Responses to Our Spring 2021 Issue

Flawed but Democratic

I must take exception to a statement in Shakhar Rahav’s “The China Model” (Spring 2021), which asserts that “Xi’s rise augured the rise of populist, authoritarian leaders in many countries.” The examples that follow include “Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil,” “the Hungary of Viktor Orban,” and “Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel.” On what basis is Israel included in this list? Israel is a vibrant, multiparty parliamentary democracy with a free and independent news media. According to the Democracy Index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Israel ranks 27th in the world and is characterized as a “flawed democracy.” The United States is ranked 25th and is also identified as a flawed democracy. There certainly are legitimate grounds on which to criticize Israel’s government and Prime Minister Netanyahu, but Israel’s government cannot honestly be called an authoritarian regime.

Arnold N. Bressler
New York City

Shakhar Rahav responds:

I may not have made my meaning clear: I do not characterize Israel as an authoritarian state—far from it; but I do see Netanyahu as having much in common with other populist leaders who have shown authoritarian tendencies. Like them, Netanyahu has undermined public trust in state institutions such as the legal system, the police, the media, the office of the state comptroller, the Council of Higher Education, and other gatekeepers. Netanyahu, observers widely agree, has concentrated unprecedented levels of power in his own hands, often sidelining officials and making controversial decisions on his own. Similarly, Donald Trump did not turn the United States into an authoritarian state, but he sowed and reaped further public distrust in its institutions.

The nature of Israel’s democracy (population 9.2 million) deserves a separate discussion, but any such discussion must take into account Israel’s ongoing control of the territories occupied in 1967 (population roughly five million), and the patently undemocratic regimes to which its population is subject.

A Tale of Two Friends

Arthur Krystal’s story of how his friendship with Jacques Barzun transformed him from “an unruly, untutored student” to an accomplished author (“Jacques Barzun and Friend”) is one of the best you have published in the 30-plus years I have subscribed.

Charlie Adams
Peachtree City, Georgia

Sincerely, Yours

I was truly thrilled to read the article by Jennifer Sinor (“Every Letter Is a Love Letter,” Tuning Up). Although she noted that the letters she sent to her nephew had been lost, mine, mailed to Alexander, my almost two-year-old grandson, are successfully delivered and embraced by him. With the pandemic, I started writing a card to him and have continued to do so on an almost daily basis. And, as my son and his family live in a New York City apartment, they receive their mail in the lobby. One of the highlights of the little one’s day is accompanying a parent downstairs and “getting his special letter.” Here’s to reading, writing, arithmetic—and letter writing!

Gloria Bachmann
New Brunswick, New Jersey

In White and Black, Part Two

I found your response to a letter in the Spring 2021 issue confusing. The writer questioned why the Scholar capitalizes Black but not white. You write that Black signifies a shared culture and history of a diverse people with African ancestry. Yet the word white signifies a shared culture and history of a diverse people with European ancestry as well. Surely, all people in the United States are members of some group with a shared culture and history. I am of British/Norwegian/German ancestry—if I’m not a member of the group “White,” what group am I a member of? I think the Scholar is the perfect publication to more deeply examine the notion that “white” people in this country do not have a shared culture and history, or come up with a more convincing
explanation for the style chosen.

Carrie Schneider

San Diego, California

My letter responding to Nancy Isenberg’s “White, Whiteness, Whitewash” in the Spring 2021 issue contains a crucial omission. I wrote in my opening sentence a most important critique: “… thereby burying the significant truth that whiteness is indeed a privilege enjoyed
unequally by all white Americans.” What you printed omitted the “white.” And this omission made my sentence appear either false or meaningless.

Warren Howe
Duluth, Minnesota

Ancestral Artifacts

I have always considered Thomas Mann’s novels impossible to render in English, so I was delighted to be proven wrong by Susan Bernofsky’s pitch-perfect translation of the “Baptismal Bowl” scene in The Magic Mountain (Works in Progress). Retaining the original German prefix of ur in the words for ancestors works beautifully with its ancient, dark sound. As a native of the Baltic coast who resisted the imposition of Prussian customs, Mann was highly sensitive to the subliminal persistence of ancestral folkways into the modern age. The website of the current German Lutheran Church mentions house baptism as an antiquated tradition that is not recommended. Even though house baptisms were always frowned on by both the Catholic and the Lutheran churches, the habit persisted, and held a certain magic in the inscriptions on the bowls. Our family has a baptismal bowl in the cupboard that seems to glow.

I look forward to reading Bernofsky’s complete English translation, curious to see what she does with other magic tricks: for example, when Mann takes a normal loan word and reverse-engineers it using Germanic roots, like using Seelenzergliederung for “psychoanalysis.”

Elena S. Danielson
San Jose, California

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Our Readers may send letters to The American Scholar, 1606 New Hampshire Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20009; or e-mail them to Please include a daytime telephone number. Letters may be edited for length or clarity.


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