Contents | July/August 2001
In This Issue (Contributors)
The Atlantic Monthly | July/August 2001
Letters to the Editor
avid Brooks describes well our contemporary academic culture ("The Organization Kid," April Atlantic), but he doesn't draw the logical conclusions from his own premises. He writes, for example, "If they are indeed running the country in a few decades, we'll be in fine shape. It will be a good country." My question to Brooks would be: How could a generation so lacking in civic capacity, so indifferent to virtue, so uncritical of even the worst abuses in our society, possibly qualify as leaders of a democratic country?
s a senior at Princeton University, I was shocked and insulted to read David Brooks's article in your April issue. The typical Princeton student is depicted as a power-hungry, overzealous, career-driven workaholic with no better goals or desires than chasing the "carrot" put before him by Wall Street. Brooks backs up his position with damning statements by supposedly "typical" Princeton students who claim that they do homework in their sleep, schedule appointments with their friends, and have no serious relationships because of their drive to advance their careers.
Mr. Brooks, where did you find these people? My experience at Princeton has not been different from that of most people here, and I assure you that I am not the robot Brooks portrayed in his article. I have two-hour lunches, a serious relationship, nine hours of sleep a night, tons of close friends, lots of leisure time, and a happy, healthy attitude toward my future. I go out at night; I read the paper every morning; I exercise in the middle of the afternoon; I skip classes; I lie around and chat with my friends; I shop; and I procrastinate just as much as any other student in the world, and I'm still happy with my grades.
oday's college students are far from the complacent, self-interested social climbers that Brooks makes us out to be. We may have grown up in a time of peace and prosperity, but that does not mean that we see the world as "fundamentally just"; nor does it mean that we look contentedly on the current order of things. We do not have our heads stuck in the ground; as we grew up, we saw the beating of Rodney King, the spread of AIDS, violence in our schools, and the arrogant moralizing of the Religious Right. We watched all of this, and we formed our own opinions.
We also formed our own opinions about the generation before us, and we saw how our parents' form of campus protest (and their conduct in positions of power) was fundamentally narcissistic. Rather than march or chant slogans, today's college students actively work for social justice, whether through volunteering time, joining advocacy groups, or gearing our careers toward felds in which we can make a difference. The goal is to make progress, not to please ourselves with our self-righteousness.
And we also recognize that making progress is not incompatible with achievement. Unlike the previous generation of social climbers, who were motivated primarily by personal gain, our generation brings empathy, ethics, and, yes, character to the work force. The Princeton professor is right when he says that we see no contradiction in working for Save the Children and Merrill Lynch at the same time, because most of us think it is possible to reconcile ethics with capitalism. In thirty years, when my generation is running Citibank and Merrill Lynch, our leadership will be more ethical and less self-interested than that of the generations previous to ours.
New York, N.Y.
n reading David Brooks's article on the quiescent and respectful undergraduates of Princeton, I was surprised to see no reference whatsoever to the recent efforts of these same undergraduates to change Princeton's labor practices. Since last November, when undergraduates founded the Workers' Rights Organizing Committee, hundreds of students (along with eighty-five faculty members, alumni, religious leaders, and others) have put pressure on the Princeton administration to pay better wages and offer better working conditions to low-wage employees in the university's libraries, dining halls, and dormitories.
These students have teamed up with unions and rank-and-file workers, lobbied administrators, and staged large demonstrations. So far they've forced the university to change some of its policies, and they're still busy organizing and protesting on the issues that have not yet been resolved.
avid Brooks cites a conversation he had with a conservative young lady who interned for Senator Jesse Helms last summer. As far as I know, I am the only person from Princeton who interned for Senator Helms last summer, or any other recent summer. I do not, however, remember having had a conversation with Mr. Brooks. If I was having a conversation, I did not realize it was being reported on. Could Mr. Brooks have written the wrong senator's name?
found "The Organization Kid" offensive. As a victim of acquaintance rape, I can assure David Brooks that not all the males on this campus are particularly eager to "apologize for their testosterone." But perhaps he would just seize this as further evidence that Princeton students, for all our accomplishments, are morally spineless.
Princeton University Class of 2003
egarding "The Organization Kid": I'd like to write a letter in response to this article, but I don't have enough time in my schedule this week.
Dartmouth College Class of 2002
David Brooks replies:
I was a little taken aback by the ferocity that greeted this piece. I wasn't much surprised that many students at Princeton objected; nobody likes to be written about in less than gushing terms, let alone bright young people who are used to being gushed over. The more surprising response came from middle-aged folks who loathe these kids, and who are upset that I don't loathe them too. Generating the most protest were the passages in which I wrote that the young achievers "are wonderful to be around," that if they end up running the country, we'll be in fine shape, and that Princeton today is "infinitely more just, and certainly more intellectual and curious" than it used to be.
Many middle-aged people seem to have romantic notions about how young people are supposed to behave. They want students to be angry, radicalized, crusading, and they detest students who don't fit this mold. But radical, angry young people are almost always insufferable. I much prefer radicals who have at least aged a bit and seen something of the world. I'll take these deferential Princetonians any day.
Amanda Neely doesn't remember talking to me. I don't blame her. Six months passed between the time we spoke and publication of my article, and I'm not that memorable a guy. She was part of a politics seminar that had a reunion dinner while I was on campus, to which I was kindly invited. The professor, Stephen Macedo, explained who I was and why I was there, and I reiterated that I was writing a piece. Among other things, Ms. Neely and I chatted about her father's unsuccessful run for governor of North Carolina.
Genes and Race
teve Olson's article "The Genetic Archaeology of Race" (April Atlantic) ends with the sanguine conclusion that intermarriage or genetic engineering will dispense with such distinguishing characteristics of human beings as face and skin.
Does anyone see the irony of the contrast between the huge efforts being made by environmentalists to save little critters like the snail darter and tiny pieces of plant life from extinction while ignoring the real possibility that human characteristics like blue eyes or black skin will probably disappear in one great blend? Do we really want such differences to disappear forever?
The politically correct word today is "diversity," yet the end, as Olson suggests, will be homogeneity.
Carol P. Cooke
teve Olson writes, "Every [human] group overlaps genetically with every other." This is true. He goes on to say, "The extreme interpretation of this observation, now popular in academia, is that biological groups do not exist. That's obviously absurd. The ways in which Nigerians, Koreans, and Norwegians differ physically belie any claim that all human groups are somehow 'socially constructed.'"
The idea that biological groups do not exist, however, is neither extreme nor absurd. Genetic and physical (or "phenotypic") variations in the human population occur across a continuum. Any "groups" are necessarily defined by externally imposed criteria. They don't exist inherently within the biological information itself. Clusters of similar data within the continuum may suggest groups—Nigerians, Koreans, and Norwegians—but the edges of these clusters inevitably bleed into one another, and ultimately a judgment call must be made about into which group a particular datapoint, or individual, will fall. These decisions determine how groups are defined and constructed.
All human groups are most certainly constructed, socially (blacks, whites, and yellows), scientifically (defined ranges of melanin content per cell), or otherwise.
San Diego, Calif.
was appalled to see an anti-scientific and unabashedly "PC" article in The Atlantic Monthly. Steve Olson expressed what can only be termed a precognition regarding the outcome of genetic research, by declaring, a priori, that such research will prove that no genetic differences exist between the races. True scientifc research, however, is not conducted to "prove" politically acceptable and emotionally comforting notions. The scientifc method was developed to militate against such prejudices. The precept that genetic traits are not equally distributed among human populations is not logically absurd, and in fact defines the term "subspecies," the scientific word for race (though lacking the latter's pernicious connotations).
Recent genetic research has, in fact, shown quite the opposite to Olson's prejudicial precognition. A branch of pharmacology called ethno-pharmacology recognizes that people from different ethnic groups tend to react differently to the same drugs, owing to inherent physiological differences. A gene was also recently discovered that confers a predisposition to addiction and gambling, both of which are complex behaviors. This gene is unequally distributed among human populations: 30 percent of Chinese possess the gene, as compared with 10 percent of whites and two percent of blacks. The list of recently discovered genes infuencing complex human behaviors includes those for sleep patterns, pain perception, eating habits, personality, sociability, and intelligence (Einstein's brain was physiologically different from the average person's).
All these recent genetic discoveries give me a precognition different from Olson's: many important human behavioral traits may have genetic underpinnings, and these traits may not be equally distributed among human populations. This makes me not a "racist" but a "subspeciest."
Steve Olson replies:
I have followed the literature linking genes to behavior for a long time, and here's what I've concluded. The more complex and therefore interesting a human trait, the less satisfactorily can DNA account for that trait. Sure, genetic factors are responsible for simple activities—our need to eat, for example. But as a behavior becomes more nuanced and psychological, more human, the influence of chance events and experience builds until the genetic foundations of the behavior are barely discernible. Furthermore, to the extent that genetic differences in behavior do exist, they will be especially small when averaged across groups, since the average genetic differences among individuals within a group are much greater than the average genetic differences between groups.
Alan Templeton, of Washington University, and other geneticists have shown that human beings are much too genetically homogenous to be divided into subspecies according to the criteria applied to other animals. Given our remarkable uniformity, why posit mysterious genetic forces to explain historical events when cultural and social explanations suffice?
The Day Reagan Was Shot
n "The Day Reagan Was Shot" (April Atlantic), Richard V. Allen refers to "Secretary of State Haig's misunderstanding of the constitutional chain of succession." Although presidential succession beyond the Vice President sounds like something that should be in the Constitution, it isn't. Instead Article II, Section 1 grants Congress the authority to establish the chain of succession.
The Presidential Succession Act of 1947 amended the 1886 law by placing the speaker of the House and the president pro tempore of the Senate ahead of the Secretary of State. Thus Haig's mistake was legal, not constitutional.
New York, N.Y.
he most apparent thing in the White House transcript you reproduced was Caspar Weinberger's confusion over the state of defense readiness and the levels of "Defcon." The transcript confrms the portrait in Haig's memoirs of a baffled Weinberger and the critical need to reassure the Soviets in light of an ambiguous alert order.
Allen has no videotape to confrm his observation of Haig's wobbly knees, white knuckles, and "involuntary body movements." That is unfortunate, because the transcripts indicate that Haig, more than anyone else in the Situation Room, seemed to know what he was talking about. Indeed, he was the senior member of the executive branch in the White House until the arrival of the Vice President, and he had every right to take charge.
Richard V. Allen replies:
David d'Ancona is correct that the Constitution does not specify presidential succession and that the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 is the operable law, and I should have so noted in my article.
Kenneth Weisbrode seems to think that Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger was "confused" and "baffled" about the state of defense readiness on March 30, 1981. He can be assured that Weinberger was clear of mind and speech at a critical time. In the absence of the Vice President, Weinberger had the command authority. Moreover, Mr. Weisbrode suggests that someone needed to "reassure the Soviets in light of an ambiguous alert order." I don't agree. Weinberger, noting that the Strategic Air Command had gone on alert when President Kennedy was shot, did not formally increase Defcon but prudently moved SAC pilots closer to their cockpits, a measure that would save three or four minutes.That action, a heightened state of alert, was not an increase in Defcon but was within Defcon 4, SAC's normal state of readiness.Weinberger's decision was revealed and discussed in the Situation Room well before the now famous scene in the White House press room. As for Mr. Weisbrode's reference to videotape, I need only refer him to the video archives of every major domestic and international network present in the press room to see for himself what actually went on there.
Advice & Consent
s a conservative Lutheran pastor, I found Cullen Murphy's article "Thy Will Be Done" (April Atlantic) rather interesting. Studies like the ones described will never find a conclusive answer, however, because they ignore the full implication of the article's title.
Prayer studies rest on an invalid assumption: that sickness is evil. Perhaps, looking at the short time frame of birth to death, we can find many arguments for this. Yet when you have a time frame that ends in eternity, things in this life lose some of their importance.
My members and I certainly pray for healing and relief. But we also pray, and fully mean, "Thy will be done." The God who loved us enough to send his Son Jesus to die for our sins is not going to abandon us or forget his love for us.
Rev. John Toppe
here is a footnote to the story about Red Friesell who in 1940 mistakenly gave Cornell a fifth down and a victory over Dartmouth] mentioned in "Fine Points," by Cullen Murphy (March Atlantic). After the apparent Cornell victory a great many observers and Dartmouth fans put up a howl of protest. Cornell officials reviewed the film and quickly saw that a fifth down had been inadvertently granted to Cornell amid the pandemonium of its last-minute drive to avert the 3-0 upset. The athletic director, James Lynah (I'm not sure I've spelled his last name correctly), and Coach Carl Snaveley, and President Edmund Ezra Day—plus, no doubt, others—mulled over the correct response. They decided to give the game to Dartmouth. Coach Earl "Red" Blaik, later famed for his great Army teams, was not a man to turn down such a sportsmanlike offer. Some at Cornell might have thought he would say, "Aw shucks, thanks, but you guys keep it," but they didn't know what a competitor Red Blaik was. In any case, he is supposed to have telegraphed something like "Dartmouth accepts the victory, and congratulates and salutes Cornell, the honorable and honored opponent of her longest unbroken rivalry." The Ronald Encyclopedia of Football lists the game as Dartmouth 3, Cornell 0.
Ivan N. Kaye
Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July/August 2001; Letters to the Editor; Volume 288, No. 1; 16-20.