The Conversation

Readers respond to December and January/February stories and more.

Conservatism Without Bigotry

In December, Peter Beinart argued that conservatives would be more likely to reckon with their policies’ discriminatory effects if liberals stopped carelessly crying racist.

Peter Beinart, in leaning over backwards to be evenhanded to conservatives and liberals, poses the wrong question. Before the election of Donald Trump, few liberals believed that all Republicans were racists. The right question is: Are Trump supporters racist themselves, or do they merely condone racism?

Given the endless demonstrations of Trump’s own bigotry, I would argue that it is impossible to deny that he is a racist or claim to be unaware that he is one. So if the position of his supporters and of Republicans in Congress is, in effect, to wink at that aspect of his personality in order to advance a so-called conservative agenda, what does one call that posture other than condoning racism?
For Beinart to call this attitude merely “willfully naive,” as if Republicans are unaware of the racial impact of their policies, is an insult to the reader’s intelligence.
Steve Shabad
Ossining, N.Y.

Peter Beinart’s recent piece points out that conservatives are likely to get defensive about the suggestion that their ideas are racist, but misses the fact that there is a correlation between conservatism and racist attitudes. More important, by focusing on bigotry, which connotes individual bias, rather than on systemic white supremacy, sexism, and heterosexism, Beinart misses the bigger picture. If bigotry were wiped out tomorrow, these inequitable power structures would continue.
Throughout American history the dominant classes have been defensive about being called biased, as a means of deflecting criticism. Even the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, deny that they are racist. Beinart suggests that people can change if they get “new information”—and this can work on the individual level. But history shows that the larger structures of power based on race, gender, and sexual identity will change only in response to direct and forceful demands for justice.
Billy Easton
Albany, N.Y.

We clearly need politics and media with more critical thinking and less mindless name-calling. While Beinart makes some good points, his argument contains a problematic assumption: that progressivism is an inherent force for good that “seeks ever-greater moral advance.” This very logic lets liberals assume the responsibility to determine what morality means, and lets them label conservatives who disagree with their determination hateful and closed-minded. It also assumes that “moral advance” comes at no cost, at least to those who matter in liberals’ calculus.
When conservatives are told that their religious beliefs are wrong, that certain words are unacceptable microaggressions, and that college campuses must have safe spaces to protect liberal sensitivities, they understandably question the newly imposed morality’s legitimacy. Contrary to Beinart’s assertion, the argument is not about right and wrong, but about who has the power to set society’s moral compass. This power belongs to all Americans, not a self-selected group that claims to know what’s right for everyone else.
Ken Brown
Valrico, Fla.

In the end, whether the Republican Party is fundamentally racist boils down to a few simple questions that have little to do with the theoretical salience of their ideas: Do the policies they champion harm communities of color more than they help them—even if, in theory, they appear to be colorblind? Do the policies they champion aid white people disproportionately at the expense of those same communities of color? …
Despite Beinart’s claims to the contrary, there’s little evidence to suggest that treading more gently when it comes to confronting these iterations of GOP racism will actually erode GOP racism. In his advocacy for this approach, the author declines to name a single time in history when no longer using the “nuclear epithet”—calling conservative white people “racist”—has actually made them less racist. It’s one thing to make room for nuance and avoid broad strokes. It is another to ignore proof when it’s sitting in front of you. Beinart’s piece suggests a fundamental Republican innocence and naïveté where the real fundamental element is bigotry.
Zak Cheney Rice
Excerpt from a Mic article

What’s College Good For?

In the January/February issue, Bryan Caplan, an economics professor at George Mason University, wrote that students don’t seem to be getting much out of higher education.

Bryan Caplan argues that higher education “is a big waste of time and money” and that “students spend thousands of hours studying subjects irrelevant to the modern labor market.” It seems to me that the arguments he is making are contradicted by their appearance in the very magazine in which they were published. My years of college education prepared me to function as a registered nurse in multiple health-care settings, but also to read, comprehend, and appreciate the articles that appear in The Atlantic on such wide-ranging topics as economics, science, sociology, politics, and the arts, just to name a few. College is good for building a foundation of knowledge applicable to one’s career, but is also valuable in expanding one’s world beyond that career.
Denise Jacob, R.N., Ph.D.
Franklin, Mich.

Bryan Caplan is right on the money when he suggests that many students, and not incidentally the economy, would benefit if we put less emphasis on bachelor’s degrees and more emphasis on practical vocational training. However, I can think of no better argument for pursuing an academic degree than the notion that an economist has difficulty seeing its value. The main benefits of a degree are difficult to quantify, but the point is certainly not to prepare students for some sort of economic activity per se. The point of education in the liberal arts is to increase students’ ability to cope with the new, the ambiguous, the alien—that which challenges our dearly held beliefs. I can think of no greater skill that a young person can acquire through education, especially at this political moment, than the ability to argue without becoming angry, to disagree without rancor, and to find in differences with others new possibilities about how to live, think, and approach life. This is a crucial function of citizenship not often on display in the U.S. these days, and it is understandably difficult to see if one reduces life to numbers or commerce.
James K. Foster
Chicago, Ill.

As a professor in the humanities I have asked myself many times whether it makes sense to educate everyone in the humanities and liberal arts. It’s easy to think that Shakespeare and Plato are for the few. Let those who are intellectually gifted and ambitious learn literature, history, philosophy, political science, and so on if they want. (They will soon forget it anyway, according to Caplan.) Let those who are not gifted learn a trade or a skill and be done with it.
This kind of elitism is not humanistic, and it is not just. For one thing, it does not allow for the discovery of late bloomers, the intellectually talented many in the “underclasses” who have been undereducated by our racist, classist society. Second, it denies to many the richness of experience that comes from placing the present in the context of the larger civilization. Moreover, there is a commonality and bond among people who share these experiences. All people should have the opportunity to participate in this shared discourse, not just the few.
We need more and better public education that includes large doses of the humanities and social sciences. Education has the potential to bring us together through our shared heritage(s) and our shared skills. It is a primary tool for turning our diversity into a democracy.
Sharon Schwarze, Ph.D.
Professor Emerita and Chair, Department of Philosophy and Liberal Studies, Cabrini University, Wayne, Pa.

God’s Plan for Mike Pence

In the January/February issue, McKay Coppins probed the vice president’s past—and explored his role in an unorthodox administration.

McKay Coppins quotes me in his article “God’s Plan for Mike Pence.” This portion of the article contains some errors and omissions. My objections to these were ignored during the fact-checking process. Most significant is the account of the episode involving the “busting” of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity for a party with alcohol, which gave the impression that Pence turned on his fraternity to gain favor with college administrators. Such parties were forbidden on Hanover College’s then-“dry” campus. On this occasion, members of the fraternity were caught holding a party with a couple of kegs of beer. As the president of the fraternity, Pence had to meet with the official who had broken up the party, and who was going to search the fraternity house from top to bottom for the kegs. He probably would have been able to find them. He told Pence that things would go easier if we cooperated with him. He also urged Pence to work with him in establishing a better, more open relationship between the administration and the fraternity. This was the context for Pence’s decision to take the official to the kegs, a decision that others in the fraternity agreed with. He acted to protect the fraternity as best he could under unpropitious circumstances. Unfortunately, the promise of better treatment for cooperation proved to be false. Administrators proceeded to mete out a severe punishment. There was indeed a lot of anger in the Phi Gamma Delta house after this—directed at the administrators we believed had broken an agreement.
The article states that after this Pence managed to stay on good terms with the administration, implying that he had been currying favor when he turned over the kegs. This is not true. Pence endured the same social probation as the rest of us. Two years after the party incident, Pence was selected to be the student speaker at commencement. The selection process was driven by students, and reflected a respect for and a genuine liking of Pence. Months after graduation, he was given a job in the admissions office; it would have been foolish not to hire someone with Pence’s charisma and communication skills.
My experience with The Atlantic has forced me to doubt that this journal has any real care for the truth.
Daniel Murphy
Hanover, Ind.

McKay Coppins responds:

This article, like all articles that appear in this magazine, was carefully and exhaustively fact-checked, and we made numerous changes to address Daniel Murphy’s concerns. But in the case of the fraternity party described in the story, he did tell me during our recorded, on-the-record interview last September that Pence “caught some flack” from some of his fraternity brothers, who were “mad” at him for his handling of the situation. Specifically, Murphy said, they were upset that Pence had led the administrator to the kegs, rather than letting one of the members “take the hit” in an effort to spare the rest of the fraternity from discipline.


The most-read magazine stories from 2017 on

1. Lola’s Story
Alex Tizon (June)

2. Has the Smartphone Destroyed a Generation?
Jean M. Twenge (September)

3. The First White President
Ta-Nehisi Coates (October)

4. How to Build an Autocracy
David Frum (March)

5. When Your Child Is a Psychopath
Barbara Bradley Hagerty (June)

6. How America Lost Its Mind
Kurt Andersen (September)

7. A Death at Penn State
Caitlin Flanagan (November)

8. My President Was Black
Ta-Nehisi Coates (January/February)

9. The Worst Problem on Earth
Mark Bowden (July/August)

10. Power Causes Brain Damage
Jerry Useem (July/August)

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In “When the Presses Stop” (January/February), Molly Ball wrote that Bernie Krisher failed to help her with a health-insurance problem when he was her employer. The article noted that Krisher denied this, saying he had appealed to the insurance company without success. After the article went to press, Krisher found emails showing that he had offered to help Ball, but that the problem had by then been resolved. The article also stated that Sihanouk asked Krisher to give Cambodia a newspaper; in fact, he asked Krisher to help rehabilitate the country. Lastly, the article said that two alumni of The Cambodia Daily won Pulitzer Prizes. Only one did.

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