Letters to the editor

More
State of the Union

In "Shaken and Stirred" (January/February Atlantic), Stephen S. Cohen and J. Bradford DeLong report that median annual household income has risen 13 percent in twenty years. During those twenty years, however, didn't the number of workers in each household increase? Aren't those years during which Mom and even the high school students went to work? We learned to call those developments "women's liberation" and "job training for the kids." Am I not correct that the median income of individual full-time workers in the United States has been falling since about 1973? I'd be happy to be told that I'm misreading the statistics.

Edward F. Bergman
City University of New York
New York, N.Y.

As our nation hemorrhages jobs to the lowest bidder, Stephen S. Cohen and J. Bradford DeLong offer a glimmer of hope. But they concede that "the approaching economic shock will be greater in magnitude than anything in recent historical memory." The ripple effect of this "shock" will extend well beyond the economic implications addressed by the authors.

Globalization identifies a new round of winners and losers. Brokers in the global market will most likely be among the winners. Meanwhile, middle-class American workers—with American wages, benefits, and environmental standards—will not compete effectively.

Foreign markets lack the protections that were developed through great effort in this country. The social transformation that created a sound middle class in our nation was demanding and gradual. It nurtured stakeholders in our continuing experiment in self-governance. Globalization, on the other hand, undermines the process. It will devastate middle-class wages, benefits, and protections. Will the ongoing experiment in self-governance weather the loss of a middle class?

John F. Rohe
Petoskey, Mich.

I take issue with Robert Reich's comments on Stephen S. Cohen and J. Bradford DeLong's "Shaken and Stirred" (Letters, March Atlantic). Reich asserts that most of America's service jobs won't be offshored because they are "in person-to-person services such as retail, restaurants, hotels, hospitals, surface transportation, education, child care, elder care, and the construction trades." But most of these are low-skill, low-wage starter jobs. The higher-skill, higher-wage jobs can be offshored quite easily, beginning with all management jobs. Supervisors may be needed locally, but managers can be in India or China, thanks to teleconferencing and same-time data delivery. Companies are doing this already, and it will only become more logical and cost-effective—and more prevalent—in the very near future. Even lawyers, by and large, can be located anywhere in the world. (Most never see the inside of a courtroom, and don't need to.)

Jason Taub
Wayne, N.J.

Stephen S. Cohen and J. Bradford DeLong reply:
Alas, Professor Bergman is reading the statistics correctly, and carefully. For a full generation (with the welcome exception of a spurt during the late 1990s), median individual incomes have gone nowhere; certainly not up. Yet the very top incomes (the top five percent, and especially the top one percent) have soared. Household incomes have held up largely because of more (and also relatively better-paid) jobs for women, though a cumulative increase of 13 percent over twenty years is not very impressive. And all this gloom omits the eroding reliability of benefits. Nothing on the horizon looks likely to reverse this long-term squeeze. There is little possibility in the average household of sending another member off to work, although we might expect to see a greater number of kids returning home after finishing their education in order to share expenses and uncertainty.

As for John Rohe's point, we weathered the Gilded Age, after all. And the Gilded Age spawned progressivism. We are hopeful.

I agree with Jonathan Rauch ("Bipolar Disorder," January/February Atlantic) that American political life is far more divisive than American cultural life in general. Although he offers a worthy explanation for the ascendancy of extremism within the major political parties, I find a very curious conundrum here. If middle-of-the-road citizens command the demographic landscape, why aren't moderate politicians getting more votes?

I think the answer has to do with the difference between how cultural goods and political goods are delivered in the United States, and with the silence of the silent majority Rauch describes.

In our market economy, where there are niches for ever thinner slices of the populace, the prevailing sentiment is that you can have whatever you want, whenever you want it. Our consumer institutions have learned that in order to survive they must cater to our every individual wish. We, in turn, have come to expect nothing less than complete satisfaction. This is widely accepted as both good and normal.

In politics such a transaction simply isn't possible.

The core idea of American life is essentially one of individual empowerment. Call it life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; this is the great cultural consensus that we live by. However, in practice the idea has often metamorphosed into something else: American culture is about winning. In business and sports (as if there is a difference anymore) it's about being the biggest and the best. In spirituality it's about personal salvation. In the arts it's not about making a living but about making a killing. Through victory, salvation, or recognition comes the validation (either personal or public) that we all crave.

Similarly, the core idea of American political life is individual enfranchisement: government is accessible and accountable to every single one of us. This, too, has transformed into a substantially different belief: that government is there to serve each of us personally. But governing is not about victory or defeat. It is about process and action—achieving the greatest good for the many while protecting the few. Yet the only gateway to governing is a political process that requires winning. Therefore the politician needs to reach out to each voter in a personal way.

These days, roughly speaking, 40 percent of the population will always vote to the right, and 40 percent will always vote to the left. Some 20 percent remain in the middle to decide. In pursuing that 20 percent politicians have discovered that it is not sufficient to propose good works that will have the broadest appeal. Because our cultural consensus is based on individuality, citizens are no longer so easily motivated by popular sentiment. So rather than moving the centrist voter across the line to one side or the other, politicians are forced to move the center line past the voter. They need to create partisanship for its own sake.

There are two ways to be a partisan politician. One is to hold extreme views of your own. By this means you draw your own partisans to the polls. Most politicians prefer to exercise this option through the use of (relatively) subtle clues. The other, more important method is to accuse your opponent of holding extreme views. The intent in this case is to drive moderates away from your opponent. This was a major strategy of both Kerry and Bush.

In other words, in a political world shaped by passionate extremism at both ends and complacent moderation in the middle, a politician's most effective tactic is simply to scare people into voting for him. As we all know, fear is a powerful motivator.

Minority players in any political establishment must be made to feel that their interests are sufficiently respected, or else they will not consent to participate in that establishment. It may seem quaint, but the simple truth is that political life in a democracy is all about compromise and cooperation. Forfeit this, and no amount of cultural peace may save us.

David Welle
Oakland, Calif.

I don't believe that Jonathan Rauch's article shed any light on the imaginary red-blue divide or its root cause.

I was born in the United States but spent twenty-two years of my adult life abroad. I cherish the right as a U.S. citizen to choose freely in most every decision of my life, having viewed firsthand the people of many nations who have no expectations of such self-determination. I am disappointed that most Americans find it acceptable to distill life into simple and, usually, diametrically opposed choices. Americans do not have a monopoly on this mindset, but we are damn good at it.

Red or blue, good or evil, right or wrong, Democrat or Republican, hawk or dove, liberal or conservative, God-fearing or not, pro-life or pro-choice, bull market or bear, isolationist versus interventionist. Drugs are either legal or not; films get a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. The list goes on and on. Even as a "centrist" or a person taking a position "on the fence," it is one's fate to be located halfway along a one-dimensional spectrum with left and right, or some other pair of opposites, at its extremes.

And don't even think about changing your opinion on something, because the gaps are just too wide and the required shift too extreme. Indeed, it seems that the only area in which we Americans vigorously execute our right to choose is in the consumer marketplace.

Is it any wonder that we have difficulty explaining and understanding the complexities of multilingual, multi-ethnic, and multinational conflicts such as those in the Balkans, Africa, and the Middle East? Should it surprise us that older cultures, with long such histories, at times view us collectively as morons?

Richard Shor
Kirkland, Wash.

Jonathan Rauch finds a political divide and a cultural unity in America. He cites considerable support from academics, pollsters, and other authors for his thesis. But I am not persuaded that the right questions have been asked, or the critical issue identified, if the big question is "the state of the union." The split I see in America is about ninety-nine to one. That would hardly be worth calling a split, except that the one percent see important truths that are largely invisible to the rest. The most likely place to find the one percent is among groups such as Greens, socialists, ecologists, scientists, academics, artists, humanists, non-theists, and progressive activists.

There is a great intellectual divide in America, and people inclined to think deeply about contemporary issues are increasingly turned off by both major parties. In fact, many see little hope in electoral solutions so long as the two establishment parties maintain an iron grip on the levers of power. Ralph Nader is hardly exaggerating when he calls the two major parties a duopoly or a two-party dictatorship. The "third parties" of politics and culture are effectively shut out, and their ideas and solutions will not reach the masses. Some of these ideas could save humanity from itself. It is not the confused independents in the middle who hold the key to salvation; it is the marginalized few. After all, how many followers did Jesus have? The magnitude of the major parties' tragic effort to silence these voices may become clear only when it is too late.

There are ways out of the gloom, but not through the political process. A parallel system based on barter and the Internet may be the answer.

J. Russell Tyldesley
Catonsville, Md.

Hanna Rosin ("Beyond Belief," January/February Atlantic) presents a thought-provoking challenge: to define the overlapping relationship between American politics and organized religion.

Evangelicals and other traditionalists tend to focus on Scripture to define morality, while the less traditional would argue that "conscience" should be a determining factor in establishing a moral position. A historical look at God's commandments reveals that these issues are not so cut-and-dried. Two examples immediately come to mind.

First, the Fifth Commandment is generally spoken of as God's prohibition against the taking of innocent life. However, an objective reader of Scripture and history recognizes that this prohibition was limited to those who lived within the ancient Jewish communities. There was no such prohibition against killing outsiders or "nonbelievers." In fact, the Hebrew Scriptures cite numerous examples of killing the innocent in the name of God.

Second, biblical scholars point out that the commandment against adultery, in its original intent, did not prohibit sex with a prostitute; in fact, these ancient cultures considered it men's "right" to engage in such behavior.

Conversely, the Code of Hammurabi (which predates the written Bible) offered far more extensive rules concerning moral behavior than did the Ten Commandments, and went so far as to include women's rights; and all of this without mentioning a commandment from God.

Within the various religious traditions, as Rosin points out, moral opinions differ; but the same people may at different times also view a moral issue differently. The author uses the words "traditionalist," "centrist," and "modernist" to describe religious positions. They might also be described with the terms "legalist" and "relativist." Religious teaching, political affiliation, and the ebbs and flows of life create a bent in one direction or the other, and that bent plays a role in how we define morality. The legalist feels bound by civil law, or doctrines defined in Scripture and interpreted by religious leaders. The relativist relies more on conscience and does not feel bound by religious rules, creeds, or doctrines of faith.

The issue of abortion is an example. The relativist might view abortion as fundamentally immoral but recognize that there are always exceptions. For the legalist such thinking is alien to literal Christian interpretation and religious tradition, and is therefore inherently evil.

To say that God forbids behavior such as capital punishment, stem-cell research, homosexuality, or warfare is, in the eyes of the relativist, not the purview of government. But because the legalist believes that intrinsic evil exists, it is natural for him to support government policies consistent with that belief.

In both organized religion and party politics those in power claim to promote justice, peace, and the advancement of human relationships. Fundamentalist thinkers believe that these are obtainable only by adhering to unbending religious teachings; it is understandable if they are prone to believe that God directly dictates the outcome of human elections.

I thank (the same) God for allowing moral options so that over time justice can be realized.

John J. Valenza
Estero, Fla.

It is sad that American Catholic bishops have become identified with a perverse application of Christian values, and with influencing a large number of Catholics to vote for the re-election of President Bush. A reading of the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel according to Matthew does not lead one to conclude that Jesus would be sympathetic to the policies of Bush, his supporters in Congress, or Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver and like-minded members of the Catholic hierarchy.

Bishop Chaput's position that the killing of the unborn is a "non-negotiable" issue, which caused him to remind his audiences that Kerry supports abortion rights and Bush doesn't, unfortunately does not extend to capital punishment, which the Catholic Church also opposes. During Bush's term as governor of Texas 152 executions took place, with no opposition from either the bishop or Bush himself.

Nor does the bishop's argument for the sanctity of life extend to the victims of our unwarranted invasion of Iraq (Americans as well as innocent Iraqi men, women, and children), a war declared "unjust" by Pope John Paul II.

John Viteritti
Southold, N.Y.

Hanna Rosin undermines her credibility early in her article when she writes of "some Quaker meetinghouse where all religious viewpoints are equally welcome." This is a shallow and erroneous view of Quaker practice.

Jane Elder Wulff
Battle Ground, Wash.

In your January/February issue you wrong a great American. In "The Massless Media," William Powers comments that James Franklin's New England Courant opposed smallpox inoculation, and adds his own comment that "the paper was on the wrong side of that argument."

No, it wasn't. Smallpox inoculation in 1721 was a medical disaster. Enthusiasts took material from an actual human smallpox lesion and inoculated somebody else with it. The result was real smallpox that often resulted in death. There was no difference between smallpox contracted by contact with a smallpox victim and smallpox contracted by inoculation. Certain disfigurement and probable death followed for many individuals who in the normal course of events might not have caught the disease at all.

George Washington followed this lethal protocol, inoculating many Continental troops, with the usual awful results. It wasn't until well into the 1780s that Edward Jenner, a country physician in Gloucestershire, heeded the folk wisdom that dairymaids who caught cowpox from contact with infected cows became immune to smallpox. They often hired out as nurses in smallpox pesthouses, with complete confidence in their immunity.

Jenner realized that cowpox, a mild disease, conferred immunity to smallpox, an often deadly disease; after years of veterinary investigations he carried out the first successful vaccination, thereby saving more lives than anyone else in the history of world medicine.

Brendan Phibbs, M.D.
University of Arizona Medical Center
Tucson, Ariz.

I was quite disappointed that in "Continental Divides" (January/February Atlantic) you chose to contribute to the stigma attached to manufactured housing—or mobile homes, as you put it (no "mobile home" has been built since the Housing and Urban Development code went into effect, on June 15, 1976).

The shortage of affordable housing in this country is ongoing and getting worse. Manufactured homes are an alternative form of housing for families who would otherwise not be able to live out the American dream of owning their own home. I encourage you to see for yourself how well they are built; the HUD code is at least as stringent as the building codes for site-built housing.

Rebecca Roberts
Scottsdale, Ariz.

Offense Taken

I was disturbed by Thomas Mallon's use of the word "fag" to refer to a homosexual in his review of the book Isherwood: A Life Revealed (January/February Atlantic). I should not have to say this, but used in this sense "fag" is a vulgar and extremely offensive word.

Christopher Cunningham
Roswell, N. Mex.

Thomas Mallon replies:
Oh, my gay nerves. A trip to The Random House College Dictionary might make Christopher Cunningham feel a little better. I did not use the word "fag" to refer to a homosexual. I used it—as does the book I was reviewing—to mean "a younger pupil in a British public school required to perform certain menial tasks for, and submit to the hazing of, an older pupil."

Rock-a-Bye Baby

Christina Schwarz, in her appraisal of John Updike's Villages (January/February Atlantic), asserts that the lines she quotes are not "flawless" because Updike writes that Mary Lou pushed the carriage back and forth on the way to the store. How can Mary Lou be "on her way" and at the same time be pushing the carriage "back and forth"? There may be flaws, but this is not one of them. Pushing the carriage back and forth is a way of introducing a soothing rocking into the carriage motion. It is accomplished by moving the carriage a greater distance on the forward push than on the backward pull—a sort of two-steps-forward-one-step-back for the carriage as the person pushing continues to stride forward.

Richard S. Bogartz
Amherst, Mass.

Christina Schwarz replies:
One of the pleasures of literary interpretation is that more than one answer may be correct. I tested the motion Richard Bogartz describes when Updike's phrase first troubled me, and found it remarkably awkward. It's certainly not something I'd ever done with my baby or seen others do. Of course, my generation used mostly strollers, but I presume the mechanics of walking and pushing are still pretty much the same. Because of the springs peculiar to carriages, those who use them can simultaneously rock and roll, and manipulators of all infant-carrying vehicles roll them back and forth while waiting to cross a street or stopping to chat, because God forbid the child should have to endure being still. But pushing back and forth on the way somewhere? I agree that it's possible, but try it—it's tougher than it sounds.

Advice & Consent

It would be helpful if David Hajdu would explain what he meant by the remark that Bobby Darin "entered Hunter College on a scholarship" ("Chameleon With a Toupee," January/February Atlantic). When Darin went to Hunter College, every enrollee was on "scholarship"; Hunter, along with the other colleges that made up the City University of New York, charged no tuition until the 1970s.

Sidney Gendin
Ann Arbor, Mich.

The announcement of the 2004 Student Writing Contest (September Atlantic) is uncomfortably reminiscent of a mid-century movie called The Man With the Golden Arm. Your announcement plagiarizes the ad for that movie, and while that may not be illegal after fifty years, it is unethical.

Tom Schiller
Kansas City, Mo.

The Editors reply:
The poster for The Man With the Golden Arm was the work of Saul Bass, one of the greatest designers of the twentieth century. Our announcement—and the listing of the contest winners, which appears in this issue—were meant as an homage to his work, with the addition of the pencil intended as a subtle visual joke about writers and their golden arms. The typography and the color scheme were inspired by Bass's movie poster for Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo.

This sort of humorous pastiche is common, and is rarely resented or resisted by the original artists.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to a Seaside Town in Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where the Wild Things Go

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Adults Need Playtime Too

When was the last time you played your favorite childhood game?

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In