Letters - Winter 2013

Responses to Our Autumn 2012 Issue

By Our Readers | December 6, 2012


Darwish and Israel

David J. Wasserstein’s “The Prince of Poets” (Books Essay, Autumn 2012) unfortunately ignores Mahmoud Darwish’s rejection of peace, as well as the genesis of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Darwish consistently denied any Jewish connection to the land. In “Passers Between the Passing Words,” he wrote:

Dig up your dead take their bones with you and leave our land Live where you wish but do not live among us It is time for you to get out and die where you wish but do not die among us.

Get out of our land our continent, our sea our wheat, our salt, our sore our everything, and get out of the memory of memories.

Yet Jews have lived in the Holy Land for thousands of years. Indeed, the old city of Jerusalem had a Jewish majority from at least the 1840s until the 1920 riots, when most Jews were expelled. Jews clung for the past millennium to places like Jerusalem, Safed, Hebron, and yes, Gaza, despite recur- rent pogroms and the “dhimmi status” accorded [non-Muslims] by Arab and Ottoman rulers. All this is well documented by European travelers.

Wasserstein exculpates the Arab world, and the Palestinian leadership, for the plight of individual Palestinians. He seemingly ignores that Jews accepted a two-state solution in 1948, but there was unanimous Arab rejection—followed by the invasion of a tiny Jewish country by six Arab armies. He fails to mention subsequent repeated Arab rejection of a two-state solution.

The core issue in the conflict remains Arab rejection of a permanent Israel behind any boundaries. The Arab world can simply not accept Jews as anything but dhimmis. I appeal to the Scholar to balance the Wasserstein article, to contrast the way Israel absorbed all the Jewish refugees from Arab lands with 64 years of Arab refusal to allow any resolution for a similar number of Arab refugees. No other refugee issue has been so handled—especially one in which the Arab world, which started the wars, continues to manipulate the Arab refugee issue, while ignoring its primary responsibility for causing two refugee issues—one Arab, and one Jewish.

Doron Lubinsky

Professor, School of Mathematics Georgia Tech, Atlanta

The Scholar received numerous letters making a similar case against this article.


David J. Wasserstein replies: Darwish’s poetry is preeminently political, shaped and informed from its very beginning by the author’s and his people’s political experience. I have been accused by a number of readers of delegitimizing the State of Israel, of “exculpating the Arab world, and the Palestinian leadership, for the plight of individual Palestinians,” of “ignor[ing] that Jews accepted a two-state solution in 1948,” and more. The accusations imply a larger criticism, that there are poems, or poets, where criticism and study, and even reading them, may not be legitimate.

Virgil, propagandist and apologist for a violent, unpleasant, and profoundly antidemocratic regime, used his poetry to produce one of the foundation stones of Latin literature and one of the monuments of Western literatures. Similarly, William Butler Yeats celebrated the leaders—for some the martyrs—of Ireland’s unsuccessful revolution in 1916. But the Aeneid and “Easter, 1916” will be read forever.

Darwish, of course, is not removed from our time. He did not like much of what he saw in Israel, and neither do many—myself included. There is much to dislike on the Palestinian side too. But that was not what I wrote about. I wrote about a poet and his poetry, much of which does not make comfortable reading. It demands our attention—not because it is nice or comforting but sometimes precisely because it lacks those qualities. If we want to understand the Palestinians—and ourselves—as human beings we owe it to ourselves to read poetry, and especially to read the most difficult poetry.

Darwish also happens to have been quite a good poet.


Community Banks and the Banking Crisis

In “Too Big to Fail and Too Risky to Exist,” William J. Quirk’s otherwise thorough analy- sis of the banking crisis, no mention is made of community banks. This deficiency under- scores how little attention is paid to the one sector of the banking industry that has not only outperformed the big banks but also consis- tently served as an engine of job creation and business growth.

There are 7,000 community banks across the country. A small percentage of them were engaged in the high-risk activities that stuck the bigger banks with $2 trillion in toxic assets, creating the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression. Community banks today hold more than $1 trillion in assets and $900 billion in deposits and make nearly $1 trillion in loans to consumers, small businesses, and the agricultural community. Some 62 percent of all small-business loans are made by banks with holdings of $1 billion or less.

Though it may be true, as Quirk writes, that big banks are behaving more recklessly than ever, it is also true that Americans have a choice. Municipalities and states once invested monies only with national banks, but today more jurisdictions are either exploring change or investing with community banks. For towns and states to invest in community banks makes absolute sense: their money stays in the community, where it can be loaned to local businesses launching or expanding creditworthy ventures. These banks also support local charities and educational and cultural causes. Their management is not tied in to the frenzied culture of “exotic, ‘innovative’ financial products, including collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, and commodity and swap indices” that Quirk refers to as setting “the stage for the financial crisis.”

Community banks face real peril in the days ahead. One major cause for concern is the looming expiration of the Transaction Account Guarantee (TAG) program. Congress set up this program in the dark days of 2008 as a move to protect noninterest-bearing transaction deposits regardless of the size of the account. Such accounts are now insured without limits. Deposits have, therefore, stayed with community banks rather than moving to other investment vehicles.

The TAG program was created as a temporary fix that was expected to expire in December. But without it, community banks will suffer, as depositors seek safety elsewhere. Without TAG, the FDIC insurance on noninterest-bearing transaction accounts will cease at $250,000—a limit of concern to many smaller and midsize businesses, escrow-maintaining law firms, title companies, and nonprofit associations holding accounts in community banks. Without the deposits that banks need to make loans, com- munities that most need the loans will suffer.

Community banks ought to be recognized for the critical role they play in supporting the American economy and for developing long-term financial relationships at the local level. They should be included in any serious discussion of banking issues. The millions of community bank customers whose interests have been protected and advanced by inde- pendent banks deserve nothing less.

Ronald D. Paul

Bethesda, Maryland

The writer is cofounder and CEO of EagleBank.


On Writing Badly

In “Academics Anonymous” (Point of Departure), Paula Marantz Cohen opens what for me is perhaps the most important discussion we in the humani- ties might pursue: on scholars who write badly.

No one could possibly endure what fills most journals. It is as if Cervantes’s parody of the style of the books of chivalry, in chapter one of Don Quixote, were suddenly to become the manual for all scholarly communication. For many years, maybe since Erich Auerbach’s prime, we have written about books and ideas in tortured and weighty prose, proud that the subject may have no discernible connection to anything anyone might call real. Perhaps the collapse of art as a source of recognizable, discussible, and historic truth(s) has helped marginalize our work. But the tangible manifestation of these fail- ings remains the deplorable writing that has overtaken scholarship. Cohen’s example of Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve is spot-on. I finished the book frustrated that he doesn’t seem to know about the large body of irreverent, transgressive literature from 14th-century Spain. Chaucer and Boccaccio? The latter certainly opened windows to “modern sensibility” long before Greenblatt’s story of Lucretius. But Greenblatt’s book is a joy to read and elegantly written. Sentences and paragraphs cohere, and words mean what we would expect them to. Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club is a stellar work in every conceivable way. But he entwines life and art and mind and body in ways the new critics would have abhorred. [Both Greenblatt and Menand are professors at Harvard.]

We do have great teachers and scholars con- tinuing the essential work of interpreting and interrogating our cultural treasures. But most need a summer with Lionel Trilling to learn how English might be.

Ray Keck III

President, Texas A&M International University, Laredo


Life at Monticello

In his thought-provoking review of Henry Wiencek’s Master of the Mountain, T. H. Breen has unfortunately created a false impression of life at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Breen seems to have been deceived by Wiencek’s combina- tion of a fluent narrative style with a shocking mistreatment of the historical record. I’ll mention just two cases.

“When the productivity of the small boys who made nails for Jefferson lagged, he ordered them whipped,” Breen writes. Nothing in this sentence is true. There was no reference to lagging productivity at the time in question, and Jefferson actually ordered the manager of the nailery to refrain from use of the whip “except in extremities.” Jefferson was then experimenting with ways to mitigate the harsh punishment that was usual at the time. Breen is not the only reviewer to have been misled by Wiencek’s arguments, which employ selective quotation, false chronologies, and emotionally loaded language.

Breen includes a Jefferson quotation (“I allow nothing for losses by death, but, on the contrary, shall presently take credit four per-cent. per annum, for their increase over and above keeping up their own numbers”) as if Jefferson were cynically referring to his own slaves at Monticello—an error resulting from Wiencek’s misrepresentation of the document in which this statement appears. Wiencek repeatedly calls it a description of Jefferson’s own plantation, when in fact it describes a typical southern plantation. Jefferson drew it up in Philadelphia in 1792 for the English agricultural author Arthur Young, in response to Young’s questions about the relative profitability of free and enslaved labor. In it, he calculated the hypothetical profits of a hypothetical Virginia plantation of 2,500 acres. When Jefferson says “I allow nothing” for deaths and takes credit for “their increase,” he is talking neither about himself as a plantation owner nor about his own slaves. He is referring to himself in his role as number cruncher, quantifying the profitability of the imaginary plantation.

There is plenty of room for a book that takes Jefferson to task for feeble moral leadership on the slavery issue and for rationalizing away the cruelties that were inherent in the slave labor system, even at Monticello. A number of recent scholars, myself included, have explored these topics. (It is mystifying that Wiencek does not even mention the work of Pulitzer Prize–winning author Annette Gordon-Reed.) But the erroneous picture drawn by Breen reveals the danger of Wiencek’s sensationalized version of events. What is one to do about influential books that so willfully distort reality?

Lucia Stanton

Charlottesville, Virginia

The writer recently retired as Shannon Senior Historian at Monticello.


Whatever dance step Edwin Yoder is performing in the photo with Bill Clinton on page 27, it does not qualify as “running.”

Jeff Rasley


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