The Conversation

Readers respond to a November 2017 story and more.

A Death at Penn State

In November, Caitlin Flanagan wrote about how Tim Piazza, 19, was fatally injured at a Penn State fraternity party.

Caitlin Flanagan’s stellar article was tragic but not at all shocking. I have taught at a state university for many years. Expecting a university to adequately monitor fraternity activities is like expecting the NFL to deal with concussions. Parents are finally preventing their kids from playing football, and parents of college-age young men should prohibit them from joining fraternities.
Naomi Rachel
Boulder, Colo.

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“A Death at Penn State” shows that the usual measures—officially banning hazing, creating commissions, and giving serious-sounding speeches—do not work. I have a modest proposal that should discourage at least some hazing: University presidents should require chapters to insure pledges to the extent of the average lifetime earnings that their college boasts for its graduates. Insurance companies could determine risk levels based on individual schools and fraternities. The cost of premiums would be paid by the active chapter members, who would learn the financial lessons of assuming responsibility. Meanwhile, pledges would realize that they are about to undergo a process that their school considers risky enough to require serious insurance. Crass? Not any more crass than requiring insurance for anyone that transports students.
Clyde Black
Richmond, Ind.

Here in Michigan, State Representative Sam Singh is proposing House Bill 5077 (introduced partly in response to Piazza’s death), which would create a duty to assist individuals who face grave physical harm, provide immunity from liability for assisting them, and stipulate penalties for abdicating that duty.
I don’t believe that legislation will stop fraternity mem-bers’ reckless and sadistic behavior, but until someone figures out how to convince young men and women that they’re not invincible, it might save a life.
Judith Peltier
Presque Isle, Mich.

The Rise of the Violent Left

In September, Peter Beinart wrote about the burgeoning antifascist movement, which wants to fight the alt-right’s fire—with more fire.

Peter Beinart suggests that antiracist and antifascist (“antifa”) activists, some of whom resort to physical violence, are just as much of a danger to people’s safety and the well-being of our civil discourse and democracy as neo-Nazis are. Beinart’s equivocating clickbait has put The Atlantic’s political analysis on par with Donald Trump’s.
It is irresponsible to speculate that antifascist activists are “fueling” a newly empowered far-right movement. Over time, data show, the number of violent incidents caused by right-wing groups dwarfs those caused by leftist groups. (The shooting incident targeting members of Congress in Alexandria, Virginia, perpetrated by a supporter of Bernie Sanders, was upsetting—but also rare.) Patterns of violent action and intimidation are what antifa is prepared to confront, physically if necessary, before patterns grow into policy.
Fascism is designed to destroy large groups of people based on their identities and to control everyone else, with a state apparatus that legitimates and empowers ultraviolent individuals and groups who further the ends of nationalist authoritarianism. Killing is not a side effect of fascism; it is its method. If movement leaders who promote this model, and who gain their power by cozying up to and trying to influence mainstream power structures, get punched on occasion, that might be distasteful to liberals, but it is nothing compared with fascism’s methods.
We may be past the point of fighting fascist words with liberal words when dealing with armed white nationalists in contexts like Charlottesville, Virginia: a carefully planned coming-out party for American neofascists that they are excited to replicate. We now have a fascist-sympathetic president who has made no secret of his wish to (violently) get rid of words that do not serve his political purposes. Antifa activists may break the law sometimes. They are a militant front line, and are often thanked by nonviolent protesters for protecting their ability to use words against those who would destroy them. I hope Mr. Beinart will deploy a little nuance with his words next time.
Michaela Brangan, J.D.
Ithaca, N.Y.

The astonishing part of “The Rise of the Violent Left” is what is largely absent from the story: the police response. It appears that the police are not adequately responding to acts of violence from both the left and the right. History teaches us that in countries where law and order was amiss, the political system turned into anarchy and/or fascism very quickly.
Yeshayahou S. Ben-Ari
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Hard Bargains

In her September article, “Innocence Is Irrelevant,” Emily Yoffe showed how millions of Americans are suffering the consequences of plea bargains, which have taken over the U.S. criminal-justice system.

Thank you for tackling the elephant in the room that is mass criminalization in the U.S. While plea bargains have come to dominate the justice system domestically, they have also been growing in use internationally. Fair Trials’ research has documented a 300 percent increase in the adoption of trial-waiver systems around the world since 1990. What’s more, some of these systems are introduced with inspiration and technical and financial assistance from the U.S. Although it carries the potential to improve efficiency, the global shift to systematic reliance on defendants’ waiving their right to a trial poses serious questions about rights protection and the rule of law in the administration of criminal justice.
Many trial-waiver systems in jurisdictions other than the U.S. feature safeguards that are not always common practice here: for example, mandatory (unwaivable) access to a lawyer, better pre-plea disclosure regimes, and regulation of the benefits offered to those pleading guilty. Cash-bail systems are much more likely to be linked to a defendant’s means, and the astonishingly long sentences seen in the U.S. are rarely matched elsewhere in the developed world, so coercion to plead guilty is reduced. As many U.S. states are now reckoning with the devastating consequences of mass criminalization and incarceration, they would do well to place themselves at the receiving end of global experience in justice reform.
Rebecca Shaeffer
Fair Trials
Washington, D.C.

Emily Yoffe excellently describes the erosion of the Constitution’s jury guarantee. But the story of the new “easy” path to convictions does not end there. Millions of American adults already have a criminal record, and there are estimated to be more than 1 million new felony convictions a year.
A conviction can greatly reduce ex-offenders’ ability to find housing, earn a living, get an education, obtain bank loans, support their children, or, generally, enjoy the usual rights and amenities of citizenship. As a result, our criminal-justice practices are literally creating a new social underclass, a discrete second level of citizenship for people whom the law separates out for lifelong discrimination.
Since the early 1980s, America’s ex-offender class has been growing exponentially. Being a “criminal” in the eyes of the law is now becoming just a variation on the American-citizenship norm.
John A. Humbach
Professor of Law, Pace University
White Plains, N.Y.

The War on Public Schools

In the October issue, Erika Christakis argued that the current debate over public education underestimates its value—and forgets its purpose.

Erika Christakis is right that “We ignore public schools’ civic and integrative functions at our peril,” but she misses a broader and timelier conclusion: We ignore the civic and integrative functions of any American school, public or private, at great peril to our democracy.

The private school where I work includes a more diverse student body than public schools that secede from larger systems to avoid desegregation. Our liberal faith-based school promotes open inquiry into the role of religion and spirituality in American civic life, an urgent topic that many public schools can’t touch. Many private schools are more dedicated to teaching students critical-thinking skills for intelligent democratic policy making than are public schools that prohibit accurate teaching of climate and evolutionary science. We will have different models of financing and organizing schools in this country for the foreseeable future. Let’s support all schools preparing students to participate civilly and productively in our wonderfully chaotic democratic conversation, and call out those public and private schools prioritizing narrower political ends that further imperil our already fragile future.

Julian Bull
Los Angeles, Calif.

I was struck to read in "The War on Public Schools" that it wasn't until 1642 that anyone in North America bothered to pass a law that all children must receive an education.

While this may be true for European colonists, compulsory education was a part of pre-Columbian Aztec society. A basic Google search shows that the Mexica Aztecs are well known to have instituted universal compulsory education by the 16th century.

As someone who grew up near American Indian reservations, I was most definitely not taught about the brutal genocide and destruction of rich, complex societies that had to take place for my family to live on the land it now claims as its own. It saddens me to see that such a lackluster consideration of American history has also infected the editing room.

Ben Bennett
Washington, D.C.

The Big Question: What was the most significant event to happen on a holiday?

3. The Christmas Truce on the Western Front in 1914. Allied and German soldiers left their trenches to sing carols together and exchange small gifts.

Robert C. Hodge

2. The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on Good Friday, 1865.

Leslie Ellen Brown

1. George Washington crossed the Delaware River on the night of December 25, 1776, to launch a surprise attack the next morning on an isolated garrison of Hessian troops, who had spent the night celebrating Christmas. The quick victory upped morale and encouraged Continental soldiers to reenlist.

Astrid K. Redmond

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