Washington, DC

Bruce Robbins is entitled to his roomtemperature resentment of me [“Prisoner of Love,” Dec.6], but he makes a false allegation when he says that I have “repeatedly claimed Orwell’s mantle.” To the contrary, and leaving aside the fact that I don’t believe in “mantles” anyway, I have taken every opportunity to disown this aspiration. My denial doesn’t involve me in much immodest effort: Orwell suffered from censorship and hardship all his writing life and took a bullet from a Francoist while narrowly escaping another one in the back from Stalin’s agents in Catalonia. My own life has been somewhat easier, and better rewarded. Moreover, Orwell wrote much better than I do and was capable of producing serious fiction, which I am not.

Once or twice, critics and reviewers have been good enough to make a comparison between us, which makes me shy but which delights my publishers. As with, say, “Jeffersonian,” the term “Orwellian” has only one proper attribution. The coinage “Hitchensian” is unkindly affixed by Robbins to the word “simplifications,” but even if it were yoked to a nobler term, I just can’t see much of a radiant future for it.



New York City

It’s rare for a writer to stand up and say, “I hereby claim the mantle of X.” The process of arranging to be seen in the light of some earlier writer’s accomplishment is a subtler thing. One writes a book about the desired predecessor, for example, and discovers in her or him virtues one has reason to hope others will then see confirmed in oneself. This leaves no evidence that would hold up in a court of law. I will not dispute, therefore, Christopher Hitchens’s statement that he has never sought the authority of George Orwell’s example but has merely had that authority thrust upon him. The point of my review was that, whether he wants it or not, he doesn’t deserve it. Both write very well. But as one learns from Hitchens’s admirable book on Orwell, Orwell had better politics.



Of all our postelection coverage, Katha Pollitt’s “Subject to Debate” column–titled, simply, “Mourn” [Nov. 22]–drew far and away the most mail. Two sample letters:

Pittsboro, NC

Thank you, Katha Pollitt, for saying what too many on the left are afraid to admit: We’re heading toward the America of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or–worse–toward Orwell’s 1984, not because Americans aren’t paying attention but because a majority of them want that as our future. We’re not going to win any converts by saying this, but a majority of Americans–a voting majority, anyway–are willfully ignorant, racist, homophobic, misogynistic and/or religious fundamentalists. And those people are always going to vote Republican. Progressives are going to have to content themselves with forming enclaves where they can live with like-minded people. Think locally, act locally. That won’t help change federal or state laws, but it’s all we’ll have.


Brooklyn, NY

Chin up, Katha! More than 55 million of us voted against Bush. The country is still largely split down the middle: It was a brutal blow but not a blowout. We are not alone, not even where the red dye poisons the landscape. Our values of justice, liberty, equality, freedom, democracy, education and healthcare are better than the fear, hate, misogyny, homophobia and perverted Christianity of the fundamentalists. Plus, our music is better, and we’re funnier! What we stand for, even when we can’t get a candidate to articulate it, is worth fighting for, even when the odds are overwhelming. “The country we carry in our hearts is waiting,” as Springsteen says; it always has and always will, come hell or fascism.



Toledo, Ohio

Stephen Glain’s “Freeze-Out of the Arabists” [Nov. 1], with its apt subtitle, “The Neocons Have Isolated State Department Experts–With Disastrous Results,” sadly, describes a phenomenon that is not new. My late father, Gordon P. Merriam, was an Arabist in the State Department. Chief of the Near East (as they call it) Division, he went on to the Policy Planning Staff, which advises the Secretary of State.

In the Truman Administration he wrote a long, carefully thought-out memorandum regarding his concerns about hasty recognition of Israel to Secretary of State Dean Acheson, saying that such a policy would alienate many Arab nations with which we had good relations. Gen. George Marshall, highly regarded, held the same view and spoke directly to Truman on this matter. UN ambassador Warren Austin firmly concurred. My father was called into Acheson’s office and handed back his memo. He was sternly told, “Mr. Merriam, what you are suggesting is not the policy of the US government.” When my normally composed father exited the State Department the day of the reprimand, he threw up. Considerably stressed, he took early retirement.



Exeter, Devon, England

Having described my biography, Edward Teller: The Real Dr. Strangelove, as mostly “truly excellent,” Jeremy Bernstein, I hope, will not think me churlish if I take issue with him on two points [“Learning to Love the Bomb,” Nov. 1].

First, I am puzzled by his attempt to explain Teller’s radical personality change during his wartime years at Los Alamos. We agree that the fulcrum event was Robert Oppenheimer’s decision not to appoint him as head of the lab’s theoretical division, a job Teller thought was his. That triggered a change from the “charming and collegial” prewar Teller to someone increasingly embittered and alienated from his colleagues. However, Bernstein sees Teller’s overreaction to Oppenheimer’s slight as due to insecurity arising from a sense of scientific failure and points to my lack of scientific understanding in not realizing this. In fact, Teller had much to be pleased about scientifically at that time. Further, a deeper explanation can be found in Teller’s memoirs, namely his years as a “social outcast” at school, which led to his abiding fear of rejection. This was also the explanation offered me by Teller’s onetime friend and colleague, Hans Bethe, of whom Bernstein is biographer.

Second, and most important, despite my “decent” attempt at balance, Bernstein believes that Teller was “often an unprincipled and intellectually dishonest fanatic.” I believe the truth to be more complex. He was principled, but it was the messianic fervor with which he pursued principles like “peace through strength” that many found unacceptable. He was also exceptional in going beyond the scientist’s conventional role of adviser and joining in the political infighting. He believed that to achieve political action he had to trade in exaggerations and worst-case analyses, something so many scientists thought intellectually dishonest. For Teller, however, it was the stuff of politics, the illusion-making necessary to achieve his ends.

And in assessing how successful he was, it must not be forgotten just how significant Star Wars, one of the grandest illusions to which he contributed, was in bringing about the disarmament discussions between Reagan and Gorbachev at Reykjavík.



New York City

I thank Peter Goodchild for his letter. On the matter of what caused Teller’s change of character at Los Alamos, there are surely many causes. Among them, I claim, is his sense of lack of scientific accomplishment. Since Goodchild does not spell out why Teller “had much to be pleased about,” I do not know what he is talking about. Incidentally, I heard from someone who had been at Los Alamos as a very junior physicist. Senior people like Teller and Fermi were assigned to give them physics lectures. Teller’s, he reported, were abominable.

On the matter of Teller’s intellectual honesty, that turns to a large degree on whether the falsehoods he promulgated were knowingly false or whether they were unintentionally false. I think they were both, and in the end it hardly matters since the damage they did–such as involving us in Star Wars–was the same in either case. If this is the “stuff of politics,” then Teller should be treated with the same contempt as any dishonest politician.



Plano, Tex.

I thought your postelection cover showing dark clouds simply conveyed the gloomy feelings of your editors [Nov. 22]. My wife, however, pointed out its true meaning. I should have detected what you had subtly left out–the colossal eye surrounded by flames over a black craggy mountain… Mordor.



Brooklyn, NY

A fool is my shepherd. I shall not think. He maketh me to bog down in a quagmire. He leadeth me beside dirty waters. He destroyeth my ozone. He leadeth me down paths to the extreme right, for his lobbyists’ sake.

Yea, though I walk through relatively safe streets, I do fear evil (the threat level is orange), for thou hast scared me. My assault rifle comforteth me. Thou anointest my car with oil. My deficit runneth over. Thou preparest my table with fast food in the presence of my television.

Surely paranoia and resentment will follow me all the days of my life. And I will dwell in this Empire of Fools till I die, uninsured.



Spokane, Wash.

We feel slandered and maligned, but why? Alexander Cockburn‘s and Katha Pollitt‘s back-to-back December 6 columns have smeared our good e-mail address (“two wingnuts”) and vanity plate (WNGNUTS). Because we are avid bird watchers, we have called ourselves wing nuts for years. We had no idea we were part of some “next generation” conspiracy (Cockburn) or of the evil emanating from the Sunflower State (Pollitt). Should we be proud or ashamed? Should we change our e-mail address and vanity plate? Please enlighten us.