The Conversation

Responses and reverberations

Appeasement in the Middle East

In January/February, Robert D. Kaplan wrote that an American-Iranian détente is in both countries’ interest (“Warming to Iran”). He posited that such a rapprochement need not threaten our special relationship with Israel.

Robert D. Kaplan’s argument is objectionable in its contradictions and advocacy of political manipulation. One could agree that détente with Iran is necessary and inevitable, despite Israel’s “formidable” domestic lobbying machine and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s being a “determined schemer.” Kaplan’s suggested solutions, however, are dangerous: to “play Shiites against Sunnis and vice versa” and to give Netanyahu some of what he wants—“more West Bank settlements,” “more and cheaper armaments,” etc., as if the billions in yearly aid are not enough already. At the same time, the U.S. must “seem,” Kaplan says, to be pressuring Israel to stop its colonizing activities in the West Bank. This Kaplan formula is what has been practiced already. It will lead only to more disasters and deceptions, more hypocrisy and double standards. It is in America’s interest, instead, to alleviate the core sources of regional tension and discontent, and to abandon the strategies of interference and division. More manipulation will not diminish antagonism among religious groups, or stop the rise of extremist fundamentalism in all religions.
Basem L. Ra’ad
Toronto, Canada
Believing that a friendly relationship with the U.S. could dissuade Iran from using Hezbollah and Hamas is as naïve as believing that a friendly relationship with the U.S. would dissuade Israel from, say, building more West Bank settlements. Iran will follow what it believes to be the best way to spread its influence and power, regardless of how “friendly” anyone is. Amazingly, this article makes no mention of the nuclear problem. There is simply no way to be friends with both Iran and Israel under the current circumstances.
Getting Shiites to fight Sunnis and vice versa is not a helpful strategy for stability and peace in the Middle East; it is a recipe for further death and destruction. Using Iran and various groups to fight our battles means giving up significant influence in the region and can lead only to continuous warfare.
Nels Haugen
Olympia, Wash.
Were it true that a “future, relatively congenial Iran” would be less inclined to make trouble through its Hezbollah and Hamas allies, all would be right in Mr. Kaplan’s world. Unfortunately, in the Iranian government’s own words, the country remains committed to Israel’s “annihilation” and “destruction.” Iran’s genocidal, millennialist intent—oft declared by its paramount leader—is a far cry from Deng Xiaoping’s public commitment to aligning with the West before we decided to normalize relations with China.
Mr. Kaplan’s article may have been perfectly timed to the start of Iran’s decline. The oil-price collapse will now reveal Iran’s inability to compete against efficient producers in the U.S. and Saudi Arabia—reducing its capacity to act as a regional power. At this point, the U.S. will achieve no utilitarian geopolitical service by normalizing relations with a nation that has a habit of publicly executing gays, murdering Jews in South America and Europe, and committing a host of other atrocities.
Dave Esrig
West Orange, N.J.
The fundamental flaw in Kaplan’s exposé is that the interests of the U.S. and Israel are the same. It is in the interest of both nations to prevent the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran with any means necessary. This is of course the Obama administration’s official position, but no one takes it seriously, and rightfully so.
As far as détente being a once-in-a-century opportunity: this would be correct if Khamenei, the only “opinion” that counts in the Islamic dictatorship of Iran, had ever expressed any intent or willingness to negotiate honestly regarding the reduction of Iran’s nuclear-weapon development abilities and activities. He has not, and this whole negotiation is just a sham; Iran is playing for time and undermining the international sanction regime.
As far as “we must defend Israel as a means of keeping Iran honest”: Israel would be crazy to depend on U.S. promises of defense against a potential Iranian nuclear threat. U.S. administrations and Congresses come and go. Commitments, even if they are made honestly, can be withdrawn at the drop of a hat. As a recent example, the U.S. was a signatory to the Budapest protocol, guaranteeing the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine (including Crimea) in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons. So what did the U.S. (and Great Britain) do when Putin violated Ukraine’s territorial integrity by invading Crimea? Nothing. Israel and the whole world have seen that and taken notice. This is why Japan started rearming and remilitarizing itself instead of fully depending on the U.S. to protect it from China’s increasing militarism.
simonts comment

5,200 Days in Space

In January/February, Charles Fishman explored life aboard the International Space Station, where astronauts—largely forgotten by the American public—have been circling the Earth for more than 14 years.
As a longtime space-program enthusiast, I was happy to see Charles Fishman’s article. Just one statement irritated me: “NASA has always said that understanding how to live and work in space for long periods was itself a key purpose of the Space Station. But … that part of the mission can seem circular, especially at $8 million a day.” Reading that statement, folks who do not understand the value and crucial importance of our crewed space program become skeptical. What those folks need to realize is that a large portion of that $8 million goes toward paying salaries, health insurance, and Social Security for folks supporting the International Space Station. Also, in the same time NASA spends $8 million on a project, more than $300 million is spent on U.S. national defense.
Frank Lock
Gainesville, Ga.

Charles Fishman replies:

I appreciate Frank Lock’s impulse to defend both NASA and the value of human spaceflight—trying to understand that value was the point of devoting so many pages to a story about the Space Station.
A vital part of NASA’s job is to explain that importance to the public—in terms of the scientific understanding that human space travel provides, in terms of the risk it presents to the astronauts, and also in terms of the money being spent.
The federal government spends $9.6 billion a day—the Space Station’s costs amount to just over a minute of that. In fact, in the story I made the same comparison Frank Lock does: the Space Station costs about what one aircraft-carrier battle group costs, and we have 10 aircraft carriers at sea.
But camouflaging the cost of space travel is no way to treat its value, or to treat Americans’ ability to assess that value and decide whether the money is worth spending.

The Last Rock-Star Poet

In December, James Parker delved into the legacy of Dylan Thomas, “an emblem of poetry.”
James Parker writes that Dylan Thomas was “the last rock-star poet,” and that when he died in 1953, poetry died with him. That’s some love letter.
Parker croons: “This Welshman was electronically famous, and he constellated in his rumpled persona various blips and signals that all said poet.” Parker might be better off claiming that Thomas was one of the first (rather than the last) “rock-star poets,” if by being a “rock star” Parker means meandering in a stereotypically brilliant yet alcoholic stupor through radiant lectures and poems that dazzle for decades, only to show us how “down to earth” he is by peeing in potted plants! And spending time in taverns! And brooding! Really? Do you really think this description of a rock-star poet is original, unique to Dylan Thomas? I’m sorry, Mr. Parker, but you just described about 50 other white male poets I know, and probably hundreds I haven’t met yet, who methodically practice these “blips and signals” with the hopes of being someday compared to poets like Dylan Thomas—those poets who produce remarkable work but live their lives according to what it typically means to be a great white male artist.
Furthermore, poets have hardly been “shuffled off into inconsequence” by “real” rock stars. They may have shuffled themselves into problematic unpopularity by embracing obscurity and exclusivity in their work. Let’s leave AC/DC out of this.
If poets were so inconse-quential, I wouldn’t be directing a nonprofit that puts free poetry workshops into a working-class community in central New York, and I certainly wouldn’t have hosted an auditorium full of students last Friday as they gathered to share poems they’d written and published over the past three months. I wouldn’t have stayed awake most of Tuesday night reading poetry that has emerged from soldier-poets in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I wouldn’t have shared one of these poems with my husband, a soldier himself (one routinely suspicious of poets and their work), and heard him laugh and laugh, the poet’s humor having cracked into him like an ax. How do we define poets of consequence? Book sales? Undergraduate-class attendance? These are pretty flimsy ways to love poetry as we know and remember it.
Parker goes on to claim that Thomas’s poetry has “not held up well” over the years. Only three weeks ago, I brought a group of villanelles into a workshop at the Binghamton Veterans Center, and one of my students read Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” (yes, I still teach it). You want to tell me that the silence in the room after he read that poem, and the sound of another veteran saying plainly and quietly, “Hey, I like this,” are the products of something that only disappoints you? That lacks the “sticky generative sizzle” you crave? Please. Nothing indicates you’ve crafted your claim from a high tower more than this. It sounds as if Thomas’s poetry, for Parker, has become something of a rusty cog in the well-oiled contemporary-poetry machine. But I’m not sure such an engine will “hold up well” over time. It produces loyalty for the sake of loyalty and good old-fashioned literary man crushes.
It’d be unlike me not to end this grumpfest by saying I’m sure Mr. Parker is a nice guy, even though the fact that this Dylan Thomas–worshipping article is sitting nearly squat in the center of one of our country’s most well-read magazines proves how “consequential” poets still are. I appreciate his clearly stated love for poetry and one of its beautiful sons. So thanks, Jim. I mean it.
Abby E. Murray
Endicott, N.Y.

James Parker replies:

Thank you, Abby E. Murray, for reading my article so carefully, for responding to it with such passion, and for your confidence that I am a nice guy.
I don’t think I was saying that all poetry, everywhere, is dead; if I was, I disagree with myself. My argument was rather that the celebrity of Dylan Thomas was a one-off nexus of bardic signifiers and mass communication, and that it narrowly preceded the moment when Dionysus went electric and the poets, as celebrants and prophets and culture-heroes, were replaced by the rock stars. Which is why I call Thomas—apocalyptically perhaps, but you’ve got to have a good title—the Last Rock-Star Poet.
I also said, and this is more of a personal thing, that a lot of Thomas’s poems aren’t as good as I remember them being. But some of them, like “And Death Shall Have No Dominion,” are even better.
Apart from the (surprisingly common) misapprehension that I am sitting in “a high tower” somewhere, let alone presiding in some sense over a “well-oiled contemporary-poetry machine”—I am aware of no such machine—I take issue with only one of your points: “Let’s leave AC/DC out of this.” You can never leave AC/DC out of anything.

Art and the Marketplace

In the January/February issue, William Deresiewicz chronicled “The Death of the Artist—And the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur.”
As a working artist (painter) for the past two decades, and a graduate of an M.B.A. program, I understand the seduction of the popular marketplace. If I post a painting on the Internet and it is received with near-silence, I am tempted to abandon the development of that line of creativity. Artists today don’t have the protective mechanisms in place that allow us to explore our creativity away from the popular vote. However, when I paint with someone else in mind, I lose my voice. If artists of the past hadn’t had patrons, critics, and curators protecting them from the popular vote, I wonder whether abstract expressionism, fauvism, or cubism (to name just a few) would exist today.
It is our responsibility as artists to insulate ourselves from the whims of the marketplace. I would rather reach just a few collectors who feel touched or somehow elevated by my art than thousands of people who are momentarily amused by it. And yet, I will continue to use networking to expose my art to as many people as I possibly can, to find those few who appreciate it and are willing to pay for it. I just need to develop a very thick skin until I do. Not so easy for an artist.
Ann Feldman
Barrington, Ill.

The Curious Case of Jesus’s Wife

Joel Baden and Candida Moss in December described how an ancient papyrus fragment bearing a reference to Jesus’s wife recently came to light. Amid a media frenzy and promising lab-test results, nearly all of the experts have agreed that the fragment is a fake.
The task of verifying the legitimacy and provenance of a historical papyrus fragment, such as the alleged eighth-century‑A.D. Coptic translation of the second-century‑A.D. “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” is difficult enough when taking into account the materials and tools used, the context and content of the text, the age of the document, and the physical conditions in which it was stored.
The underlying motives of those involved in bringing such artifacts to public and professional attention are, of course, varied. They would likely include outcomes that enhance personal, academic, and/or financial status, or help to undermine another current and possibly conflicting theory. Joel Baden and Candida Moss state that a limited provenance indicates that the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, along with five additional papyri, exchanged hands in East Germany in the early 1960s. Those were Cold War days, with the United States and the U.S.S.R. attempting to destabilize each other through a variety of creative programs concocted by the CIA, the Stasi, and the KGB. How better to undermine a puritanically oriented nation’s confidence than to provide an allegedly ancient document ambiguously suggesting that the U.S.A.’s religious foundation in Christianity was flawed by a fundamental misinterpretation of the role of women historically and contemporaneously in a predominantly Christian state?
It isn’t impossible to imagine the Stasi concocting such a plan with the support of the KGB as, at the very least, an irritant to a nation that had recently elected its first Catholic president. Such a revelation at such a tumultuous time in relations between the two expanding superpowers could have proved deleterious to American resolve.
That didn’t happen. If this was the plan, it obviously never got off the ground, for reasons unknown. But let’s not underestimate how far individuals and institutions will go to undermine alternative realities in high-stakes ventures. We’re no strangers to falsifying history to suit some specific objective.
Charles Rocco
Victoria, Australia

Tweets of the Month

Great @TheAtlantic article @cfishman I enjoyed reading “5,200 Days in Space” #LifeInSpace

— @Astro_Ron
Astronaut Ron Garan, who spent a total of 171 days on the International Space Station, about Charles Fishman’s January/ February article

You can tell The Atlantic is presumed to be left of center by the level of rage from the left that their profile of me dared to be fair.

— @EWErickson editor in chief Erick Erickson, about Molly Ball’s “Is the Most Powerful Conservative in America Losing His Edge?” (January/February)

The Big Question

Readers respond to the January/February issue

What Is the Greatest Upset in History?

Henry VIII’s determination to get his own way, leading to a religious schism and the creation of the Church of England

— Rachel Lindsay

The invention of the pill: It allowed masses of women to control our fertility, which allowed us to work outside the home even after marriage, which allowed us to have some economic power, which allowed us to evolve past patriarchal traditions in the developed world.

— Catherine Goodwin

Jethro Tull beating Metallica to win the first Grammy for best hard rock/metal performance, in 1989

— Nick Andrew

The American Revolution: the mightiest army and navy in the world defeated by a group only partially supported by its fellow citizens

— Phillip Hicks

When Goodfellas lost at the Oscars to Dances With Wolves

— Luke Janssen

North Carolina State over Houston in the 1983 NCAA final

— Ryan Schneider

Villanova beating Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA final

— Lou Fabrizio

The Soviets defeating the Nazis was pretty amazing given the horrific losses and disadvantages they had in the beginning.

— Hang Cheng

Frank Reich, backup quarterback, leading the Buffalo Bills, with several big touchdowns, to a win against the Houston Oilers in 1993

— Mike Mooney

Battle of Marathon, 490 b.c.

— Catherine Hudson

Buster Douglas beating Mike Tyson

— @patrickstanton

The 2004 Boston Red Sox defeating the New York Yankees after being down 3–0 in the American League Championship Series

— David M. Wood

The Patriots beating the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI

— Ryan Schneider

The Nez Perce tribe defeated the U.S. cavalry at the Battle of White Bird Canyon. The cavalry had the high ground and tactical superiority. Yet the Nez Perce prevailed with no deaths, and routed the U.S. soldiers.

— Brad Norman

North Vietnam defeating the United States

— Ted Folke

The College All-Stars defeated the Green Bay Packers in a 1963 charity game at Soldier Field in Chicago.

— Doug Lambert

The Battle of Agincourt

— Jeremy Gatz-Miller

The 1960 Pirates over the Yankees

— Brian F. O’Neill

To contribute to The Conversation, please e-mail Include your full name, city, and state.