Letters from our readers.
Dec. 5 1997 3:30 AM

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In the Nov. 15 "Readme," Michael Kinsley rejects my coinage of the word "punditocracy " in favor of "commentariat," coined by Meg Greenfield. He says punditocracy is "clumsy," while commentariat is "much wittier." He is in good company, but it is a hopeless battle, and he should relent. William Safire complained in the Sept. 11, 1994, New York Times Magazine that the word was "too intellectual." But Safire knew better than to fight the tides of history and included the word in his political dictionary, lest that weighty tome prove useless to future generations. I am informed that the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary will also include it. I am sorry to have to inform Michael of this, but New York and Oxford are where etymological decisions get made. In Redmond, you people are charged only with the momentous decision of choosing whether to name new software programs "Three-Point-Three" or "Four-Point-Oh."

So while I admire Kinsley's lonely battle on behalf of his witty friend and former editor's sorry-ass word, I think he should stick to moral causes still worth fighting. For instance, I hear Bill Gates is being unfairly harassed by the can't-stand-to-see-anybody-be-successful Justice Department.

--Eric Alterman


The Age of Innocence

While I actually agree with Michael Kinsley's main points in the Nov. 27 "Readme," one aside disturbed me. Kinsley wrote, "Often in the past ... the press has brushed aside the question of what exactly is wrong with the explanation that the situation creates the perception of impropriety." Uhm, wasn't it none other than Michael Kinsley, in his years at the New Republic, who originated this line of reasoning when castigating the top Reagan (and later Bush) administration officials who had a nasty tendency to do sleazy things but avoid technical illegality--and thus proclaim themselves "innocent"?

While that line of reasoning can be taken too far--and has in the most recent case with the Arlington plots--I do believe Michael Kinsley circa 1987 was right to say that high officials should observe standards of propriety which surpass the merely legal. I don't know why Michael Kinsley circa 1997 seems to disagree.

--Matthew SingerBudapest, Hungary


Michael Kinsley replies: I'm clean. I maintained throughout the Reagan years that "appearances" was a dodge for accusers and malefactors alike. I doubt you could find a single example of my ever having used it myself.

Talk of the Talk of the Town

I have enjoyed participating as a voter in Slate's "Hackathlon," but the criteria are ambiguous. The nature of the events suggests that we are to vote on who best imitates a New York Times editorial or a "Talk of the Town" piece. Malcolm Gladwell's exegesis, however, suggests that we are to vote for the most impressive display of empty virtuosity. (Actually, I think his definition of a hack is incorrect; a hack is one who's paid by the word or line, not one to whom the rules of journalism don't apply.)

So, do we vote for virtuosity in imitation or virtuosity in itself? If the former, then all the contestants have missed the boat on the second event. There is a formula for New Yorker "Talk of the Town" pieces. First, the focus of the event (as defined by the headline of the press release) would never be the focus of the article. It is therefore unlikely that Donna Karan (or any other celebrity) would have been quoted. It is much more likely that the correspondent would have talked to the caterer or a disgruntled unknown sitting in the corner. Also, no New Yorker correspondent would include details of clothing unless it were to make some larger, allegorical point about the subject.


Confusion and uncertainty have never kept me from voting before, however.

--Tracy WarrenWashington

Camus Snafu

In "Suicide Watch," Atul Gawande makes a very poor effort. He may claim to know something about science and policy, but he is bumbling out of his depth when it comes to matters of philosophy.


I agree with Gawande that Capt. Button's alleged suicide was a strange event indeed. However, after ruling out addiction or mental illness, by what logic does Gawande assume that Button--and all others who commit suicide--are not thinking rationally? Wasn't it Camus who wrote that "the only reasonable decision a man can make is whether or not to commit suicide"? This letter does not permit me the space to develop a definition of rationality, to examine its compatibility with the decision to end one's life, or to explain why it's so important that we must always be strictly rational in the first place. However, I would expect exactly that from Gawande before accepting his somewhat outlandish claim. In fact, the way Gawande explains Capt. Button's situation, his decision seems quite reasonable: Assuming you have no a priori moral or religious objection to suicide and do not greatly fear death, death seems like a rational (if not recommended) alternative when faced with likely court-martial, professional ruin, a possible jail term, and a very public dishonor brought upon oneself and one's family.

Perhaps Gawande's own prejudices are showing when he simply assumes that the elderly or terminally ill, in wishing to escape from constant pain or degeneration through suicide, are--if not actually addicted or mentally ill--then "obviously" irrational. Perhaps the need for rationality does not enter into the assisted-suicide debate simply because it is taken for granted by all parties. In the two other countries that have flirted with voluntary euthanasia--Australia and the Netherlands--at least two psychiatrists must first agree that the candidate's (why does Gawande assume they are all "patients"?) decision is not made under the influence of addiction, mental illness, or Gawande's dreaded scourge of "irrationality."

--Chet PagerMelbourne, Australia

Atul Gawande replies: Though I didn't say all who commit suicide are irrational, I did argue nearly all are. By what logic? Well, for starters, I noted that studies show that over 90 percent of suicides suffer from mental illness or substance abuse. In addition, I pointed out that psychiatrists find that an additional group kill themselves on impulse.

I wasn't trying to use the word "rational" in any fancy sense. When I say most people who die by their own hand are irrational, I mean that their thinking is usually clouded. Generally, mental disease or drugs impair their thinking. If not, victims are often simply caught up in circumstances and exaggerated fears, as it appears Button was. I've seen such victims myself. One girl I saw rashly swallowed a bottle of pills after a fight with her boyfriend. Later she thanked the team for saving her from what she called a "stupid thing to do." Is it possible to kill yourself while thinking clearly? Yes, but it is far rarer than Pager would like to believe. In Button's case, it's particularly doubtful given his tendencies toward dumb, impulsive action revealed in his records.

Playing the Percentages

Regarding the "Dialogue" involving Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom and Randall Kennedy:

Though I admire the Thernstroms' new book America in Black and White, I was more than slightly disturbed by the facile understatement from the Thernstroms when they pointed out (in reference to residential choices among whites): "Only 18 percent said they would move if blacks came to live in great numbers. Much other reliable polling--summarized in our book--paints an equally reassuring picture." We should all be aware of our diction. "Only" 18 percent is huge. Nearly 1 in 5 whites would relocate if blacks became their neighbors? (Purely on racial grounds, not class.) And other sources paint an "equally reassuring picture"? Is this fact a "reassuring" one? Any number greater than zero is too big.

--Chris H. KwakCambridge, Mass.

Roof Goof

Seth Stevenson's "Signs and Wonders" incorrectly traces the lineage of "Raising the Roof." I think you will find that it is Broadway that gave birth to this sports gesture. In the musical The Pajama Game, the big dance number, "Once a Year Day," has the lyrics "Everyone's entitled to be wild, be a child, be a goof, raise the roof," at which point the entire chorus raises a "two-armed palms-skyward pump."

I am sure that this is not the first time that the theatrics of Broadway have crossed over to the sports field.

--Richard Stewart

Ecclesmachan, Scotland

Deriving High-Fiving

Contrary to Seth Stevenson's "Signs and Wonders," credit for the first High-Five should go to Mel Brooks, director of the 1968 classic The Producers. Actually, Brooks did not execute the maneuver, but directed Dick Shawn, as a flowery actor in the title role of the fictitious Broadway play Springtime for Hitler, to complete the first High-Five with another actor who was giving a Nazi salute, to which Shawn responded, "Heil, Baby!" and slapped the man's outstretched right hand in the exact same manner that thousands, yea millions, have done since.

--L.C. RenbaumBethesda, Md.

Terminatour II: Judgment Day

It is as incorrect for you, as an American publication, to refer to the "Labor Party"--in "This Is (Not Quite) Your Life," by Jodie T. Allen--as it would be for an English publication to refer to "Pearl Harbour." Both are proper nouns and should be spelled accordingly. In other words, you could legitimately state that "The Labour Party represents the interests of organized labor in the U.K." To modify the names of people and organizations to fit a localized spelling style is to show disrespect to the owners of those names, and condescension to your readers.

--Peter KendellWokingham, England

I Don't Like Writing Headlines, I Like Having Written Headlines

Slate received several replies to a request in the Nov. 22 "Readme"for attribution of a quotation:

When I was a sophomore about 45 years ago, I was told by my English professor that "I don't like writing, I like having written" was said by Robert Louis Stevenson. I was an impressionable lad and have believed that ever since. I have also passed on the remark and the attribution to two or three generations of my students. You may be hearing from some of them.

--Norman T. BurnsVestal, N.Y.

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