Contents | June 2002
The Atlantic Monthly | June 2002
Letters to the Editor
Ron Powers ("The Apocalypse of Adolescence," March Atlantic) paints an apocalyptic image of "murderous" youth in Vermont. But annualized crime data collected by the Justice Department paint a very different picture: In Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine an average of six juveniles were arrested every year for murder in the 1970s, five in the 1980s, four in the 1990s, and two in 2000. In 2000 Vermont's 37,000 youths aged fourteen to seventeen accounted for just one homicide, and thirty-three violent crimes, in the entire state.
The inference that random crimes, occurring over half a decade, are somehow evidence of an apocalypse is about as valid as the claim that Timothy McVeigh and Charles Manson are indicative of their adult generations' predisposition to murder.
The Justice Policy Institute
found Ron Powers's article disturbing in both its content and its claims. Although Powers confirmed my suspicions with his careful documentation of the precipitous rise in intensely violent crimes committed by adolescents in Vermont, he concluded—speciously, I think—that Vermont's adolescent criminals "are us."
Every teenager experiences precarious periods of suspended moral reasoning as he or she negotiates what the eminent social psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg mapped out as the "six stages of cognitive development." But what kept Robert Tulloch's and James Parker's classmates from acting out in the same way they did? Why don't the poorer, more oppressed Vermont kids who aren't presidents of their student councils, as Tulloch was, or aspiring young artists and musicians, as Parker was, commit similar crimes? How can Powers claim one moment that Vermont is abandoning its youth by banning skateboarding in its parks and then report the next that a young criminal like Laird Stanard, who murdered his mother, received nurturing adult attention from her in the form of warm, cigarette-sharing talks about life? Perhaps Powers comes closest to an explanation for the egregious rash of recent juvenile crimes in Vermont when he quotes a segment of a letter from Theo Padnos, the unorthodox jailhouse teacher whom he romanticizes in the article. Trying to explain why Laird Stanard shot his mother, Padnos quotes "the shrink" assigned to the case: "I don't have any idea what the reason is, you know? Who knows?"
he examples Ron Powers uses in his article on murderous kids show that the primary disservice we do to them is to arm them. Laird Stanard's mother, in particular, would undoubtedly not be dead today if her son hadn't had the chance to shoot her in a moment of impulse. Jane Hubbard's story indicates that an attack is not the same as a killing—her attackers lost their nerve, and she survived. Ready access to guns elevates manageable family crises to tragedies; having guns around the house gives a child the idea that a gun may be used, no matter what "gun training" the parent may give. Guns are fetishistic icons promising power, vindication, and selfhood to those with little or no self-control. Americans have failed spectacularly to take responsibility for the harm an armed populace inflicts upon itself.
Carmel Valley, Calif.
on Powers is correct that policies favoring punishment over rehabilitation are not helpful. However, he is wrong to suggest, by his approving description of Theo Padnos's literature class, that providing an accepting environment in which young offenders can come together in groups will be of much value. The evidence indicates otherwise: cost-effective programs that reduce juvenile offending focus on ensuring that young people do not have contact with other at-risk or offending youth and that their home and school environments reinforce effective academic and social behavior while placing clear, consistent, but not harsh limits on undesirable behavior.
Oregon Research Institute
Ron Powers replies:
Jason Ziedenberg's reductive reading of my article amounts to a validation of Mark Twain's remark that "there are lies, damn lies, and statistics." His institute's own, highly selective "annualized crime data" have nothing to say about most of the issues I raised: a youth-gang efflorescence (aggressively curbed) in a state that had never before experienced youth gangs; a current heroin epidemic in a state where heroin, and attendant teenage prostitution, were virtually unknown two years ago; a 77 percent increase in the number of youthful jail inmates in a three-year period; a statewide eruption of public school bomb threats; a 50 percent increase in the number of school dropouts in the 1990s. Most damning, Mr. Ziedenberg's statistics are powerless to express the evolving quality (as distinct from quantity) of teen violence in Vermont. The crimes under examination were distinctive not for their volume but for their extremes of premeditated cruelty and thoroughness of preparation. In short, the inference that raw murder statistics are somehow evidence of adolescent tranquillity is about as valid as the claim that body counts in Vietnam predicted the outcome of that war.
Chard deNiord seems inclined toward the Manichean view that there are good folks and there are bad folks in this world, and trying to figure out who's which is a waste of time. I respectfully feel otherwise. I would hardly dissent from Jane Smiley's observation that our national love affair with firearms has grievously increased the toll of juvenile slaughter; but this doesn't account for the rising extremes of juvenile alienation—evinced, for example, by Robert Tulloch and Jimmy Parker's choice of SOG Seal 2000 combat knives as weapons in their assault. Similarly, I can't find reason to dispute Anthony Biglan's argument for keeping young "offenders" sequestered from one another. My article was intended partly as an impetus toward a first step in such a process—namely, to reduce our national denial that far too many of our children have grown angry and withdrawn in the face of a spreading blankness in their lives.
harles C. Mann ("1491," March Atlantic) compellingly describes the melting of barriers between ecology and the study of human history and prehistory that is leading to a groundshift in the way we conceive of our relationship with ecosystems. He is also dead on when he asserts that this new knowledge is shaking the foundations of the conservation world. However, when Mann says that ecologists have "vigorously attacked" the view that the first European observers in the New World were not looking at wilderness, he misses the mark by a wide margin. In fact ecologists have been leading the charge to revise notions of ecosystem integrity.
The same science that has produced revelations about the impact of prehistorical human societies is also showing us how much more quickly the earth has been changing in the recent past. Careful consideration of major environmental issues shows that it is the rates of change and the sizes of effects, not the fact of their existence, that lie at the core of debates over what to do. Societies will have to face the same decisions they have always had to face. Fortunately, as the human population grows, so does understanding of our influence over the rest of the living world. Unfortunately, turning the earth into a "garden" for 10 billion people is not likely to satisfy anyone's notion of successful environmental conservation.
Associate Professor of Ecology
New Haven, Conn.
take issue with two rather minor points in Charles Mann's article about pre-Columbian America.
First, Mann uses the example of the Pacific Northwest as an instance of disease creating depopulation, but he is incorrect that "the British navigator George Vancouver led the first European expedition to survey Puget Sound." The Spanish had been quite active on the Northwest coast, as marked by the first in-depth exploration carried out by Don Juan Francisco Bodega y Quadra, in 1775. Furthermore, actual penetration of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and into Puget Sound is reported in Manuel Quimper's explorations of 1790. Although Vancouver did carry out a detailed survey, he was far from the first European in the region, or even into Puget Sound.
Second, Mann (citing Elizabeth Fenn) uses Vancouver's reports as evidence of a "continental pandemic" spreading from Boston in 1774. By the time of Vancouver's survey, in 1792, more than 110 vessels (mostly of Spanish or British origin) had visited the Northwest coast—a more immediate contact point for the spread of disease, which likely occurred in successive waves. A secondary source of contagion is suggested by Spanish colonial activity in the Californias and Russian trade activity in the Aleutians.
Jon D. Carlson
Arizona State University
n one crucial point I found "1491" confusing, perhaps even contradictory. On page 43 the author says, "Before Columbus, Dobyns calculated, the Western Hemisphere held ninety to 112 million people." On page 44 he says that Dobyns revised these numbers upward in a 1983 book. But on page 46 he tells us that Dobyns's current estimate is 18 million.
Charles C. Mann replies:
As David Skelly says, some ecologists "have been leading the charge to revise notions of ecosystem integrity." But others, including some prominent members of the field, have fought against it vigorously. It is to them I was referring. In response to Jon Carlson's fascinating letter, I must disagree. Yes, other Europeans went into the Northwest before Vancouver, but he was the first to collect the data for a detailed map of the area, which is what I said. Although my article was merely quoting Elizabeth Fenn on the smallpox, let me venture the suggestion that previous European visits are implausible sources for the disease. The infection would have burned itself out in the crew long before their arrival, so the vessels would have had to pick up some extra sick people on these shores to act as agents of transmission—a possible but not likely scenario. Finally, I am sorry to have confused Peter Hylton. Dobyns's most recent estimate for North America's population in 1491 is 18 million; the other numbers refer to the entire Western Hemisphere.
Women of God
s I read Mary Gordon's "Women of God" (January Atlantic), I kept asking myself, "Why in the world would any woman want to join one of the 'progressive' orders?" As far as I can tell from the article, the nuns in these orders prefer feminism over the faith. Perhaps that's why the orders are dying—what's so beautiful or holy or moving or even different about secular liberalism? Progressive orders offer nothing spiritually unique for women, so why bother?
Gordon never raises the possibility that the run-of-the-mill feminism she celebrates is killing some of the orders—that Vatican II, rather than saving orders, is drying them up. Conversely, she fails to consider that perhaps the traditional orders are thriving because they dip the nuns in something truly revolutionary and truly different: the faith once delivered to the saints.
H. Bowen Woodruff
wish to make several clarifications in the case, mentioned in Mary Gordon's "Women of God," that involved my presiding over the distribution of abortion funds as director of the Michigan Department of Social Services. Gordon describes Sister Sharon Holland as saying, "Dialogue and productive communication goes on between representatives of the Vatican and superiors of religious orders before any action is taken. And the action then takes place under the guidance of the superiors." In my case this was not true.
My superiors were bypassed completely. I received a letter directing me to meet with a delegate of the Holy See, selected by the Sacred Congregation for Religious. The letter said that if I wished, I could bring two sisters from my province. My religious superiors were never mentioned. I selected Helen Marie Burns, RSM, Detroit Provincial, and Emily George, RSM, Vice-President, Sisters of Mercy of the Union. At the meeting I was informed that I was to resign my position immediately or be subjected to a canonical process leading to dismissal from the Sisters of Mercy. These alternatives placed me in an untenable position, since I had accepted the governor's appointment in good faith and with the understanding that all necessary approvals had been granted. The dispensation from perpetual vows as a Sister of Mercy was requested with deep regret, sorrow, and limited freedom. But I do believe that the Vatican and religious congregations learned (and continue to learn) from this experience how better to handle such cases.
Agnes Mary Mansour
Farmington Hills, Mich.
n his review of Jihad, by Gilles Kepel (March Atlantic), Walter Laqueur lamented that there might not be any copies of Eberhard Serauky's book, Im Namen Allahs, in the United States. The Online Computer Library Center's database turns up copies at the University of Arizona, Duke University, the New York Public Library, and Yeshiva University.
alter Laqueur refers to the Afghan mob attack on Robert Fisk and gives the reader the impression that the attack was linked to Fisk's antiwar opinions. In fact the mob was angry over American bombing of their villages, and took that anger out on a handy Westerner.
Advice & Consent
heldon Lee Glashow (Letters, April Atlantic) accuses Americans of widely misapplying New Jersey as their size standard for world geography. He chides The New York Times and The Washington Post for not studying their maps more carefully, citing their inaccurate comparisons of New Jersey with Swaziland (the Times said about the same size) and the Netherlands (the Post said about twice the size). Wrong, says Mr. Glashow—Swaziland is more than twice the size of New Jersey, and the Netherlands more than five times as large. Who's right? The journalists, says The World Almanac of 2001, which lists New Jersey's land area as 7,419 square miles, Swaziland's as 6,700, and the Netherlands' as 16,033.
Roy M. Gulick
Green Cove Springs, Fla.
ack Beatty's article "Do As We Say, Not As We Do" (February Atlantic) uses too broad a brush to criticize wealthy countries for closing their markets to Third World imports. Many such countries may indeed be guilty as charged, but the United States is not one of them.
As the latest U.S. government figures show, over the past decade U.S. imports of Third World goods rose nearly twice as fast as U.S. imports of wealthy countries' products. U.S. imports of Third World manufactured goods—which create the most wealth for Third World countries—rose more than twice as fast as U.S. imports of wealthy countries' manufactures. In fact, fully 47.7 percent of all U.S. manufactured imports now come from developing countries, up from 36.4 percent in 1991.
International Monetary Fund figures, moreover, demonstrate just how open America's market is compared with those of peer countries. According to the Fund economists Vivek Arora and Athanasios Vamvakides, because the U.S. market is so open to Third World imports, every unit of U.S. economic growth is statistically associated with the same unit of Third World growth. Japanese and European markets, by contrast, are so closed that their growth shows no statistically significant correlation with Third World growth at all.
The United States clearly deserves not criticism from developing countries and their advocates but praise for its Third World trade policies—the more so because extensive imports from developing countries have taken millions of valuable industrial jobs from the nation's middle class and working poor. If Third World governments and their supporters really care about promoting economic development, they'll focus their indignation on the real trade tightwads—and on the homegrown corruption and official brutality that so pervades these lands.
U.S. Business and Industry Council Educational Foundation
Jack Beatty replies:
In my column I mentioned that the Bush Administration had dangled before General Musharraf, the Pakistani President, the prospect that we would accept more textile imports from Pakistan as part of a quid pro quo for Pakistan's help in the war in Afghanistan. I said the Carolina textile lobby had not been consulted on this implied promise. It has since lobbied the Administration to abandon it. This may be good domestic politics, but it is no help in the war on terror. At the Monterrey conference in March, President Bush linked terror to poverty, as I did in my column, saying that the war on terror can't succeed without an accompanying Western effort to raise living standards in the poor countries. That logic by and large went out the window with Pakistan, which one would have thought had a stronger claim on our help than any other country and which in this case did not want aid, only freer trade. I repeat one statistic from the Oxfam report: our trade barriers on textile and other products cost the least developed countries more than they receive from us in aid.
The May Palate at Large gave the wrong phone number for the Colvin Run Tavern, in Tysons Corner, Virginia. The correct phone number is 703-356-9500. We regret the error.
Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 2002; Letters to the Editor; Volume 289, No. 6; 6.