Shades of Evil
One Marc Fisher, reviewing Hitler's Niece (Book World, Sept. 9), shocked and disgusted me by depicting President Richard Nixon and Adolph Hitler in the same category as "great evil figures," both having "won places in the pantheon of darkness" for their misdeeds. I get the sense that Fisher really considers Nixon as Hitler's evil equivalent -- an absolutely absurd comparison in my opinion.
Fisher ignores the brilliance of Nixon's first presidential term and implicitly denigrates Nixon's exemplary record of services to our country from his World War II naval-officer days through his vice presidency. Can Richard Nixon's major presidential contributions in significant areas of foreign policy, environmental policy and energy concerns really be intelligently compared to the actions of Adolph Hitler? I think not. Does Nixon bear any responsibility for Hitler's extermination of over 6 million Jews? I think not. With guys the ilk of Marc Fisher representing the "media," it is little wonder that Nixon came to distrust and then despise journalists of that amorphous blob.
DONALD R. KREUTZINGER
I write to express the utter shock I felt when I opened The Washington Post Book World to read your review of Hitler's Niece. In the first paragraph, the reviewer makes an explicit comparison between Adolph Hitler and Richard Nixon, calling them both "our two great obsessions of the latter half of this century."
This is utter and complete tripe, displaying an appallingly juvenile understanding of history -- and is highly offensive besides to the victims of Nazism, who far exceed (both in scope and suffering) the victims of Nixon et al. To even suggest that there is a moral equivalency to be drawn between Richard Nixon -- a flawed, dishonest but hardly genocidal man -- and the author of six million deaths is breathtaking in its moral obtuseness.
Marc Fisher replies:
My purpose in this review was not to measure the enormity of crimes committed by Hitler and Nixon but to examine how and why we use historical figures to represent the needs and trials of our own times -- and both Hitler and Nixon have been used in that fashion, despite their obvious differences, which require no delineation. Indeed, in the very first paragraph of the review, I describe Nixon as an American crook, roiling with petty jealousies and hates. Any insinuation that I have lumped the two men's deeds together seems rather disingenuous. Also, Hitler's first name is spelled Adolf, not Adolph, as many of the letter writers have it.
Notes High and Low
Gary Giddins made a serious mistake in the first sentence of his article ("The Writing Life," Book World, July 18). The premiere of "The Rite of Spring" was conducted by Pierre Monteux, not Ernest Ansermet. It is an error that should not go uncorrected because to do so deprives one of the century's greatest musicians of his part in launching one of the masterpieces of 20th-century music. Ansermet was a splendid conductor and he led a number of Stravinsky premieres, but he did not join the Ballets Russes until 1915, two years after the premiere of "The Rite of Spring."
WALTER P. SHEPPARD
I was disappointed with the review by Robert G. O'Meally of Groovin' High: The Life of Dizzy Gillespie (Book World, Aug. 5). O'Meally was either unaware of or completely ignored the most telling pluses and minuses of the book. On the plus side, the author, Alyn Shipton, provides a useful summary of Gillespie's career. He is at his best in the later chapters of the book. His descriptions of musical performances are also well done.
Shipton's book, however, is seriously weak in dissecting the historical nuances of the early years of Gillespie's career and the complex story of how bebop emerged and developed. Shipton is particularly bad on dates and discographic information. For example, he fails to name some of the record companies and labels for which Gillespie recorded.
A lot of the discrepancies, omissions and errors are arcane stuff that only historians and discographers well versed in Gillespie and the music of the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s are going to find frustrating to address. I have dozens of Post-Its stuck in my book to mark glaring errors. Dozens. The average jazz "writer," which is how I would qualify both Shipton and O'Meally, appears not to be rigorously oriented to documenting. Like Joseph McCarthy, they can wave lists of "facts" about, but it doesn't mean anything until they put the facts on the table along with the authentication to back them up.
Robert G. O'Meally replies:
Geoffrey Wheeler's comparison of Shipton's failure to name some of the record companies and labels for which Gillespie recorded -- or my decision to let him slide on that omission -- to the witch-hunts of Joseph McCarthy is preposterous. I maintain that what's important about Shipton's biography is its tracing of bebop beyond the most familiar lines of influence to include as influences on Gillespie not only the obvious Roy Eldridge but also the relative unknowns, the invisible ones of the jazz tradition. The book's worst flaw remains its lapsing into the fakelore of black pathology, wherein Granzs tours are said to boost these great artists' (presumably wounded) self-esteem. Who, as my review asks, had more self-regard than Dizzy, whose decision to run for president . . . was part of a rollicking continuum of self-celebration and outright bodaciousness?
Politics in Decline
I was disappointed to see Elizabeth Drew's new book, The Corruption of American Politics: What Went Wrong and Why, receive such short shrift (Book World, July 17). Such a timely and important subject as the state of American politics today certainly deserves more thorough coverage.
Drew's book weaves human stories and political reality into a fascinating tapestry. It takes you inside the political process and provides a roadmap for understanding how we arrived at this low point in American politics. It also suggests what we, as citizens, can do to turn things around.
In his review of Christopher Hitchens's No One Left to Lie To (Book World, July 4), Alan Wolfe takes a gratuitous swipe at Lani Guinier for her "terribly written memoir" and academic writings "so far out of the mainstream that she could never have been effective" as the Department of Justice's head of the civil rights division.
What makes Wolfe's charges particularly odd is that he also argues that Bill Clinton has been a disappointment to many because "as much as we want him to do what we think best for the world, he also has to please others whose views are different from ours." This understanding of the need to compromise and work with others different from oneself is the genesis of Guinier's writings that Wolfe labels as radical.
For example, she touts proportional representation voting systems, which are used for national elections in nearly all of the world's well-established democracies. These systems ensure that a majority of a legislature has to be legitimately grounded in a majority of the electorate, making it harder for one party to force its agenda upon opponents. Guinier also proposes that in some racially polarized communities, supermajority requirements are increasingly common in localities. Six years after Guinier's writings were first twisted by politically driven opponents, it is unfortunate that Wolfe has perpetuated myths about Guinier and her ideas.
The Center for Voting and Democracy
I generally enjoy Jonathan Yardley's reviews. An exception is the one on Rupert Sheldrake's Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home (Book World, Oct. 3). I am a scientist who often has to deal with the misinformation and misunderstanding nonscientists have concerning science versus pseudoscience. I have misunderstandings most nonscientists have concerning science versus pseudoscience. I have not read Sheldrake's book, but judging from the review it contains the following basic errors:
Sheldrake claims that scientists dismiss psychic powers because they follow an arbitrary dogma that it is impossible. This is a sheer lie. Science never casually dismisses anything as impossible. What it demands is convincing evidence and sound analysis. The majority of the scientific community does not dismiss alien visitors because they are impossible but because, after decades of claims and searching, there is no convincing evidence that they exist. If an alien shows up or we receive a message from another solar system, science will accept the existence of aliens. Astrology has been rejected by science because repeated studies have failed to show that it works, so much so that it is scientific dogma that astrology is not real. Likewise, the hypothesis that the Earth is orbiting a nuclear reactor that we call the Sun is scientific dogma, because it is so well founded.
People have claimed that psychic powers exist for thousands of years. A century of scientific investigation has repeatedly failed to demonstrate that they exist. No rigorous, repeated lab experiment has succeeded in showing significant results. This is telling, because if such abilities are as real as many claim then they should be easily demonstrated to be true. It is also important that psychics fail to actually do anything practical, like win lotteries (instead, they charge people to give out winning lottery numbers that almost invariably fail -- if they can come up with winning numbers, then why don't they play them themselves, rather than make money by giving the numbers out?). I know magicians who can show how psychics are nothing more than frauds using basic tricks to fool people. The case for psychic powers has failed so miserably, and as been associated with such gross dishonesty, that scientists logically reject it and will no longer have anything to do with it unless someone comes up with a good reason to think otherwise.
All Sheldrake seems to offer are a bunch of interesting stories that cannot be confirmed or discounted. It is the same technique used by those who believe in alien encounters and other pseudoscience. Does he bother to note in his book that experiments have already been conducted on animals, with negative results? If Sheldrake wants to demonstrate psychic powers in animals, then he needs to do the work involved in executing repeatable lab experiments that show it is true. Otherwise he is wasting everyone's time. It's the old saying -- either put up with something that is usable, or shut up.
An example. For years it was claimed that elephants communicate over long distances. Some speculated that it was via psychic powers. A few years ago it was discovered via careful experiments that elephants are actually using ultra low frequency sound (too low for people to hear). Now that's real science, not the lazy speculation people like Sheldrake engage in.
Had a scientist reviewed Sheldrake's book, he or she would have pointed out the methodological errors in his work, and thereby educated the public on the scientific process. This is very important because we are at a time when more Americans are sinking into superstitious ways of thinking, something I would think Jonathan Yardley would oppose. Such sloppy thinking is why they are rejecting evolution in Kansas, and why psychic hotlines are making the big bucks. Next time I would suggest getting some advice from a qualified scientists before reviewing such a book.
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