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Lawrence L. Langer's condemnation ("Pre-empting the Holocaust," November Atlantic) of moralists who would put a smiley face on the Holocaust constitutes an important recalibration of thinking about this horrifying event. He flirts with nihilism, however, when he implies that human discourse is inadequate to assign a meaning to the Holocaust atrocities ("we require a scroll of inhuman discourse to contain them"). Viktor Frankl, whom Langer seems to trivialize when he refers to his "all-night reassuring harangue" to help fellow Auschwitz inmates bear their suffering, felt no such inadequacy of language. In Man's Search for Meaning, Frankl concluded that the world is divided into just two races, the decent and the indecent, which are present in all communities. Although the degree of indecency practiced in the Holocaust may read way off the scale, it is nevertheless clearly indecency. I cannot imagine how human beings could have behaved as the Nazis did toward the Jews, but that doesn't mean I can't understand in plain language that they were indecent and as such deserve to be condemned forever.
Lawrence Langer seems to have a low opinion of camp prisoners, denying, in effect, that moral life was possible in the camps. But moral (and intellectual!) life in the camps existed and was widespread. How do I know? I was there, as a prisoner, for more than four years. My KL Auschwitz number is 8886, KL Flossenbürg number 2561. Since liberation I have talked with many survivors, especially the authors of memoirs and scholarly studies. Most of them share my view: the Nazis lost the battle of ideas. They could kill people, but they could not make the majority of them willing slaves.
Why is Langer so pessimistic? Perhaps he bases his opinions on the writings of those authors -- "lonely intellectuals" such as Jean Améry and Tadeusz Borowski -- who could not find a group of friends in the camps and, deprived of friendly support, fell into the Slough of Despond. But other prisoners who had such support have a more optimistic outlook. More than fifty female survivors, whose opinions are published in the book Values Won, by Urszula Wi'nska, considered themselves victors in the battle of ideas in the camps. So did the professors of Jagiellonian University, in Cracow (seventy of them were arrested by the German conquerors and sent to the camps, mainly to KL Sachsenhausen in 1939), who wrote memoirs after coming back home.
Contrary to Langer's opinion, Todorov was right when he said, "After the intensity of this experience everything seemed colorless, futile, false." So it was. Just read the excellent book Return to Auschwitz, by Kitty Hart, a Jewish girl from Cracow.
Stephen Schulhofer, in "Unwanted Sex" (October Atlantic), is much too eager to protect women from responsibility. Several of his examples in which women had unwanted sex involve situations in which they could have said no and walked away. They could also have gone to the appropriate authorities immediately, instead of waiting. The purpose of Schulhofer's argument seems to be to permit a system in which a woman can legally claim victim status in almost any situation in which she feels pressured to have unwanted sex. Physical coercion or direct physical threat doesn't have to be involved, and there is no requirement that she clearly communicate her objections. If men should face penalties for pressuring women to have unwanted sex in these ambiguous cases, why shouldn't those sanctions apply equally to women who pressure men for unwanted sex? Men's lives can be deeply affected by sexual encounters with women, especially when pregnancy or disease results. Why are only women entitled to sexual autonomy?
In Schulhofer's view, a woman doesn't choose to have sex with her therapist, boss, or professor -- she succumbs to his advances. A woman doesn't go to a bar or a fraternity house and choose to drink to the point of intoxication -- a man gets her drunk and then has his way with her before she can object. A woman is like a helpless child or a Victorian innocent. This paternalistic attitude is both unfair to men and condescending toward women.
The sexual behavior described in "Unwanted Sex" is horrendous. But making laws to deal with every problem between individuals engaged in undefined relationships is bound to endanger fundamental rights. Requiring courts to try to determine who is honest without factual evidence will not improve individual sexual autonomy. Trusting a judge and jury to determine what laws apply to sexual behavior that is described as not physically violent but a matter of bad taste is risky. The courtroom will become a place of rhetoric without justice. Trying to bring lawyers into a suit involving a complex encounter between two confused people is not the best solution. Communication about the problems will help, but there will always be those who are unable to treat others with respect.
Criminal law is "murky" because it reflects the reality of sexual relations. Few men in their early years in relationships have the right "moral" understanding of sex. Fewer men are talking about sex in mature conversations -- and I do not see this problem addressed in Stephen Schulhofer's essay. Making laws tougher on criminal sexual behavior will add to the confusion and likely will not stop the abuses.
Stephen Schulhofer replies:
It's revealing that so many men see nothing wrong in requiring a woman to "clearly communicate her objections." Such men simply take for granted their right to forge ahead, to penetrate her body, unless and until she unambiguously resists them. They think it "patronizing" and "condescending" of me to suggest an obligation to respect the privacy of a woman's body until she chooses freely to accept intimate contact. Do the same men consider it patronizing or condescending for society to say that strangers can't walk into their homes or surgeons can't cut into their bodies unless permission has been given freely in advance?
It's equally odd to tar a permission requirement as confusing; the confusion is in plentiful supply already. By requiring actual permission, we would for once make matters clear and, more important, we would put the sexual boundary where it should be, giving sexual intimacy the protection it has always deserved. Women would be the primary beneficiaries, but -- yes -- men often need, and always deserve, protection for their sexual autonomy as well.
Nicholas Lemann, in "'Ready, Read!'" (November Atlantic), questions the continued vitality of local control of public education, but defines his target so vaguely that it is not clear whether he hit it or even precisely what he intended to hit. As an attorney who represents public school districts, I don't conceive local control to mean pedagogical autonomy for individual teachers -- nor does anyone I know. Instead it involves the ability of the local school community to decide what curriculum teachers will implement -- a decision that is rightly made with the input of the teachers who will be called upon to implement it. As Lemann recognizes, curricula, like textbooks, generally are products imported into local school districts. Thus the fact that Success for All lesson plans originate in Baltimore, not in the school that he observed in New York, is hardly a distinguishing feature. If Lemann intended to expose local control as anachronistic, he might have chosen a better vehicle than a reading program whose inventor, Robert E. Slavin, refuses to introduce it into a school unless 80 percent of the school's teachers agree to its implementation. As Slavin recognizes, the success of any educational program is closely linked to the strength of the school's commitment to that curriculum. That is why local control remains so important.
W. Stuart Stuller
I was pleased to see the article on our Success for All program, but I want to clarify some of the issues Nicholas Lemann raises.
Lemann's focus is on Success for All as a proven, practical means of turning around schools in extremely difficult circumstances. He argues that this kind of rigorous reform within the public system is more likely to work than untested choice or voucher plans. This is true as far as it goes, but it makes Success for All sound like bitter if effective medicine for desperate cases. Yes, Success for All has been used and successfully evaluated primarily in high-poverty schools; the great majority are Title I schoolwide projects, in which at least 50 percent of children are in poverty. Yet relatively few of these schools are in the kind of desperate shape that New York's P.S. 114 was in before the program, and few are involved in imminent takeovers or reconstitutions.
I would also take issue with the characterization of Success for All as "Parris Island." Yes, the program is structured and prescriptive, but as Lemann saw at P.S. 114, the school's tone is upbeat, purposeful, and joyful. Teachers do have leeway to innovate when they have the basics down, and children are constantly engaged in cooperative work, creative writing, singing, acting, speaking, and so on. The rapid-fire, whole-class lessons Lemann describes do take place, and as he saw, the kids love them. But that is not the whole day.
Center for Research on the
Education of Students Placed at RiskJohns Hopkins University
Nicholas Lemann has written an important and perceptive article. I do want to correct one wrong statement about the teachers union, though. We fully supported the closing and redesign of failing schools with an agreement allowing the replacement of 50 percent of the teachers long before it was done at P.S. 114 and in District Nine. And we did it not because we feared a loss of union teachers but because we believed it was the right thing to do.
Lemann is right: vouchers or "choice" won't fix the worst public schools, and there are programs and methods that will. The American Federation of Teachers is working hard to support these efforts.
American Federation of Teachers
Nicholas Lemann replies:
I would remind W. Stuart Stuller that the situation at the elementary school I wrote about is not simply one of buying curricular materials from an outside supplier, as all schools do. Community control of public schools failed in New York City, which is why it has been substantially rescinded. The Success for All curriculum does require an invitation from a school's teachers, but as my article made clear, the impetus for using it at P.S. 114 came from without, as it usually does around the country. The school's history is as clear a case of the failure of local authority as one could find.
The thought-generating and important article by William McDonough and Michael Braungart "The Next Industrial Revolution" presents a new way of looking at how we do business. It is a joy to consider methods that better merge ecology and the economy.
However, the authors need to reconsider recycling, because the information provided in the article is one-sided and inaccurate. McDonough and Braungart place far too much emphasis on "downcycling," or the use of a recovered material to make something that itself is not recyclable. Certainly downcycling occurs, as the authors note, but it is a tiny portion of the recycling market. When residents and businesses set out their recyclables, they essentially can be assured that these materials will not be downcycled. Old paper becomes new paper, scrap glass is made into new bottles, and ferrous scrap becomes new steel. Less than 10 percent of recyclables collected in this country are downcycled, although the authors are correct to note that downcycling is an issue in the recycling of one material -- plastics.
William McDonough and Michael Braungart reply:
Jerry Powell defines downcycling as "the use of a recovered material to make something that itself is not recyclable."But what we mean by "downcycling" is the degrading of a product's original quality as the product is recycled. Downcycling occurs in glass as well as in plastic: clear glass is often mixed with other glasses in recycling processes and is degraded in quality. Conventional paper recycling can also degrade quality: inks cannot be reused and are disposed of as waste sludge; paper fiber is reduced in length, and new fiber must be added to restore the strength of the product.
Thus products that were not designed to be truly recyclable at a consistent level of quality are in fact downcycled. In the larger picture we envision, materials maintain quality through many life cycles. Some even involve what we call "upcycling" -- improving material quality during recycling (for example, removing antimony residues from PET).
Nevertheless, we want to encourage community recycling practices. Downcycling's reduction of damage to natural resources makes it an extremely valuable transitional strategy. However, it does not create the magnificent opportunities possible when materials are designed for safe and constant reuse.
Cullen Murphy's delightful and much-needed "Anticipation" (November Atlantic) reminded me of the words of a woman overheard at a gas station not long ago. After inspecting the pump she told her husband, "It says here we have to pre-pay in advance."
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 1999; Letters; Volume 283, No. 2; pages 8-11.