Letters - Summer 2008

Response to Our Spring Issue

By Our readers | June 1, 2008

Passing the Torch

I found it odd that Stephen J. Pyne, in his article “Passing the Torch” (Spring 2008), omitted the Kelowna firestorm of 2003 from his list of megafires, the genesis of which would also expand his list of contributing factors. The Kelowna fire was certainly the largest and most devastating of the 2,500 British Columbia fires that summer. The cumulative damage was 2,500 square kilometers of destroyed property. While it is true that conditions were unusually dry during July and August of that year and the 70 years of fire suppression tactics exacerbated the fuel loads of particular areas, Pyne did not mention that the invasive mountain pine beetle has experienced unprecedented growth in numbers due to the mild winters. The larvae can’t survive quick cold spells early or late in the winter but can withstand short spells of intense cold midwinter due to an antifreeze buildup in their blood. This population explosion is a phenomenon directly related to global warming, and it will only get worse.

Adam Ward
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

Stephen J. Pyne replies: I didn’t include the 2003 Kelowna fires for several reasons.

One, last November I published a long, general survey of the Canadian experience with fire, which included the 2003 firestorm (Awful Splendour: A Fire History of Canada). I said there what I had to say about Kelowna and about the contemporary fire scene in Canada overall and wanted to write about something different.

Two, I did not include some large fires from other parts of the world either, some of them several orders of magnitude larger than the recent American mega­fires—those in Mongolia and Russia are good examples. But I also said little about some of the horrific fires that have struck Australia (for example, during the continent’s 2003 fire season, one streamer sacked Canberra and incinerated the national observatory, a more powerful and certainly more political crisis than Kelowna).

And three, I would disagree that the mountain pine beetle is a simple, climate-fuel-fire story. Certainly warming winters have favored the beetle’s survival, but its propagation is also an outcome of very dense and contiguous lodgepole forests, which appear to be an artifact of human meddling over the past century, not least a refashioned fire regime. Photos comparing forest sites from the 19th century to today generally show an astonishing thickening of the scene—a condition that has greatly assisted beetle spread. Moreover, beetle-killed trees, especially in dense stands, are notoriously flammable but only while they still retain their dead needles. In this condition they are, in effect, standing red slash. But once the needles drop, as they do within a year or so, the trees, while combustible, are not explosively flammable. The fire hazard is thus a kind of rolling thunder as the beetles infect new frontiers. While the problem is on so vast a scale that it seems overwhelming, even here there are measures possible to hold that frontier for a short period of time or to undertake other interventions. Without warming, the beetle outbreak likely would not have scaled into an epidemic; without human activity, it is unlikely it could have reached the dimensions it has. Climatic change still has to refract through complex biotic systems and through no less complicated cultural systems.


The Liberal Imagination of Frederick Douglass

Thank you for publishing Nick Bromell’s insightful call for a new language of emotion and spontaneity in today’s liberal politics. Bromell echoes arguments made by the political philosopher Nancy Rosenblum, who similarly sought to bring together the atomized spheres of Romantic emotionalism on the one hand and a cold, narrowly defined liberalism on the other. Since emotion can become associated with arbitrariness and abuse, with untrammeled individual will, it is no accident that liberalism has adopted a formal, contractual posture instead. Bromell reminds us of the costs of this approach. Though today we tend to look down on Victorian culture as overly sentimental, the way in which 19th-century leaders such as Lincoln and Frederick Douglass spoke about emotion and politics still has something to teach us.

Yonatan Eyal
Toronto, Canada


Rome’s Gossip Columnist

I was amused to find in Garry Wills’s article in the Spring 2008 issue the classical source for a verse published in an 18th-century American newspaper and reprinted some years ago in The William and Mary Quarterly. Martial’s lines, lamenting the death of a little slave, read (in Wills’s translation): “Earth, sadly mounded on this gravesite new, / Press lightly on her, as she did on you.” Here’s the colonial American knockoff:

Now doth the fair Susannah sleep,
For whom the lads of Upton weep.
She could resist your feeble elder,
But upstart youth hath ofttimes felled her.
Oh earth, lie light on her, for she
Hath many a time lain light on thee.

Michael McGiffert
Williamsburg, Virginia

I found the essay on Martial by Garry Wills fascinating. I particularly appreciated Wills’s assertion that “epigrams must add artifice,” by which it appears, from his examples, that he means scansion and rhyme. Wills’s ideas were anticipated some 327 years earlier by Thomas Brown (1663–1704), who, while a student at Christ Church, Oxford, got into some sort of mischief. He was thereupon threatened with expulsion by the dean, Dr. John Fell, unless he could successfully translate Martial’s epigram, i.32: “Non amo te, Sabidi, nec possum dicere quare: Hoc tantum possum dicere, non amo te.” Brown avoided expulsion with the brilliant, Wills-like, translation (which today appears in some collections of nursery rhymes):

I do not like thee, Dr. Fell,
The reason why I cannot tell;
But this I know, and know full well,
I do not like thee, Dr. Fell

Paul Zweifel
Radford, Virginia


Polymer Persons

Priscilla Long, in her essay “Polymer Persons” in the Spring issue, correctly asserts that public fascination with the macabre has deep historical roots, and her grotesque descrip­tion of a gallows disembowelment and the theater surrounding it is well written.

It seems somehow fitting then to note that modern-day criminals of the state in a foreign country have been similarly castrated and dissected for public display.

I was unsettled though, by Long’s conclu­sion, which strangely seemed to contradict her musings as they crossed philosophy, history, literature, experience, and spirituality. She writes: “Whatever our faith, we pay our respects to the dead.” How then, does this support her statement that the “cadavers [from Bodies: The Exhibition] are presented with respect,” especially in light of recent news developments questioning the procurement of the cadavers, and the humanity that assumed them?

Yes, in the end, we are viewing our own bodies, our own selves. We may look in the mirror and see the plastic that we’ve become, the plastic that we consume. “Our bodies will have become remains.” What remains of our society, if we cannot honor the dead? If indeed the “body is the house of the soul,” we clearly choose to be bereft of this connectedness by treating these exhibits as mere edutainment.

The question of consent (“these polymer persons did not grant permission for their bodies to be displayed after death”) in this situation is paramount and formidable.

That these bodies, unidentifiable by name or origin, have become public figures may be a cruel and unusual punishment that they in life certainly could not have foreseen. We have a choice: to act responsibly and look away, or to gawk in astonishment.

Chau Nguyen, M.D.
Los Angeles, California


Exit No Exit

David Lehman declares that existentialism is dead, leaving behind only its “faded glamour,” holding the Age of Aquarius, Vietnam, and deconstruction responsible for its demise. Despite recognizing it as an “action philosophy,” a “survivor’s answer to nihilistic despair,” Lehman nonetheless reduces it to a life style, not a philosophy of life.

I will not address the impact of deconstruction with its moral ambiguities. I will suggest, however, that the protests against the Vietnam War demonstrated the vitality of existentialism in the ’60s and its relevance for today. While existential­ism is marked by the realization of one’s own “contingency,” nevertheless it insists on the recognition that each of us as individuals is responsible for what we do, for who we are, the way we face and deal with the world.

The activation of today’s generation of students in the Obama campaign indicates that, like their activist forebears of the ’60s, they are recognizing, like good existentialists, that they are capable and responsible for making their own histories and that of the world. Lehman’s elegiac lament for existentialism is premature.

Gustin L. Reichbach
Brooklyn, New York


A Dangerous Weapon

In his review of Louis P. Masur’s The Soiling of Old Glory, Andy Grundberg mentions “Eddie Adams’s image of Vietnamese General Loan executing a man on a Saigon street.” In The Sixties Unplugged, historian Gerard J. DeGroot writes, “What the [Adams] photo did not show was that the victim had earlier murdered one of Loan’s aides, the aide’s wife, and all of his children. (A photo on the same page [of The New York Times with the photo of General Loan] showed a Republic of Vietnam officer holding the body of his daughter, recently executed by the Viet Cong. That photo was quickly forgotten.)”

Perhaps Grundberg astutely selected Adams’s image for the same reason Masur selected Stanley Forman’s “Old Glory” image, as Grundberg wrote, to challenge “our ability to reasonably interpret what we see.”

Kenneth G. Hellyar
Rochester, New York

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