The Conversation

Readers respond to September-issue stories and more.

May It Please the Court

In September, Lara Bazelon drew on her experience as a trial lawyer to examine the cultural bias that runs deep in courtrooms, where, she argued, male attorneys rely on tactics that are off-limits to women.

I am one of the women quoted in Lara Bazelon’s article about how gender affects courtroom trial work.
I agonized for years over whether to report the incident in which the judge assaulted me—mostly because I was, and still am, concerned that doing so would harm my clients. As a public defender, I take my role as a zealous advocate seriously, and am fully aware that the benefits and harms of reporting are more likely to fall on my clients rather than me. The stakes for my clients—oftentimes years of their life—are high. This makes deciding what is too much a profoundly difficult call.
Here’s the other problematic part. It took me a very long time to decide to come forward. But I did, and I filed a formal complaint in 2016 with the group that is responsible for complaints against judges. My complaint detailed what happened, and who else was in the room. It was not a complicated factual scenario. More than a year and a half has passed since I filed the complaint, and it is still pending. The judge is still on the bench, still hearing cases. Still in a position to affect my clients.
Not only was there tremendous pressure to stay quiet in order to protect my clients, but when I decided that I needed to come forward, there was no one listening.
Romany McNamara
Berkeley, Calif.

I am a trial attorney who has been with a public defenders’ office for 23 years. I was downright gleeful when Lara Bazelon recounted her red-faced, angry, sarcastic, aggressive, and ultimately winning arguments before a judge. Her article was both therapeutic and provocative. I continue to yearn for a justice system where it will be almost a little boring and ho-hum to observe a racially, socially, and experientially diverse group of magistrates, judges, justices, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and civil litigators walking the back hallways of courthouses across the country.
Irene Pai
Santa Ana, Calif.

I’m sure Lara Bazelon is correct that female attorneys have to alter their speech, dress, and mannerisms to be successful in the courtroom, but that’s nothing compared with what people of color—male and female—are required to do on a daily basis. As a black man who is not slight of stature, I am aware that displays of emotion that might be construed as passion or overlooked altogether coming from my white counterparts may easily be interpreted as threatening coming from me, or get me branded as an “angry black man.” Black women, including Michelle Obama, have been called angry when they dare project a temperament other than sweetness and sunshine. Race is at least as important as gender in business communications if you are not a white male.
Steve Brown
Bowie, Md.

Lara Bazelon’s recent article relies on false premises to reach mistaken conclusions that, if accepted, might lead a reader to believe that female lawyers cannot be as effective in the courtroom as male lawyers are. Ms. Bazelon states as a fact that juries “will be more willing to listen to and be convinced by a traditionally feminine woman.” This is an astonishingly broad statement that is belied by my own experience and that of many other female trial lawyers.
I became a criminal defense lawyer in 1979. Since then, I have been lead counsel on many high-profile cases all over the United States, taught trial practice at Berkeley Law, and lectured nationally on the subject of cross-examination. In 2010, I was inducted into the California Trial Lawyer Hall of Fame. I know what I’m talking about when it comes to litigating in a courtroom and conducting a trial.
Of course, I have encountered plenty of sexist attitudes during my career. I have heard many irritating comments about what I should wear and how I should act. Depending on the situation, I have either directly confronted the people expressing those ideas or I have shrugged them off and moved on. There is no doubt that it is unfair that I and other women have the extra burden of confronting those sexist attitudes—but one thing I have never done is capitulate to them. Yet that is what Ms. Bazelon’s article advocates.
No doubt there are jurors and judges who don’t like seeing a woman being aggressive. But qualities and tactics that irk some jurors may win others over. More important, even the jurors who don’t like the aggression will get over it. If a juror tells me, as one once did, “I thought you were a bitch, but that witness was a liar,” I have won.
Ms. Bazelon’s premises and conclusions suggest that neither public defenders’ offices nor private clients should ever hire a female lawyer. Why would you hire a woman to try your case if she can use only some of the tools that are available to a man?
Ms. Bazelon concludes that “women lawyers don’t have access to the same ‘means and expedients’ that men do.” She worries that she is “holding [her] students back” by teaching the “same unfair rules that were passed on” to her. I agree with the latter proposition and disagree with the first. Ms. Bazelon should teach her students to look to successful female trial lawyers who have not conformed to “traditional feminine woman” expectations. She and her students should learn from them and follow their example.
Cris Arguedas
Berkeley, Calif.

The Next Populist Revolution

Establishment Democrats believe a diversifying electorate will secure their party’s future, Reihan Salam wrote in September. But second-generation Latinos won’t willingly accept a deeply unequal society.

Reihan Salam’s contention that the populist left will form an insurgency at odds with affluent white liberalism is almost certainly right. It’s even possible that such a liberalism would strip away white voters from the Republican base. But in arguing that a “brown populism” would form an anti-immigration alliance with the hard right, Salam ignores 60 years of racial antagonism that buttress the Republican Party. He suggests that his “brown populism” might ally with a political force hostile to its very presence in the country. Salam is right to point out the blindness of affluent liberals, but he seems unaware of his own.
Peter Amos
New York, N.Y.

If the children of Latino immigrants resist immigration from Asia and Africa as Salam predicts they will, they’ll be following a rut worn by the children of British and German immigrants who resisted Irish immigration in the first half of the 19th century; Irish Americans who resisted Italian, Portuguese, and Eastern European immigrants; and so on. And Salam omits mention of a key driver of the wage growth that provided past immigrants entrée to the middle class: a powerful labor movement.
The next generation of Latino Americans can do as Salam suggests and unite with working-class whites under a right-wing populist—that is, Republican—banner. If they do so, they’ll ensure the continued dominance of the party dedicated to the extirpation of organized labor, and thus ensure a widening income and wealth gap and their own impoverishment.
Eric Scigliano
Seattle, Wash

Reihan Salam replies:

Eric Scigliano is right to say that I did not address organized labor in my article. Had I done so, I might have mentioned the work of the renowned historian Jefferson Cowie, who has described the New Deal era as “the great exception” in American history, when a number of interrelated factors, including immigration restriction, fostered a sense of working-class solidarity that contributed to the vitality of the labor movement. This isn’t an argument for immigration restriction, of course. But it is important to remember that the more solidaristic politics of mid-century America did not emerge in a cultural vacuum.

And as for Peter Amos’s observation, I’ll note that the Republican and Democratic coalitions have evolved considerably over the past several decades, to the point where consituencies that once belonged to one major party have long since abandoned it for the other. Sixty years ago, both parties were quite ideologically diverse—for example, both parties included arch-segregationists and committed integrationists. And though each major party has grown more ideologically unified in the years since, the Trump era has brought to the surface new intraparty ideological cleavages, which will surely lead to the further reshuffling of partisan allegiances. If the children and grandchildren of today’s immigrants embrace a more restrictionist politics in the years to come, as has happened in the past, they’ll be living in a world as far removed from our politics as we are from the politics of the 1990s, when restrictionist Democrats and open-border Republicans were far more common. So I wouldn’t rule anything out.

How Poetry Came to Matter Again

Minority poets, queer poets, immigrant poets, refugee poets—a young generation of outsiders in America is exploring identity in new ways, Jesse Lichtenstein showed in September, and people are listening.

When the world is a tawdry reality-TV show that tries to steal our attention with every cheap trick in the book, it’s hard to remember that there’s more than cable-and-Twitter mudslinging, or escaping into fictions.
I didn’t realize how much I was missing from poetry. The intellectual language-play and pastiche of modern poetry left me cold. I always sought the alternate voices that reflected deeper feelings and a yearning to be heard—Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde—but there was so much more in our current collective experience. After reading this article, I immediately bought a stack of works by the poets referenced—Chen Chen, Claudia Rankine (long overdue on my part), Fatimah Asghar, Aziza Barnes. And their poetry fed me, electrified me, angered me, soothed me, all at once. I’m beyond grateful for being introduced to a world of voices that I needed so badly.
Anita Schillhorn van Veen
Marina Del Rey, Calif.

What Really Killed the Dinosaurs?

The Princeton geologist Gerta Keller has endured decades of ridicule for arguing that the fifth extinction was caused not by an asteroid but by a series of colossal volcanic eruptions. Her fight with the asteroid camp, Bianca Bosker wrote in September, may be the nastiest feud in all of science.

In 1979, I gave the keynote speech to open a conference on “Life in the Universe,” held at the University of California at Berkeley. That night, at the banquet head table with nasa’s chief and some other science bigwigs, I had hoped to hear some discussion of my talk. But all anyone wanted to chat about was the sensational news, then circulating on campus, that Luis Alvarez and his team of Berkeley researchers had found a “smoking gun” for an asteroid having belted the Earth and wiped out the dinosaurs.
Back at Harvard after the conference, I, an astrophysicist, felt enthused that astronomy had something to say about one of the outstanding puzzles in science. But my colleague, the biologist Stephen Jay Gould, ever the contrarian, initially balked at it. He invited me to his office in Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, where, as an expert on dead life, he trotted out reams of geological and paleontological data implying that the dinosaurs could not have died in one big bang.
This blast from the past was tailor-made for Gould, a catastrophist at heart who had an idiosyncratic theory that evolution works in fits and starts “punctuated” by sudden events. After I told him about the asteroid evidence, Gould still argued that a gradual series of intense volcanoes some 67 million years ago released megatons of hot lava and toxic gas, possibly sending the dinosaurs (and much other life) on their way toward extinction nearly 1 million years before the big rock ever arrived.
For years thereafter, Gould and I taught back-to-back courses in Harvard’s largest lecture hall, his about biological evolution and mine about cosmic evolution, offering students broad surveys of life on Earth and maybe beyond—but often diverging accounts of the fate of the dinosaurs. He would lambaste those claiming that an asteroid was the sole culprit, while I would smugly relate how physics had solved what was perhaps biology’s most celebrated problem.
Yet, much as evolution is the study of change in nature, both our views eventually changed. Before he died in 2002, Gould fully embraced the asteroid-impact idea, telling me that this rock of ages did, after all, best bolster his take on evolution. Meanwhile, as my students often challenged me to explain the devilish details of the world’s biggest detective story, I reassessed old data and examined new data while becoming increasingly convinced that volcanoes were likely the main cause, with an asteroid perhaps providing a knockout blow that finished the dinosaurs off.
Hardly anything in science is for keeps. Ideas change as data accumulate. If future evidence causes me to change my mind again, that’s okay. That’s how the scientific method works, always revising what we thought we knew, eventually casting aside the emotional hoopla, and ultimately granting us not a measure of truth so much as a better approximation of reality.
Eric J. Chaisson
Concord, Mass.


Due to an editing error, “What Really Killed the Dinosaurs?” (September) stated that in Gerta Keller’s Deccan Traps theory of dinosaur extinction, the combination of carbon dioxide and methane would have raised temperatures on land by as much as 46 degrees Fahrenheit. In fact, it would have raised land temperatures by 14.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

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