Letters - Spring 2010

Response to our Winter Issue

By Our Readers | March 1, 2010

Practice Does Not Make Poetry

I must differ with Priscilla Long’s assertion in her article “My Brain on My Mind,” in your Winter 2010 issue, that 10,000 hours of practice will a musician make. She cites a recent book in which this claim is made on the basis of presumed “scientific” research. However, as many musicians and teachers of music will agree, most students would not come near musicianship and artistry were they to practice for 100,000 hours. Even that minority who attain a relative degree of technical prowess do not exhibit the God-given sense for poetry—the ability to make poetry of music, to breathe into the music the spiritual dimension that makes a series of notes into a living work of art. Another writer in your current issue illustrates this very well. In his essay “Strange Matter,” John Olson points out that “Chopin, after all, is not just notes. Chopin is the glamour of yearning.”

M. Jackson Osborn
Houston, Texas

Inevitable History

While John Lukacs’s denun­ciation elsewhere of pseudo-historian and Holocaust denier David Irving is com­­mendable, his own long-criticized tendencies for confusion and illogic remain a problem, as evidenced in his second recent opus for the Scholar, “Seventy Years Later.” Therein Lukacs notes that “history does not consist of ‘facts’ but of statements of them,” and he treats that irony as an ideal—that is, as if history need not be factual—by drawing con­clusions insufficiently anchored to facts. Consider the essay’s final contention that the Holocaust wasn’t technically inevitable.

Lukacs could have relied upon facts to conclude that after almost two millennia of Passion plays, disenfranchisements, blood libels, killings, forced conversions, “Cru­sades,” the Inquisition, and pogroms, the mass murders of the Holocaust that followed were foreseeable and worrisomely inevitable. So are foreseeable future repetitions by fanatics unless preventative steps are taken. Instead, he concluded that the Holocaust wasn’t historically inevitable or philosophically fated via suppositions emblematic of the most obfuscating Hegelian metaphysicians.

Ivan Smason
Los Angeles, California

John Lukacs’s essay might have noted that the perpetrators of war are also among its victims. The two world wars of the 20th century were not inexplicable accidents of history but a logical outcome of centuries of false hopes, idealism, and aspirations, which, not incidentally, in addition to causing the sacrificial death of scores of millions, also granted happy, productive lives to hundreds of millions more. These wars were simply the product of the way human beings have thought and lived, and societies have developed. If it hadn’t been Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo, there would surely have been others.

Arthur H. King Jr.
Audubon, New Jersey

On Writing Better

As someone who thinks of himself as a good writer and a student of good writing, I was aghast reading William Zinsser’s Point of Departure piece “Writing English as a Second Language,” which he originally presented as a talk to incoming students at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism this past summer. The mantras he had the students repeat in unison at the end of his talk (“Short is better than long. Simple is good. Long Latin nouns are the enemy. Anglo-Saxon active verbs are your best friend. One thought per sentence.”) pretty much sum it all up. But do not think for a moment that this is a recipe for good writing. There is no such recipe, and certainly not one that can be reduced to five simplistic maxims.

I understand that Zinsser is advising would-be journalists, not aspiring fiction writers; but journalism, too, can come alive with the joy and play of the written word, can shine with the sparks of stylistic innovation and linguistic creativity (or, to translate this into Zinsser’s non-Latinate terms, “Even newsmen can write great”). Zinsser’s formula will yield writing that is formulaic. Thus, while he counsels his listeners to “be yourself,” to “never try in your writing to be someone you’re not” (good advice for politicians, not writers, who must of necessity don masks), what he offers them in reality is a straightjacket that will only stifle their individual voices as they strive to compress and deform their ideas to fit the Procrustean bed of short, simple, active, grunt-sized sentences.

“Don’t say anything in writing that you wouldn’t comfortably say in conversation,” he shockingly suggests; “don’t try to find a noun that you think sounds more impressive or ‘literary’”; “don’t lose [yourself] by putting on airs, trying to sound superior.” Forget craft, in other words. Forget style. Forget all you ever heard about the perfect marriage of form and function, of a unique means of expression ideally suited to the content you wish to convey. Don’t aim too high, don’t think you’re better than anyone else, and don’t sound literary, Latinate, or erudite. Middlebrow mediocrity will do.

This is advice from the same people who put you through such abecedarian exercises as the spirit-killing five-paragraph essay, who taught you never to begin a sentence with a conjunction, who warned you away from adverbs, and who sagely cautioned you to eschew all complexity, prolixity, difficulty, and mystery.

Alexander Zubatov
New York, New York

I hesitate to quibble with someone who has done so much to advance the causes of clear writing, but William Zinsser’s diatribe on the corrosive effects of Latin is simply wrong-headed. It is one thing to lambaste pompous officials and experts who use hifalutin language to confuse or impress the rest of us. It is quite another to blame the language itself, as if it were somehow responsible for its own misuse.

Zinsser praises Anglo-Saxon as a “plain” language and takes Latin to task for being “florid” (both Latin words, by the way; perhaps Zinsser would like to suggest Anglo-Saxon alternatives). In truth, Latin can be as plain as Anglo-Saxon English and far more economical. If Zinsser doubts that, I suggest that he pick up a copy of Caesar’s Commentaries, the Agricola of Tacitus, or Cicero’s first oration against Catiline.

The plain fact is that the English lan­guage owes as much to Latin as it does to Anglo-Saxon. Half the words Zinnser uses in his talk come from Latin directly or, indi­rectly, by way of Norman French. With­out Latin, it would be impossible for the best speakers and writers of our language to say things as precisely and as beautifully as they do.

Douglas Clemensen
Redding, Connecticut

Fighting Words

After reading Brian Doyle’s article on colleges and mascots in the Winter 2010 issue, I was surprised that he did not discuss the controversy over whether it is inappropriate for an institution to feature as its mascot any representation of Native Americans. I do not think that the reference to the “fighting Indians,” “big red,” the “fighting Sioux,” or even the Washington Redskins, demeans in any way Indian peoples. One of the last institutions using an Indian appellation is the University of North Dakota, which calls itself the Fighting Sioux. I understand that the institution is quite proud of its designation and that many Native Americans in North Dakota (whose graduates of that university represent a significant portion of the doctors, lawyers, senior businessmen, and so forth, in the state) are not the least bit insulted; they, in fact, relish the appellation.

James Lyon
Hartford, Connecticut

Brian Doyle replies: I didn’t discuss the whole Indian thing because I was concentrating on animals—but, with respect for you and all the Dakotans who don’t mind being  called the Fighting Sioux, some nicknames are just ridiculous. I mean, c’mon, the Redskins—would a team call itself the Blackskins or the Battling Yellow Peril? We all make too much of this—and I speak as an alumnus of a school called the Fighting Irish, which surely harks back to a sneering joke at the expense of my ancestry—but some names are just stupid. I admire the late Abe Pollin, the National Basketball Association team owner who had the guts to simply change a name he thought was stupid: Bullets.

Flu Skepticism

The great irony of Michael Specter’s book Denialism, as well as its review by Natalie Angier, is that in their defense of science both are as unscientific as the “delusional crowd” they scorn. Flu vaccination is their main example of beneficial science denied by ignorant nuts. Angier shares a touching anecdote about her daughter suffering from swine flu and how the exper­ience made her “wish” the vaccine had been available “to prevent the misery altogether.” Wishing is not science. How does she know that the flu vaccine works to prevent serious illness? She claims “the overwhelming weight of the evidence is on the side of vaccination.” This may be the case for vaccination in general, but for flu vaccine this is categorically untrue.

The randomized clinical trials of flu vaccine all fail to find significant clinical benefits. The observational studies cited to promote vaccination have been known for years to be flawed by a failure to control for differences between people who get flu shots and those who don’t: when healthy life styles are controlled, the apparent benefit of flu vaccine disappears. There is no debate on this in the medical community, as a quick look at the Cochrane reports or other evidence-based reviews would confirm.

I agree with Angier and Specter that we should rely on rigorous “evidence that can be tested, verified, and repeated,” but when it comes to flu vaccine, they happily abandon scientific skepticism and instead rely on the unsupported opinion of experts in whom they have a quasi-religious faith. This is the worst sort of eminence-based, as opposed to evidence-based, thinking.

C. Andrew Aligne, M.D.
Rochester, New York

Ayn Rand Rationalists

In his review of recent books about Ayn Rand, Ethan Fishman says that her protagonists Roark and Galt “are solipsists who refuse to alter their beliefs.”

Not true. They are rationalists who would surely alter a belief if anyone ever offered evidence that it was wrong.

No one ever has.

Stephan Gerzadowicz
Putnam Valley, New York

Ethan Fishman gives an intelligent review of the strengths and weaknesses of two new Ayn Rand biographies, but it’s clear that he doesn’t like Rand very much. He cites the philosophies of Aristotle, Machiavelli, Spencer, Nietzsche, and others; but when it comes to Rand he capitalizes her “Objectivism” as if it were a patented corporate product and describes the philosophy as “invented,” suggesting that Rand is a manufactured philosopher. He has even less respect for Rand’s readers, supporters, and believers, who he says have been “created,” especially the currently crop of readers sent over from Glenn Beck’s studios, even suggesting they have not read the books: “Among the signs carried by demonstrators at the recent rallies are some reading ‘Who is John Galt?’” Fishman helps us all out here: “John Galt is, as it happens, the protagonist of Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged.”

Fishman believes that there are no mainstream Rand supporters, only right-wing extremists, saying those who claim to be mainstream are “self-described.” But here he is clearly wrong. A 1991 survey by the Library of Congress asked what was the most influential book in a person’s life: Atlas Shrugged came in second after the Bible. Rand sales have surged again since the recent economic crisis, as they have surged in the past. Even that left-leaning institution The New York Review of Books—often as long-winded as any rant in Rand’s novels—seemed to take notice that she is in garish vogue again with Michael Tomasky’s 2009 article about the Tea Party rallies, “Something New on the Mall.”

Fishman says otherwise, but Ayn Rand is well read and her beliefs are mainstream, not only in the United States but here in Canada and in countries worldwide. Why Fishman writes otherwise is for the readers of this journal to decide.

Michael Follow
Halifax, Nova Scotia

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