To the Editor:
James Q. Wilson disputes my assertion (along with Samuel Abrams and Jeremy Pope) in Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America (2005) that the polarization evident in the nation’s political class has only a faint reflection in the public at large [“How Divided Are We?,” February]. As a longtime admirer of Mr. Wilson’s work, I am naturally concerned when his take on an issue differs from mine, but I believe that his criticisms are the result of a misunderstanding.
Mr. Wilson discounts our finding that policy differences between voters in so-called red (Republican) and blue (Democratic) states are really quite small, commenting that “inferring the views of individual citizens from the gross results of presidential balloting is a questionable procedure.” Indeed it is, which is why we explicitly avoided it.
We offered detailed anal-yses of the policy views expressed by voters in 2000 and 2004, and found (contrary to the conclusions of pundits like Garry Wills, Maureen Dowd, and others) surprisingly small differences between the denizens of the blue and the red states. As we emphasize repeatedly, people’s choices (as expressed, say, in presidential balloting) can be polarized even while their positions on issues are not. Moreover, other studies find little evidence of growing polarization no matter how one slices and dices the population— affluent/poor,white/black/ brown, old/young, male/female, well educated/less educated, and so on.
Like many before him, Mr. Wilson seems to confuse partisan sorting with polarization. The Democrats have largely shed their conservative Southern wing, and Republicans have largely shed their liberal “Rockefeller” wing. As a result, the parties are more distinctive even as the aggregate distribution of ideology and stances on issues among the citizenry remains much the same as in the past.
Mr. Wilson also criticizes our analysis of Americans’ views on the specific matter of abortion. He notes that “70 percent of those who thought abortion should always be legal voted for Al Gore or John Kerry, while over 70 percent of those who thought it should always be illegal voted for George Bush.” True enough, but he does not mention that Gallup repeatedly finds a majority of the American people placing themselves between such polar categories; they think abortion should be “legal only under certain circumstances.” Even if we focus on avowed partisans, in 2005 only 30 percent of Democrats thought abortion should always be legal, and fewer than 30 percent of Republicans thought it should always be illegal.
One can always question the accuracy of a particular survey, but the cumulative weight of the evidence on abortion is overwhelming. Contrary to the wishes of activists on both sides, the American people prefer a middle ground.
I share Mr. Wilson’s concern about the potentially harmful consequences of polarization. But I remain convinced that if Americans are offered competent political candidates with problem-solving orientations, the shallow popular roots of polarization will be exposed for all to see.
Morris P. Fiorina
To the Editor:
As one of the scholars criticized by James Q. Wilson for thinking that polarization “is almost entirely confined to a small number of political elites and members of Congress,” I feel that I need to correct some logical slippage in his article. Mr. Wilson should have more clearly distinguished between what political scientists call attitudinal polarization and party sorting.
Attitudinal polarization is when the public is more divided on issues than it has been in the past. A greater degree of partisan sorting, by contrast, means that the people who identify and vote for a particular party are more likely to share the stated views of that party.
Mr. Wilson writes that polarization consists of “intense commitment to a candidate, a culture, or an ideology that sets people in one group definitively apart from people in another, rival group.” This, he feels, has “spread beyond the political elites to influence the opinions and attitudes of ordinary Americans” and “assumed the form of a culture war.” What concerns him is clearly attitudinal polarization.
But the examples he brings to support his thesis—like data showing that as history marches on, Presidents are less likely to be approved of by people from the other party, or the fact that opponents of abortion are more likely to be Republicans and supporters more likely to be Democrats than in the past—are evidence only of sorting according to party. No scholar I know of disputes that this has occurred, but most scholars also agree that polarization on issues is not widespread.
Will party sorting or the existence of politically segmented media eventually lead to attitudinal polarization? The jury is still out.
John H. Evans
University of California
San Diego, California
To the Editor:
James Q. Wilson makes a thoughtful case that significant numbers of Americans regard people with whom they disagree as not only wrong but criminally wrong. I wonder, though.
Elections and polls consistently show that the overwhelming majority of Americans support moderate political positions, and are willing to listen and learn. Hillary Clinton, who once famously spoke of a vast right-wing conspiracy in this country, went on to get herself elected to the Senate, where she has played by the rules and, flying in the face of her party’s core constituency, has consistently maintained that the invasion of Iraq was appropriate. One may suspect her motives, but the fact that she was compelled to succeed within the establishment rather than fail outside, while Howard Dean was exiled to guard duty in the Democrats’ junkyard, is evidence of healthy depolarizing forces in our society. Even that odd political event, the election of middle-of-the-road Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger in contentious California, attests that the American genius for moderation is healthy and at work.
To the Editor:
James Q. Wilson seems worried about dissent and diversity when it comes to our foreign and defense policy. He concludes his essay by warning that “polarization is a force that can defeat us.”
But the public expression of diverse opinions on any topic, including national security, is valuable and necessary. It helps policymakers come up with new and better ideas. The role of a loyal opposition is to present such ideas, as well as better ways of carrying out policies supported by a consensus.
Ironically, in spite of the very real differences between the two political parties that Mr. Wilson brings out so well, the Democrats have failed in their main responsibility to present new and viable alternatives to Republican policies.
To the Editor:
James Q. Wilson is correct that political debate in this country is often acrimonious and unproductive. The reasons he cites for this division are certainly valid, but he misses the main, underlying cause.
Many of today’s leaders are still fighting the culture wars of the late 1960’s. The next generation of leaders will be much less inclined to debate hotly about issues like abortion and gay rights. Future generations will be much more inclined to seek practical solutions, not deeply ideological ones, to the country’s problems.
Most younger Democrats have grown up with a greater appreciation for the bottom line and for pragmatism. They still may fight for more entitlements than Republicans, but they realize that programs like welfare must be held accountable financially. Likewise, most younger Republicans are a great deal more socially liberal than their parents, having been exposed through television and the Internet to a broader spectrum of humanity than they would otherwise have known. As I see it, polarization will recede as the electorate regresses toward socially liberal, fiscally conservative centrists who will increasingly find a consensus on many issues.
To the Editor:
We believe that the evidence clearly supports James Q. Wilson’s conclusion that polarization in America has grown, and not only among elites but also among ordinary citizens. We agree that the primary cause of polarization is the changing politics in Congress, in particular the increased ideological homogeneity within both major parties.
As Mr. Wilson and others have noted, in the immediate postwar decades, both the Democratic and Republican parties had in their ranks significant numbers of ambitious politicians whose policy preferences were out of sync with the mainstream of their party. Such “partisan misfits” were nevertheless able to pursue successful political careers in Congress—until the last couple of decades. Our own research confirms that during the 1980’s, the number of “moderate” and “cross-pressured” members of Congress began to decline, in both parties and in both chambers. Some changed their behavior to vote with their party’s mainstream, others switched over to the party that was a better ideological fit, and still others were replaced in primaries or elections by more partisan candidates. The trend accelerated in the 1990’s, and today liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats have all but disappeared from Capitol Hill.
Party leaders and their allies among the ideologically charged interest groups have come to play a much larger role in the selection of candidates, affecting the entire landscape in which our politics operate.
Jon R. Bond
Texas A&M University
College Station, Texas
Bronx, New York
To the Editor:
James Q. Wilson, as usual, has it right. The nation is polarized, and increasingly so. The process perhaps began with the elites in Washington, but it has begun to metastasize around the country. On Capitol Hill, one sees not just partisan divisions but tribal politics. Walking the halls of Congress these days reminds me more of the former Yugoslavia than of the Congress I knew when I first arrived in Washington in 1969. The center was then dominant; now it is virtually nonexistent.
Mr. Wilson is also right that the danger of polarization is particularly acute when it comes to visions of America’s role in the world. Here, too, the divisions are more than ideological. Consider the harshly negative response of Republican leaders like Tom DeLay to President Clinton’s military action in Bosnia and Kosovo, and imagine what those same leaders would have said if the action had been taken by a President George Bush; do the reverse exercise with Democratic leaders and the campaign in Iraq. It becomes clear that the identity of the messenger can now be as important as the nature of the message.
The question Mr. Wilson does not address is what to do about all this. Structural solutions are limited in scope and effect. But there are some ways to ameliorate the divisions and begin to re-create a center that will reflect the larger consensus on many issues held by non-activist Americans. I agree that reforming our congressional districting arrangements is not a panacea, but it would help at the margins. A more deliberative legislative process in Congress could also help, as Thomas Mann and I argue in our forthcoming book, The Broken Branch. And we might want to stretch our minds and consider more novel ideas, including perhaps adding a significant number of at-large members of Congress who would not have to run for election in homogeneous districts filled with like-minded partisans.
But a broader change in cultural outlook will still be necessary. Those who identify with one or the other of the tribes must recognize that the looming War of the Roses in American political life could damage or destroy us all.
American Enterprise Institute
James Q. Wilson writes:
Morris P. Fiorina and John H. Evans think that the public has sorted itself out rationally into the two major political parties but that this sorting has not affected attitudes on public policies. To believe this, they must not listen to talk radio, read liberal or conservative blogs, or pay any attention to poll data showing a vastly increased gap between the two parties on key public issues.
In 2004, 89 percent of Republicans but only 12 percent of Democrats approved of President George W. Bush. That gap is the widest that poll data have ever shown. In earlier decades, the percentage of Demo-crats saying they approved of Presidents Reagan, Ford, Nixon, and Eisenhower was three to four times greater. Today, over two-thirds of all Republicans but far fewer than half of all Democrats agree with the view that military strength is the best way to ensure peace. Two-thirds of all Republicans but only one-fourth of all Democrats say they would be willing to fight for America whether it is right or wrong.
If you look at self-styled liberals and conservatives rather than at party affiliation, the same difference emerges. In 1972, over 40 percent of liberals approved of President Nixon; in 2004, only 24 percent approved of President Bush. In 1968, over 54 percent of liberals said we should either increase or maintain our troops in Vietnam. In 2004, over 80 percent of liberals disapproved of our war in Iraq.
On the central issues of the times, liberals and Democrats are more opposed to conservatives and Republicans today than they were three decades earlier. This reflects a profound change in attitudes, and not simply the tidying up of party affiliation. In fact, the deep differences between Democrats and Republicans have helped widen this split in popular attitudes, an argument that has been supported by the research of Marc Hetherington and Jeffrey D. Grynaviski.
My view differs from that of my critics because I think polarized elite opinion helps create polarized public opinion while, apparently, they do not. As Alan Abramowitz and Kyle Saunders have shown in their work an ideological alignment, average Americans are as divided today as politically active Americans were divided 40 years ago. The mechanisms by which this happens are well known. Conservatives believe what they hear on Fox News and the Rush Limbaugh show and what they read on Power Line; liberals believe what they hear on National Public Radio or what they read in the New York Times or MoveOn.org.
You cannot disprove this view by citing poll data from red and blue states for the obvious reason that these states are too large and internally divided to make any judgment possible. The coastal counties of California are blue, the interior ones are red. On balance, California is a Blue state, but it is so deeply divided that when Mr. Fiorina looks at state-level policy views they strike him as “moderate.”
Nor is my view harmed by what Walter Schimmerling points out about Hillary Clinton’s effort to portray herself as a moderate. Presidential candidates seek marginal votes in a divided nation. If Clinton becomes the Democratic nominee, she knows almost every Democrat will vote for her. Her task, then, is to pick up a few Republican votes in order to win, and so, taking her base for granted, she goes after voters who believe in God and support the military.
I agree with Jon R. Bond and Rich Fleisher that ideologically charged interest groups have become much more important than political parties in shaping the choice of candidates and framing the issues we debate.
Norman Ornstein has it quite right when he says that “the identity of the messenger can now be as important as the nature of the message.” Key Republican members of Congress were harshly critical of President Clinton’s interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, but very supportive of President Bush’s invasion of Iraq. The New York Times, by contrast, urged Presidents George H. W. Bush and Clinton to intervene in Bosnia and Kosovo but opposed, both editorially and in most of its news columns, our invasion of Iraq.
Messengers have become more divided, and their messages, via talk radio and blogs, now reach many more people. And so people are more divided as well.
To the Editor:
Gabriel Schoenfeld’s remarkably acerbic critique of Steven Spielberg’s Munich [February 2006] is replete with impetuous and irrational conclusions at best, and slanderous accusations at worst. The first of Mr. Schoenfeld’s political condemnations centers on the film’s supposed moral equivalency between terrorists and their victims. As evidence, Mr. Schoenfeld cites a scene in which he claims that “the names of all those who perished at Munich, Israeli athletes and Palestinian terrorists alike, are read out in measured and doleful tones.”
This, however, simply did not happen. Rather, the scene cuts from a news reporter reciting the Israelis’ names to a Mossad officer listing the names of the terrorists about to be targeted for assassination. If this careful editing of the scene suggests anything at all, it is the contrast between living perpetrator and dead victim—their names are not read together as one equal group, rather as two distinct parties. And though the editing might imply that the terrorists and athletes share the same fate, the scene never suggests that the terrorists’ impending death is unjustified or equivalent to that of the Israelis.
Mr. Schoenfeld also argues that the film never presents “a reasoned argument for striking back. . . . National security? Self-defense? Deterrence? Justified retribution? None of these considerations is invoked in all the film’s talk and debate.” Again, this is simply untrue. Mr. Schoenfeld may have chosen not to include them in his piece, but that does not mean they are not in the film. Golda Meir tells her audience, “Forget peace for now. We have to show them we’re strong.” This surely fits under the deterrence category, if not the self-defense category as well. Ephraim, the Mossad case officer, says: “We kill for our future. We kill for peace.” It seems that he is arguing for striking back in the name of Israel’s national security and self-defense.
Mr. Schoenfeld says the film suggests that “there has been a systematic killing by Jews of innocent Arabs.” His proof lies in a few quotes from the doubting Mossad agents who demand to be shown evidence that their targets do in fact have bloody hands. Yet, at no point in the film are we told that the terrorists they are seeking to kill are innocent. To conclude from these brief quotations that the film actually means to portray the Israelis as terrorists, killing innocents, is reckless and rash.
Finally comes Mr. Schoenfeld’s most egregious accusation: “a kind of bloodlust, we have been given to understand [by the film], is a default feature of the Israeli mentality.” His evidence here is supplied by two quotations from supporting characters who rejoice after killing Palestinian terrorists. Yet Mr. Schoenfeld himself tells us that the protagonist Avner is “a man so wracked by guilt that he rejects Israel.” One is left wondering what Mr. Schoenfeld wants from our Israeli heroes. He does not like that certain agents have doubts and are not bloodthirsty, but he also does not like that other Israeli agents are proud, sure, “heartless,” and “methodical” in their actions.
Why, in the end, would Steven Spielberg, who has done so much to preserve the memory of murdered Jews, make a film portraying the Israelis as “evil”? And if he really felt they were evil, why shroud it in so much ambiguity? I believe Spielberg accomplished a remarkable feat in producing a balanced film that also honors the memory of murdered Israeli athletes. Mr. Schoenfeld’s scathing attack is dangerous, irrational, and unjustified.
Alon Shevut, Israel
To the Editor:
Gabriel Schoenfeld writes that Avner, disaffected with his mission and living in New York, “begins to suspect that he and his family are being targeted for death by the Mossad.” This is a complete fantasy, totally unsupported by anything in the film. Avner is in fact shown telephoning the French anarchist contacts he had dealt with because he is afraid that they had sold him out.
Mr. Schoenfeld also never acknowledges that in the viewer’s experience of the film the Israelis are the good guys and the terrorists are the bad guys. Whatever moral complexity may be present in the script does not change that fact.
Montclair, New Jersey
To the Editor:
Gabriel Schoenfeld seems bothered that Munich was not conceived as a work of propaganda for Israel. Every scene or action that does not present Israel and Israelis as if in a tourist brochure is taken as evidence of the film’s “pernicious” anti-Israel bias. But is it really so implausible that a Mossad agent assigned to avenge would be gripped with feelings of guilt, that he could feel mistrust and bitterness toward his government, that a superior could be fastidious about expenses, that another agent could say “The only blood I care about is Jewish blood!”? By taking these perfectly plausible occurrences as evidence of the bias he imagines, Mr. Schoenfeld seems to forget that this is not the way a dramatic film operates. Colorful, interesting characters cannot be drawn to pass Mr. Schoenfeld’s or anyone else’s ideological test, unless one prefers Stalinist art.
Besides, it might be said that Spielberg cleaned up the story of Munich, omitting those aspects of it that are less flattering to Israel. As the critic Steve Sailer has pointed out, Munich skips the 1973 mistaken-identity fiasco in Lillehammer, Norway, where Mossad agents gunned down an innocent Moroccan waiter, and also does not dwell on various plausible ways, including torture, that the Mossad might have obtained leads into the whereabouts of wanted Palestinians.
In the assassinations we do see, the movie makes clear the pains the agents take to refrain from killing innocent life.
All in all, I thought the movie was pretty balanced.
Lee W. Michaels
To the Editor:
Gabriel Schoenfeld is quite right to note that, in Munich, Israel’s campaign to eliminate the murderers behind the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics is never justified “with a reasoned argument”; that, with the partial exception of their leader Avner, the principal characters in the Israeli hit team are “essentially stick figures” blindly following orders; and that in general Israel’s assassination campaign is portrayed as resting on a deeply equivocal moral foundation. In a key moment cited by Mr. Schoenfeld, Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister, rationalizes her country’s campaign with the line, “every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.”
In short, the message is that Israel’s actions in fighting terrorism, like the actions of the West today in its battle against Islamofascism, are properly subject to a fundamental and recurring moral doubt. And therein lies Steven Spielberg’s own deadly and disabling delusion. For, when she sent Israelis to kill the terrorists, Golda Meier was emphatically not negotiating “compromises” with her values. She was upholding those values, and no value higher than that of protecting innocent life from wanton political violence.
To the terrorist, violence against the innocent is a deliberate strategy. In the West, violence against the innocent is forbidden. Indeed, it must be forbidden: does not basic liberty require at least this much? Once the category of the innocent becomes subject to doubt, so does Western political culture.
In Spielberg’s world, there are no moral absolutes, no boundaries, no fixed standards, and hence neither practical guidelines nor agreed-upon principles by which to distinguish a terrorist from a freedom fighter, or from a counter-terrorist. There is only praiseworthy doubt—the doubt, for example, of Av-ner, a character sympathetically pictured by Spielberg as beset with introspection and second thoughts, psychologically adrift, a man literally without a home.
In the real world, by contrast, reflection on the principles of one’s civilization can enable one to identify the minimal conditions for its perpetuation, and to act on that understanding. “Our [Western] conception of morality has little power over the terrorist,” writes the real Avner in a foreword to the recent reissue of George Jonas’s Vengeance, and he adds (in words quoted by Mr. Schoenfeld) that “if I had to do it all over again, I would make the same choice I made when Golda Meir approached me more than 30 years ago.”
Avner remains “proud that I was able to serve my country in this way.” In fact he served not only his country but Western civilization itself, which will survive only if it continues to embrace, and to fight for, the value of its own values. Whether the subject is Hitler’s Holocaust, 9/11, Munich, the intifada, or the London bombings, no Western value can be less susceptible of doubt than the inviolability of the innocent. In falsely portraying Avner as tormented by equivocation on this score, Munich shows only the reflexive doubts of Steven Spielberg and those who think like him—doubts that, by diluting the moral clarity of this most basic premise of Western culture, serve ultimately to enable the mindset of the terrorist.
Martin J. Gross
Livingston, New Jersey
To the Editor:
Gabriel Schoenfeld’s review should be mandatory reading for those planning to see Spielberg’s Munich. Spielberg’s intention may have been to demonstrate the moral ambiguities involved in seeking revenge against terrorists. But what he produced instead is a film laden with vicious stereotypes. Israelis are depicted as money-grubbing, demonic characters, counting the cost of each kill and performing dastardly deeds by the dozens. The terrorists, on the other hand, are softened and humanized and have little or no connection to actual acts of terror. The movie is also a jumble of cause and effect.
The massacre of the Israeli athletes is made to seem more like a response to Israeli “atrocities.”
Spielberg’s Munich is a false accounting of history.
To the Editor:
Bravo to Gabriel Schoenfeld for his careful look at Spielberg’s Munich. My question is: did Mr. Schoenfeld really expect anything better? Were it not for Steven Spielberg’s bona fides as a conscientious Jew thanks to his production of Schindler’s List and his participation in various Holocaust-remembrance projects, there would be nothing remarkable about the politically correct distortions of Munich. The film would simply stand as yet another example of Hollywood’s contorting history in order to award the moral high ground to the downtrodden victim du jour.
Like so many others in the entertainment industry, Spielberg exudes sympathy for Jews as long as they are incapable of defending themselves and while being maimed and martyred by their enemies. But after living Jews have achieved the power and means to protect themselves, the sympathy is withdrawn.
Lisa C. Feldman
New York City
To the Editor:
The film Munich brought back vivid memories of the massacre that took place 34 years ago. Mr. Schoenfeld’s incisive comments about the movie are directly on point. Steven Spielberg’s film depicts the human side of terrorists while telling us nothing about the murdered Israeli athletes. I, for one, am appalled by Spielberg’s “balanced” view.
Delray Beach, Florida
To the Editor:
I saw Munich with a friend at Christmas. Neither of us is Jewish, or particularly aware of Jewish issues, but I was unhappy with the way the movie petered out in doubt and pointlessness. Then I read Gabriel Schoenfeld’s eye-opening essay. He make the movie’s deceptions and dishonesty very clear. I hope his article circulates far and wide.
To the Editor:
Steven Spielberg’s Munich was billed as a fair depiction of one episode in the Arab-Israeli conflict, ostensibly giving voice to both sides in an unbiased manner. After seeing the film I was satisfied with this assessment—until I read Gabriel Schoenfeld’s illuminating article, which pulls back the curtain and shown us who is pulling the strings. Mr. Schoenfeld’s work represents criticism at its best. Munich has merits as a film, but evenhandedness is not among them.
Fort Benning, Georgia
Gabriel Schoenfeld writes:
It is possible that Josh Yunis and Emanuel Goldman have seen variant versions of Spielberg’s Munich from the one I saw, but more likely we have seen the same film quite differently. Either way, I am flattered that Mr. Yunis finds my essay “dangerous,” and I sincerely hope that he is right about that. About almost everything else, he is either half wrong or worse, and the single thing he gets mostly right is without consequence.
The names read off at the beginning of the movie are, as Mr. Yunis states, not those of the Arab terrorists who have just died at Munich but those of the terrorist planners who are being marked for death by the Mossad. But viewers cannot learn the identity of the men behind those Arabic names unless they immediately write them down and then match (or rather fail to match) them with the terrorists—or unless they watch the film twice. Moreover, as Mr. Yunis neglects to say but as I pointed out in my article, while the names are being read aloud, we see on the screen “a grief-stricken Israeli family and a grief-stricken Palestinian family; then another grief-stricken Israeli family and another grief-stricken Palestinian family; and so forth.” Could there be a more vivid example of moral equivalence between victims and victimizers? In this respect, Steven Spielberg is indeed, as Mr. Yunis avers, a careful editor of film.
It is true that, as Mr. Yunis also reports, the film has Golda Meir saying, “Forget peace for now. We have to show them we’re strong.” And it is again true that Avner’s case officer says, “We kill for our future. We kill for peace.” According to Mr. Yunis, these brief statements provide a clear rationale for Israel’s retaliatory action. It seems to have escaped his notice that both remarks are saturated with irony—not the irony committed by a speaker for conscious effect but the irony of an author or director whose intent is to discredit the speech of a character before his audience. The assertion that Israel must “kill for peace” is an Orwellian inversion whose ironic significance in the context of this film should be plain to anyone not intent on shutting his eyes and stuffing his ears.
Mr. Yunis argues that my view of the Mossad agents is contradictory. On the one hand, I say that Spielberg has imbued them with a kind of “bloodlust.” On the other hand, I say that they—and Avner in particular—harbor doubts and are increasingly wracked by guilt. I do say both things, but there is no contradiction. The Israeli killers begin their mission full of bloodlust. (“Drink some wine, we’re celebrating,” says one, after their first kill. “I am not celebrating: I am goddamn rejoicing,” responds another.) But as their mission proceeds, and their education in evil deepens, the celebrations cease and the anguished denunciations of Israel and of themselves commence. There is nothing “impetuous” or “irrational” or “slanderous” in pointing such things out.
To Emanuel Goldman, my assertion that Avner begins to suspect that he and his family are being targeted for death by the Mossad “is a complete fantasy.” Yet this “fantasy” happens to coincide with the reality portrayed by the film. Toward the very end, not long after he has been frightened by a limousine that appears to be shadowing him on a Brooklyn street, Avner barges into the Israeli consulate, strides past security guards into the office of the resident Mossad chief, and shouts: “I won’t hesitate to kill other people’s children if you hurt my children. Leave my family alone. . . . I’ll go to the newspapers, I’ll tell everything, I’ll give names, if you don’t leave my family alone.” Somehow, to me, this sounds as if Avner believes the Mossad is out to kill him and his wife and child.
Mr. Goldman complains that I never acknowledge what the viewer experiences: “the Israelis are the good guys and the terrorists are the bad guys.” Yes, the Israelis turn out to be good guys, but only in the sense that, as the film progresses, they come to doubt the morality of their mission. Avner, because he renounces Israel and moves to the United States, is the best good guy of the lot.
And the terrorists? The ones who are killed by the Mossad team seem like very pleasant and engaging types: poetry-reciting, piano-playing, Swedish-teaching, olive-growing, charming, fatherly, and, by the way, wholly innocent of any connection to terrorism. Some bad guys.
Lee W. Michaels is on to something important when he states that Munich could have mounted an even more forceful assault on Israel, either by dwelling on the Lillehammer incident or by emphasizing Israeli brutality and torture. But if Spielberg had gone for blatant demonization, the game would have been up. As it is, with the assistance of the screenwriter Tony Kush- ner (whose repeated ultra- left-wing denunciations of Israel my critics fail to mention), he has put together a movie that makes some Israelis look decent while making the state of Israel look indecent.
Munich is hardly a crude work of anti-Israel agitprop. It was written and produced with a measure of subtlety. This, along with its graphic depictions of violence, is what makes it so powerful—and why I still believe it deserved an Oscar for being the most pernicious film of 2005. Alas for Steven Spielberg, it won neither that Oscar nor any other.
I thank all of my correspondents and especially John Bennett, Lisa C. Feldman, Martin J. Gross, Marty Saepoff, Jenene Stookesberry, and Jocelyn Tomkin for their warm reactions.
The Origins of Life
To the Editor:
In a letter to Joseph Hooker in 1863, Charles Darwin wrote: “It is mere rubbish, thinking of the origin of life; one might as well think of the origin of matter.” Although we physicists now routinely discuss the latter topic, Darwin’s pessimism 150 years ago is perhaps understandable, coming as it did before most of the edifice of modern physics was built, and before more than a century of growing knowledge about chemistry and biology would bring us closer to the brink of understanding life’s origins. But it is harder to understand the purpose of David Berlinski’s ultimately facile rumination, “On the Origins of Life” [February].
At first I thought the article was a reasonably cogent discussion of the history of how science has shed light on this seminal but still puzzling event in the history of the earth. But as I read on, it seemed that Mr. Berlinski’s purpose was not to explore the edge of knowledge but rather to expound the completely trivial fact that the edge of knowledge is fuzzy. Ultimately it became clear that his article was designed to convey the hackneyed and intellectually lazy argument that because there are things that are truly puzzling and paradoxical about nature, one should be prepared to give up trying to devise any natural explanation for them.
I found the errors and omissions in Mr. Berlinski’s in-depth discussion of molecular biology particularly telling. He harps on the red herring provided by the famous Miller-Urey experiment—which purported to demonstrate that amino acids could form naturally in the pre-biotic atmosphere—pointing out that the actual pre-biotic atmosphere was nothing like the “primordial soup” that Miller and Urey mixed up in their beakers, and lacked the “reducing” capacity necessary for the all-important chemical reactions. Fair enough. But Mr. Berlinski ignores the wealth of new data on a wonderful reducing environment associated with thermal vents at the bottom of the ocean. There is growing evidence, genetic and otherwise, that this anaerobic environment, where sulfur could play the role currently played by oxygen in exciting electrons to release energy, is associated with those organisms closest to the root of the tree of life.
Perhaps most surprising, given Mr. Berlinski’s background in mathematics, is his innumeracy in regurgitating the tired arguments about probability and the origin of life. Not only does he make the standard probabilistic error of assuming that self-replicating molecules result from totally random interactions—the same sort of analysis would argue against the formation of any complex molecule—but in doing so, he misinterprets the orders of magnitude involved. He argues, for example, that the number of nucleotide sequences of 100 nucleotides in length (the minimum thought necessary for “demonstrated ligase activity,” the first step in self-replication) is greater than the number of atoms in the universe—making the odds in favor of self-replication rather long. Well, the number of such sequences is very large, but in fact there are far more atoms in our local region of the Milky Way galaxy.
When I recently researched a book about the history of an oxygen atom, I had to learn about advances in molecular and evolutionary biology, fields with which I had not been familiar. The remarkable discoveries being made about archaea, hyperthermophiles, and the possibility of inorganic templates for the earliest self-replicating molecules filled me with wonder, excitement, and optimism. That is what science is supposed to do. But one can also decide in advance (as Darwin did in his time and Mr. Berlinski does now) that the answers are unknowable, and choose to bury one’s head in the sand.
Lawrence M. Krauss
Case Western Reserve University
To the Editor:
David Berlinski has performed the greater part of a difficult task—guiding his readers through the wilderness of origin-of-life theory. He first leads us through the complexities of modern molecular biology, explaining the key roles of large molecules like DNA, RNA, and proteins. He describes how knowledge about their function inspired the “RNA world” theory of the origin of life (by which life came into being on the basis of RNA replication), and proceeds to demolish this theory utterly. The reader is thus taken to the very edge of the promised land, which in this case would be a description of the most likely answer to the origin-of-life problem, and one that meets the constraints of “the model for what science should be”—which, as Mr. Berlinski puts it, requires that the laws of a system’s development be unique and stable.
But having taken us this far, Mr. Berlinski devotes only three paragraphs to the scientific alternative most likely to provide that answer, often called “metabolism first,” which holds that life began with an interactive network of small molecules that used an available energy source to maintain its identity and promote its further evolution. He notes that this view “may well be right,” but cautions that “there is as yet no evidence that it is true” and suggests that the answer may ultimately lie beyond the powers of scientific inquiry. At this point he and I part company, for I believe that the answer does lie in the idea of “metabolism first,” and is in fact close at hand.
Before I elaborate on this, I should point out that the case against an “RNA world” is even stronger than the one Mr. Berlinski presents. Not only were cytosine and ribose unlikely to have been present in any quantity on the early earth, but the same can also be said of adenine and guanine. Moreover, no adequate explanation of the manner in which these parts (and others) could connect together spontaneously to form RNA has ever been presented. All of the celebrated triumphs of “prebiotic synthesis” were actually accomplished through the active intervention of the experimenter, as Mr. Berlinski notes about two such cases.
An even more serious difficulty exists, one I call the termination problem. Imagine a series of units, each of which contains a plug and a socket. If we arrange circumstances so that they will connect together, they have no alternative but to join head-to-tail to form a linear array. But if we include a large excess of units that have only a plug or a socket, these units can connect on one side but then terminate any growing chain. This problem applies not only to DNA, RNA, and protein but also to the many RNA surrogates that have been put forward as additional examples of molecules that could have copied themselves, thereby initiating life.
This problem can be avoided if we assume—to return to the idea of “metabolism first”—that life began with small molecules (monomers) rather than, as the “RNA world” theory has it, with the entities produced by connecting them (polymers like DNA, RNA, and protein). Monomer mixtures can carry heredity, not as linear text as in DNA but by the presence of certain substances and the absence of others. This form of information storage, which has been called a “compositional genome,” could reproduce simply by splitting into two parts. Thus, I prefer the term “monomer world” to “metabolism first,” as the latter implies a lack of genetic ability.
For an analogy, imagine my wife gives me a shopping list (linear text) for the supermarket. If I come home merely with a copy of the list, she will not be pleased. If I return with an assortment of produce and canned goods (a compositional genome), she can tell by inspection that I have brought the desired items. The information is provided by the objects themselves rather than by the list.
Monomers can also show substantial catalytic ability, though less than the elaborate proteins and ribozymes that were produced by extended evolution. A key requirement for monomer life is an external energy source that interacts with a chemical mixture in a way that both releases the energy and organizes the mixture. No “smoking gun” experiment has as yet been devised that demonstrates the operation of such a system, but much preliminary work has been carried out. Suitable individual reactions have been explored, monomer catalysis has been amply demonstrated, and the natural occurrence of compartments (or other barriers) that could separate an evolving chemical system from its environment has been documented. I summarize the evidence for all this in a forthcoming paper.
In my opinion, the principal barrier to the demonstration of such a system is not technical but lies in the sociology of science. The intellectual elegance of the “RNA world” solution has diverted scientific interest and funding down a dead-end street. If the same effort and ingenuity were applied to the experimental exploration of “monomer world” theories, I believe that a satisfying laboratory demonstration of the early steps in the origin of life could be achieved.
New York University
New York City
To the Editor:
Around the time I read David Berlinski’s summary of the failures of origin-of-life research, I saw a report in the Economist taking up similar issues. After quoting the insights of the researcher Charles Cockell, who argues that early impact craters full of hot water were “ideal places for life to get going,” the anonymous author notes that “the biggest irony of all . . . might be that the conditions once thought a near-insuperable obstacle to the emergence of life on earth may actually have enabled it to come about.” Well, yes, that would be handy. If only sinking businesses and failing states could pull off stunts like that.
Meanwhile, on February 15, the American Association for the Advancement of Science published a short feature quoting another researcher, David Deamer, who enterprisingly developed his own primordial soup. He dumped a can of the stuff into a hot volcanic pool and found that most of the material simply disappeared, uninspired, into the clay lining of the pond. He concluded that such pools may be unlikely spots for “the first assembly of life’s little bits.”
Actually, if the recipe were really “just add water and boil,” we should see new life forms springing from chemical soups all the time. But current theory insists on at most a few common ancestors. So there must have been some magic in that old soup cauldron. Or are we on the wrong track?
Current origin-of-life research seems fundamentally incoherent. People who are convinced that life originated by an unlikely accident also believe that they can find out exactly how it happened. Origin-of-life researchers also sometimes denounce intelligent-design theory. But if the universe started with a large input of information, whether provided by a cosmic mind or an inherent principle of organization, we can safely postulate that the origin of life was not an accident—nor was the human mind that now studies them.
To the Editor:
As far back as 1897, the American biologist E.B. Wilson wrote in his textbook, The Cell in Development and Inheritance: “The study of the cell has, on the whole, seemed to widen rather than to narrow the enormous gap that separates even the lowest forms of life from the inorganic world.” I gather from David Berlinski’s characteristically brilliant article that even as late as 2006, Wilson’s assertion requires no emendation.
Earlier than Wilson, the 19th-century founder of positivism, Auguste Comte, defined the problem this way: the change of order that takes place when we pass from the inorganic to the organic is—in plain, open fact—the passage from an order in which the parts precondition the whole to an order in which the whole shapes the parts and, in a sense, precedes them, as if the parts were there only in view of the whole.
As a positivist, Comte was rightly unnerved by that ineluctable reality, for it conjures up the specter of final causality, with its implication that the mental precedes the material. But at least he noted the problem of teleology raised by the organic world instead of just wishing it away, as Francis Bacon did in his manifesto, On the Proficience and Advancement of Learning (1605), in which he compares final causes to a lamprey clinging to the side of a ship and impeding its progress. As the great French medievalist Etienne Gilson says in From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again (1971), “The important thing is to know whether or not final causality expresses a fact given in nature, for if we object to final causality as an explanation, it still remains as a fact to be explained.”
With Mr. Berlinski, I do not deny that the invoca-tion of final causality has gummed up scientific meth-odology down through the ages (Bacon’s point). But the converse must also hold true: maybe science cannot, from the outset, get at the whole of reality. Again, Gilson gets it exactly right: “If the scientist refuses to include final causality in his interpretation of nature, all is in order; his interpretation of nature will be incomplete, not false. On the contrary, if he denies that there is final causality in nature, he is being arbitrary. To hold final causality to be beyond science is one thing; to put it beyond nature is something completely different. In the name of what scientific principle could one exclude from a description of reality an aspect of nature so evident?”
Edward T. Oakes, S.J.
University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary
David Berlinski writes:
The physicist Lawrence M. Krauss has become well known for the unflagging zeal with which he has defended Darwin’s theory of evolution from its critics. With admirable gusto, he has recently undertaken to wave the crutch of his concerns toward his colleagues in physics as well. String theory, he argues in Hiding in the Mirror (2005), seems to have gone nowhere, and to have gotten there rapidly. Inasmuch as the same can be said of his letter, Mr. Krauss appears to have achieved postmodern status as a perfectly self-referential critic.
It was my intention, he asserts, to “expound the completely trivial fact that the edge of knowledge is fuzzy.” Edges by their nature cannot be fuzzy; and “the edge of knowledge” suggests an inscription on a medieval map. Instead of the edge of knowledge, shall we say current research, and instead of fuzzy, inconclusive? With these corrections in place, Mr. Krauss’s trivial fact is rather less trivial than he supposes. The scientific establishment, after all, has expended a great deal of energy denying it, especially when funding is at stake.
Having made his point once, Professor Krauss makes it again. My article, he writes, “was designed to convey the hackneyed and intellectually lazy argument that because there are things that are truly puzzling and paradoxical about nature, one should be prepared to give up trying to devise any natural explanation for them.” Not at all. I am not one of those who, for example, give up on string theory at the first suggestion of intellectual difficulty. I propose to give up only when the getting out is good. In my article on the origins of life, I hesitated conspicuously.
But to specifics. Mr. Krauss concludes that my observations on the Miller-Urey experiment are “fair enough,” but he objects that I ignored “the wealth of new data on a wonderful reducing environment associated with [hydro]thermal vents at the bottom of the sea.” Those hydrothermal vents—now divided into the superbly named “black smokers,” where hot volcanic material containing metal sulphides gushes into cold sea water, creating a characteristic black spume, and “cold seepers,” whose etymology is perhaps best left unexplored—made their first appearance as origin-of-life contenders in a paper published in Science in 1979. Thereafter, the German organic chemist and patent attorney Günter Wächtershäuser promoted them to a still more prominent status by imagining a rich series of inorganic catalytic reactions that might have taken place in such environments. A number of distinct (and immensely interesting) chemical ideas were put in play, the most notable involving iron pyrite acting to promote cyclic chemical reactions among carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen.
But experiments did not produce a significant yield of crucial biological molecules, and critics (like Gerald Joyce) have complained that some of the experiments themselves were carried out under unrealistic laboratory conditions. Matthew Levy and Stanley Miller have argued in addition that, although “a high-temperature origin of life may be possible,” it “cannot involve adenine, uracil, guanine, or cytosine”—because, at such temperatures, these molecules are notoriously unstable.
In brief, Mr. Krauss’s “iron-sulphur world” is not new; nor is it “wonderful” (although it is certainly interesting); nor, most of all, is it relevant to the scenario of an “RNA world” to which my own article was largely devoted. The two scenarios, as everyone familiar with the field understands, are in conflict, the “iron-sulphur world” being a natural entryway into the “metabolism first” theories that I mentioned briefly in the conclusion of my article (and shall return to in my comments on Robert Shapiro’s letter).
It is nonetheless a fact that the “RNA world” scenario, which the “iron-sulphur world” is intended to displace, is still the dominant system of thought in origin-of-life research, still the most powerful intellectual structure in contention, and still the locus of the greatest investment of time and money. I did not discuss the “iron-sulphur world” because, in my judgment, it does not possess the same degree of intrinsic importance as its chief rival, either historically or scientifically.
There remains the charge of my “innumeracy,” a condition I allegedly attained while “regurgitating the tired arguments about probability and the origin of life.” Mr. Krauss’s premise is that I am mistaken in assuming that self-replicating molecules must have arisen from totally random interactions, for, were I correct in this, the same argument would militate against the formation of any complex molecule. Here he confuses doubts about the applicability of the theory of probability with an error in the theory itself.
What Mr. Krauss takes to be a mistake is simply a fact. When nucleotides are connected in a sugar-phosphate chain, they form a polynucleotide. Polymerization is the chemical activity involved in forming such chains. But a problem arises when questions are asked about the specific sequences of nitrogenous bases required to carry out replication (or any other biological activity). It is a problem because, while polynucleotides are formed by means of ordinary laws of covalent chemical association (given an energy source), polymerization itself is not sequence-specific. Like flags mounted on stalks, the nitrogenous bases are fixed to their sugar-phosphate backbone, but the order in which they are fixed is free.
The standard (and only) accounts of this in the various “RNA world” scenarios begin with what Leslie Orgel and Gerald Joyce call “a random pool of nucleotides.” For a self-replicating polynucleotide to be obtained from this pool, some process of polymerization must have taken place. But polymerization is sequence-specific only in the context of the laboratory or the living cell. Since neither was available in any pre- biotic era, there remains chance, and only chance, as a guiding force.
Hence the perfect relevance of probabilistic calculations. Those “tired arguments”—which by the way are not mine but have been made by Gustaf Arrhenius as well as by Orgel and Joyce—still seem to me remarkably vigorous, and at least twice as strong as the Parthenon.
Finally, I did not argue that the number of nucleotide sequences that are 100 nucleotides in length is “greater than the number of atoms in the universe.” I observed that the number of such sequences is precisely 4 to the 100th (or roughly 10 to the 60th) power, and then illustrated the magnitude of this number by comparing it with the number of atoms in the universe or the time in seconds that has elapsed since the Big Bang.
My observation was mathematically correct—obviously so. Scrupling, instead with my illustration, Krauss could, for all I know be right, although he provides no evidence or argument. Estimates in the literature tend to vary by a great many orders of magnitude; no one quite knows, for example, how many atoms to assign to the unobserved portions of the universe. But those atoms could disappear from my argument with no ill effect. Four raised to the one-hundredth power would still remain a dauntingly large number. It is embarrassing to have to point such things out.
Observing with satisfaction the various noses I punched in my article, Robert Shapiro suggests that I should have taken a shot at chain termination as well—that is, the tendency of growing polymers to branch off absurdly before achieving any form of biological usefulness. I am sure he is right about this, and he is right again in his comments about the sociology of science.
Like an immense ocean liner, big science achieves its momentum at the expense of flexibility; no matter the theory, correction and readjustment are very slow in coming, when they come at all. String theory and the “RNA world” entered the scientific imagination at roughly the same moment and have followed a similar trajectory, in which expectations have steadily outrun accomplishments. If this were the whole of the story, judgment would be easy. But both theories also have outstanding accomplishments to their credit, so that even their critics can feel the allure of the common counsel not to give up, at least not just yet.
As for “metabolism first” theories, they do indeed represent an alternative to the “RNA world” scenario. But as I have already indicated, my aim was not to survey the entire field but to construct a responsible and coherent narrative, one that describes the shape of research as it is, not as it may be.
My view of the theories that have engaged Mr. Shapiro’s interest is respectful but wary. The metabolism-first world is the work of organic chemists, reflecting a decision to establish, as the decisive origin-of-life event, the advent of certain self-sustaining or autocatalytic cycles. The reverse citric-acid cycle plays a prominent role in these deliberations, conjecturally preceded by a primitive citrate cycle that takes place within an iron-sulphur world and is catalyzed not by biological enzymes but by metal ions.
Any chemical cycle consists of a linked series of reaction steps; an autocatalytic cycle is one whose products feed back into the cycle, thus keeping it going. But even assuming the existence of something like a primitive citrate cycle driven by non-biological catalysts, no one has yet demonstrated that the quite different conditions required for conversion to a true autocatalytic system could have obtained in the pre-biotic era. The only true autocatalytic cycle remains the formose reaction, and for reasons that I discussed at length in my article, that reaction does not seem to be going anywhere.
The idea of a compositional genome, to which Mr. Shapiro also draws our attention, is largely the work of Doron Lancet’s research group at the Weizmann Institute of Science. It is meant to serve, as Lancet has said, as a “bridge between the ‘genome first’ and the ‘metabolism-first’ paradigms.” In a very broad sense, the work of Lancet and his colleagues is continuous with the work of Mannfred Eigen, Freeman Dyson, and Stuart Kaufmann in that it seeks to create a theory in which order can be seen to appear out of chaos.
The chaos in this case is the froth of chemicals sloshing around somewhere in the pre-biotic era. No particular molecule within the froth is capable of self-replication. But might the ensemble itself be capable of this, at least to the extent that, after many random chemical interactions, one will have an ensemble closely matching the compositional characteristics of the original? This is the Lancet group’s thesis, one that has been advanced by means both of a few differential equations and of a fabulous series of computer simulations.
The result is called the Amphiphilic Graded Autocatalysis Replication Model, or A-Gard, and I must confess it seems to me to reflect an inflation of trivialities. A loaf of bread, when divided, gives rise to two smaller loaves that share the compositional structure of the original. Of course they do; they are made of bread, after all. I suppose that one could call this a form of heredity, but then any division of any material structure would embody a form of heredity as well.
To me, the difference between the behavior of various chemical ensembles studied largely in computer simulations and the coded chemistry characteristic of living systems still seems absolute. Lancet’s enterprise is an attempt to make the Darwinian principles of random variation and natural selection do useful work in the pre-biotic era, where plainly they do not belong, and in my view it thus represents a step in the wrong direction.
Denyse O’Leary mentions David Deamer, who has been an important figure in origins-of-life research. As she says, reports suggest that his most recent experiments have been a flop. “The results are surprising,” Deamer himself has remarked, “and in some ways disappointing. It seems that hot acidic waters containing clay do not provide the right conditions for chemicals to assemble themselves into ‘pioneer organisms.’”
But I differ with Denyse O’Leary’s statement that there is something “incoherent” about current origins-of-life research. In many respects, the study of the earth’s pre-biotic and early biological eras are stronger, better informed, and more penetrating than research devoted to the near-history of life. We understand the issues of pre-biotic chemistry more clearly than we understand the appearance of echo-location in bats or the emergence of the mammalian visual system. The truth of the matter still remains beyond our grasp, but organic chemists and molecular biologists have given us a splendid and inspiring example of the sheer power of their methods. What we do not now know, we at least know better than we did.
I agree with the spirit of Edward T. Oakes’s remarks, and in one respect with their substance as well. The study of the modern cell has been an exercise in astonishment. The thing is complex beyond belief, and molecular biologists, as anyone reading the journals will attest, have only begun to explore that complexity. For the moment, we lack the proper tools even to offer a precise and reasonably complete account of the cell’s biochemistry and biology; a full, satisfying, and profound understanding of its nature lies far in the future.
On the other hand, I do not think that a revival of the Aristotelian categories is apt to occur any time soon. A willful blindness to the plain facts of teleology in the universe? Perhaps. Biology, even on the molecular and biochemical level, is surely pervaded by teleological thinking. The activities of the cell are purposeful, and so too are the activities of every system made from cells. No one for a moment doubts that the purpose of the heart is to pump blood. These similes—the heart is like a pump—may in the end prove ineliminable. Nonetheless, they strike molecular biologists and biochemists as impediments to thought.
I would like to suggest to Father Oakes a somewhat different perspective. Let us drop Aristotle for the moment. In the standard view of the sciences, explaining the universe is an activity best conceptualized in terms of a descending order: from mind, to life, to matter. (That indeed is how I am proceeding in this series of articles, which began in November 2004 with “On the Origins of the Mind.”) To put this in terms of scientific disciplines, psychology vanishes into biology; biology vanishes into molecular biology and then into biochemistry; further down there is organic chemistry; then come physics and, finally, mathematics. But what if the arrows pointing downward are reversed, so that, in the end, mathematics and with it our entire picture of the physical universe turns out to be crucially contingent on psychology—i.e., on mind?
Readers of Commentary eager for my third and final essay in the series may take these remarks as a preview of coming attractions.
Correction In “How Corrupt Is the United Nations?” by Claudia Rosett [April], the Better World Fund, an arm of the United Nations Foundation, is said to have spent more than $110 million lobbying the U.S. Congress over the last eight years. As reported to the IRS, the figure of $110 million pertains to total expenditures on what the fund’s website describes as “outreach, communications, and advocacy” intended to “support UN causes”; of this, the amount devoted to lobbying Congress is approximately $3 million. We regret the error.—Ed.