• Critical Theory

    A Grief Like No Other

    It's a shame that Eric Schlosser's well-placed compassion for the members of murder victims' families ("A Grief Like No Other," September Atlantic) clouds his critical eye when it comes to victims'-rights legal reforms. I can understand his reluctance to be critical. Criticism of victims'-rights policies might come off as callousness toward victims and their families, and no one wants to add to their already unbearable pain.

    However, most victims'-rights legal reforms (especially the proposed constitutional amendment) are bad ideas, not the least because they offer no real help to victims and their families. The constitutional amendment won't extend Kathryn Smith's health insurance to help her cope with the murder of her sister, for example. In fact, the primary beneficiaries of victims'-rights policies are lawmakers who use them to fuel punitive (and ineffective) "tough on crime" laws they can brag about at election time.

    Jennifer Wood

    I had just returned from a three-day round of visits with lawyers and private investigators concerning my son's death when I opened the mailbox and found the September issue of The Atlantic staring me in the face.

    Having just finished reading Eric Schlosser's cover article, I am dumbfounded by how many others have shared my experiences. The article seemed carefully crafted to point out to readers that the violent death of a loved one is a reality in our communities that could touch anyone at any time.

    D. LaBarbera

    Eric Schlosser quotes one victims'-rights advocate as saying that crime victims simply want "to be notified, to be present, and to be heard." Although these demands may seem quite modest, they may be extraordinarily expensive to implement.

    Consider, for example, the proposal that prosecutors be required to consult with victims before disposing of cases by plea bargain. Any meaningful consultation would surely require at least a few hours of a prosecutor's time; if a prosecutor disposed of even a few cases by plea bargain each week, the proportion of his or her time spent on such consultation would be substantial. Moreover, if the consultation truly "diminish[ed] the prosecutor's freedom to strike a deal," he or she would have to prepare for and appear at a significant number of additional trials. Since most prosecutors are already overworked and underpaid by comparison with their colleagues in the legal profession, prosecutors' offices would have to raise salaries across the board to hire and retain the additional legal staff required to meet this increased workload.

    On another note, Schlosser states that victims' rights granted under state law have "proved difficult to enforce," and implies that a federal amendment would remedy this problem by "finally giv[ing] victims' rights a constitutional basis." Should we understand that these rights are difficult to enforce because they often conflict with and are trumped by the constitutional rights of the defendant, and that a federal amendment would solve the problem by curtailing the defendant's rights in such situations? If that is indeed what would follow from the passage of a federal victims'-rights amendment, there should be no dancing around the point.

    Kurt Hemr

    As I read Eric Schlosser's article in the September issue, I found myself thinking of a hypothetical organization called Parents of Children Executed for Murders They Didn't Commit. I trust there are too few of these to constitute an actual organization, but there are some (see In Spite of Innocence, by Michael L. Radelet et al., 1992). I write with no thought of resisting the movement toward a better appreciation of victims' needs, but rather to caution against any impulse to suppose that the movement would be furthered by harsher treatment of perpetrators.

    Schlosser meticulously avoided any assertion of such a notion, but I am concerned that the emotional intensity of the piece might evoke unwarranted inferences. Such inferences could be prompted by a hunger for vengeance that would do little to serve survivors' genuine interests. I should like to give special emphasis to Schlosser's observation

    Even when a trial ends in a verdict of guilty and a sentence that seems appropriate, the family of a murder victim may be left with a hollow feeling. They may realize for the first time that no amount of punishment given to the murderer can relieve their sorrow or bring the victim back to life.
    Measures to promote public safety are certainly in order, but incarceration in and of itself contributes little to that end. A given period of imprisonment is commonly supposed to correspond neatly to whatever crime has elicited it. As a consequence, defense lawyers argue -- logically enough -- that when the period of the sentence has expired, the "debt" to society has been paid, and justice requires restoration of freedom without condition. This pattern of analysis, among others, encourages the contention that criminals' rights are better looked after than victims'. Actually, there are no rights of a criminal as a criminal (the rights of a criminal as a person are another matter), but protection of the rights of the innocent can benefit the guilty as an undesired consequence.

    John Spradley

    Eric Schlosser's article on the effects of murder on the families who remain was moving, righteous, and unsettling. This article was worth the entire price of subscription.

    Steve Borbash

    My article doesn't advocate the death penalty, new "tough on crime" legislation, or any restrictions upon a defendant's civil liberties. My aim was to give the families of murder victims an opportunity to be heard. The proposed victims'-rights amendment to the Constitution has a similar goal -- and that is one reason I think it is such a good idea.

    The Victims' Bill of Rights Amendment would grant the family of a murder victim more information about their loved one's case, notifying them of a proposed plea bargain, of a trial, of a killer's parole or escape from prison. I cannot see how any of these things could infringe on an innocent defendant's ability to get a fair trial. The presence of a victim's family in the courtroom should not influence a judge or a jury any more than the presence of the defendant's family. Both families should enjoy the right to observe legal proceedings that will forever affect their lives. As for the participation of the victim's family at sentencing, I see no reason to exclude any pertinent information about a convicted murderer's crime. The judge or the jury should have as much information as possible about the crime when choosing the proper sentence.

    Years of experience at the state level have shown that victims'-rights legislation is not very expensive to administer. For the most part, it involves sending computer-generated notices to victims' families about upcoming legal proceedings. An amendment to the U.S. Constitution is necessary not only to guarantee victims' rights in federal court but also to ensure a basic set of these rights in every American court. A crime victim's rights merit the same sort of constitutional protection as a defendant's, and the same recourse when they are denied -- appeal to a higher court. If allowing the families of murder victims a voice in the criminal-justice system does indeed require additional expenditure, it will be money well spent. At the moment more than half of the 1.1 million inmates in America's prisons are being held for nonviolent offenses. The cost of locking up some of these nonviolent offenders could be put to much better use keeping murderers behind bars and helping their victims' families regain faith in our society and its laws.

    Classical Appeal

    David Schiff's fine article "Classical Appeal" (August Atlantic) demonstrates the futility of orchestras' embracing popular music as a means of fiscal survival. Such pandering cannot work in the long run, because the popular audience does not approach music with the same aesthetic expectations as the concert audience.

    Furthermore, popular and concert music have diverged to the point where the former is almost entirely electronic; its volume, aggression, and groove-based percussion do not fit the acoustic ambiance of the classical orchestra or its chamber-music derivatives. Schiff makes the point that much modern concert music is also electronic and does not fit the classical orchestra either. If the orchestra is not to become extinct, what should it be playing?

    There is no disagreement that the masterpieces of Western concert music, the mainstay of the orchestral repertoire, have been overperformed and overrecorded; orchestras will probably not continue to exist only to perpetuate this repertoire, because there is no point. Thus new music is the only answer. Indeed, the sensible way of extending the Western orchestral and chamber-music tradition is to create new works written for the same media -- that is, acoustically based music that does not sound out of place alongside eighteenth- and nineteenth-century masterworks.

    But doesn't Schiff point out that the audience still doesn't like "new music"? The twentieth-century music of Ravel, Debussy, Bartók, and early Stravinsky is in fact esteemed by the public, which parted with contemporary music only when it embraced atonality. Although a wholesale return to nineteenth-century practice is not necessary, various tonal and melodic styles based on contemporary harmonic practice -- as heard in early-twentieth-century music, jazz, and many kinds of popular music -- might possibly rekindle audience enthusiasm. Such a limited crossover music, emphasizing acoustic instruments, can revitalize the concert repertoire by extending it, not overthrowing it.

    Henry Martin

    David Schiff's engaging article stops just this side of accepting Nadia Boulanger's challenge to "take risks!" Schiff only implies, and leaves unanswered, the crucial question: Why perpetuate the symphony orchestra (or any classical-music organization, for that matter) in its aged format, playing Haydn, Brahms, Stravinsky, and Harbison, when bringing popular-music performers into the concerts would fill the hall, balance the books, make the orchestra think it's still alive, and entertain the audience?

    The problem begins with the passing statement that "the collapse of music education in the public schools," taken on its own, is "no cause for alarm." Why should we worry about the fad of soccer replacing the fad of music education? Because it is not to create saxophone players that we need music education but, rather, to help develop deep minds, open hearts, and rich souls -- an area in which soccer, regardless of its value in building physical coordination and team spirit, will always fall short. Little else in the school day, in fact, can be as lastingly effective as exposure to classical music.

    The power of classical music lies not in its entertainment value (although entertainment is its vehicle) but, rather, in its capacity to expand a susceptible -- not necessarily schooled -- listener's mind, heart, and, ultimately, soul.

    David Hoose

    I submit that the future of ensemble music lies with the modern wind orchestra. Our colleges and universities now boast wind orchestras that play as well as most professional orchestras. They are commissioning and performing the music of highly respected composers, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Karel Husa, Joseph Schwanter, and John Harbison. Indeed, it has become a maxim among composers that if you want your music performed, you should write for wind orchestra.

    The distinguished repertoire of the wind orchestra is fresh, exciting, and highly accessible. Audiences like its appealing sounds and comprehensibility, and musicians appreciate its sophistication and musical integrity. When more professional wind orchestras come into being, contemporary music will once again become a regular part of life for the concertgoing public.

    Lawrence D. Harper

    Critical Theory

    I read Frank Kermode's article "The Academy vs. the Humanities" (August Atlantic) with great interest, because as a recent graduate of an Ivy League college that embraces race-gender-class criticism, I have experienced firsthand the unfortunate dearth in the academy of what Kermode calls "disinterested critical inquiry." The sentiment in many of my classes was that achieving this kind of objectivity is impossible because, as one professor put it, all our thoughts about art are mediated by invisible cultural forces. The only sure route to "correct" interpretation, then, is through theory -- which these days is often fueled by particular political and social agendas.

    But I wonder if this is a case of mistaking the frame for the picture. Theories -- whether they are imbued with race-gender-class ideology or not -- are only a means to an end of understanding, and can at best offer only partial explanations of works whose meaning and value extend beyond our always provisional interpretations of them. Only through disinterested critical inquiry should the humanities teach us to seek and experience this complete and self-contained perfection.

    Thomas Brett

    As one of Frank Kermode's admiring students, I am surprised by his evaluation of the current state of literary studies. He appears to have been persuaded more by the disinterested inquiry of John M. Ellis than by the activities going on either in his own or in adjacent classrooms (where the connivance of [my generation's] professors teaches us that there is no future in literature). I consider myself one of the race-gender-class -- and, I would add, environmental -- critics of whom Kermode and Ellis disapprove, so I believe that I can speak for both myself and my less dull and ridiculous colleagues when I say that we love literature. I do not want to remove Shakespeare, or even George Herbert, from the curriculum. Then again, what is so scary about recovering lost literature or encouraging the growth of a new literature? Many of my classmates were and are in the University of Houston's creative-writing program -- hardly a group one would suspect of setting out to undermine the privileged status of literature. Competition for enrollment in Kermode's seminars was high, and I went to the trouble of squeezing myself into two of them because I wanted to learn from one of the finest interpreters in the business. Close attention to a work of art is crucial, of course, when one is attempting to evaluate its significance, but this requirement is not necessarily ignored or subverted (far from it) when one attempts to determine the work's relation to its contemporary culture or to our own.

    One of my responsibilities as a co-president of the University of Houston's Graduate English Society is to help organize the Annual English Graduate Intercollegiate Seminar (AEGIS), which Kermode adduces, without naming, as an indicator of the academy's depraved condition. I agree with him when he claims that it is a conference in which "there is hardly a trace of anything that promises disinterested critical inquiry." In fact, my colleagues and I will be encouraging graduate students to submit papers that demonstrate some awareness of the interests that are bound up in the production, dissemination, and interpretation of literature. Whether it be Kermodian or Foucauldian, critical practice should question itself. Dissent is not forbidden.

    James Langston

    Thomas Brett has it about right, I think. To James Langston, I send friendly greetings; I am glad to know that he means to steer his graduate group in a sensible direction.

    The Atlantic Monthly; December 1997; Letters; Volume 280, No. 6; pages 12-19.