The Conversation

Readers respond to our June 2018 cover story and more.

The Birth of a New American Aristocracy

In June, Matthew Stewart wrote about the gilded future of the top 10 percent—and the end of opportunity for everyone else.

I am moved to write simply because I find Mr. Stewart’s cover story one of the best-written, best-reasoned, and most important pieces of journalism I have read in many years. As a longtime citizen of the author’s hometown, I have sometimes prided myself on not being a member of the 9.9 percent, unlike many of my neighbors. However, having lived, worked, and been educated among them, I have enjoyed the same lifelong perks and privileges as the new aristocracy.
Over the years a certain gnawing, insistent voice has whispered to me that I, too, have gamed the system to the exclusion of many I knew when I was young. Now there can be no doubt about my complicity with the 0.1 percent.
Paul R. Constantino
Brookline, Mass.

I think the lack of a military draft since 1973 has contributed to the acceleration of class separation in American society. Remember the days when the likes of John F. Kennedy could serve alongside and develop relationships with people from various socioeconomic levels? Americans have not had that kind of class intermingling for decades.
I don’t understand why the idea of mandatory national service does not get more consideration. National service could take many forms and be used as an avenue to education, while giving young people a chance to see how the other half lives.
James Mason
Woodbury, Minn.

Quote of the Month

“[A] thought-provoking analysis ... about how economic inequality in America isn’t just growing, but self-reinforcing—and what that means for education, health, happiness, even the strength of our democracy.”

— Barack Obama
in a Facebook post on his reading list, citing “The Birth of a New American Aristocracy”

While I certainly appreciate the threat to American society posed by extreme income inequality and the hoarding of cultural capital by the 9.9 percent, I wonder whether gendered and racial aspects of the conversation are being overlooked.
For example, Mr. Stewart’s discussion about how “assortative mating” today consolidates social and educational capital by pairing up highly educated people with each other seems to overlook how recently women like me have even had such capital to hoard and pass on to our children.
Women were not admitted to most Ivy League schools until the 1960s (or later). As to race, according to The Harvard Crimson, until the 1970s, Harvard admitted fewer than 12 black undergraduates each year. The current freshman class, by contrast, is the most diverse in Harvard’s history and the first majority-minority class by a whisker. In my own Ivy League class’s Facebook group, it is the minority alumni who are often most passionately against abolishing legacy admissions, seeing such a move as an attempt to deny them the same opportunities to pass on the social and educational capital they have accrued.
LeeAnn Einert Deemer
Mendham, N.J.

I found the way that Matthew Stewart referred to the 9.9 percent as we cringeworthy. Also cringeworthy is the notion of the 9.9 percent lauding the 0.1 percent. He assumes that everyone is as anxious as he is to maintain a privileged status. He speaks of education as a means to an end in strictly monetary terms. What about the people whose sole purpose in life isn’t financial success? What about those who are literate enough to read The Atlantic but who aren’t in the 9.9 percent?
Mikaela Kraus
Toronto, Ontario

Craig Cutler
Matthew Stewart tells us that 9.9 percent of Americans possess nearly 60 percent of U.S. wealth. But the real situation is that the top 1 percent controls about 40 percent of U.S. wealth, and the next 9 percent control another 40 percent. Is it really so terrible that this country has a small professional class (9 percent of Americans) whose members own approximately four times as much as they would if wealth were equally distributed in the United States?
The reality is that the $1.2 million in assets required to enter this villainous class doesn’t go very far in the cities where the villains are concentrated. In Washington, D.C., it will buy you a very narrow rowhouse on Capitol Hill and a college education for two kids (with precious little left over for retirement). The other reality is that despite this, most of us 9 percenters feel just as guilt-ridden as Stewart would like us to feel—that’s why we read The Atlantic, after all. This magazine does nothing but tell its readers how awful we all are, and we clearly never get tired of hearing it.
Bronwyn Bruton
Washington, D.C.

“The Birth of a New American Aristocracy” is predicated on the assumption that wealth inequality is a bad thing. Yet the only real negative characteristic Matthew Stewart cites is a tendency for wealth to breed resentment.
Perfect equality is neither possible nor desirable, and it is incompatible with freedom because individual actions will quickly result in differences between people. Perhaps the real problem is those who—usually for political ends—feed the negative sentiment of envy.
Walter Cuje
Little Silver, N.J.

How the Enlightenment Ends

Human society is unprepared for the rise of artificial intelligence, Henry Kissinger argued in June—philosophically, intellectually, in every way.

Edmon de Haro
I was dismayed to read former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s article joining the chorus warning against a future shared by humans and advanced artificial intelligence.
Mr. Kissinger and the rest of the chorus are of course correct that technical development and discussions about AI safety and risks should be top priorities. Fortunately, many smart, thoughtful efforts are already addressing that priority.
What if we applied brilliant AI tools to our biggest problems? Might we be able to combine human and AI genius, and together come up with what would otherwise have taken centuries of iterative human work? Could AI be the breakthrough we need to get to the next levels of understanding, expansive thought, and self-awareness?
Billions of years of evolution and modern-day capitalism have made us think that competition is the default relationship between any two things, especially things as different as humans and machines. We fail to imagine a world that could prioritize harmoniousness over all else.
AI is the future, and we would do better to thoughtfully and enthusiastically embrace its potential.
Bryan Johnson
Venice, Calif.

I have rarely, if ever, agreed with Henry Kissinger or his political philosophy, but his article was insightful, thought-provoking, and spot-on. The concerns he raises are precisely the answer to those who dismiss liberal-arts education as an anachronism in 21st-century America. The metaphysical questions surrounding AI are way too important to be left to technocrats or the marketplace. Every computer scientist, engineer, and entrepreneur should be exposed to the kind of classical training that fosters informed contemplation of such deep and difficult issues.
Deborah A. Sivas
Environmental-law professor, Stanford Law School
Stanford, Calif.

When Children Say They’re Trans

In the July/August issue, Jesse Singal reported on the choices facing the parents of children who say they’re transgender. How can these parents help their children gain access to the support and medical help they might need, he asked, while also keeping in mind that adolescence is, by definition, a time of fevered identity exploration?

I have a trans daughter. The facts clearly show that supporting my trans child is the most important thing I can do to avoid hurting her. Without support, she is more likely to kill herself. I have already lost the son I thought I had. I feel grateful I still have a child—a very happy child who is finally being herself.
I fear she will regret medical intervention. I wouldn’t want to deny my child the ability to have biological children and regret it later. But I’m confident we will figure it out together; she’ll be happy with her life and the choices she makes. None of those choices has been made yet. She’s 4; we have time to figure it out. But the way the article is written, I feel that Jesse Singal doesn’t appreciate how important it is to get this right.
Singal steers the conversation to those who regret their mistakes and their surgery. This is not the norm, as the research shows. These are small pieces of a bigger story—a story of the struggle to exist, to be safe, and to be yourself.
Erik Ostrom
Poulsbo, Wash.

As a primary-care pediatrician and an advocate for children for 20-plus years, I’ve had the privilege of caring for more than 500 transgender/gender-diverse patients of all ages across the country. I practice medicine honoring both data and professional experience supporting the power of careful listening and encouragement of all patients in their authentic self. “When Children Say They’re Trans” (for which Singal interviewed me) focuses on a small but potentially growing number of patients who explore gender and selfhood in ways that may not result in an adult transgender identity. As our knowledge of gender expands, outcomes and care options expand as well. This doesn’t negate the role of exploring aspects of self, nor does it erase transgender/gender-diverse persons’ need for care that validates their gender identity.
Listening to young people is crucial to providing patient-centered care, encouraging authenticity, appreciating diversity, and modeling how to support some of our citizens who have little access to resources. We know what happens when transgender/gender-diverse patients are not heard, respected, and supported: higher experiences of anxiety, depression, substance use, HIV, socioeconomic disadvantage, and suicide.
That gender is complex, and is a highly individualized core element of identity, should be no surprise. That each child and adolescent should be recognized and respected for their authentic self just makes common sense. That feeling safe and loved, at home and in their community, is key to healthy outcomes for all children seems obvious, but is a responsibility and call to action that professionals and adults should not ignore.
Michelle Forcier, M.D., M.P.H.
Providence, R.I.

There’s something so glaringly obvious about the people Singal interviewed for his feature on detransitioning. Did you catch it? They’re all alive.
In a 2015 study conducted by Pace, an LGBTQ mental-health charity, 48 percent of trans people under the age of 26 said they had attempted suicide. Additionally, 59 percent reported having considered it in the past year. For the sake of comparison, the Pace study also found that only 26 percent of cisgender people under the age of 26 had ever attempted suicide …
In Singal’s feature, he talks about how there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution for what parents should do for their child if they’re trans. He’s right. There’s not. But he goes wrong when he creates fear that exploring a nonnormative gender identity might lead down roads that are dangerous, or fraught. Singal writes, “Some families will find a series of forking paths, and won’t always know which direction is best.”
No one can ever know which direction is best. That’s part of living.
Robyn Kanner
Excerpt from a post on

I came out as a transgender man at 38. That was two and a half years ago. After some initial skepticism, my mom and dad are now supportive of this change. I know how relieved they are that their sad, angry, hopeless child has finally found joy and success in adult life …
Maciek Jasik
I can’t help thinking how much richer my relationship with them might have been if they’d had the benefit of raising me in a time when gender nonconformity, gender exploration, and trans identity were better understood. As much love as they feel, as hard as they try, they may never know me—really know me—more as their successful son than as the hapless, unhappy daughter they thought they had …
Today so much more information is available about what gender-nonconforming kids need, for parents who are willing to learn. But I fear parents won’t find that information in this story; they’re more likely, it seems to me, to leave the piece questioning whether their child is really trans—especially if, like me, their child didn’t experience gender dysphoria until adolescence, or if, like me, their gender nonconformity coexists with depression, anxiety, or other mental-illness symptoms. Kids today don’t need to go through what I went through … Parents can let their child know they will be just as loved whether they’re a boy, a girl, or neither of those two. Instead of obsessing about the risks of a wrong medical choice, they can help their child understand the risks and benefits of every option, slowing them down if necessary but all the while guiding them toward well-informed decisions.
Evan Urquhart
Excerpt from a post on

I found Jesse Singal’s piece to be additive and life-affirming, rather than the “fearmongering” some critics have described. Reactions have tended to focus on how Singal’s choice to draw attention to what remains, for now, only a small minority of gender-questioning individuals somehow misconstrues or distracts from the vast majority of people whose dysphoria was treated effectively by medical transition. But by highlighting the cases of people who aren’t necessarily trans but whose identities are still, quite clearly, more complicated than “male” or “female,” Singal doesn’t undermine the trans experience so much as he affirms another experience.
As a person whose gender rebellion didn’t require any medical transitions, I’m well aware of how frequently my specific experience is leveraged cheaply by conservative actors to “disprove” and delegitimize trans stories that do involve hormones and surgery. Medical transition is, more often than not, an effective treatment for gender dysphoria. But this doesn’t mean that unraveling the myth that men and women must look and act a certain way couldn’t still function as its own kind of medicine. What I heard Jesse Singal asserting, contra the raft of reductive misreadings, was that the rush to avoid coming across as “anti-trans” sometimes prevents us from substantively interrogating what “trans” means on a more granular level. And I sincerely believe that, whatever flaws the piece might actually contain, Singal is absolutely right in this regard. While this interrogation will necessarily involve questioning the trans experience, it needn’t take the form of outright skepticism.
The best way to hasten the eventual mainstreaming of gender nonconformity is to peek inside it with a magnifying glass—to inhabit the experience with sympathetic imagination.
Daniel Culbertson
San Francisco, Calif.

Jesse Singal responds:

Robyn Kanner is correct that there is nothing “fraught” about allowing a child to explore “a nonnormative gender identity.” As I noted in my article, children and adolescents should be encouraged to engage in such exploration without judgment or stigmatization. What I do believe can be fraught, however, is the decision about whether a teenager should start cross-sex hormones. Over the long term, these hormones change the body, voice, and other aspects of the person taking them, sometimes permanently. For the moment, while this treatment shows encouraging early signs of benefiting carefully diagnosed teenagers with persistent, severe gender dysphoria, there are little long-term data for those who begin this process during adolescence.

This doesn’t mean adolescents shouldn’t transition. But some detransitioners—not all— ultimately believe that physical transition was not the right course for them. And many of the clinicians I spoke with described interactions with teenagers who were certain they required physical transition, then later came to feel differently. It can be difficult for parents to know how best to help children who experience gender dysphoria. But preventing a teenager who has been deeply dysphoric for an extended period of time from starting hormones (or puberty blockers) is not responsible— it can bring terrible consequences, including, as Kanner notes, a potential increase in the risk of suicide. Because different adolescents need different care—and because of the high stakes—I have come to believe that the sorts of comprehensive, compassionate assessment protocols favored by many of the clinicians I interviewed will result in the best outcomes for the most teenagers.

Evan Urquhart is right that many parents harm their children by refusing to believe that they are “really” trans. But if parents decide to deprive their child of the resources they need to survive and thrive because of my article, they didn’t read it very closely. Gender identity is complicated, and no one piece of information— including the age at which a transgender or gender-nonconforming child comes out—can alone reveal which path is best.

More broadly, my article has been criticized as a veiled attempt to scare parents
into not letting their gender-dysphoric children and teens transition. That couldn’t be further from its actual intent. In my interviews with clinicians, I marveled at the careful, thoughtful work they do, and at their commitment to getting adolescents the relief they need, including through physical transition. My reporting led me to believe that the best way to encourage parents and children to explore gender identity with an open mind is to have an honest discussion about this subject, and to not shy away from its complexity. Since my article appeared, one clinician I interviewed told me she’s heard from parents around the country asking for her counsel. That outcome—one in which more parents understand the nuances of gender dysphoria and seek out the guidance of caring, qualified clinicians—is what I hoped to achieve.

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