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Trumped Up

Elisabeth Zerofsky attributes Marine Le Pen’s recent successes [“Front Runner,” Letter from France, May] to the current political vacuum in France — and rightly so. A populist demagogue such as Le Pen — or Donald Trump in the United States — benefits from the perceived incompetence and aloofness of the ruling elites. And distrust for the political establishment in both countries has never been higher, particularly among lower-middle-class white voters who have seen their jobs outsourced and their benefits squeezed, while the economic prospects of their children shrink to nothing.

It is far from certain, however, that Marine Le Pen will be the front-runner in France’s presidential elections next spring. For a start, we don’t yet know who will be running against her. Poll after poll has shown that voters want fresh faces — anything to avoid another contest between incumbent President Francois Hollande and his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy. This resistance to politics as usual makes Le Pen’s outsider status a great advantage. But she would not stand a chance against Alain Juppé, the former prime minister, or Emmanuel Macron, the ambitious thirty-eight-year-old minister of economic affairs, should either decide to run. In fact, she loses in the second round of voting in almost every projected scenario. Hardly a front-runner.

The National Front’s Achilles’ heel is its polarizing nature — it is unable to form alliances and faces strong opposition across the political spectrum. Zerofsky herself notes that the party did not capture a single region in the December 2015 elections, in spite of winning the first round of voting, and it still controls a remarkably small number of seats in the National Assembly and the Senate.

Despite Le Pen’s Trump-like rhetoric, which includes urging the French citizenry to join her “winning team,” the National Front is far from being the “first party of France.” Marine Le Pen’s story is one of staggering ascent, but she may have already reached her peak.

Cécile Alduy
Stanford University
Stanford, Calif.

Does Not Compute

Paul Wachter gives the impression that Ladar Levison’s Dark Mail project is the future of email [“Unhackable,” Report, May], but those of us in the industry know that the reality is more complex. The problem of email privacy is an extremely complicated one, and a satisfactory solution will require seismic changes in the current email ecosystem. With Dark Mail, Levison has proposed a solution that is theoretically interesting but has zero chance of industry adoption.

Levison is trying to reinvent the email protocol, which would require everyone who uses email — even the mom-and-pop shops that run their own servers — to adopt Dark Mail before the service would work. The world’s most secure system doesn’t do one bit of good if it cannot gain widespread adoption. For that reason, certain app developers have moved away from email completely, while others have adapted Protonmail’s approach, which prioritizes usability and interoperability with existing email protocols.

A focus on user experience makes life easier for consumers, but it adds an unprecedented level of complexity to the underlying technology. Creating these products requires a significant investment of time, resources, and personnel. We are now past the days when teenagers could develop secure protocols in their garages. Hacking and other forms of security innovation need to go corporate, and this shift will continue to shape the business models of Internet companies over the next several decades.

There will always be a trade-off between security and usability in online services. Dark Mail is a worthwhile project, but it is not the future of email.

Andy Yen
Cofounder/CEO, Protonmail

War Machine

Andrew J. Bacevich asks the right question — why is America fighting? — but he gives the wrong answer [“American Imperium,” Essay, May]. The driving force behind colonial expansionism has always been economics rather than political philosophy. Any critical assessment of American military interventions since 1898 should examine the balance sheets of companies — from United Fruit, which profited handsomely from the Spanish–American War and subsequent interventions in the Caribbean, to the contractors, mercenaries, and profiteers operating in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

War is good business, especially when the slaughter, upheaval, and destruction take place in someone else’s yard. It is easy to ignore the burdens and obligations of military conflict when there has been no formal declaration of war on a sovereign nation. We quickly forget the need to focus the plan of attack, to reconstruct the society we destroy, to repatriate refugees, and to care for our returning warriors.

Our decision to declare war on an abstract noun was a stroke of genius for the business of war. The war on terror justifies a scatterbrained but aggressive foreign policy while eliminating any real opportunity to debate and criticize the stated aims of the fight. Perpetual war and profits are ensured. Mission accomplished.

Martin Gagné

Bacevich’s essay is an excellent corrective to narratives that glorify or excuse our imperial history. But the story needs to begin earlier than the Spanish–American War. Our fondness for overthrowing native populations was born with our arrival on these shores, with the Puritan slaughter of Native Americans in our earliest history.

The Spanish came first, of course, securing their hegemony on our southern coasts by breaking the indigenous tribes. In California, the Spanish missions preached a heady mixture of religion and militant imperialism as they converted the surrounding inhabitants to servitude. The United States established its continental empire on these bloody foundations.

Bacevich is right that we are overextended and that our interventionist tendencies may yet cause our downfall. But the struggle against American military imperialism will be even harder than he predicts, because the roots of the problem are even deeper than he acknowledges. Bacevich’s essay is more than just a twentieth-century narrative; it is our origin story.

Ronald Stone
Carnegie Mellon University

Hope Less

Rebecca Solnit scolds those “naïve cynics” who see no viable opportunities for social change or ecological survival [“The Habits of Highly Cynical People,” Easy Chair, May], because she believes that both are achievable through human ingenuity and resilience. But our environmental crises — climate change, overpopulation, reliance on fossil fuels, exhaustion and pollution of water sources, and so on — were known to many people as early as 1970, when the first Environmental Teach-In was held at the University of Michigan.

Solnit claims that it is not possible to predict the future, but even then we knew what was going to happen if we stayed on course. Exxon wasn’t able to keep it secret. That future of 1970 is the world we are living in today. I wish that the earnest calls to sweeping action had been heeded back when we could, perhaps, have saved ourselves. They weren’t.

Solnit ignores the mountain of peer-reviewed science concluding that it is now too late “to stop the consequences of what we have already done/not done,” as one of her readers put it. What Solnit calls “stunning commitments” from governments to change our ways sometime in the next several decades are reassuring but not ecologically sufficient.

Of course, no one enjoys playing Cassandra — just ask James Lovelock or Al Gore. It is more comforting and comfortable to be a cheerleader for the idea that we will be able to avoid the ecological catastrophes ahead. This naïve optimism is what stymied us forty-five years ago, and we are no closer to real action today. The Pew Research Center recently reported that only 45 percent of Americans consider climate change to be a “very serious problem.”

I don’t begrudge those who are hopeful about our future. The existential challenge that I face — along with many others, whom I prefer to call “realists” — is to maintain a life filled with exuberance, meaning, community service, and the sort of positive act that Solnit applauds, despite what I reasonably and rationally foresee as the likely fate of our species.

Annina M. Mitchell
Salt Lake City

Solnit correctly diagnoses the problems with “naïve cynicism,” but her phrase may hide more than it reveals, because she unfairly applies the term to any negative assessment of our future prospects, no matter how well informed.

As Solnit surely knows, pessimism can be rational. A cynic is not necessarily motivated by the psychological defensiveness that she describes, or by an unwillingness to engage with the world’s complexities. An experienced, intelligent observer may survey the arc of history and determine that it does not, in fact, bend toward justice, just as another may conclude the opposite. Many great artists and writers have been activists — they have taken up arms or protested in the streets — and others have retreated from society, cultivating a sense of humility and farsightedness.

In 1936, George Orwell met Henry Miller in Paris. Orwell was on his way to Spain to join the civil war, and Miller warned that he was being childish. Why did he feel obliged to fight? Miller thought Orwell was embarking on a fool’s errand, not because he knew that the Republicans would lose but because he was a pacifist. For his part, Orwell was fascinated by Miller’s attitude of Whitmanesque remove and acceptance.

It’s hard to argue that we should not fight fascism, but it is equally hard to dismiss Miller’s misgivings altogether. Even Orwell felt compelled to acknowledge the enormous value of Miller’s 1934 novel Tropic of Cancer, a wholly original — and cynical — response to the unprecedented horrors of his day. Elsewhere, Orwell observed that revolutionary fervor often comes from the secret conviction that nothing can be changed. I’m not so sure, but there is certainly more room for debate than Solnit allows.

Chris Ronk
New York City

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July 2016

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