JOHN BROWN, RATIONAL HERO
New York City
I’m an admirer of both David Reynolds and Martin Duberman, but I’m sorry that Duberman, like Barbara Ehrenreich in the New York Times and Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker, seems to see Reynolds as the first reputable historian to argue that John Brown was not insane but a rational and effective hero [“The Avenging Angel,” May 23]. All these enthusiastic critics ignore Albert Fried’s 1978 John Brown’s Journey: Notes and Reflections on His America and Mine. Fried challenged the work of Allan Nevins and C. Vann Woodward, who argued that Brown was mad, a monomaniac.
Viewing Brown through the perspective of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, Fried saw the deep moral rationality and effectiveness of Brown’s life and actions. His book was viciously assaulted in the Times by David Donald, a Southern historian who had previously suggested that Charles Sumner, the abolitionist senator, was demented. Fried was critical of the historical establishment, which invariably identified with the moderates in opposition to the “extremists.” Fried’s work deserves more attention.
PICKS BONE WITH EINSTEIN GROUPIES
I was pleased to see Joshua Foer’s excellent review of the reissue of the Born-Einstein letters [“The Other 1905 Revolution,” May 16]. However, I have a bone to pick with popular characterizations of the two most famous features of the theory: One is that E = mc2 is a logical consequence of the special theory of relativity (a claim repeated by Foer), and the other, that nothing can travel faster than light was a starting assumption of the theory (Foer does not make this claim). Both the equation and the limiting speed are, indeed, consistent with and integral to the elaboration of the theory, though they are not simply consequences of the standard postulates. Neither in the fifth paper in 1905 nor in his subsequent several attempts did Einstein derive the equation from the basic postulates purely logically. Additional (quite profound) assumptions were needed, and the fact that he made them only adds to Einstein’s revolutionary boldness of those years.
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Determining whether one thing is a “logical consequence” of another can be a tricky game of semantics. Einstein himself wrote in a letter to Conrad Habicht in the summer of 1905, “A consequence of the study on electrodynamics [the special theory of relativity] did cross my mind. Namely, the relativity principle, in association with Maxwell’s fundamental equations, requires that the mass be the direct measure of the energy contained in a body; light carries mass with it.” It’s true that Einstein had to do more than just rearrange a few variables to get from his monumental June paper on relativity to September’s three-page derivation of E = mc2, but it’s also true that had Einstein not made this leap, someone else would have made it before long.
West Hartford, Conn.
In his May 2 review of Lisa Hajjar’s Courting Conflict: The Israeli Military Court System in the West Bank and Gaza, “Before the Law,” Neve Gordon quite properly highlights the system’s employment of Druse translators but neglects a most telling aspect of this policy, namely, the deliberate neglect of Mizrahi Jews for this work. Although hundreds of thousands of Jews have immigrated to Israel from Arab countries and continue to speak Arabic at home, the Ashkenazi Jews who dominate Israel have always suppressed the Middle Eastern culture of these immigrants. Since the beginning of the modern Zionist project the Jewish homeland has been a European settler society. Employing Mizrahi Jews as translators would encourage public display of a culture that most Ashkenazi Jews despise.
SO MUCH OLDER THEN..
I am grateful for David Yaffe’s voice, added to the voices on the life and works of Bob Dylan [“Tangled Up in Bob,” April 25]. It confirms my suspicions that Dylan was not the righteous savior of the 1960s that many held him up to be. As for the “soft spot for Barry Goldwater,” I have a similar defect of character. I often wonder what benefits (or detriments) would have been realized if my Young Republican efforts for Senator Goldwater in 1964 had been rewarded in the defeat of “Landslide Lyndon” Johnson. There is no question that the civil rights gains under Johnson were way overdue, and both Goldwater and I were wrong about a lot of things back then.
But a lot of water has flowed under the statist bridges built since, and I reject the predictable, superficial, knee-jerk dichotomy of liberal versus conservative so ludicrously dominant, for a more useful dichotomy of statist versus libertarian, if we must divide our complex politics into only two camps (which we shouldn’t). I now consider myself a raging civil libertarian, but I fully support the Second Amendment and still harbor the soft spot for Goldwater. Does that make me a “conservative” card-carrying member of the ACLU, even if I totally disbelieve today’s self-serving warmongers?
Many of Dylan’s works are stubbornly truthful, even if the messenger has feet of clay. No matter. He provided a useful phrase we should all embrace: “Don’t follow leaders; watch the parking meters.”
H. WATKINS ELLERSON
New York City
Vivian Gornick’s analysis of Jonathan Safran Foer’s fiction is right on target; the author’s layers of story are intricate, but the history is miniaturized [“About a Boy,” April 25]. Gornick quotes the long passage in which the protagonist of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close “imagines the whole of September 11 in reverse: ‘The plane would have flown backward away from [Dad], all the way to Boston.'” Kurt Vonnegut has a strikingly similar passage in Slaughterhouse-Five, also about death from the air: the firebombing of Dresden (which killed 130,000). Vonnegut, though, has Tralfamadorian aliens reverse a televised film about World War II bombing: The fires subside as the bombs rise back up into the planes and the bombers fly backward to Britain. At the end the metals in the bombs are buried deep underground, where they can never harm anyone again. Despite the literary echoes, Vonnegut’s despairing satire is very far from the self-pity of Foer’s character.
COMMIES & PINKOS & REDS, OH MY!
New York City
In a thoughtful review [“The Impermanent Revolution,” March 14] of the new Verso edition of Isaac Deutscher’s classic three-volume biography of Leon Trotsky, Ronald Aronson blames the horrors of Stalinism on the “original sin” of the Bolsheviks: seizing power in November 1917 with the alleged intention of establishing a single-party state. He characterizes the Russian Revolution as a “leap into the blue” and “a radical act of will” on the part of the Bolsheviks. Their “revolutionary zeal,” according to Aronson, “flew in the face of sober Marxist analysis–that of Martov and the Mensheviks,” which insisted on “democracy and a high level of economic development” as prerequisites for socialism.
Aronson neglects to mention, however, that the Bolsheviks were not the only ones to fail the sobriety test in 1917. In March the Russian people, without instigation from the exiled Bolshevik leaders, overthrew the Romanov monarchy. They then began, also on their own, to desert the Eastern Front in droves, seize land from the landlords and take over the factories. This upheaval found political expression in the soviets–democratically elected soldiers’, peasants’ and workers’ councils–whose authority soon came to rival that of the provisional government that had replaced the Czar. Its chief, Alexander Kerensky, was committed to the existing property regime as well as to the war aims of the Entente. The resulting crisis of dual power could be resolved in only one of two ways: the suppression of the soviets or the overthrow of the provisional government. The Bolsheviks chose the latter. Their insurrection (commonly referred to nowadays as the “Petrograd coup”) was indeed an act of will. It was not, as Aronson implies, however, a blind leap but rather the culmination of a profound revolutionary process that the Bolsheviks sought to lead but neither created nor fully controlled.
The reigning academic orthodoxy that the provisional government, left undisturbed, could have ushered in a stable capitalist parliamentary regime is highly implausible. Despite the sober counsels of the Mensheviks, the masses were far too intoxicated with their newly discovered power to go back to the slaughter of the trenches or to return the land and workplaces to their former owners. Nothing short of the bloodbath the defenders of the old order were preparing could have restored the status quo ante. The Bolsheviks acted to prevent such an outcome.
The long-term consequences of their historic deed are ramified. But their early coalition with the Left Socialist Revolutionaries suggests that the Bolsheviks of 1917 did not necessarily aim for a one-party state, much less the Stalin dictatorship that emerged in the following years. By attempting to place all power in the soviets, Lenin and Trotsky pursued the only course open to those who drank deep of the possibilities of direct mass democracy unleashed by the collapse of the czarist empire and who took their revolutionary beliefs seriously enough to put them into action.
Isn’t it time we stopped mythologizing and blaming when talking about the Bolshevik Revolution and Russian Communism? I hoped instead to follow Isaac Deutscher’s emphasis on understanding and explaining, but Jim Creegan won’t let go of the myth of the Good Revolution and its democratic leaders. By mistakenly accusing me of blaming the Bolsheviks’ decision to create a one-party state for Stalinism, he avoids the real issue: Didn’t the seizure of power in 1917, and the earlier theoretical reframing of Marxism by Lenin (“the vanguard party”) and Trotsky (“permanent revolution”), implicitly reject Marxism’s insistence that socialism is possible only after a society has achieved deep and long-term structural and demographic processes of development? Marx: no urbanization and industrial revolution, no majority working class, no socialism.
When Creegan says that seizing power was “the only course open to those who drank deep of the possibilities of direct mass democracy” he reminds us that the Revolution’s intoxicating effect is alive today. But Marxism still teaches, and twentieth-century experience further emphasizes, that there is no connection between the ability to take power in a backward country and maintaining the capacities to create a society worthy of the name–one that is democratic and humane. In taking “their revolutionary beliefs seriously enough to put them into action,” Lenin and Trotsky equated the two abilities, and socialists as well as liberals are still paying for their political, intellectual and moral confusion.
WHO KILLED ALDO MORO?
Frederika Randall, in “Fear and Loathing in Italy” [March 28], makes excellent points about Leonardo Sciascia’s brilliance as a novelist. She also reviews The Moro Affair, Sciascia’s interpretation of the 1978 kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro. While acknowledging that not everything in this book can be relied upon, she fails to point out its pioneering status in the vast conspiracy literature on the subject. For Sciascia, the principal villains of the Moro tragedy are not the Red Brigadists who killed him but the Christian Democrats, who, as Randall puts it, “did not want Moro to come back alive.”
I examined the judicial archives in Rome for my 1995 book, The Aldo Moro Murder Case, and could find no evidence for Sciascia’s indictment of the government. All the testimony presented at the many trials confirmed that the Red Brigadists, acting from Marxist-Leninist revolutionary motives, bore sole responsibility for Moro’s murder. Subsequent research by Vladimiro Satta in Odissea nel caso Moro reiterated that the conspiracy theory was baseless. Reaching this conclusion after analyzing the documents produced by Parliament in its painstaking investigation, he specifically identified Sciascia’s erroneous ideas that “misled many after him.” In Il caso Moro: Una tragedia repubblicana, Agostino Giovagnoli concerns himself with the political context and significance of the story but not its “mysteries,” which he mentions only to downplay.
For complex political and ideological reasons, Sciascia’s unsubstantiated conspiracy theory has been accepted as gospel across a broad spectrum of public opinion in Italy. The general tenor of Randall’s review endorses this conspiracy theory. Nation readers need to know that in the ongoing debate about the Moro murder case, the historical evidence flatly contradicts Sciascia’s interpretation.