Letters

Was the Civil War a gentlemanly affair? Are men necessary? Readers respond to reviews of "Robert E. Lee" and "Y: The Descent of Men."


Salon Staff
June 11, 2003 11:00PM (UTC)

[Read "Y Are Men Necessary?" by Gavin McNett.]

Gavin McNett's spittle-covered review of Steve Jones' "Y: The Descent of Men" was spiteful and hysterical, to say the least. Mr. McNett accuses Jones of screaming, while in fact, he is the one throwing the silly hissy fit.

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Jones' book is a fine one, and it presents, with excusable drama, a point of view that has largely been ignored until recently. The eminent historian Evelyn Fox Keller (yes, she's a feminazi, Gavin) has shown in elegant detail how gender biases and mechanistic worldviews have influenced the choice of metaphors that genetics uses to understand its facts. To escape from such scientific cul-de-sacs, we have a need for people who are willing to go out on a limb. Mr. Jones has stated recently discovered facts in the evolution of sex chromosomes and then had the courage to speculate on their possible implications. If a book meant for popular consumption is not the forum for such speculation, then what is? Academic journals with butt plugs up their collective asses?

Perhaps men are necessary. We have gotten into the habit of thinking that they are. But as Mr. Tom Paine reminded us, the long habit of not thinking a thing wrong often gives it the false impression of being right. Jones' book is a refreshing, speculative account of an emerging revolution in our understanding of the sex chromosomes. If this revolution reduces some males to anxious fondling of their VCR remotes, then so be it.

-- Anil Menon

Gavin McNett gets all huffy on behalf of the male species because Steve Jones describes the Y chromosome as "decayed, redundant, and parasitic." I wonder if in the back of Jones' (or his editor's) mind was the Freudian concept, prevalent from the late 19th century to at least the 1940s, that the clitoris is a redundant and useless organ that is also a pale, sad imitation of the penis -- a decayed penis, if you will. You laugh -- but due to their horror over the possibility that male and female sexuality wasn't day-and-night different and didn't bear any obvious relation to their traditional social roles, Freud and his followers decided that it was part of the normal sexual development of women that they had to "switch" from clitoral, or masculine, sexuality, to vaginal sexuality, including the ability to achieve "vaginal orgasm" (Freud's peculiar fantasy). In doing so, the theory ran, the "normal" women also gave up all of her masculine aspirations -- you know, like intellectual achievement, playing lead guitar, or programming the DVD player -- and settled into her proper maternal role by "substituting" her baby (especially if it's a male) for the penis she "envies."

So Mr. McNett -- please don't whine because one author makes spurious use of biological evidence to take a dismissive attitude toward men. Women have had to put up with this garbage for centuries. And can Mr. McNett possibly be unaware when he objects to the "spin" that females are superior because all human embryos start as female that that's exactly how the Bible story of Adam and Eve has been traditionally interpreted, to the male's advantage?

So where's the "History of the Clitoris"? Surely someone has written that already? If not, there's an idea ...

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-- E. Moore

An interesting article, but it only faintly touches upon the real issue, and that is an unspoken contempt for men, or "maleness." Just as that IQ book of not too long ago tried to portray black people as genetically inferior to whites, so now is this book attempting to use science to further a bigoted agenda, albeit this time an anti-male one.

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And of this agenda, what can we reasonably determine, based on the book in question? Well, seeing how it tries to make the case that maleness is irrelevant (as decided by the god of science, or nature), one could reasonably assume that femaleness is, in human terms at least, extra-special super-important.

And there you have it -- the entire reason the book was published. Reduced to a mathematical equation, it's essentially WOMEN=GOOD, MEN=BAD. In other words, the same old radical feminist crapola, only cleverly disguised behind pseudo-scientific babble.

Since science is the real religion of the industrialized world, we can take this to be the modern version of blaming original sin on women, only with a particularly cruel twist. Yes, Eve damned all of humanity in the Bible by eating from the tree of knowledge, but at least women weren't made extinct by God for it. Anti-female as those original Christians were, you got to admit, they didn't go so far as to covertly wish for the demise of all things girlish. Too bad we can't say the same thing for the new, science-styled dogmatists, who obviously pray at night for the unceremonious obliteration of everything penile. Shame on them and everyone who indulges them.

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-- T. Fleming

[Read "The Gentleman General," by Allen Barra.]

As a Southerner who is tired of Civil War hagiography I am far more inclined to agree with Roy Blount than with Allen Barra. Lee was a man of impeccable deportment and bearing, but as a commander he has a distinction not usually associated with genius -- he got a higher percentage of his troops butchered than any other general, North or South, in the Civil War. Almost a year to the day before Pickett's charge, Lee ordered an assault across open ground at Malvern Hill, which ended in the slaughter of thousands of his soldiers. When he decided to do the same thing at Gettysburg, Longstreet pleaded with him for hours not to do it, understanding exactly what massed gunfire would do to men walking across a mile and a half of open field. Generals make mistakes, but good ones don't make the same one twice. Lee did.

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-- Edwin N. Strickland

Allen Barra tells us that "the American Civil War was a gentlemanly affair." Is he including the Missouri fighting? Andersonville? The march through Georgia? The Confederate policy of murdering black POWs?

-- James J. Matthews

While I have not read Mr. Blount's book on Robert E. Lee and thus cannot comment on it, it is hard to peruse Mr. Barra's clumsy and facile review without comment. Several of his stated opinions are at least open to question, while most of the rest appear to be clear lunacy.

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First, while there are many reasons to support the common consensus of Lee's genius at generalship, Mr. Barra makes the common mistake of failing to distinguish among tactics, logistics and strategy. With few exceptions, Lee was a tactical genius --- the Seven Days, Second Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancellorville, and the defense of Richmond all attest to it. On logistics, the scorecard appears mixed -- Lee was often remarkable at being able to move troops quickly on the march, but he often failed to secure his communications, marched beyond his supply bases, and failed to live off the land. But it is in strategy that Lee left the most to be desired. He never grasped that the South's inherent disadvantages in manpower and materials, its advantage in having interior lines of defense, and the North's inconsistent commitment to the war effort, all pointed to engaging in a defensive strategy that avoided open conflict and made the war last as long as possible. Instead, Lee often was obsessed with seeking offensive engagements that led to losses in leadership and manpower. I find it interesting that Mr. Barra mentions that Lee inflicted heavy casualties on the North but avoided noting that Lee suffered a higher percentage of losses of his own troops committed to battle than almost any other principal commander of the war.

Finally, Mr. Barra's obtuse and fatuous comment that the war was a gentlemanly affair is almost beyond belief. I suggest Mr. Barra read or reread Grant's excellent memoirs that view the Civil War as the "most bitter and sanguinary" conflict he ever knew. If anything, neither side was prepared for the utter barbarity of the war. The examples of this are legion -- the murderous border conflicts in Kansas and Nebraska before the war, the appalling conditions in prisoner-of-war camps on both sides, the South's attempts to pursue chemical and biological terror attacks in New York (including poisoning the water supply and trying to start typhus and cholera epidemics), Sherman's march to the sea, the slaughter at Fort Pillow -- etc., etc. What was gentlemanly about any of those events?

-- Kevin Coleman


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