Letters from our readers.
April 3 1998 3:30 AM

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Arguing With The Argument Culture

In "We Do Understand," William Saletan quotes the following sentence from Deborah Tannen's The Argument Culture: "Disputation was rejected in ancient China as incompatible with the decorum and harmony cultivated by the true sage."

Professor Tannen might be surprised to learn that one of the most well-known introductory books on ancient Chinese thought is called Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China. Indeed, I think most students of ancient China would agree that if there ever was a disputatious intellectual culture, it was that of China in the Warring States period (circa 479-221 B.C.). (Note the name of the era, Dr. Tannen.)

In other words, Tannen's is pretty much the most egregiously misleading generalization about ancient China that I have ever read.


--C.J. FraserUniversity of Hong Kong

Librarian Says "Keep Quiet"

I cannot recall a more gratuitous grouse than Sarah Kerr's questioning, in an otherwise estimable piece, of the "reader-friendliness" of the Library of America's Gertrude Stein volumes ("What We Have Here Is a Failure to Communicate").

The dimensions of the library's books are perfect, their typeface is elegant and eminently readable without being precious, and most refuting of Kerr's odd complaint, their pages are of a thickness that affords pliability and easy separation while maintaining economy in bulk and weight. One of the many marvels of the series is that vast collections of authors' works are assembled in volumes so exquisite yet portable. Even Benjamin Franklin's 1,600 page tome is easily handled.


It should be noted of the library's treatments of Mark Twain and Henry James, which Kerr covets for Gertrude Stein, that their thinnest volumes comprise 1,029 and 845 pages, respectively. If slightness in a Library of America volume is a mark of esteem, Kerr can be assured that the two svelte books she reviewed, at under a thousand pages each, accord Gertrude Stein a measure of honor beyond mere inclusion in the series.

--Paul Coleman, university librarianWest Texas A&M UniversityCanyon, Texas

The Morals of the Story

In "The Theory of Everything," his review of E.O. Wilson's latest book, Steven Pinker writes:


I was not persuaded that moral statements can be reduced to psychology, as if the disapproval of murder were just another human taste like the preference for sweet over bitter foods. (Even a die-hard Ionian might think that our moral sense evolved to grasp a logic of morality that is outside our minds in the same sense that our number sense evolved to grasp mathematical truths that are outside our minds.)

One difference between mathematical truths and moral truths is that grasping the former provides an obvious survival advantage. We should expect an evolved number sense to discern mathematical truths fairly well; we should not be so optimistic about the accuracy of an evolved moral sense.

The evolutionary process will favor those moral intuitions that best spread the genes responsible for them--quite independent of whether they induce behavior that is objectively Good.

--Maurile Tremblay


Comic Relief

Jacob Weisberg's theory (in "Betty and Monica") that the cartoon he reprinted came from Maureen Dowd's column is high flattery for one of us, but it is inaccurate. I usually come up with my own ideas, but I am, like most cartoonists, very happy that Dowd can't draw.

--Jeff Danziger www.danzigercartoons.com

Social Insecurity

Like most articles and studies discussing Social Security privatization, Jodie T. Allen's "Can Newt Gingrich Save Social Security?" takes at face value claims that if retirement insurance funds are invested in private securities, a continuing rate of return well above that on federal bonds may be obtained.

While that has surely been true in the past, and should continue to be for some years yet, the argument almost certainly will break down precisely when the money would be required. The rise in the stock market in recent years has been in no small part due to baby boomers' accelerating investment of their retirement funds there (see, for example, James Surowiecki's "The Planet Hollywood Syndrome" on the effects of excess money on Wall Street). However, when they begin to withdraw from the market en masse, a parallel fall in prices will occur as the supply of people who must sell begins to outstrip the number of people wishing to buy at a historically high cost. The first to retire might enjoy considerable returns on their investments, but those at the trailing end of the baby boom might see their gains disappear while the market overcorrects.

Putting Social Security funds in the market only makes these effects worse, as that money must at some point be withdrawn, no matter what, to meet obligations (similar arguments might be applied to bonds, real estate, or anything else Social Security money might be invested in). Some form of privatization might substantially aid the first to retire, but later retirees--precisely those people whom the current system is also most likely to shortchange--get left behind. Any prudent plan to invest Social Security funds in private markets must have some way to address these risks; none that I know of do.

--Jeffrey NewmanOakland, Calif.

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