Cut Too Deep
In “Monumental Error” [Essay, November], J. C. Hallman unfairly skewers J. Marion Sims, the “Father of Gynecology.” He attributes to Sims a huge ego and the desire for fame, and highlights actions that are shocking by modern standards but were commonplace during the 1800s. For instance, Sims was from the South; that he once owned slaves, a point Hallman emphasizes, hardly makes him unique. Though he did practice his operations on enslaved women, he did so only on those who needed surgical intervention. He did not use anesthesia during these procedures, as noted, but anesthesia was not widely available during his lifetime. (Until 1986, in fact, infants younger than fifteen months received no anesthesia during surgery at most American hospitals.)
In addition, Hallman makes fistula, a common affliction treated by Sims, sound like minor bladder leakage. Even today, it is a serious condition. In parts of Africa, women with fistulas are often excommunicated and left to die. The lucky ones are treated by doctors using the same tools, techniques, and position that Sims pioneered.
Removing Sims’s statue would be the real monumental error. It should remain in situ, with additional contextual information on site.
Sylvia Totah Calabrese
New York City
A Donkey in the Headlights
In her investigation into the Democratic Party’s recruitment strategies [“Star Search,” Letter from Virginia, November], Lisa Rab does not grasp the party’s need to first overcome the fear of its own liberal ideology, which has plagued it since the McGovern era. While stronger candidates are necessary for electoral success, a party that continues to rally only around individual personalities diminishes the importance of progressive policies.
US voters hate cowards, and supporters of the Democrats are angered by the party’s reluctance to espouse a broader, positive legacy. On this matter, the party still seems mute, despite the many opportunities that the current regressive and unpopular administration presents for positioning.
Rossland, British Columbia
Rab notes that the Koch brothers pledged $45 million for congressional races in the ten months between the Citizens United decision and the 2010 midterm elections. During that time, something else just as significant did not happen: the Democratic-controlled House and Senate did not produce a substantial legislative response to Citizens United. Instead they offered mostly hand-wringing and rhetoric.
Road to Ruin
Dale Maharidge’s article regarding America’s crumbling roads [“Bumpy Ride,” Miscellany, November] is not just about how physical changes beneath the surface of our roads cause them to crumble but also about how structural changes beneath the surface of our politics are doing the same.
Politicians campaign on infrastructure projects that they know are popular and are what our country needs. Once a candidate is elected, though, these promises disappear as attention is directed to issues favored by the biggest donors. We need to support representatives who encourage restricting the influence on elections in order to restore balance to the political agenda.
Letting our roads revert to the gravel of the early 1900s is akin to turning back the clock to an era before the Great Depression. No one is served by an America that cannot bring its goods to market or educate its citizens and keep them healthy.
Barbara and Steve Miller
Rebecca Solnit makes a strong case for how “preaching to the choir” can be a necessary and fulfilling ritual as well as an effective political strategy [Easy Chair, November]. I am, however, concerned by the rise in ideological tribalism, now enhanced by algorithms and filter bubbles, and its effects: reducing empathy and reinforcing existing biases.
While I appreciate the strength and radiance of the choirs that Solnit describes, I believe that their depth and usefulness are best measured by how their values are expressed beyond the church walls on the other six days of the week.
All Good Things Are Wild
In his review of Laura Walls’s biography of Henry David Thoreau [“Into the Wild,” Reviews, October], James Marcus fails to acknowledge that in A Plea for Captain John Brown (1859), Thoreau largely abandoned the better-known position he had taken in Resistance to Civil Government (aka “Civil Disobedience”) ten years earlier.
When Brown attacked the government’s arsenal at Harpers Ferry, there was an outbreak of national hysteria. Contemporaries of Thoreau’s such as William Lloyd Garrison pusillanimously maintained that slaveholders could be shamed into abandoning human slavery. This is essentially the “moral suasion” philosophy that Thoreau had left behind for a more radical, courageous defense of Brown and his military crusade against slavery.
All Work and No Play
Early in his essay on modern education [“The Working Classroom,” Readings, November], Malcolm Harris stumbles upon a pernicious false dichotomy: “This generation is raised on problem-solving to the exclusion of play.” But true play is problem-solving — give kindergartners blank paper and a box of crayons and watch what happens. Removing play from education is exactly the wrong way to prepare students to “meet the demands of a changing world.”
Douglas C. Thompson