democracy." That, I believe, was the dark implication of the concluding sentence of Wilson's war address in 1917: that "God helping her, she can do no other." Therein lies the chronic unrealism—and perhaps the true tragedy—of American diplomacy.
Ross Douthat's "The Truth About Harvard" (March Atlantic) is hardly the whole truth, as he would surely concede. He is right to say that the faculty does not push students. The reality, however, is messier than that. Plenty of undergraduates, thriving on their freedom, push themselves. What I see is harder work producing better grades. But even good students are currently deprived of the pushing they need.
Is it simply because they are "well taught" that some "few Core classes" are "swamped"? Surely it is chiefly because these heavily enrolled courses typically expound contemporary topics and late-modern histories that seem relevant and are easy to study. "The Cuban Revolution: 1956—71," by all accounts an excellent course, falls under a guideline originally devised to require all students to study some pre-twentieth-century history!
That masses of Harvard graduates have lately escaped all pre-modern history—even concentrators need do no more than ten weeks of it!—is a colossal failure of advising and curriculum. For an administration now sensibly urging all undergraduates to study abroad, and this at a university ever more insistent on policy and development (that is, on present and future), it is astounding how careless of the live past we have become. Careless, I mean, of those remote pasts that alone explain the monuments and museums those students will visit; careless of those distant pasts, humanely imagined and imaginatively reconstructed, that alone can place our fragile present in perspective. Some of our founding fathers and mothers studied only a past of this description, and were hardly the worse for that.
What most "pushes" Harvard students today is the insidious crush of the present. The advising system for freshmen resourcefully devised by Dean Elizabeth Nathans, and brusquely overturned last year, was my own hope for the future. It remains unclear whether the review committees currently at work understand why the system was overturned; and while my input matters little, the consequences for Harvard are huge.
Thomas N. Bisson
Professor of Medieval History
My problem with "The Truth About Harvard" is that it purports to give the inside scoop on "the" Harvard experience, instead of making it clear that Ross Douthat's lackluster experience was defined less by Harvard as an institution than by the self-admittedly lazy choices Douthat made as an undergraduate. For example, it's disappointing to read a harsh critique of "The Portrait," a class I immensely enjoyed, only to learn that the author actually has no idea how interesting the course might be, because "by the middle of the semester [he] had stopped going to the lectures." Perhaps Douthat would have benefited after all from the history-department courses emphasizing "exhaustive primary research."
I disagree that the emphasis of Core classes at Harvard is "squarely on methodology, not material"—or at least I maintain that the two aren't mutually exclusive. Douthat claims "not to denigrate the more whimsical and esoteric choices that fill out a course catalogue," but his description of the course on the Cuban Revolution does just that. He writes: "It seems deeply disingenuous, at best, to suggest that in the development of a broadly educated student body the study of Castro's regime carries the same weight as, say, knowledge of the two world wars, or the French Revolution, or the founding of America." Would Douthat argue that the knowledge—both the material and the methodology for examining information—that I took away from the "micro-history" course "America and Vietnam: 1945—1975" is less relevant as I read articles about Iraq in The Atlantic today than the knowledge I might have gained in a survey course on the American Revolution? I wouldn't argue that it's more relevant, but I hope he doesn't believe it's really less so.
Harvard Class of 1999
"The Truth About Harvard" slides into a familiar series of caricatures of postmodernism, and this is perhaps where, unwittingly, Ross Douthat proves his central contention: the argument does not show the kind of understanding of and engagement with the subject that a worthy critique requires. His review of Harvard's Core Curriculum rests on the silent assumption that an education consists of subject matter, and he doesn't seem to grasp that what he's looking at is structured around modes of inquiry. When you learn a language, the particular words you acquire don't matter nearly so much as the grammar—the rules for linking them together in a sensible way. I think Douthat really was slacking on this part, and is relying on charm to prevent readers from seeing how superficial the treatment is. C+ here.
I note Douthat's complaint about unenthusiastic and overburdened faculty members and teaching assistants; perhaps he should have chosen an institution where the primary mission is undergraduate teaching, rather than research, grant competition, and publication. Students and parents might consider the public liberal arts colleges. I know of one highly selective institution where the seats remain quite full right through the end of the semester, and where students aren't on their own to select thirty-two classes from the overwhelming array of options, but receive direct and individual guidance. The new Core Curriculum Harvard will be voting on looks quite a bit like the one we constructed five years ago. They're catching up.
Adam Brooke Davis
Director of Interdisciplinary Studies
Truman State University
I find it ironic that the same issue of The Atlantic that includes an essay lamenting the debasement of the liberal arts education at our nation's most renowned university fails to include any short fiction.
Ross Douthat replies:
Professor Bisson makes an excellent point regarding the bias toward contemporary historical topics at Harvard and elsewhere—a trend that one can also see at work in the diminished emphasis on Latin and Greek, the move from political philosophy to more economistic, data-driven models of politics, and so on across the curriculum. And he's entirely correct that Harvard's undergraduate advising system (not to mention the achievement-obsessed culture of elite higher education) does nothing to encourage students to escape "the insidious crush of the present."
Kristin Gilliss and I will have to agree to disagree about whether "The Portrait" was a good class. And while she's right about the educational benefits of studying U.S. involvement in Vietnam, I would still argue that a curriculum in which a single class on Vietnam might be the only history course that a student ever takes is a failed curriculum—or not really a curriculum at all.
I plead guilty to Adam Davis's charge that I would prefer an education structured around actual "subject matter" rather than "modes of inquiry." His parallel to learning a language's grammar before learning its vocabulary is appealing but ultimately unsustainable, not least because, judging from my experience with high school French, even the study of grammar is preceded by a reasonable period of basic vocabulary building. Imagine taking a foreign-language course in which the teacher didn't distinguish in importance between knowing the word for "is" and knowing the word for "pomegranate," and you'll have some idea of how Harvard's "approaches to knowledge" system works. And although I take Davis's point that Harvard is a research university and not simply a liberal arts college, I don't see why such a large and resource-rich institution shouldn't be able to devote at least some attention to a decent advising system and a comprehensive set of liberal arts requirements. But I'm delighted to hear that his school is having more success.
Sandra Tsing Loh, in "Marshal Plan" (March Atlantic), suggests that "today's cutting-edge parents" spank their children, and jovially commends them for doing so.
Corporal punishment of children—regardless of how "moderate," and no matter by whom dispensed—is considered a violation of international human-rights law. The practice violates at least six human-rights treaties: the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights; the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; the American Convention on Human Rights; and the European Social Charter.
Moreover, a rapidly growing number of countries have outlawed all physical chastisement of children. As of this writing twelve nations—Austria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Latvia, Norway, Romania, Sweden, and Ukraine—have banned spanking by law. Israel has done the same by a judicial decision of its highest court.
This article treats the subject of spanking with the lighthearted wit of a sitcom mom driven to distraction by the naughtiness of her sitcom children. No amount of humor, however, can hide the fact that all corporal punishment of children violates their human rights and may cause them serious harm.
Susan H. Bitensky
Michigan State University College of Law
East Lansing, Mich.
Sandra Tsing Loh replies:
I am surprised to see myself depicted as the jovial leader of a new national spanking movement. My essay described my specific interest in such discipline methods as frowning, yelling, and—yes, it would be fair to say—some calibrated disfigurement of Barbies. Given my central argument that nuts-and-bolts parenting advice is welcome in times when the cultural pendulum has swung so far away from punishment that even use of the word "no" is frowned on, leaving worriedly conscientious parents of kicking, screaming toddlers without any tools except hugging, Susan Bitensky's invocation of international law seems a willful missing of the point. Her letter illustrates once again America's dearth of truly useful parenting advice.
Benjamin Wittes makes a very convincing argument in "Letting Go of Roe" (January/February Atlantic), but a few points call for further reflection.
American public opinion as a whole cannot provide a safety net against the loss of a constitutional right. Popular opinion at the state level will determine the legality of abortion. And although most Americans believe that abortion ought to be legal under some circumstances, according to the most recent Gallup poll most Americans do not describe themselves as "pro-choice." Most analysts think the pro-life campaign has something to do with this, since it was only a few years ago that the majority of Americans described themselves just that way.
While it may be true that this campaign is galvanized by Supreme Court opinions, it is just as likely to be galvanized by the legality of abortion anywhere. Look at the case of gay marriage: Georgia has passed an amendment banning gay marriage, not because Georgians are outraged by the concept of judicial intervention but because they are outraged that gay marriage could be legal anywhere in the United States, since it might "spread" to where they live. A state ban on gay marriage is not just another local ordinance: it is a way of preparing for a nationwide constitutional amendment. Locally it is seen as a sort of pre-emptive self-defense against a legislative contagion.
We are in serious trouble if individual rights are guaranteed only by explicit mention in a document that is meant to be a spare articulation of the principles that ground our laws. The point of the Constitution is not to enumerate every individual right. All that is required is that we be able to reason, with constitutional guidance, about what those rights ought to be. If leaving the rights of minorities up to the good will of the public were such a good idea, there would be no need for a constitution.
Front Royal, Va.
As a liberal Democrat raised in a con- servative family, I read Benjamin Wittes's "Letting Go of Roe" with deep skepticism.
Wittes believes that if conservatives were allowed to vote on abortion, the national acrimony would subside as each state found its own solution. He misreads the conservative mind.
Conservatives fervently believe that aborting a zygote constitutes the murder of a human being. According to members of my family, abortion also compromises the soul that is created at conception. Add to this mix the absolute certainty that God holds these views too, and conservatives will never be placated by a "states' rights" compromise.
Wittes further assumes that overturning Roe will encourage more moderates to join the Democrats. Maybe; but George Bush's presidency has created such deep divisions that overturning Roe may not significantly expand the Democratic base. By voting for Bush in 2004, these allegedly winnable moderates have already signaled that Roe isn't a primary issue. This does not mean that they lack a pro-choice bias. It simply means that they, like many liberals, understand that the abortion issue involves competing claims on conscience. This creates ambivalence that militates against Roe's becoming the galvanizing issue that will restore the Democrats to power.
Finally, if Democratic senators abandoned Roe, it could have negative electoral consequences for other liberal (moral) issues, such as Social Security and the environment. Why, after all, should a liberal bother to vote if his senator is going to cave in on key issues when the going gets tough?
In the end, sacrificing Roe won't heal the body politic, and it is unlikely to extend blue America's political reach into red America.
John R. Wooden
In "Letting Go of Roe," Benjamin Wittes essentially says, "Who cares if women have to travel to other states to get abortions, even medically necessary ones?" Apparently, Republican lawmakers care. The so-called Child Custody Protection Act would make it a federal crime to take a minor across state lines to have an abortion without notifying the minor's parents beforehand. At least twenty-one states would quickly outlaw abortion if Roe v. Wade were overturned, according to a study by the Center for Reproductive Rights. We cannot, as should be obvious, rely on state legislation to protect reproductive rights.
Benjamin Wittes replies:
Wes Alwan is quite correct that we are in trouble if individual rights can be guaranteed only by explicit mention in the Constitution. Indeed, many important constitutional principles—starting with judicial review itself—are not explicitly contemplated in the Constitution; rather, they are inferences from what is explicitly stated. But it does not follow that to recognize a new constitutional right we need only "be able to reason, with constitutional guidance, about what those rights ought to be." This is a recipe for judicial lawmaking of the most extravagant kind. Different people reason differently about what rights who should have. That is why we have legislatures and elections. I would submit that for a non-explicit constitutional principle—be it an individual right or anything else—to have democratic legitimacy, it must be plausibly rooted in the text, history, and structure of the document. Much as I favor abortion rights, I just can't see them as flowing plausibly from the guarantee of due process of law.
As to John Wooden's contention that I misread the conservative mind, I venture the proposition that there exists no single conservative mind. I certainly agree that many conservatives, apparently including Wooden's relatives, are implacable on the subject of abortion. Many, however, are not, and seek not to ban abortion outright but to regulate it in ways that Roe does not currently permit. Is no compromise with them possible? Is it really better in conservative states to have a broad constitutional right constantly under siege than to have a somewhat narrower right protected by the legitimacy of legislative compromise? I no longer believe it is. And, more important, I am no longer willing to defend a doctrinally indefensible court decision so as to insulate my policy views from democratic debate and electoral democracy.
Finally, one point of clarification in regard to Timothy Rood's argument that many states would quickly ban abortion. I do not doubt that the short-term consequence of overturning Roe would be the banning of abortion in some states. In some, in fact, unenforceable abortion restrictions are already on the books. I believe, however, that the pro-life victory in most of these states would be both Pyrrhic and short-lived. Overturning Roe would force people to ask themselves whether they really favor abolishing legal abortion, and would put that question front and center in the political arena, where it belongs. In the vast majority of states, I believe, the laws that would ultimately result from this healthy debate would not put onerous burdens on the right to choose.
I am appalled at the assertion that decreasing marriage rates for intelligent professional women is "bad news," as if marriage were the only indicator of successful womanhood ("Too Smart to Marry," Primary Sources, April Atlantic). I think the real bad news is for all the men who are missing out on partnerships with talented, dedicated women. And where does your characterization leave queer and lesbian women, who can't get married even if they want to? When a progressive magazine like The Atlantic mires itself in such patronizing language, it just goes to show how far from true equality we are as a society.
Ross Douthat replies:
Emily Dulcan is right to point out that many successful and intelligent women don't marry for reasons that have nothing to do with their ability to find a mate. That said, it's hard to see how a study indicating a male preference for pursuing romance with workplace subordinates rather than equals can be characterized as good news for the many women who would like to both find a spouse and enjoy a successful career.
"Shaken and Stirred," by Stephen S. Cohen and J. Bradford DeLong (January/February Atlantic), misstates findings that we report in "Has Structural Change Contributed to a Jobless Recovery?" (Federal Reserve Bank of New York's Current Issues in Economics and Finance, August 2003).
Cohen and DeLong write, "As Erica Groshen and Simon Potter … point out, temporary layoffs have become less common." The text of our paper reads, "In the 1990-1 and 2001 recessions, temporary layoffs contributed little to the path of unemployment." That is, temporary layoffs have become less important during recessions, which is not the same as saying that temporary layoffs have become less common overall. Indeed, the proportion of workers on temporary layoff as a share of the labor force is not much different from the proportion seen during the expansions of the 1960s and 1970s. The change is that employers' use of temporary layoffs no longer surges during recessions, as it did before the 1990s.
Erica L. Groshen
Federal Reserve Bank of New York
New York, N.Y.
J. Bradford DeLong replies:
Stephen Cohen is innocent. I'm the one who misread Groshen and Potter's excellent article. I apologize.
After spending a couple of frustrating years getting up to speed on the Puzzler, I now dive in as soon as The Atlantic arrives, marveling at the inventive and whimsical genius of Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon. How do they think of new structures every month, make ordinary words lock together like a Chinese puzzle, and write their superbly spare instructions? Over and over I have been certain the instructions were in error, and have been wrong every time. It seems appropriate to send this appreciation for their creativity on the occasion of a bona fide mistake in the April puzzle, "Running the Gamut" ("supplying one to three of those letters")—truly the exception that proves the rule!
Gordon F. Tully
Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon reply:
Now that Gordon Tully mentions it, we have to concede that L, L, E, and Y, which we implied in the instructions for our April puzzle made a total of three letters, actually come a lot closer to four. It seems we're better at word-bending than at number-crunching. Happily, having sharp-eyed solvers is something on which we can count.
I enjoyed Christina Schwarz's review of Geraldine Brooks's novel March. But although I know that Bronson Alcott was a vegetarian or a vegan (and a royal pain in the neck, if you ask me), I am pretty sure Mr. March was not. Certainly the March family wasn't; they eat turkey at one point, and Marmee (or maybe Mr. March) praises Jo for "taking drumsticks at dinner." I can't imagine that the March women would have gone against the patriarch's rules, even though he had gone off to war.
In any case, the review makes me want to read the book.
Chapel Hill, N.C.
Luli Gray may be right about Mr. March as rendered by Louisa May Alcott.
The map illustrating "Crude Politics" (The World in Numbers, April Atlantic) misidentifies the nation of Jordan as Syria. Although in theory it might not be a bad idea to swap the two countries (consider the potential for more-neighborly relations in the Golan Heights, and for a decrease in Syria's appetite for occupying newly distant Lebanon), an attempt to do so by means of unilateral action on the part of The Atlantic's editorial staff will probably meet with resistance from ordinary Syrians and Jordanians.
I am very glad that the March issue of The Atlantic discusses the potential terrorist threat of unmanned aerial vehicles ("Allah Is My Co-Pilot," Primary Sources). This threat is underestimated by decision-makers, and the public needs to be aware of it.
Unfortunately, the article misidentifies my report "Terrorists Develop Unmanned Aerial Vehicles." That report was prepared by the Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, in Russia, not the National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism, as indicated in the article.
Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology
I want to publicly thank Peter Davison for his generous nature toward us poets who continually inundated him with both submissions and queries for his renowned editorial skills. He always responded quickly and with a quiet certitude that encouraged young writers to continue knocking on his door. He will be missed.
Forest Park, Ga.
John Sellers, in his short article "Which Harry Potter Character Gets Whacked?" (The Odds, January/February Atlantic), describes Hermione Granger as buck-toothed. Does Sellers not know that in the fourth book (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) Hermione gets her teeth shrunk by Madam Pomfrey?
Victoria Cecelia Catherine Elias
San Rafael, Calif.
Bill Roorbach's "Harbinger Hall" (December Atlantic) is excellent. It was one of the first pieces I read in the issue, and I hoped it would never end … or at least would continue in a book. I can picture the whole story vividly in my head, like a movie. So creative!
Stephanie W. Gray