Letters from our readers.
Oct. 9 1998 3:30 AM

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Affirmative Action Wars, Part 38

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

Judith Shulevitz's argument in "Affirmative Action Wars, Part 37" is beside the point. Of course, it is wonderful and advantageous to go to Harvard, just as it would be wonderful and advantageous to have an internship with a Nobel Prize-winning writer or, for that matter, your own private plane. Does that mean students who do not get such internships or their own planes are disadvantaged enough to need them given out by governmental or university administrative decree? Of course not. Yes, if your parents are best friends with Nobel Prize winners or rich enough to give you a plane you will have an advantage in procuring these things. That's life. For the most part, those who really want these things must earn them. Giving them to some by decree is worse than unfair; it is ultimately corrupting to the whole ethic of achievement. It subjects those who get these things unfairly to widespread suspicion of their own abilities and spreads a damaging cynicism throughout the culture. In place of a flawed value system of achievement, it puts an inherently damaging system of victimhood. The point about the successful minority members who go to lesser universities is that, like the rest of us who don't get the chance to attend Harvard, they have the opportunity to earn success honestly: They are not shut out.

--Michael LadensonPhiladelphia

Judith Shulevitz replies:

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Michael Ladenson makes two classic anti-affirmative-action arguments in his letter: 1) It's unfair to change the rules so that blacks can go to Harvard, and 2) affirmative action produces a sense of inferiority and insecurity in those it causes to be admitted.

Point 1: Ladenson would have a much stronger case if America's universities and colleges used a single announced criterion for admission and never varied from it, the way New York City's two true meritocracies, Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant High School, do--they only admit students who score well on Bronx Science's or Stuyvesant's own tests. Then, sure, it would be a flagrant violation of the rules to let in some group of kids who didn't meet that standard. But I have never heard of a single college or university judging its candidates on the basis of one simple, straightforward, and publicly stated criterion. Instead, college admissions procedures are made up of dozens of subjective judgments. At Harvard, for instance, there are probably 1,000 applicants every year who are so outstanding there's no question they'll get in. But there are another 10,000 who are all good but not quite as great. How will the admissions office select from that group to fill its remaining 1,000 places? On the basis of any number of things: SAT scores and grades, of course--but also how well an essay was written; how much and what kind of volunteer work was done; notable athletic or artistic ability; a concern for geographic diversity; recommendations; or the most entrenched affirmative action program around, whether an applicant's parents went to Harvard. Ladenson assumes that there's one standard applied across the board to everybody except for black kids, and that just isn't true,

Point 2: As I've argued above, unless you've written a symphony that was performed by the New York Philharmonic by the time you're 16, getting into Harvard is something of a crapshoot. Everyone there knows it, and they don't let it make them insecure. They accept their luck and get on with their lives. Do the sons and daughters of alumni feel insecure because the standards used to evaluate their applications were significantly different (and lower) than those used for nonalumnae candidates? Ask Michael Kinsley, the editor of this magazine. Being the son of a Harvard alumnus and then getting into Harvard himself does not seem to have made a shrinking violet out of him.

Feminism's Fetishes

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I commend Judith Shulevitz on an excellent column, "Don't Take It So Personally." Her recognition of the grave personal injustice done by the left to Clarence Thomas is especially appreciated. It took intellectual courage to arrive at this conclusion. I hope others will follow you.

--David HorowitzLos Angeles

Art Salesmanship

Your measurement in Jacob Weisberg's "The Slate Arts Index" appears to be a well-intended method for annual comparisons. However, I am just a little disappointed that there is no representation in your measurement for popular music. Call me old-fashioned for caring, but increased popular music sales typically lead to increased classical or jazz music sales, due mainly to the effect of people feeling compelled to enter a music store and look around to see what's new since they were there to buy Thriller, or the Titanic soundtrack, or whatever got them in the door the last time.

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This is no secret to music retailers. In the online biz we compete for "eyeballs," but retailers need "footheels" or "toetouches." And, importantly, we can easily determine how much recorded music is sold at retail from readily available sources.

Assigning a couple of index "points" to compare higher or lower music sales at retail might be deserved and appropriate to measuring the state of the arts.

--Michael P. PatrickPhiladelphia

Rock the Arts

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A quick run through the high culture jungle of Jacob Weisberg's "The Slate Arts Index" left me a bit baffled. Why is it that in the discussion of film the percentage of dollars allocated to independent films was noteworthy, but the same wasn't true of music? Or, put another way, why would, say, a ticket stub to the rockumentary Hype be arts-index-worthy, but purchasing the soundtrack would not? If Slate wants to be an alternative to the mass of media, why let the mass of media (in low or high cultures) dictate the terms? Because Sub Pop--in one quasi-independent case--is not opera or jazz should be all the more reason for your paying attention.

--Lance DavisTuscaloosa, Ala.

Knowledge Is Power

I have just been reading the dialogue on public figures' private lives. I agree with the reader whose Oct. 1 letter to the editor, "Trapped in Monicagate," suggested that people who say "enough with Monica already" but then read Flytrap coverage may be canny rather than hypocritical. The potential outcome of Flytrap is the impeachment and removal of the president of the United States. Do I think the media have over-covered Flytrap, helping to create the crisis they report? Yes. Do I think I'd be happy pretending this crisis isn't happening, allowing people whose views differ from mine to have more information than I have? Not a chance. Remember, Cardinal Newman said, "Knowledge is power." While I disagreed with the House Judiciary Committee's decision to release the president's videotaped testimony before even asking the questions "Will there be hearings?" and "What's an impeachable offense?" I watched the tape so that I could understand the spin from both sides and make up my own mind. I don't think that's hypocritical; I think that's good citizenship.

--Jen SheltonHuntington, W.Va.

Some Feature Called "Today's Papers"

I commend the Oct. 1 Today's Papers for inserting some fun in the news with the comment about Carleton College. The disclaimer and explanation in the next day's Today's Papers made what was written the day before even more humorous and fun for this reader. Keep up the good work.

--Sharon Johnson-CramerBoston

No Amnesty for Shuger

So despite Amnesty International's reputation and 30 years experience in human rights investigations, the Oct. 5 Today's Papers doesn't take it seriously. Why? Because its director comes from Senegal. So much for objectivity.

--Gerry EllisLondon

Scott Shuger replies:

My question, "Where would you rather be arrested--in the U.S. or Senegal?" was raised not as an ad hominem assessment of the Amnesty International report, but in response to the Amnesty honcho from Senegal's comment that the U.S. criminal justice system lagged in fairness behind (someplace he called) the world community. Yes, there are problems with our system, and yes, there are some countries that could teach us a thing or two about them. But my point was I don't believe people who say most countries could--because they wouldn't prefer to be arrested, imprisoned, tried, or sentenced in most countries.

Address your e-mail to the editors to letters@slate.com. All writers must include their address and daytime phone number (for confirmation only).