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Past Imperfect

Matthew Karp is right to worry that reducing America’s racial history to biblical or biological terms [“History As End,” Essay, July] leaves out critical social and historical context. Slavery was evil, but to call it our “original sin” or to argue that it is in our DNA is to ignore what we have learned about how and why human beings inflict unspeakable cruelty on one another.

Yet, it’s critical to engage with the politics of the past, because they’re also the politics of the present. Slavery was a caste system whose vestiges are still apparent today. In its American variation, it was the central feature in a business model that put profit above shared humanity. It proved to be so “successful” a model that people were willing to destroy the nation to protect it.

Humans are predisposed to rationalize self-serving behavior, even when that behavior is inhumane and grotesque. The racial pseudoscience of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is far from dead today. Perhaps the arc of the moral universe does bend toward justice, but progress is unlikely if such harmful fictions remain hidden in plain sight.

Harry Hamilton
Columbia, Md.



Where the Wild Things Are

The comfort Elisa Gabbert feels in the presence of strangers [“A Complicating Energy,” Essay, July] reminded me of the comfort I feel alone in the outdoors.

Edward Abbey found solace outside, working as a park ranger. Thoreau, too, found companionship in nature. When officials taped off hiking trails during the pandemic, I knew we were really in trouble. Already the nets had been taken down from the tennis courts, the hoops from the basketball courts. But this?

Once, before the pandemic, I went hiking and met a man from France. His wife had left him, and he was hitchhiking across the United States. It’s either this or medication, he said. Like Thoreau and Abbey, he was undertaking an experiment. I wonder whether it worked: when you’re outside, you don’t know what small interactions might heal you. You don’t know what’s going to happen at all. We need that unpredictability. Or at least I do.

Stan Brown
Victorville, Calif.



The Most Interesting Man in the World

Thomas Frank’s piece on Jon Meacham and his great-man theory of presidential history [“The Man Who Loved Presidents,” Review, July] brought back two memories, one from the Seventies, and one from the Nineties.

In the post-Watergate period, as profanity-laced tapes trickled out of the Nixon White House, a talking head whose name escapes me—white-haired, articulate, and supposedly worldly—lamented in a tone of bewildered disappointment: “I always thought there was something ennobling about the office of the presidency.”

I was in my twenties at the time, and my first thought was: Really?

Decades later, during the Clinton impeachment, we were confronted with the blue dress, the semen stain, rumors of the infamous cigar, the meaning of “is.” And another talking head, a man in his sixties, also white-haired and supposedly worldly, said, “I always thought there was something ennobling about the office of the presidency.” My only reaction was stunned silence. After Donald Trump, not even Jon Meacham will be shaking his head on national television anytime soon, confessing his disappointment that the presidency was so far from ennobling.

Tom Sullivan



Severance Package

I’m sympathetic to Agnes Callard’s view of ethical breakups [“Breaking Points,” Readings, July], but I wonder about separations where her principles may not apply.

Working through his own short-lived engagement, Kierkegaard writes of a fictional young man who must end his relationship with his fiancée. The young man’s love for her turns him into a poet, but in the process, he becomes someone different. A friend advises him: “In any relationship of love that cannot be fulfilled even though begun, tactfulness is the most offensive of all.”

Years ago, my best friend ended our relationship. The decision was unexpected and unilateral; it devastated me. That friendship was the core of my life. It took years of therapy for me to build healthy relationships again. The abrupt severance was excruciating, but I’ve accepted that there may not have been a better course of action. Even if there was, I’m certain there are cases where talking things out or trying to shift to a new dynamic distorts the deeper issues, cases where continuing a relationship would ultimately make the ex-partner worse off.

Like Callard with her friend, my companion realized that he and I understood our relationship in different ways, and he couldn’t truthfully communicate this injury to me without making things more painful and confusing.

The last thing my friend said to me before our breakup was, “I will never tell you as a story.” I felt confused by this sentence for a long time. Now I understand it as a promise not to lie.

Megan Fritts
Duluth, Minn.