Letters from our readers.
Aug. 14 1998 3:30 AM

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Kenya Watch Your Headlines ...

The flippant headline "Kenya Catch Them" in the Aug. 11 "Today's Papers" is way out of bounds. Show some judgment.

--Elizabeth McMahonBaltimore

... And Shut Your Trap


Kenneth Starr is obviously not the only one obsessed with presidential sex. In its latest edition, Slate speculates in the Aug. 2 "Flytrap Today" and beyond on whether President Clinton will issue a mea culpa for his still-alleged transgression, debates the value of any physical evidence that may confirm he had consensual sex with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, and reports how "weird, inexplicably weird" it is to see Lewinsky in the flesh before her grand jury testimony. Like others in the national press, you seek to elevate what you call this "Flytrap" flap to the level of scandals such as Watergate or Iran-Contra. At the same time, you lower the level of political discourse in Slate to that of the National Enquirer, building on harmful hearsay while generally ignoring questions about the partisan motives and support behind Starr's seemingly interminable investigations.

Gimme a break. Flytrap is nothing but a flyspeck when compared with presidential scandals of the past. Yet thanks to the efforts of conservative Clinton-haters and a scandal-hungry press, it has become a "major story" that threatens to undermine the valuable work Clinton has done in boosting our nation's economy, cleaning up our environment, advancing the needs of the poor and middle-class, supporting a woman's right to choose, making improvements in our education system a top priority, and asserting both American might and values abroad. All that is real news. The Lewinsky imbroglio is nothing but an opportunity for the media to dabble in salaciousness. That Slate is following suit makes me question my subscription.

Rather than cancel yet, I'll first try ignoring Slate for a few weeks. By then, maybe the editors will have had time for a few cold showers, and rather than dwelling on sex you'll be ready again to write about national and international political issues of greater significance.

--J. Kingston PierceSeattle


Monicaed Out

Your relentless preoccupation with Clinton and Monica in Flytrap Today and elsewhere has finally pissed me off. As a Canadian, this clearly is not a matter of my political affiliation but, as a Canadian, it is also clear that the concerns of Slate have very little appeal outside the United States.

--Donald ThomOttawa

Give It Up, David


David Plotz's Flytrap dispatches are just great. However, his suggestion in "Give It Away, Ken" (Aug. 4) that Starr should save Clinton from Clinton because it would be too awful if Bill should lie again is absurd.

Come on, David, you know better than that. Nevertheless, everyone, even Slate writers, is allowed a brain seizure now and again.

--Mark BossinghamTokyo



About the Aug. 8 "Readme": You can justify withholding the British intelligence officer's article in a dozen different ways, but the fact remains that because of the financial liability to your parent company you decided not to publish a story that your training and experience as journalists indicated was important and ought to be told.

--Jim LipseyNashville, Tenn.

Commentary Comments

Though I have some disagreements with Judith Shulevitz in the Aug. 5 "Culturebox," and though I believe she has been less than fair in several of her comments about my work, I am nevertheless indebted to her for taking up some of the questions I raised about Holocaust scholarship in the June issue of Commentary.

To begin with, though I consider some of the things being written about the Holocaust by feminist scholars to be offensive, even shocking, I have never suggested answering them with censorship or anything of the sort. I am only in favor of subjecting them to criticism, which is what I have done in the pages of Commentary, and which I was heartened to see Shulevitz has herself now done in Slate.

Nor do I believe that the extermination of Europe's Jews is a "religious topic" that is or should be beyond discussion. I made it quite clear in Commentary that I favor serious research and teaching about the Holocaust in a university setting, and I have never suggested otherwise. I do, however, oppose the propagation of nonsense--a word that applies with precision to many things being written these days. The Ofer-Weitzman book, Women in the Holocaust, rightly held up for disapproval by Shulevitz, is by no means the worst of its kind. Readers who want to see how memory of the Holocaust is being twisted in the service of a contemporary political cause should turn to the August issue of Commentary and examine some of the passages I quote from the writings of Joan Ringelheim, director of education at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. She is hardly a marginal academic in a fringe institution; in fact, she occupies one of the most important positions in the field.

Finally, I was more than a little troubled and perplexed by the charge that I engage in distortion. In the only instance Shulevitz provides, I stand accused of taking a word from an obscure feminist source and repeating it "throughout" my piece for rhetorical effect. She also suggests, without elaborating, that I have committed other even more serious distortions.

Yet the one example Shulevitz puts forward is about as thin as the paper Slate is not printed on. Far from incessantly repeating the word "malestream," I use it only twice. And I hardly drew it from a hard to find source. I was citing a basic text, a special issue of the journal Contemporary Jewry devoted to "gender" and the Holocaust referenced in virtually every book on this subject. I hope I am not being "shrill" in pointing out that this journal is readily available in the New York Public Library, which Shulevitz claims to have combed.

"Culturebox," we are told, "intends to make a habit of ruling on disputes" of the sort I provoked in Commentary. Shulevitz would help it acquire some welcome credibility in its rulings if she were also to make a habit of being fair.

--Gabriel SchoenfeldSenior editor, CommentaryNew York City

Judith Shulevitz replies:

Gabriel Schoenfeld has a point, and Culturebox--who sometimes writes too much, too fast--must concede it. The word "censorship" was ill-chosen. Schoenfeld doesn't have the authority to censor anybody and was only exercising his right as a critic to damn entire fields of endeavor. What Culturebox ought to have said is that, as a responsible critic at a publication as serious as Commentary, Schoenfeld should think about the language he uses when he does damn entire fields of endeavor. Is everything that comes out of the latter-day study of women and the Holocaust (Culturebox says latter-day because he exempts chroniclers of the ghetto from his criticisms) "execrable," "one of the worst excesses" of Holocaust studies, and "nakedly ideological"? It is true that he only uses "malestream" twice, but he quotes it in order to imply that feminists everywhere are using it at every turn. ("Mainstream scholarship on the Nazi genocide, we are being told on every side, is not so much mainstream as 'malestream.' ") There isn't a field of study Culturebox couldn't make ridiculous simply by quoting its more unappealing jargon. Does Schoenfeld really mean to compare women writing about women who died in the camps with "a narrow cult living somewhere on a commune and insisting on a macabre sisterhood with the dead Jewish women of Europe"?

Strange as it may seem to a journalist writing outside the academy, attacks as mean-spirited as his have real consequences inside the academy--particularly on the funding, tenuring, and acceptance of scholars under attack. Just ask any literature professor how quickly English, French, and German departments flushed out their theory mavens once deconstruction became a dirty word. Or try to find a job for a Ph.D. specializing in cultural studies now that Alan Sokal has made a laughingstock of the field. Not that these particular movements didn't deserve ridicule, mind you. But it behooves both Schoenfeld and Culturebox, with the prestige and reach of magazines such as Commentary and Slate behind them, to pause for a deep breath before we relegate entire categories of scholarship to the dustbin of intellectual history.


Thanks so much, David Edelstein, for planning my weekend for me. Make that canceling my weekend because, prior to reading your review of Snake Eyes in "Trigonometry," I had planned to see the actual movie version, and now I needn't bother. Your review not only told me I would hate the ending but gave such detailed descriptions of half the shots in the film that I was left with the feeling I had already seen the entire thing. All I need now is a CD of the music and a bag of popcorn. Your writing has the power to evoke strong visual images in the mind's eye and for that very reason I feel you should show restraint when reviewing a film early in its release. I found myself thanking the celluloid gods I had missed your review of The Crying Game.

--Judith SpencerFort Worth, Texas

David Edelstein replies:

The sequence I detailed was from the middle of the picture, occupied about 10 minutes of screen time, and was evoked because it illustrated De Palma's film syntax better than the usual dumb adjectives. I didn't give away any plot surprises; read the review in the New York Times if you want to know them. (I didn't even say who the villain was, although it's so obvious--and is even in the coming attractions!--as many critics have.) And if I think that the ending is a major dud and DON'T say so in print, then as a critic I've been derelict in my duties--especially if said (undescribed) ending left an otherwise friendly audience pissed off. See Snake Eyes next weekend and let me know if I really spoiled it for you.

Why Guilt May Set You Free

In "Everyday Economics," Steven E. Landsburg misses the point when he compares the damage done by letting 10 guilty people go free with the damage done by convicting one innocent person. He is right to try to quantify the costs, but he should include all the costs.

The trouble with a legal system that allows a significant probability of convicting innocent people is that it allows unscrupulous prosecutors to become petty tyrants. Will you stand up to an official who can put you at significant risk of conviction with a trumped-up case? Private enemies could also tyrannize each other: What will you do if your neighbor threatens to frame you for some crime, and you know the courts might convict you on borderline evidence? Landsburg should count not only the cost to innocent people of going to jail but also the cost in liberty when they must cave in to threats of slander or malicious prosecution.

We see this now in our tort system, where innocent parties routinely cave in to threats of lawsuits.

Of course Blackstone knew that it would be better to convict one innocent person than let 10 criminals go free if the effects were limited to those 11 cases. He was concerned with the effect on everyone else.

--Walter StromquistBerwyn, Pa.

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