Letters — From the May 2014 issue
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The Four-Year Itch
“Electoralitis,” Adolph Reed Jr.’s diagnosis of the epidemic that has laid waste to huge swaths of the radical left, is perfectly accurate [“Nothing Left,” Essay, March]. Every election season in which leftist ambitions are projected onto Democrats leaves us weaker. Electoralitis is a chronic condition, if not a terminal sickness, and its symptoms are plain to see: deep exhaustion, a degenerated political imagination, and the wasting away of critical thought.
It’s important to remember that in the several-thousand-year history of states, only in the past few centuries have any of them done a thing to extend the realm of human freedom, and then only when mobilized by force and fire from below. In our own history, Lyndon Johnson, for example, who championed the most far-reaching civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, was not part of the Black Freedom Movement; nor was Abraham Lincoln, who eventually declared an enslaved people free, a part of the abolitionist movement.
But I must disagree with Reed’s dismissal of the women’s movement as concerned exclusively with “challenging the corporate glass ceiling.” I know many radical women whose politics are not quite that simple.
Reed makes many sweeping and unsupported claims, among them that the left “crested in influence between 1935 and 1945.” Perhaps because it does not support his argument, however, he elides the fact that FDR’s New Deal Democrats neither alleviated the plight of black Americans nor ousted notorious Democratic bosses such as Jersey City’s Frank Hague. Today’s ineffectual left is not so different from the mythological one Reed valorizes.
In “Dodge the Draft!” [Easy Chair, March], James Marcus emphasizes the voluntary nature of military service, noting that all American soldiers must decide to enlist. Only if we define “volunteer” in the narrowest sense is this true. We do not have an all-volunteer force. We have an all-recruit force. Indeed, we spend billions on that recruitment effort annually, appealing to the economic vulnerability of young men and women and then asking them to die or become permanently disabled for their country. The rest of us are getting quite a bargain.
Lawrence B. Wilkerson
Colonel, U.S. Army, Ret.
James Marcus responds:
Economic vulnerability is doubtless part of the equation for many enlistees — it’s surely no accident that the bustling recruitment center I visited is located in America’s poorest congressional district. Yet the recruits who spoke with me seemed enthusiastic about the prospect of national service: their motives were at least as patriotic as pecuniary. Moreover, there is still a worthwhile distinction to be made between volunteers (even those semi-suctioned into the military by economic need) and outright conscripts. As a Department of Defense spokesman put it to me, “a draft coerces people into serving” — and during the Vietnam War, to choose just one example, that coercion had dire consequences.
In “What Is Literature?” [Criticism, March], Arthur Krystal traces the word “canon” back only to the Greeks. In fact, it also has roots in Akkadian and Assyrian. Ancient Greece itself, despite its recent appropriation as the foundation of “Western civilization,” was firmly a part of the East. The Greeks borrowed the idea of an alphabet from the Canaanites and saw Egypt as a model for philosophy and culture, and their mythology was profoundly influenced by the Epic of Gilgamesh, the first work of literature, which originated in what is now Iraq.
Basem L. Ra’ad