The Conversation

Readers respond to our June 2016 cover story and more.

The Mind of Donald Trump

In June, the psychologist Dan P. McAdams investigated how Donald Trump’s extraordinary personality might shape his possible presidency.

When I saw the cropped photo of Donald Trump’s head on the cover of The Atlantic, my first thought was to expect another left-wing hit piece. However, Dan McAdams’s stated aim, to “develop a dispassionate and analytical perspective” and “to create a psychological portrait of the man,” was indeed supremely achieved. The article seemed a balanced and insightful commentary on what we know (and don’t know) about the man and what we might expect from a Trump presidency.
Walter Cuje
Little Silver, N.J.

McAdams’s article trashing Trump is founded upon the so-called “basic dimensions of human variability,” as applied to a sample of only 43 individuals—namely, the current and former presidents of the United States, 33 of whom were born in the 18th or 19th centuries. Moreover, without the benefit of an interview, he concludes, for instance, that “anger lies at the heart of Trump’s charisma.”
I enjoy reading opinion founded upon fact. But the article is pseudoscience and psychobabble. Its publication demeans the science of psychology and The Atlantic, particularly given that neither the magazine nor McAdams disclosed McAdams’s psychological bias, as evidenced by his repeated political contributions to the campaigns of Barack Obama and other Democrats.
Anthonie M. Voogd
Ojai, Calif.

The article is amazingly shallow psychologically. A father who, in response to his child’s question about why they were standing to the side of a tenant’s door, tells his child, “Sometimes they shoot right through the door,” is a parent who is placing his boy in harm’s way. This is a kid who feels vulnerable and unprotected (perhaps betrayed by a parent who should protect him), and that the world will get you if you don’t watch out. Some people form character armor to cope with these threats, and some people feel terribly vulnerable and afraid for the rest of their lives. These matters are exceedingly complex.
The statement that Donald and his siblings “enjoyed a family environment in which their parents loved them and loved each other” is irresponsible (and laughable) from a psychological point of view. What does that mean? That statement belongs in People magazine. The older brother, Freddy, didn’t drink himself to death because he felt secure, and Donald Trump isn’t who he is because he hasn’t suffered severe developmental trauma. I hope that eventually a responsible and in-depth psychological profile will be written.
Robert Kafes, L.C.S.W.
Tucson, Ariz.

Dan P. McAdams replies:

Composing an evidence-based psychological commentary on a presidential candidate—one that draws exclusively on well-validated constructs in personality and social psychology and relies on reputable biographical sources—constrains an author in many ways. For one, there have been only 43 U.S. presidents, which is a small sample size for comparison. Second, I found no objective evidence in the biographical record to support a claim that the young Donald Trump suffered, say, “severe developmental trauma.”
While some supporters of Trump may dismiss any effort to make psychological sense of the man, some detractors will not be satisfied until he has been psychologically eviscerated. I tried to perform a fair-minded interpretation—sticking to the facts as we know them and to some of the best ideas in contemporary psychological science.

As Heard on TV

William Brennan profiled David J. Peterson (“TV’s Fake-Language Master,” April), a linguist who creates fictional languages for Game of Thrones and other television shows.

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Explore the September 2016 Issue

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I could not help but think what a waste it is that somebody is dreaming up new languages out of thin air for TV shows, when we are in danger of losing so many languages because of a lack of speakers.
Maybe the way to ensure that endangered languages do not go extinct is to persuade producers and writers to use an endangered language instead of creating a new language from scratch. This might also provide money for research and recording of languages and lead to tourism that might help prevent more languages from becoming extinct.
An estimated 30 languages went extinct last year alone, and dozens of aboriginal languages in North America are endangered, so Hollywood need not even go far to find native speakers.
Getting sci-fi and fantasy shows to use existing languages means that even if native speakers disappear, at least there will be legions of nerds left to help keep a language from dying off completely.
Brian Graff
Toronto, Ontario

The Lessons of History

In the May issue, Robert D. Kaplan explored “How Islam Created Europe.”

As doctoral candidates studying Roman and medieval history at Harvard University, we find “How Islam Created Europe” not only historically inaccurate but also dangerous.
The idea that the “Islamic conquests” severed a thriving Mediterranean commercial sphere and irrevocably shifted the center of gravity of Western civilization to the north, first articulated by the Belgian scholar Henri Pirenne, has largely been disproved in the century since he wrote. The combination of war, climate change, and pandemic disease that brought down the Western Roman empire had already crippled large-scale trade and commerce in the Mediterranean, both between east and west and between north and south. In fact, the commercial ties forged among Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the period immediately following the “Islamic conquests” helped create the European economy.
By relying on oversimplification of already outdated historical models, essays like this put the focus on monolithic groups and unavoidable conflict rather than recognizing the complex totality of interactions that shaped the medieval and eventually the modern world. To take one example, the “classical legacy of Greece and Rome” never disappeared from this world, but became a shared cultural tradition that linked medieval Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Syriac Christians helped translate Aristotle into Arabic, and Muslims used his work to create a flourishing new Islamic philosophy. Through this Islamic tradition, Jewish thinkers like Moses Maimonides developed Aristotelian philosophies, and eventually Aristotle returned to Europe. He was not “rediscovered,” but his writings were passed around and interpreted across and beyond the Mediterranean world.
History is a vitally important mirror for our own society and our own values. However, its lessons are rarely simple, and history itself shows the dangers of simplifying them. In fact, if one universal lesson can be drawn from history, it is that historical narratives that divide peoples into us-versus-them dichotomies are the very things that create conflict.

Henry Gruber and John Mulhall
Cambridge, Mass.

Robert D. Kaplan replies:

This letter immobilizes discussion by denying the right to generalize about complex interactions occurring over millennia in a short essay. It also avoids my core theme, which is not the European economy, but the emergence of the idea of Europe. As I wrote, the modern secular West emerged in northern Europe (“albeit in a very slow and tortuous manner”) following the basic division of the Mediterranean world after the Arab invasion. This does not mean meaningful interactions did not continue, only that the Islamic conquest marked a significant separation. I could also have mentioned the Arab military advance into France and the Ottoman advance into central Europe as other great events that developed a further fear of the other culture among Europeans, even if geopolitical and other considerations mitigated this fear. The historian Paul Collins’s The Birth of the West and Francis Oakley’s trilogy, The Emergence of Western Political Thought in the Latin Middle Ages, both recent works, demonstrate how a feudalistic system—a phenomenon generally existing north of the Mediterranean among Germanic peoples—was crucial in the eventual development of Western constitutionalism. I never wrote that the classical tradition disappeared from the whole world, yet its relative rediscovery in northern Europe was part of a larger political evolution from sacral kingship to secular politics. The West had a specific geographical basis, influenced by the Arab invasion, as well as by the collapse of the Sassanid empire, the protection offered by the Byzantine empire, and so on. The authors decry “narratives that divide peoples.” They have an agenda, in other words. But they miss the mark. As I wrote, Europe must now “dynamically incorporate the world of Islam … If it cannot evolve in the direction of universal values, there will only be the dementia of ideologies and coarse nationalisms to fill the void.”
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Story Update: “The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’s Wife”

Karen L. King now says the papyrus is likely a fake. (The Boston Globe / Getty)

In the July/August issue, Ariel Sabar traced the provenance of “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” a supposedly ancient papyrus. In 2012, an eminent Harvard historian of early Christianity, Karen L. King, had set off shock waves in the world of biblical scholarship when she presented the papyrus at a conference in Rome. As Sabar reported,

Never before had an ancient manuscript alluded to Jesus’s being married … Centuries of Christian tradition are bound up in whether the scrap is authentic or, as a growing group of scholars contends, an outrageous modern fake: Jesus’s bachelorhood helps form the basis for priestly celibacy, and his all-male cast of apostles has long been cited to justify limits on women’s religious leadership.

Sabar noted that amid mounting skepticism about the papyrus fragment, King continued to maintain that the fragment could be authentic, citing numerous scientific tests. But she declined to reveal who owned the papyrus, and eventually told Sabar that she hadn’t “engaged the provenance questions at all.”

Sabar performed his own investigation, tracking the fragment to Walter Fritz, a German-born man with an unconventional personal life who had once studied Egyptology and now lived in Florida. After an initial denial—and several bizarre misdirections, if not lies—Fritz admitted that he owned the papyrus, and insisted that he had not forged it.

The day after The Atlantic published the story, King—who’d previously opted not to comment on, or even hear about, Sabar’s findings—conceded that the papyrus is a probable fake. “It tips the balance towards forgery,” she said of the article, in which Sabar detailed possible signs of fakery in a provenance document that Fritz had given her (a document King had declined to share with other scholars or the public).

“I had no idea about this guy, obviously,” King said of Fritz. “He lied to me.”

Fritz, for his part, did not comment on this development for The Atlantic. In an interview with his local Florida newspaper, the North Port Sun, he maintained that the papyrus could be authentic. “To my knowledge, there’s no test so far that shows it as a forgery … even if you had absolute proof that it was not a forgery, if you were a scientist, would you come out right now and say so? Heck no.”

King told Sabar, “Your article has helped me see that provenance can be investigated.” The Harvard Theological Review, according to The Boston Globe, is not retracting the paper King published about the papyrus. “The mission of Harvard Divinity School, its faculty, and higher education more generally is to pursue truth through scholarship, investigation, and vigorous debate,” the school’s dean, David N. Hempton, said in a statement. “HDS is therefore grateful to the many scholars, scientists, technicians, and journalists who have devoted their expertise to understanding the background and meaning of the papyrus fragment. HDS welcomes these contributions and will continue to treat the questions raised by them with all the seriousness they deserve.”

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The Brontës’ Secret,” by Judith Shulevitz (June), identified “Reader, I married him” as the “famous last line” of Jane Eyre. In fact, that line is the first sentence of the novel’s last chapter.

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