Letters to the editor

Justice in Congo

From the colonization projects of King Leopold II to the political assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese have endured uninterrupted foreign intrusion and internal instability. Adam Hochschild’s article, “The Trial of Thomas Lubanga” (December Atlantic), managed to capture the sense of confusion and dread that has marred this fragmented country. Much of Hochschild’s commentary is bleak. For instance, he acknowledges that “thousands of courtrooms would be needed to try everyone suspected of a war crime in Congo’s decade or more of fighting.” But he also shows how Lubanga’s trial is different from international tribunals of the past. Mass murderers like Peter Karim may have evaded justice this time around, but the International Criminal Court, by prosecuting Lubanga for enlisting child soldiers, has brought desperately needed attention to a ghastly trend in modern warfare. What captivated me most was the picture of the child soldier. Those bloodshot eyes reveal a combustible mélange of revolutionary defiance and irretrievably lost innocence. As I read the article, it dawned on me that the ICC exists for children like him.

George Cassidy Payne
M. K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence
Rochester, N.Y.

Adam Hochschild replies:

George Cassidy Payne is right that a long history of intrusion by foreigners has added to Congo’s suffering. Those responsible for the past dozen years of bloodshed include not only local warlords like Peter Karim, but neighboring regimes who have backed them—Rwanda and Uganda, where eastern Congo is concerned—and wealthy nations like the United States who keep those countries afloat with aid money. Sweden and the Netherlands cut off aid to Rwanda after a United Nations report showed how much it had profited from Congo’s chaos, but the U.S. has so far failed to use its far greater leverage.

Orchid Children

David Dobbs’s article (“Orchid Children,” December Atlantic) spoke volumes to both my personal and professional lives. In my career as a family therapist, I earnestly believed environment played the greatest role in shaping who we become as people. Now, as the mother of two children—one orchid, one dandelion—my belief has been forever altered. Our genes are not destiny, but their influence on our particular inclinations is unmistakable and—for me, in my own children—a constant source of wonder.

Shannon Armitage
Seattle, Wash.

Night Lite

It is wonderful to read in Lane Wallace’s “Night Light” (December Atlantic) that K. R. Sridhar’s solid-oxide fuel cells can provide electricity without adding to climate change. But by pointing to satellite images of the Earth at night—where whole regions glow with wasted energy—and to evidently accept this as a norm, Sridhar also sets back the effort at darkening the night sky, not to mention the idea of conservation.

That Americans, in particular, have become used to the pointless over-illumination of their communities at night doesn’t mean that a glowing planet is a good one. If we focused more on nighttime task lighting and a more frugal approach to the illumination of streets, parks, and buildings, we could conserve energy and at the same time regain the glorious evening sky without having to drive miles into the countryside. It may be that some of those dark areas Sridhar wants to conquer are already practicing restraint in energy use, and don’t need, or want, to glow.

Charles T. Clark
Stonington, Conn.

Lane Wallace replies:

Without question, many people—especially in developed, industrial nations—use more energy than necessary. And no one would dispute the merits of conservation among those who have access to reliable electricity. But the satellite images of the world at night are merely a tool K. R. Sridhar uses to show where that access exists. Nearly one-third of the human race does not have the luxury of conservation, because those people do not have the luxury of access to reliable energy. That also means they do not have access to running water, refrigeration to keep food and medicine from spoiling, light and power to connect to the world, or a myriad of other life-saving and life-improving elements we in developed countries often take for granted. For the most part, those dark areas aren’t populated with happy stargazers. They’re populated with people who suffer high infant-mortality rates as well as restricted health-care solutions and economic opportunities. Sridhar’s point is that while conservation is a good goal, it alone won’t allow the world’s poor access to basic quality-of-life opportunities. Accomplishing that goal requires electricity-producing technology that extends access without destroying the environment. Hence his Bloom boxes.

Saving ink

Michael Kinsley has identified one of the reasons that print is losing its edge (“Cut This Story!,” January/February Atlantic): the antiquated formulaic writing that appears in even the most respected publications is a waste of ink and of readers’ time. Now that Mr. Kinsley has pointed this out, I realize that for years I have been selectively reading news articles, skipping the lengthy explanations of who is being quoted, and frequently skipping the quotations themselves. I have been unconsciously editing the news to read only the pertinent parts. Can such terseness save the print medium? Can anything save print? I hope Michael Kinsley can lead the way to a new, useful writing style.

Raymond A. Hellkamp
Scotia, N.Y.

Fact or Fiction?

I still have my wits about me despite having lived 82 years. I can use paradigm in a sentence (please don’t get uppity and ask me why I should want to do such a thing) and usually can tell the difference between wit and irony. But I’m still questioning myself as to whether “What’s Your Problem?” is fact or fiction. No matter the answer; I find it a cheery little postscript to the preceding pages of the magazine, some of which require a bit of heavy plowing to get through.

Jeanne Downing
Windsor, Colo.

The editors reply:

All of the questions have been real (except for two of them, which weren’t).

Consume With Credit

I’m all for money-management approaches that strive to keep Americans out of debt. However, the approach that Dave Ramsey advocates in Megan McArdle’s “Lead Us Not Into Debt” (December Atlantic) has two major flaws. First, he makes an exception for mortgages. On its face, this seems to make sense. However, anyone who tries to obtain a mortgage without having a credit history will be sorely disappointed. Second, and more important, credit cards protect your money in ways that debit cards can’t. Paying for online purchases with a debit card is highly risky. If someone steals that number and empties your bank account, you have no recourse. In contrast, credit cards offer some liability protection. Ramsey could teach consumers to use credit wisely, perhaps by transferring cash between envelopes upon making a credit-card purchase, and then using that cash to pay the bill.

Monica Williams
Davis, Calif.

Celebrity Addictions

I enjoyed reading James Parker’s entertaining article on the addictive appeal of Dr. Drew Pinsky’s Celebrity Rehab (“Retching With the Stars,” November Atlantic). But I think he misses the point, and so perhaps does Dr. Pinsky. It seems to me the real addiction that afflicts these celebrities is not drugs, religion, etc.—it’s fame. Once you’ve tasted fame, you can’t do without it. You live in constant dread of losing it. You do what it takes, including indulging a substitute addiction, to keep it going or bring it back.

Stephen Forman Unwin
Kingwood, Texas

Misleading Math?

Megan McArdle attempts to illustrate her point that survey respondents are unreliable (“Misleading Indicator,” November Atlantic) by telling us that it is mathematically impossible for men to report an average number of female sexual partners that is much higher than the average number of male partners reported by women. I agree that survey respondents are unreliable, but so is McArdle’s math. It may be unlikely that the number of partners reported by honest males would be higher, but it is not mathematically impossible.

Fred Graf
Concord, N.H.

Mathematically impossible? Ten couples in a room. Nine women are monogamous; one has four partners and her spouse. So 90 percent of the women are monogamous, but only 60 percent of the men are. Men lie, but it is mathematically possible.

Harvey Levin
East Charleston, Vt.

Megan McArdle replies:

We are talking about two different meanings of the word average. True, in Harvey Levin’s scenario, it is more common for women to be monogamous than men. But I was using average to describe the mean number of sexual partners, which is to say, the sum of everyone’s number of partners, divided by the number of people. If there are 10 men and 10 women, and one of the women has slept with all 10 men, while the other women are monogamous, the average number of sexual partners is the same for the men and the women. Nine of the men have had two sexual partners, while one of the men has had one partner, for an average of 19/10=1.9. Meanwhile, one of the women has had 10 sexual partners, while the other nine women have had one partner, for an average of 19/10=1.9. The numbers come out the same, no matter how you vary the particulars. Yet surveys can generate differences of three- or fourfold between the mean numbers of sexual partners that women and men report.