Basket of Implausibles
The assertions in Walter Kirn’s “Illiberal Values,” especially his critique of liberals’ sudden confidence in this country’s intelligence agencies, are eminently reasonable [Easy Chair, August]. But my agreement with his conclusions was tempered by my exhaustion at reading yet another misguided portrayal of a purported white liberal pushed into the arms of the “alt-right” by leftist bullies.
Kirn’s depiction of Kitten Holiday seems to me an account of an individual seeking validation. This, and not any evident principles, appears to be her main motivation for political participation. Name-calling alone doesn’t force one to abandon bedrock political values, and Kirn’s sophistic lament about liberals driven from the pack is all too indebted to an empty definition of liberalism—one that prioritizes being “a little weird.” That’s not politics, a philosophy, or a set of convictions about the world one is trying to build. That’s just quirky individualism, and you can find it anywhere on the political spectrum.
Voorhees Township, N.J.
Like Kirn, I, too, spent my teenage years in the thrall of counterculture craziness, but as an adult, I learned to distinguish between the joys of sex, drugs, and rock and roll and the serious political movements of the Sixties: the antiwar movement, the civil rights movement, and the environmental movement.
Conservatives have succeeded in lowering political discourse to phony rants and false equivalences, and Kirn has played right into their hands with another self-flagellating attempt from the left to engage on their terms and to explain the rise of Donald Trump.
Acceptance and inclusion are touted as cornerstones of the liberal platform, but it frequently seems as though only a select breed of political animal is actually tolerated. Instead, as Kitten Holiday experienced, those with views deviating from the modern liberal orthodoxy are condemned as unserious, closed-minded bigots opposed to reason and good sense. Social media outlets are policed by liberals ready to pounce on any who dare speak positively of conservatism or Trump, setting fire to the possibility of dialogue.
The need for both political parties to embrace tolerance, rational debate, and respect is at an all-time high, but the need takes on a special importance for the party to which these values are allegedly so central.
West Palm Beach, Fla.
Kirn’s characterization of Trump supporters and the alt-right as a respite from “rigidity,” “stridency,” “shrillness,” and “self-righteousness” is laughable. (His dismissal of the alt-right as something he’s a little fuzzy on—“I’m still not sure what the term means”—is one of the more depressing sentences to grace an issue of Harper’s Magazine.)
Kirn claims to be drawn to the underdog, yet he seems deliberately to avoid analyzing what many of these individuals actually believe. I encourage Kirn to continue to explore the political sphere beyond establishment Democrats and Trump supporters—he may find an actual underdog worth rooting for. Otherwise, Kirn seems as though he just wants to “own the libs” as much as the Trump supporters he misrepresents.
If Kirn had at any point since his childhood updated his understanding of politics, he would know that the divide between left and right is based not on the difference between tolerance and intolerance but rather the difference between what each group considers intolerable. I’ll take the side that finds white nationalism intolerable, even at the expense of a little fun.
Victoria, British Columbia
I wish Kirn had addressed the consequences of the “freethinking” of those he characterizes as “hanging loose” on the right. Chiding the left is important; changing the left may be a necessity; but calling out individuals whose positions display a lack of empathy and who implicitly or explicitly support policies that have horrible consequences is also important, and, more than that, a moral responsibility.
We know now that there were concerted, coordinated efforts to divide American citizens during the 2016 presidential campaign—a frightening situation, and one Kirn refuses to address. If anything, Kirn’s column drives deeper the wedge between us without even considering that some of Kitten Holiday’s online critics may not actually have been liberals (or even real people).
Terre Haute, Ind.
Fueling the Fire
Richard Manning’s description of the “Combustion Engines” that fuel mega-fires in our nation’s forests connected the dots well in terms of causes: warmer temperatures and drought, fire suppression policies enacted by the US Forest Service, and the encroachment by developers on prime wildfire areas [Report, August]. But he left out one important dot: the vast reduction of timber harvests.
In 1988, 12.6 billion board feet of timber were harvested from national forests. Last year, the number was just 2.6 billion. Much of this reduction has been due to pressure from environmental groups, for example the declaration of the northern spotted owl as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1990. This led to a policy of “ecosystem management” in the national forests and to less timber harvesting, leaving much timber, some dead and insect-infested, that increased fuel loads.
Wildfire in the American West is a complex problem, with solutions that are more social than biological.
Thomas J. Straka
Professor, Department of Forestry and Environmental Conservation, Clemson University