‘We Ignore Our Own Sins at Our Peril’

Readers respond to our December 2021 cover story and more.

photo of magazine open to "The Autocrats Are Winning" article
The Atlantic

The Autocrats Are Winning

Dictators have joined forces to advance their nefarious interests and undermine liberal democracy around the world, Anne Applebaum argued in December.

Excellent article detailing how the world is changing and we are not paying close-enough attention. Every member of Congress should get a copy in the mail, as should every board member of every major corporation in this country.

John N. Powers
Wittenberg, Wis.

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I appreciate Anne Applebaum’s insights into the rise of self-serving and dangerous autocrats. She helpfully points out that there is no particular ideology associated with these leaders and their regimes; the common thread is their tendency to accrue power, generally to the benefit of themselves, their families, and their cronies.

I do take issue with her critique of “a part of the American left” for abandoning the idea that America should more vigorously promote democracy abroad. I am on board with the need to strongly advocate for democracy, both abroad and at home. But to be dismissive of our country’s mixed history—which is indeed mired in “genocide, slavery, exploitation, and not much else”—is a little misleading. While I would not want to dismiss the ideals of self-governance embodied in our Constitution, we ignore our own sins at our peril.

The expansionism of the Soviet Union during the Cold War needed to be resisted, but we had a tendency to prop up a lot of unsavory regimes that committed horrible crimes against their own people long as they toed a pro-capitalist, anti-Communist line. Our nation has had difficulty winning the political struggle that goes with counterinsurgency warfare by backing corrupt and brutal kleptocracies at least as disturbing as those Ms. Applebaum is justifiably concerned about now. If we are to unite with our allies against such nefarious players, some acknowledgment of our own sins of omission and commission may be called for.

Ed Behan
Fort Collins, Colo.

Anne Applebaum’s perceptive account of advancing autocrats will resonate in thoughtful circles for some time to come. She does, however, omit several key reasons the United States has lost global credibility, and will probably continue to do so.

We lose credibility when we install or prop up governments that the governed have no say in selecting. We lose credibility when we provide billions of dollars to oligarchs and juntas just for tolerating American military presence and operations. We lose credibility when we send foreign aid to governments on the condition that they use it to buy American-made industrial and military hardware. We lose credibility when we contract peacekeeping and other activities out to private mercenaries.

We would do well to correct our own practices instead of wringing our hands about the success and advancement of the globe’s autocrats.

Gerald F. McAvoy
Bethlehem, N.Y.

The Facts

What we learned fact-checking this issue

In “My Personality Transplant,” Olga Khazan explores whether we can change the key traits that make up who we are. She touches on the theory of “post-traumatic growth,” which posits that adversity can lead to positive transformation. That hardship has a silver lining is comforting, but does growth require suffering?

Thankfully, no. A 2018 meta-analysis dispelled the widespread notion that negative life events have a greater effect on people than positive ones. The researchers found that major life events of both types can produce higher self-esteem and better relationships. Still, significantly more research has been devoted to the impact of tough times than to the impact of happier ones (an example of what scientists call “negativity bias”), even though, for most of us, good things happen far more often.

The change that emerges from positive experiences has a name too: post-ecstatic growth. In 2013, the clinical psychologist Ann Marie Roepke coined the phrase, finding that “our best moments can inspire us, connect us to something greater than ourselves, and open our eyes to new possibilities.”

Michelle Ciarrocca, Senior Associate Editor

Q & A

In December, Ariel Sabar wrote about Matthew Bogdanos, who works in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and is on a mission to prosecute dealers and collectors who traffic in the looted relics of ancient civilizations (“The Antiquities Cop”). Here, Sabar answers a reader’s question about his article.

Q: The issue of legitimate ownership of antiquities is far from clear-cut. In many cases, artifacts were removed from their resting places decades ago with the full knowledge and consent of the authorities in power at the time. In other cases, today’s unstable political situations in the originating countries have shown their governments to be unstable guardians of historic treasures.

Antiquities trafficking is a prosecutable offense, but does the pursuit of legal remedies make sense in most cases? The law is applied with the assumption that a country that exists today “owns” what is or was unearthed within its borders, but should that be the case when the current inhabitants of a region aren’t necessarily the true descendants of the object’s original creators?
Michael P. Lustig, New York, N.Y.

A: Museums, dealers, and others skeptical of the movement to return antiquities to their homelands have made similar arguments. But supporters of repatriation take a different view: First, the “authorities in power at the time” were in many cases colonial overseers, like the 19th-century Europeans who policed excavations on Egypt’s “behalf” while thwarting archaeology by Egyptians and spiriting pharaonic artifacts to the West. Second, it is possible both to acknowledge a country’s ownership of antiquities and to worry about—and, ideally, help improve—its ability to care for them. Finally, though the “true descendants” of an ancient sculptor or tomb designer may be open to debate, ownership is a legal concept defined by a patchwork of present-day laws. When Matthew Bogdanos, the chief of the Manhattan district attorney’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit, goes before judges to argue that an object is stolen, he relies on New York statute, foreign patrimony laws, and court precedent. He sees the wider ethics questions as beyond his prosecutorial brief—and as a recipe, as he put it in one of our interviews, for “paralysis by analysis.”

Behind the Cover:

Finding happiness is complicated under the best of circumstances, even more so during a prolonged pandemic. For our March cover, Christine Walsh, The Atlantic’s senior photo editor, suggested using a maze to represent the challenge. We commissioned the design studio HunterGatherer to bring the idea to life: a complex, concentric labyrinth with a smile at its center.

Oliver Munday, Design Director