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Letters -- June 1996

LETTERS

A New Public Philosophy

Second Amendment

Irving Berlin

Child Labor



A New Public Philosophy

In "America's Search for a New Public Philosophy" (March Atlantic), Michael J. Sandel makes the argument that Democrats and Republicans both have "an impoverished vision of citizenship" and that the country cannot articulate a public philosophy that deals with civic virtue. Sandel is right in his assessment of the "national 'funk,'" and he points out that both conservatives and liberals subscribe to a Rawlsian version of neutral liberalism which is at the root of the problem. But Sandel overlooks contemporary alternatives that are being generated at the grassroots level--for example, the New Party--to counter the "threat to self-government" that both big business and the federal government pose to the republic.

The New Party, which includes the likes of Noam Chomsky and Cornel West, has won several local elections in Milwaukee, Chicago, and even Missoula, Montana, and has worked with unions and community organizations in St. Paul and Milwaukee to pass "living-wage" legislation to increase the minimum wage paid to employees of firms that receive public money. Truly the heir of the old Progressive movement, the party supports full employment, democratization of the banking system, fair (rather than free) trade agreements, and a reduction in military spending, among other things. The New Party is a localized phenomenon of regular people doing their civic duty--on a small scale. Its philosophy is one of civic involvement rather than the special-interest, individualistic philosophy of the Democrats.

D. Shawn Pruitt
Indianapolis, Ind.

Michael J. Sandel did a good job of explaining how political philosophy in the United States has evolved over time in response to economic and technological change. He also presents an interesting way of classifying the political arguments that resonate throughout our national history by introducing the concepts of civic republicanism and liberal freedom. Sandel is balanced in his portrayal of the virtues and vices inherent in each system. In the end, though, he favors civic republicanism, at least at the local level, as being the bedrock on which the survival of democracy ultimately depends. I would agree.

But Sandel does not correctly identify the most potent group interested in restoring civic republicanism to the United States today. In fact, he goes so far as to single these people out for slanderous depictions uncharacteristic of his otherwise reasonable article. I am referring to the Christian conservatives, whom Sandel chooses to condemn as "undesirable" and "intolerant." The agenda of these groups--for example, to outlaw abortion, reintroduce prayer in public schools, and return homosexuality to the closet--is really nothing more than an attempt to restore standard American civic culture. As recently as 1960 all these civic norms were the uncontroversial law of the land and enjoyed wide support from citizens of all ethnic and religious backgrounds along with politicians across the spectrum. If this is not civic republicanism, what is?

Erik Peterson
Gresham, Oreg.

Michael J. Sandel has brilliantly diagnosed the problem, but his remedy--even bigger global government--flies in the face of reason. If big government and big business are the problem, bigger international government would only add to it.

Sandel writes that Thomas Jefferson worried, with good cause, that "large-scale manufacturing would create a propertyless class, lacking the independence that republican citizenship requires." Louis D. Brandeis's remedy of bigger government to control bigger corporations did nothing to address Jefferson's concerns. Instead it ratcheted up the race to greater bigness by both. Brandeis's and Sandel's remedies would leave the individual feeling smaller and less empowered.

Aristotle was correct in asserting that, in Sandel's words, "self-government [is] an activity rooted in a particular place, carried out by citizens loyal to that place and the way of life it embodies." The challenge of our times is to apply Aristotle's principle to contemporary society.

Bratimir Ilic
Chicago, Ill.

"America's Search for a New Public Philosophy" is, in my opinion, a shot straight to the heart of the problem. I would presume to add just one thought about the principle involved. The members of a complex modern society are simply not free to "choose their own values and ends." Their presence within that society implies a commitment to surrender to the "values and ends" of the majority of their fellow citizens.

The concept of a "New Federalism" was launched by Richard Nixon, not Ronald Reagan. I can speak with some assurance on this, because I was on the Office of Management and Budget team that prepared a report for the President, delivered (fatefully) in May of 1974. The term was rumored to have been suggested to President Nixon by William Safire, then a White House speechwriter. What distinguished the Nixon-Roy Ash version from those that followed was the idea of devolving taxing authority to the states along with responsibility for decentralized program management. The Reagan staff transformed this theoretically workable plan into a "dump" of social programs whose objective was clearly to see them wither on the vine.

Kelly Campbell
Cooperstown, N.Y.

Second Amendment

In her article "Second Thoughts on the Second Amendment" (March Atlantic), Wendy Kaminer characterizes the Supreme Court's decision in Presser v. Illinois (1886) as being based on "now discredited" reasoning. As her article notes, that case held that a state-law prohibition of private militias did not violate the Second Amendment, because that amendment was a limitation on federal, not state, power. However, her characterization of its reasoning leaves the unfortunate impression that today the Second Amendment limits a state's power to control firearms to the same (uncertain) extent that it limits the power of the federal government to control them. This is emphatically not the case. Although some of the reasoning of Presser may not have stood the test of time, its conclusion that the Second Amendment does not apply to the states has been followed by every court to consider the matter.

Before enactment of the Fourteenth Amendment, in 1868, it was settled constitutional doctrine that none of the first eight amendments were limitations on state power, only on federal power (Barron v. Baltimore, 32 U.S. 243 [1833]). Since ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, however, the Supreme Court has gradually come to hold that most of the rights expressed in the first eight amendments do limit state power--not by their own force but because they are part and parcel of the "liberty" protected by the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee that no state shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. However, the Supreme Court has never held that the right to bear arms is one of the liberties guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Unless it does, Barron v. Baltimore and Presser v. Illinois must be taken to defeat any argument that the states may not constitutionally control firearms.

Lower federal courts and state courts that have addressed the question have uniformly upheld the power of the states to control firearms. When petitions have been submitted to the Supreme Court to review these decisions, they have always been denied.

Thomas F. Rutherford
St. Augustine, Fla.

Wendy Kaminer misrepresents the views of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership. First, "gun control" does not cause genocides: murderous politicians and government bureaucrats plan and carry out genocides. In the twentieth century, enforcement of gun-control laws is a necessary pre-condition for genocide. Rwanda, where as many as 800,000 people were murdered between April 7, 1994, and the end of June, 1994, enacted a "gun-control" law on November 21, 1964. This law explains what is otherwise inexplicable: how so many were murdered so fast by so few.

Second, Kaminer also does not understand the central role that gun control played in the Nazi genocide against six million Jews and seven million gentiles. The Nazis inherited lists of all German firearms owners when they took power in 1933. These lists were compiled under a 1928 law enacted by the center-right Weimar Republic government. Insecure after winning election with only 44 percent of the vote, the Nazis quickly seized firearms from those they did not trust.

Those inherited "gun-control" lists enabled the Nazis to get an iron grip on Germany quickly. They then replaced most major laws, but they did not replace the inherited gun-control law until March of 1938. By then two thirds of Germany's Jews had fled, leaving only 200,000. In the wake of the Kristallnacht the Nazis forbade Jews to own any weapons. This Nazi law appears to be the basis for the U.S. Gun Control Act of 1968.

Jay Edward Simkin
Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership
Milwaukee, Wis.

Wendy Kaminer replies:

Jay Simkin's letter demonstrates that I did not misrepresent his views when I cited him for the proposition that gun control causes genocide. He states that enforcement of gun-control laws is a "necessary precondition for genocide," that gun control explains recent mass murders in Rwanda, and that firearms seizures "enabled" the Nazis to consolidate their hold on Germany. In an article published in Guns and Ammo, Simkin has characterized genocide as the "downside" of gun control, citing seven major genocides of this century that have been preceded by gun-control laws; he concludes that "gun-control laws are the key to genocide. . . . To prevent further genocides, we must destroy gun control." He complains that since 1945 "the link between gun control and genocide has gone unrecognized."

It is disingenuous of Simkin to deny that he has tried to persuade his readers that a causal relationship (or "link") exists between gun control and genocide. Perhaps he has never used the exact words "gun control causes genocide," but that is what he leads people to believe.

I am only a little less baffled by Thomas Rutherford's complaint. He suggests that I have misled readers by pointing out (correctly) that the view of the Bill of Rights as a limitation on federal but not state power has long been discredited. As Rutherford notes, in a series of landmark cases decided during this century the Supreme Court has made clear that the fundamental rights guaranteed by the first ten amendments to the Constitution are "incorporated" into the Fourteenth Amendment and govern the individual's relationship with both state and federal governments. The Court has not ruled that the right to bear arms is guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment simply because it has not made an underlying ruling about the Second Amendment. If the Court ever decides that the Second Amendment provides a fundamental individual right to bear arms, that right will no doubt be incorporated into the Fourteenth Amendment as well.

Irving Berlin

David Schiff's tribute to Irving Berlin as a master lyricist as well as composer ("For Everyman, by Everyman," March Atlantic) is squarely on target. Unfortunately, two of the "ragged rhyme" examples Schiff uses are actually revised lyrics dating from decades later than the composition of the original songs. As such, they are less an example of Berlin's ability to wed words and music perfectly than they are of a companion skill: wedging new words into a previously composed melody.

"I sit alone/With a table and a chair," from "All By Myself," probably dates from the 1950s; the original, 1921 lines are "I sit alone/In my cozy Morris chair." Here one can see clearly Berlin's instinct for the construction of singable poetry--the assonances (o and s/z) and alliterations (m and s, the latter continuing with "so" and "solitaire" in the next two lines). In addition, the juxtaposition of "cozy" with, in the next line, "unhappy" sets up the overall sense and tension of the song. "Table" damages all of this; it is hard to believe that Berlin (rather than Irving Berlin, Inc.) was responsible for the updating.

On the other hand, the "Rockefeller" lyric for "Puttin' on the Ritz," although it also dates from the 1950s, is ingenious, but not as fluent as the original "Harlem" lyric written in 1928 for Harry Richman. The revision is an early example of political correctitude (probably made for Ella Fitzgerald's Irving Berlin Songbook) rather than--as in "All By Myself"--reflecting the simple necessity of removing an obsolete reference. The "Rockefeller" lyric also seems to violate the meaning of "putting on the ritz," which Berlin understood well. The phrase connotes pretension, and the Rockefellers had no need to put on the ritz--they were the ritz!

Maxwell E. Siegel
Sussex, N.J.

David Schiff replies:

I don't know if Maxwell E. Siegel is a musicologist--but he should be. His comments open a whole new perspective on popular song. It would be fascinating to trace the ways in which songs written for the fleeting present become "timeless." As Mr. Siegel's letter indicates, it often is a question not just of the quality of the song but of the suppression and emendation of dated elements. I doubt that anyone could update "rotogravure" in "Easter Parade," however, even if few people today know what it means. I would hope, though, that it is not necessary to label all changes in racial sensitivity "political correctitude."

Child Labor

Whether by inadvertence or by design, positioning Stephen Carter's "The Insufficiency of Honesty" immediately before Jonathan Silvers's "Child Labor in Pakistan" (February Atlantic) was poignant beyond expression. To Carter, "Integrity . . . requires three steps: discerning what is right and what is wrong; acting on what you have discerned, even at personal cost; and saying openly that you are acting on your understanding of right and wrong."

The dimensions of the tragedy in Pakistan are greater than imagined. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. But how should we respond? Corrective action can be achieved only through individual action, not through government and specifically not through U.S. government coercion or involvement. Reflexively, the idea of foreign aid--or, worse, more foreign aid--is offered as the solution. But time after time it has been demonstrated that foreign aid rarely if ever benefits the people of foreign countries; on the contrary, foreign aid acts as an independent financing source for loathsome foreign governments as an entity apart from their people, enabling them to perpetuate tyranny upon their people. In short, foreign aid permits these governments to remain unaccountable to their people. In Pakistan it's the combination of an oppressive regime coupled with do-nothing-ness. Laws protecting children are in place; they are simply ignored.

It is well beyond time that all foreign aid ended--and time for more Americans to act with individual integrity. Not buying articles made by enslaved children is a certain step in the right direction.

Paul F. Galvin
Dedham, Mass.

Western consumers' response to child servitude in the carpet industry is evidenced by a significant decline in imports. Pakistani carpet exports suffered a sharp fall from June to December of 1995. Revenues were $48.5 million, down from $97.1 million a year earlier.

Pakistani carpet manufacturers have cause for concern. Their industry is likely to hit even harder times, given their denial of a child-labor problem and their failure to establish Rugmark, a South Asian initiative to end child servitude in the carpet industry. To date, Rugmark Foundations have been established in India and Nepal.

Establishing Rugmark goes a long way toward assuaging the concerns of consumers about child labor. Manufacturers who do not use child labor and agree to unannounced, independent inspections of their looms are certified to use the Rugmark label on their carpets. The label assures consumers, retailers, and importers that the hand-knotted carpet was made by adults, not children.

South Asian child-advocacy and human-rights groups have made strong appeals to U.S. consumers to refuse to buy hand-knotted carpets unless they bear the Rugmark label. Consumer rejection of carpets not carrying the Rugmark label will spur more manufacturers to commit to production without children and spur more countries to adopt Rugmark. For more information about the U.S. Rugmark Campaign, call the National Consumers League, in Washington, D.C., at 202-835-3323.

Darlene S. Adkins
National Consumers League
Washington, D.C.

Jonathan Silvers tries to convey the impression that Pakistan is an exception to the emerging global trend against child labor and that the government of Pakistan is responsible for allowing this problem to "assume epidemic proportions." Child labor does prevail in Pakistan, but it is a problem in many countries of southern Asia and, indeed, many other underdeveloped countries.

Since assuming office in October of 1993, the government of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has taken several steps to eliminate bonded labor and to eradicate the abuse of child labor in Pakistan. These include the strict implementation of the Bonded Labor (Abolition) Act of 1992 and other relevant laws, and arrest and prosecution of the culprits; the initiation of a national survey of child labor in collaboration with the International Labor Organization (ILO); the launching of a nationwide rehabilitation program for working children; and the setting up of inspection teams to visit industrial sites and factories regularly to monitor working conditions and to prevent any abuse of child labor or use of bonded labor.

Contrary to Silvers's claims, whenever its attention has been drawn to any instance of bonded labor, the Bhutto government has acted to suppress it. For instance, when Shakil Pathan, of the Independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, pointed out the existence of a bonded-labor camp in District Tharparkar in Sindh, the provincial government immediately busted the gang of criminals involved and secured the release of the laborers.

To discourage the use of child labor in manufacturing carpets exported by Pakistan, the government has established the Rugmark Foundation with the help of the ILO and other United Nations agencies. Under this arrangement all rugs exported from Pakistan must carry this certification. It must also be clarified that cases of child labor do not generally exist in the formal manufacturing sectors--an important point that Silvers omitted. The small enterprises of the informal sector that resort to child-labor practices generally hide them from law-enforcement agencies because of the restrictive conditions prohibiting the employment of minors.

The death of Iqbal Masih, the crusader against child labor, was very sad and unfortunate. According to an investigation conducted by the law-enforcement authorities and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the murder was unrelated to Iqbal Masih's labor activism and did not involve the "carpet mafia" alluded to by Ehsan Ulla Khan, as Silvers insinuates.

Silvers's description of Islamabad as bristling with "world-class industries" "staffed . . . by children and adolescents" is inaccurate: there are no industries in Islamabad or its immediate vicinity, much less any that are employing "ragged youths entering and exiting the brick factories, steel mills, and stone-crushing plants at all hours of the day and night."

Rifaat Hussain
Embassy of Pakistan
Washington, D.C.

Jonathan Silvers replies:

However admirable the Rugmark Foundation's intentions, some industry critics suggest that it lacks a reliable monitoring system and cannot ensure that members (whose looms are scattered across an area of 100,000 square miles) are in fact complying with the child-free requirement. (I suspect that many are not.) Worse yet, the Rugmark label, although a trademark, is easily counterfeited. In Pakistan, at a carpet warehouse outside Islamabad, I watched a ten-year-old boy sew fake Rugmark tags onto carpets destined for export to Germany.

Essan Ulla Khan, the founder of the Bonded Labor Liberation Front of Pakistan, remains an exile. He is collaborating with a BLLF office in Sweden and, despite exhaustion and homesickness, frequently campaigns throughout Europe for the abolition of child labor in South Asia. Readers who wish to contribute to BLLF's legal and educational programs are advised to send an international check or money order to Bonded Labor Liberation Front-Sweden, c/o B-M Klang Västergatan 19, 531 52 Lidköping, Sweden (telephone 011-46-510-297-95). Readers who wish to learn more about international efforts to eradicate child labor should contact Anti-Slavery International, The Stableyard, Broomgrove Road, London, England SW9 9TL (telephone 011-44-171-924-9555 or fax 011-44-171-738-4110).

Rifaat Hussain's letter represents the most extensive communication I've had to date from a Pakistani official on the subject of child labor. In the weeks I spent in Pakistan, my repeated requests for interviews with Benazir Bhutto, government ministers, and bonded-labor specialists were denied, as were my requests to observe so-called antislavery personnel in action. When I persisted in my requests and asked for a child-welfare agent to accompany me to a carpet factory where twenty children lived and worked (all between the ages of five and eleven), the National Assembly press office in Islamabad threatened to revoke my visa and arrest me for illegal entry.

Pakistan's response to the child-labor crisis is a study in half measures. In the early 1990s the National Assembly passed two landmark bills prohibiting child and bonded labor, but it failed to make any provision for their enforcement. The rehabilitation program and field-inspection teams that Dr. Hussain mentions exist only on the drawing board; they are no closer to reality than they were when they were first proposed, in 1990. It is true that last year the national police raided several factories that used bonded labor; but state prosecutors refused to charge the factory owners--or, for that matter, to close the factories. As for Iqbal Masih's murder, a number of prominent human-rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Anti-Slavery International, believe that the investigation of it was compromised by incompetence and malfeasance on the part of police investigators.


Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1996; Letters; Volume 277, No. 6; pages 8-16.

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