Please convey to Mr. Robbins my appreciation for his position on Bush
and the invasion of Iraq. He and Susan Sarandon are putting their necks
on the line, and showing great courage. This is a lonely time for those
who oppose Bush's policies. I myself, a Vietnam vet (1966-69), have had
my patriotism questioned; when they find out my past, they shut up--but
why should that make a difference? Woody Allen made a movie about the
McCarthy era, and I recall watching it in a rather condescending frame
of mind, thinking "what was the matter with those people in the 1950s?
How could they be so persecutorial?" Well, those times are back. We all
have to fight this now. Robbins and Sarandon, by being famous, give
strength to others.
It is truly deplorable that such institutions as the Baseball Hall of
Fame are run by people who have no more tact than to use this sacred
institution as an instrument of their own political views to force their
opinions on the baseball-loving public. I guess we can only hope that
future Hall of Famers will also share Mr. Petroskey's political views
for fear that they will also be subjected to such actions. And thank
you, Mr. Robbins, for dispelling the notion that it is "un-American" to
disagree with the war. Indeed, there is nothing more American than the
airing of dissent of popular views in a public that seems wholly
unresponsive to public debate. I guess we can only hope that our local
cinemas don't subscribe to the same brand of "patriotism" that Mr.
Petroskey seems to favor. I for one like being able to choose the movies
I watch regardless of the political backgrounds of the creators.
Shelter Island, New York
Thank you for bringing attention to the Tim Robbins vs. the Baseball
Hall of Fame flap. I worked at the museum for nearly a decade, just
prior to Mr. Petroskey's arrival. I'm more surprised by the brazen
political nature of Mr. Petroskey's letter than I am by their decision
to cancel the event. This is a very conservative institution, run by a
conservative family within a conservative community. I think that just a
few short years ago Mr. Robbins would have had to do a bit more reading
between the lines. Democrats in Congress, celebrities and average
citizens are being intimidated. Conservatives are bolstered by the
arrogance and attitudes of Mr. Bush and his regime, and all debate and
dissent is trampled under the guise of patriotism and the need to
"support our troops." Attending my daughter's volleyball game at a local
high school the other day, I was shocked to see a poster on display in
the lobby which reads, "America, Love it or Leave it." It's deja vu all
former director of exhibits and design, National Baseball
Hall of Fame and Museum
As a current member of the Army Individual Ready Reserve who was
activated for the first Gulf War, I find Mr. Petroskey's comments and
actions to be utterly ridiculous.
I am sick and tired of neoconservative couch potatoes using members of
the military as weapons to further their own agenda. We have not only
the right, but the responsibility to question our leaders. This is a
democracy (actually it's a republic). This is not Saddam Era Iraq, where
the leader's word is law.
At the conclusion of this war, we will probably put on trial and execute
members of Saddam's former regime that unquestioningly "stood behind
their president and the troops." They will not be allowed to use that
trite phrase as an excuse for the atrocities they have committed.
Petroskey should stick to a subject that hopefully he knows something
During the first Gulf War my friends supported me in two ways. My prowar
friends joined military family-support groups and my antiwar friends hit
the streets. Both were trying to help me in their own way and both
greeted me warmly upon my return.
When we fight and die, we do it for democracy and freedom. The men and
women who serve should not be discouraged by Mr. Robbins's comments.
They should, however be scared by Mr. Petroskey's actions. It is clear
that he seeks to do through the private sector what the goverment could
not. He seeks to prevent Mr. Robbins from exercising his constitutional
right to free speech. He hides his criminal acts, by dying them red,
white and blue.
It is Mr. Petroskey and those like him who threaten to undercut our
armed forces. And, at the risk of being labeled unpatriotic, I find that
I cannot stand behind the President's savage and unwarranted cuts in
veteran's benefits. As a former officer in the Texas Air National Guard,
he should be ashamed.
Port Angeles, Washington
I was astounded at the childish action taken against Tim Robbins
(cancellation of the screening of Bull Durham on the occasion of its
fifteenth anniversary), a fine actor and articulate critic of the Bush
war on Iraq, by Dale Petroskey, president of the National Baseball Hall
of Fame. What on earth possesses so many of our self-proclaimed
"defenders of democracy and freedom" to become small-minded, insulting
and abusive when those freedoms are actually exercised? For the record,
I appreciate everything that Mr. Robbins said--except for that part
about the '69 Mets. To me it's the '88 Oakland A's that rank up there
with apple pie and the flag.
TIMOTHY L. HOCKETT
Bowling Green, Ohio
As an American citizen and a baseball fan, I find it insulting that the
president of the Baseball Hall of Fame, Dale Petroskey, would issue a de
facto gag order to Tim Robbins for expressing his political views. I
find it intriguing that a man who worked as an assistant press secretary
in the Administration of Ronald Reagan would intimate that actors have
no business in the political arena. While I consider myself a patriot,
if patriotism means the irrelevance of the First Amendment, then count
It is refreshing to see organizations standing up and holding "actors"
responsible for what they are saying from their highly visible platform.
Tim Robbins doesn't represent baseball fans or the majority of the
American people. While he challenges President Bush (and others) for not
serving in the military, he neglects to say he isn't a veteran either. I
am...and I very much support our Commander in Chief, President Bush. If
the decision had been made during the Clinton Administration to control
the problems in the Middle East, then President Bush wouldn't have to
clean up the mess.
Hopefully, Tim Robbins will get the point that he represents only about
20 percent of the American people. The very same people who are voicing
their opinions because of the stand our current and former Presidents
should have made to protect our freedom.
Freedom will continue to ring, but with no thanks to Tim Robbins.
LARRY J. TRICKEL
SGM (Ret), US Army
My deepest respect for Mr. Robbins for his letter to the head of the
Baseball Hall of Fame (or rather "Shame"). News from the USA sounds more
and more like historical pieces from Germany in the 1930s. Unbelievable!
New Orleans, Louisiana
I just want to thank Tim Robbins for utilizing his position in the
public eye to say what needs to be said. I can only hope the Baseball
Hall of Fame feels a shred of embarrassment for its behavior. I am from
a family of die-hard Chicago Cub fans and we are all outraged by Mr.
Petroskey's blatant misuse of a national institution--baseball!
I found this conflict between Tim Robbins and Dale Petroskey
interesting. The scary thing seems to be that the propaganda of the
mainstream media, including here in Australia, seems to be obvious as
just that to some and not at all obvious to others. Petroskey's may be a
political statement to protect himself, but I wonder if he has simply
bought all the patriotic huff and puff that seems to be muddying truth,
logic and common sense. The same thing happens here in Australia,
especially this expression of belief in free speech on the one hand but
the denial of it in practice.
Thank you for a good read in The Nation. Without you and other
independent media, we would be overwhelmed with spin and lies (which are
probably the same thing).
Regarding your calling for condemnation of the Baseball Hall of Fame
over its decision to cancel an appearance by Tim Robbins, isn't YOUR
condemnation merely the pot calling the kettle black?
Tim Robbins has every right to his opinions, but the right of free
speech doesn't mean that others are obligated to listen. The Baseball
Hall of Fame and its owners also have the right of free association,
which they exercised by disinviting someone they considered a boor.
The left has often called for boycotts of organizations, individuals,
and groups which it finds offensive...as is its right. Again, how
hypocritical (crybaby-ish, even) to complain when the Left is boycotted.
I support, and will defend, the right of the Tim Robbins, Martin Sheens,
Jeanen Garafolos, Susan Sarandons, et al, among us to have their point
of view and to express it without fear of GOVERNMENTAL oppression or
physical violence. However, I also support the right of anyone who
decides to never watch another movie or otherwise provide financial
support for those actors whose views and attitudes they find offensive.
How can one feel otherwise if one truly believes in freedom of thought?
Alan Dershowitz once remarked that we should create a Bill of Rights
Club, where members had to agree to support exercises of rights even
though they might find the particular exercise repugnant. Based upon the
articles I find on The Nation website, I don't think that many on the
left would be eligible for membership.
KUCINICH ON CHOICE
In Katha Pollitt's April 21 "Subject to Debate," she mentioned that my
vote on the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act will be watched. Considering
that I've given this issue much thought over the past couple of years, I
hope she will be watching as I oppose the bill when it reaches the
House. When the Supreme Court struck down a similar "partial-birth"
abortion ban in Stenberg v. Carhart, it affirmed what was said in Roe v.
Wade: A woman's health must be preserved. I believe in upholding the
right to choose and will oppose legislation, like the Partial Birth
Abortion Ban Act, that restricts the rights guaranteed in Roe.
DENNIS J. KUCINICH
Member of Congress
10th Congressional District, Ohio
CLUCK CLUCK CLUCK
I wish Calvin Trillin had used the more familiar "chicken hawk" rather
than "sissy hawk" in his April 14 poem on Richard Perle. "Chicken hawk"
fits the meter and lacks the whiff of latent homophobia that is
surprising coming from the author of the moving and memorable
PAUL SCOTT STANFIELD
New York City
I thank Paul Stanfield for his thoughtful suggestion, but I had
consciously decided against "chicken hawk." It actually means a hawk
that preys on chickens rather than a chicken that acts like a hawk, and
its second meaning (in the American Heritage dictionary, 4th edition) is
"a man who seeks out boys or young men as his sexual partners." Also,
I'm not ready to give up on "sissy" as meaning (to quote the same
dictionary) "a person regarded as timid or cowardly." The other
definition is "a boy or man regarded as effeminate," but I don't see
that it's doing anybody any favors to equate effeminacy with
homosexuality. It seems to me that someone who urges others on to fight
wars he is unwilling to fight himself--which is what the members of the
Sissy Hawk Brigade did during the Vietnam War--is properly called a
sissy, even if, as in the case of Dick Cheney, he played high school
SEND BOOMERS TO OKEFENOKEE
Although I agree with the conclusions reached by Jonathan Schell in
"American Tragedy" [April 7], I suggest a different interpretation
of what brought us to this point. It is all too easy to see this as a
usurpation of power and lay it at the feet of the Republicans and the
"American military machine," but I believe the root cause came more in
the form of an incremental abdication by the generation that seemed to
hold so much promise in the sixties, my generation, the baby boomers.
They have become the most powerful generation that has ever existed, and
like so many before them, as they gained economically they became
obsessed with the preservation of their wealth and the self-indulgent
lifestyle it provided. Ideals were swapped for SUVs, social concerns for
stock portfolios and Botox injections--fueled by cheap energy and damn
It was all too easy to allow Clinton, Lieberman and the rest to
consciously (and publicly) move the Democratic Party to the right,
disguising Old Republicanism as New Democrats, all too easy to sit back
and salve their consciences by relabeling their greed. So now we all pay
the price. A good look in the mirror is in order. To quote a rather wise
possum, "We have met the enemy and he is us."
THAT LIBERAL MEDIA
Melrose Park, Pa.
Eric Alterman ["What Liberal Media?" Feb. 24] and others at The Nation
strongly reinforce the idea that the media--owned more and more by
corporations and conglomerates--vigorously promote a conservative
philosophy. Considerable evidence exists for this idea. But the theory
works only with the aid of selective perception--i.e., use every
confirmation to strengthen your belief and screen out every instance
that contradicts it. In reality, every week, every day, the media
provide cogent criticism of our government and our corporations.
The following public figures who opposed war on Iraq without UN approval
have appeared on major talk shows or have written op-eds in major
dailies: Ted Kennedy, Howard Dean (a full hour on Meet the Press),
Dennis Kucinich, Dale Bumpers, Anthony Zinni, Wesley Clark, Norman
Schwarzkopf, Scott Ritter, President Carter, Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew
Brzezinski, George Mitchell, President Clinton, Madeleine Albright,
Sandy Berger, Jessica Matthews (of the Carnegie Endowment), Kofi Annan,
the director of Win Without War; liberal military analyst William Arkin,
Mike Farrell, Martin Sheen, Sam Hamill (representing 11,000 poets), W.S.
Merwin, liberal panelist Carl Jeffers, genocide author Samantha Power,
columnist Trudy Rubin, Maureen Dowd, Gwynne Dyer and Al-Hayat journalist
In addition, the media have heavily covered the antiwar demonstrations
here and around the world. A New York Times editorial of March 9 was so
full a criticism of Bush's policies that Terry Gross had Philip Taubman
on Fresh Air elucidate it. Chris Matthews has vehemently opposed the war
and has many liberal guests on Hardball, including Katrina vanden Heuvel
and William Arkin. Matthews was relentless in his focus on the risks and
imponderables of the Iraq war. On Hardball, Eric Margolis, of the
Council on Foreign Relations, commented that the total cost of the war
may be $400 billion, not $200 billion, that Iraq will probably
degenerate into another Lebanon or Yugoslavia, and "why not alleviate
the suffering of the Palestinians" instead?
After the war began, negative criticism of Bush's policies continued.
Joe Conason, Maureen Dowd, Trudy Rubin, Leonard Pitts Jr., Ellen
Goodman, Joseph Galloway and many others analyzed the defects of US
A major brouhaha occurred when Generals McCaffrey, Schwarzkopf and
Wallace criticized the US war plan. The major media publicized this
debate; mulish Donald Rumsfeld blamed the media for the problem. We have
also seen on TV pictures of Iraqi civilians injured by US shrapnel and
starving, dehydrated civilians fighting for food and water. The
corporate media reported US bombings that killed many civilians. News of
an impending humanitarian catastrophe as a result of the war has been
widely disseminated by print and TV media. The media also disclosed a
poll showing that optimism about the war among Americans declined March
21-22 from 52 percent to 38 percent, a change that sent the White House
scrambling for psychological explanations. The US media are certainly not
liberal overall, but the left's disgruntled belief that they are
incorrigibly conservative is just as certainly mistaken.
MARK I. SACHAROFF
New York City
n Mark Sacharoff can find my response in the pages of What Liberal
Media? The Truth About Bias and the News (Basic). I invite him and the
rest of our readers to peruse the opening chapter free at
POOR NEW YORK
Thanks to Jack Newfield for his wonderful article, "How the Other Half
Still Lives" [March 17]. The largesse the World War II "great
generation" created through a combination of widely distributed
government deficit spending and a vibrant capitalist marketplace has
disappeared. The Democratic coalition that produced it was smashed by
the Reagan Administration with the tactic of shouting "handout" at any
form of public assistance or funding, unless it was for the military or
local pork. Instead of seeing poverty as a structural problem, we have
lapsed into the nineteenth-century habit of labeling the poor "lazy,"
the cause of their own destitution. In the meantime, Wal-Mart has
replaced GM as America's largest company, with a precipitous drop in
wages and opportunity. And to all this, the baby boomers, my generation,
have shown their most identifiable quality: indifference. Let's hope
that more of us can come to see poverty through the realistic and
sympathetic eyes of Jack Newfield.
MARC A. CIRIGLIANO
New York City
No one can be content with the level of poverty in New York City or in
our country. But an accurate picture of "how the other half lives"
should not be drawn merely from anecdotal material, even if gathered by
a reporter as practiced as Jack Newfield. The fact is that under New
York's governor, there is good news for low-income workers. For example,
according to Census data, for children living with single mothers, the
reduction in poverty in New York since 1995 was almost three times the
reduction of the economic expansion of the 1980s.
The same source reveals that in New York, work rates for single parents
rose 38 percent in the period following welfare reform--four times the
increase of the economic expansion of the 1980s. In 1994 New York
invested $77 million in the earned-income tax credit. Now, thanks to the
steadfast support of George Pataki, we invest $550 million, a 543
percent increase. The combined federal and state EITC can add up to
$5,000 to the annual income of poor working families. Newfield's silence
on the EITC is puzzling, as is his silence on the significant increase
since 1995 in health insurance coverage for low-income New Yorkers and
the tripling of childcare subsidies.
The facts indicate that Governor Pataki has been "locating the frontier
of the possible" in his strategy for shrinking poverty--a strategy that
provides solid dollars-and-cents help for low-income working families.
The Nation ought to tell the full story.
BRIAN J. WING
Commissioner, New York State Office of Temporary and Disability
REVENGE OF THE DITTO-HEADS
Michael Massing, in "The Doha Follies" [April 21], repeated reporter
Michael Wolff's claim that Rush Limbaugh played a tape of Wolff and gave
out his e-mail address on the air, resulting in the jamming of his inbox
with thousands of e-mails. Limbaugh protests that he did not broadcast
the address on air. While that may be true, Wolff insists he saw his URL
posted on the Limbaugh website and that of the e-mails he read,
"hundreds referred to getting the address from Rush."
In "USA Oui! Bush Non!" [Feb. 10] Jacques Rupnik was inaccurately
described as a former adviser to Jacques Chirac.
With this issue Adam Shatz, becomes literary
editor. Adam, whom readers already know as a contributor to these pages,
has worked at the New York Times Book Review, Lingua Franca (where he
edited the books section) and The New Yorker. His articles on politics
and culture have also appeared in the Village Voice, The American
Prospect, The New York Review of Books and the New York Times. Welcome,
Adam. Art Winslow leaves to devote more time to his own writing, both
fiction and nonfiction. Art and this magazine go back a long way--1983,
to be precise. He's worked here as assistant copy editor, copy chief,
associate literary editor, executive editor, literary editor. Art made a
distinctive and lasting contribution to The Nation in all of these
capacities. We're glad to say that he'll continue the association as a
contributing editor. Hail, Art...
In the past 200 years, all of the earth's great territorial empires,
whether dynastic or colonial, or both, have been destroyed. The list
includes the Russian empire of the czars; the Austro-Hungarian Empire of
the Habsburgs; the German empire of the Hohenzollerns, the Ottoman
Empire, the Napoleonic Empire, the overseas empires of Holland, England,
France, Belgium, Italy and Japan, Hitler's "thousand-year Reich" and the
Soviet empire. They were brought down by a force that, to the
indignation and astonishment of the imperialists, turned out to be
irresistible: the resolve of peoples, no matter how few they were or how
poor, to govern themselves.
With its takeover of Iraq, the United States is attempting to reverse
this universal historical verdict. It is seeking to reinvent the
imperial tradition and reintroduce imperial rule--and on a global
scale--for the twenty-first century. Some elements, like the danger of
weapons of mass destruction, are new. Yet any student of imperialism
will be struck by the similarities between the old style of imperialism
and the new: the gigantic disparity between the technical and military
might of the conquerors and the conquered; the inextricable combination
of rapacious commercial interest and geopolitical ambition and design;
the distortion and erosion of domestic constitutions by the immense
military establishments, overt and covert, required for foreign
domination; the use of one colony as a stepping stone to seize others or
pressure them into compliance with the imperial agenda; the appeal to
jingoism on the home front. True, American officials state at every
opportunity that they do not intend to "occupy" Iraq. But then the
British in the nineteenth century said the same thing. Two years before
the liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone ordered the conquest of
Egypt he declared that his heart's desire was an "Egypt for the
Egyptians." The liberal imperialist Lord Palmerston said in 1842 in
defense of his gunboat diplomacy, "It is, that commerce may go freely
forth, leading civilization with one hand, and peace with the other, to
render mankind happier, wiser, better." When it came to rule, the
British preferred, wherever possible, not "direct rule" but a sort of
covert domination called "influence"or "indirect rule" or "paramountcy"
(the British were as richly inventive of euphemisms as the United States
is today). Then as now, imperialism, in the words of the great
anti-imperialist Ernest Hobson, was "floated on a sea of vague, shifty,
well-sounding phrases which are seldom tested by close contact with
It was one thing, however, for Europeans, in newfound possession of
modern tools of technical and organizational superiority, to subjugate
"backward" foreign peoples in 1700 or 1800 or 1900. But can it be done
again, in our century, in the wake of that project's universal rejection
by the peoples of the earth? So far, the outlook is unpromising. The
United States vowed to bring about "regime change" in Iraq. The phrase
has rightly been criticized as an outrageously mild euphemism--a vague,
well-sounding, shifty phrase if there ever was one--for an extremely
violent act; but now it turns out that the expression defined a deeper
problem. If I am going to change the oil in my car, I must, before I
remove the old oil in the crankcase, have new oil ready to put in.
Otherwise, my car will quickly overheat and break down on the road. This
is roughly the condition of Iraq two weeks after the destruction of its
former government. The United States, it turns out, forgot to bring a
new government with it when it set out from Kuwait to Baghdad. The
troops brought plenty of MREs (meals ready to eat) but no GRR
(government ready to rule). American forces had no intention of becoming
a police force, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks told the press. Did the
Administration perhaps take its own slippery rhetoric about not
occupying Iraq too seriously? The result was a vacuum of authority soon
filled by nearly universal looting. Many Iraqis made clear their hatred
of the old regime and their joy at its disappearance; but it appears
that they had little more confidence in the invader. Finding themselves
caught between local misrule and foreign rule, did they perhaps decide
that they had a momentary opportunity to grab something for themselves
and set about sacking their own country? A journalist, upon arriving in
an Iraqi city, described it as "prelooted." Did the Iraqis, in
anticipation of foreign exploitation, "preloot" their whole country?
The United States thus achieved Regime Removal but not the promised
Regime Change. There were, we can now see, no plans even to keep order
in Iraq, much less to administer it, or organize a government there. The
famous war plan was much discussed; the peace plan, it appears, did not
This became clear when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld referred to the
raging anarchy in Iraq as "untidy," and America's new viceroy in Iraq,
retired Gen. Jay Garner, newly arrived in the city of Nasiriyah from the
Hilton hotel in Kuwait, likened events to the American constitutional
convention of 1787, remarking rhetorically, "I don't think they had a
love-in when they had Philadelphia." Does he really think that mayhem in
Iraq, including the extinction of the better part of the country's
cultural treasures, has any resemblance to the deliberations by which
Washington, Franklin and Madison framed the Constitution of the United
States? Is such a man fit to run a country?
So far, the American military giant has proved to be a political pygmy.
The Shiite cleric Abdel Majid al-Khoei, who was imported into Iraq from
London by the "coalition" forces, was promptly hacked to death by local
people. The gathering of Iraqis invited by the United States to meet at
a US military base has been boycotted by the country's most important
political groups. In Mosul, American troops have fired upon an angry
mob, killing seven. "It's a show of force, but people don't understand
it," a soldier in Mosul told the Times. "They're not grateful."
Before the war began, it was often said that winning the war would be
easy and winning the peace hard. And it was surely always clear even to
the war's opponents that the United States could drive its tanks from
Kuwait to Baghdad, whereupon the regime of Saddam Hussein would
dissolve. Yet was it ever certain that what followed the conventional
engagements would be a peace? With every day that passes, "the peace"
looks more like another war.
FRED J. COOK
Ralph Nader writes: It's doubtful there has ever been a better,
more dauntless and more unsung investigative reporter than Fred J. Cook.
For Nation readers from the 1950s through the 1980s, Fred blazed wide
pathways with his exposés of New York City corruption, the abuses
and follies of the CIA and the FBI, and the waste and overreaching of
the military-industrial complex. These and other subjects were nearly
journalistic taboos before Cook's lucid muckraking and synthesis of
ideas and trunkloads of "disparate" information, supplied him by the
Nation's legendary editor, Carey McWilliams, broke them into print.
Other reporters followed him and expanded the public's right to know
about secret government and the corporate state. Publishers produced
longer book versions of Cook's reportage reaching wider audiences. Young
reporters, including myself, were inspired to open new areas of
injustice shielded from public scrutiny. Fred's last books were on the
oil industry giants, the Ku Klux Klan and his autobiography. He told me
how disappointed he was that reviewers had ignored the books. Their
sales were small. Even journalism schools showed no interest in the life
story of a small-town reporter who gave pride to his often-cowed
profession. After these unrequited efforts, Cook turned in his
typewriter and went into quiet retirement. Cook and McWilliams were
possibly the greatest reporter-editor team in post-World War II
journalism in our country. They stand as a luminous model challenging
the trivialization of the news by a press in indentured servitude to
KUDOS TO KLAWANS
Nation movie critic Stuart Klawans has been awarded a Guggenheim
Fellowship. Our congratulations.
NEWS OF THE WEAK IN REVIEW
Representative Scott McInnis announced that he has asked the
Veterans Affairs Department to stop purchasing tombstones from Imerys, a
French company that's the main supplier of headstones for national
cemeteries. "It's obviously inappropriate," McInnis said, "for a company
owned by French interests to be supplying headstones for the VA when the
French have done everything in their power to undermine the very troops
from whose sacrifice they now stand to profit."
The US military was deployed, the Bush Administration tells us, to bring
democracy to Iraq. But the military brass and the Administration have
apparently parted company on what democracy means in the United States,
as the Supreme Court arguments on April 1 in the University of Michigan
affirmative action cases made clear.
Solicitor General Ted Olson, arguing on behalf of the Administration,
attacked the Michigan law school admissions program as "constitutionally
objectionable" for naming racial diversity as a goal, "an end in and of
itself," in admissions. Several Justices quickly interrupted, directing
Olson's attention to the "military brief" filed in the case.
In that brief, three former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, two
former defense secretaries and retired heads of the military academies
endorsed affirmative action as essential to national security in a
multiracial democracy. "The military," they said, "must be permitted to
train and educate a diverse officer corps" to circumvent the morale
problems and communication bottlenecks of the Vietnam era, when a
virtually all-white officer corps commanded large numbers of black and
The military brass were clear on this: Democratic authority, and thus
military effectiveness, depends upon admissions procedures that recruit
and select a diverse group of potential leaders. Democracy as a whole,
like national security in particular, depends upon genuine,
representative leadership throughout the ranks.
The mission of public colleges and universities is also a democratic
one: to train leaders who can work with diverse groups of people, to
provide students the skills to participate in civic life, and to
encourage graduates to give back to the community, which, through taxes,
made their education possible. To perform this democratic mission,
public colleges must be able to select a racially, ethnically,
geographically and economically diverse class of students who will
enhance the educational environment while they are in school and
contribute to the public good after they graduate.
The Solicitor General and other opponents of affirmative action treat
admissions decisions to public colleges and law schools as if scarce
slots can be allocated based on individual merit unrelated to the sacred
democratic values that are at stake. And whenever race becomes an issue,
a multifaceted, democratic view of merit suddenly collapses into a
fealty to a "neutral" testing regime.
In fact, SAT and ACT scores often measure little more than the social
capital students bring to a single, timed test. The relationship of
scores to parental wealth far exceeds the relationship between test
scores and grades in college or success after graduation. Poorer
students and students of color, who on average perform less well on
these standardized tests than their richer and whiter peers, can do just
as well academically and professionally when given the chance. Evidence
from Texas shows that those admitted because they graduated in the top
10 percent of their high school class have higher grades as college
freshmen than those who are admitted based on their test scores. Even
more important, a study of Michigan's graduates found the black and
Latino lawyers were those most likely to serve underrepresented
communities and to fulfill public citizenship obligations generally.
Students with the highest test scores, by contrast, are less likely to
give back to the community that subsidized their education. Apparently
high scores communicate a sense of entitlement without responsibility.
The authors of a Century Foundation study, Anthony Carnevale and Stephen
Rose, call the overreliance on a single indicator such as test
performance "skinny merit." Through dependence on test scores, higher
education has become a gift the poor give to the rich. Poor people pay
taxes for rich people to attend elite public colleges and universities
where graduates gain, through networking and credentialing
opportunities, a large share of coveted posts in the public and private
Carnevale and Rose studied the family fortunes of students at the 146
most selective colleges and universities. We are, Carnevale says,
creating "an inequality machine" with a "brutally efficient sorting"
system that allows students from the upper quartile of income in the
country to fill three-fourths of the slots at these schools, while only
3 percent of students come from the bottom quartile. That ratio was
borne out in the research that produced the Texas 10 percent plan.
Historically, 75 percent of each freshman class there was filled by
students from 150 suburban and private high schools, in a state with
1,500 public high schools. At Michigan's flagship university, high
schools in the most affluent suburbs also dominate the freshman class.
Affirmative action diversifies the student body, at least around the
margins, by race and income. While whites from the highest income
quartile have cornered the admissions market at selective schools like
Michigan, black and Latino beneficiaries of affirmative action hover
around the middle of the economic indicators.
Democracy means access for all of the people, not just the elite. Yet it
is the military--rather than higher education--that is performing the
essential democratic function of breaking down rigid class and race
barriers. As Representative Charles Rangel points out, blacks and
Latinos, as well as working-class whites, are disproportionately
represented among the enlisted ranks.
Taxpayers subsidize public colleges to provide a representative group of
future leaders, to train those leaders in democratic citizenship, and to
enable them to problem-solve in a diverse society with a knowledge-based
economy. Even those who are ambivalent about the "diversity rationale"
should understand the democratic imperative for robust rather than
"skinny" merit in rationing access to higher education. "If you have an
all-black army and an all-white law school," University of Michigan law
professor William Miller told the New York Times, "something's not
right. The democracy, the risks and benefits, simply have to be better
A dynamic and democratic view of merit in higher education admissions
assures access to blacks and Latinos to selective public colleges and
law schools, trains potential leaders to serve all segments of the
society and legitimizes our democracy. The military brief cites the
chasm between the racial composition of officers and enlisted soldiers
as a "blaring wakeup call" that racial diversity is "critical" to "our
national security." The democratic stakes in the Michigan cases are just
By 9 am on April 10, the day Kirkuk fell, columns of Iraqi troops who
were supposed to be defending the city fled to the Baghdad Garage, the
main transportation terminal, and stripped off their uniforms and boots.
Barefoot, they fled south to the capital. By noon, the looting in Kirkuk
had begun. In the multiethnic Arab, Turkmen and Kurdish city, it was
primarily the Kurds who smashed the windows of the state-owned
supermarket and hurled bolts of pink fabric, carpets, cooking oil, desk
chairs and rice over the fence. The more ambitious went to the airport,
hijacked Iraqi tanks and careered around the liberated town.
"I used to drive a tank in the Iraqi Army," Nawzan Barzilini, 32,
shouted down from his new acquisition. "I came this morning to fight for
Kirkuk, but the soldiers ran away." Barzilini is one of the thousands of
Kurdish fighters, peshmerga, who unexpectedly poured into Kirkuk that
morning long before the Americans arrived. Many, like Barzilini, were
not following orders. He said he simply picked up a Kalashnikov and
followed his comrades as they rushed in. He argued that liberating the
city was his duty as a Kurd and that he was entitled to the spoils of
the Baathist regime.
In the early hours, the stunned locals didn't realize the Iraqis were
gone until truck after gun-mounted truck of peshmerga in yellow and
green bandannas rattled into the city, accompanied by a handful of
journalists. I watched the faces of dazed Kirkukis change from shock to
jubilation to frenzy as they surrounded our cars, clamoring onto the
hood. One man, Jabar, thrust his head in a car window and said in
English long out of use, "I love the USA." Children held up bunches of
yellow flowers and Kurdish flags as the adults covered their mouths with
their hands and ululated.
At first, it was easy to laud Kirkuk's liberation as a model for the
peaceful transition of power in Iraq. The city's walls are scrawled with
"Thank you Mr. Bousch." The city's frightened Arabs made their way into
the streets. One Arab man driving a truck from an oil refinery was
pulled from his car and shot in the street, but it was an isolated
incident. A Kurdish passerby stopped to cover him with a blanket. For
the most part, Kirkuk seemed to have avoided the sudden violence of
Mosul. Yet as the days passed, the presence in Kirkuk of men like
Barzilini--part fighter, part looter--threatened the calm. Kirkuk's
Arabs and Turkmen have become furious at all the looting by lawless men
claiming to be peshmerga, and they're beginning to fight back. Turkey's
anxiety over the Kurds is also rising, and the transition of control
over Kirkuk's oilfields promises additional complications.
Turkey's refusal to let the United States use it as a staging area for
the war produced some unintended consequences. The slow arrival of US
forces in Kirkuk gave the Iraqi Army there time to watch events unfold
in the south and to surrender without much bloodshed. But it also left
the United States dependent on a Kurdish fighting force. The day the
city fell, the Americans were nowhere to be seen. Protecting the
oilfields fell to a force of 700 Kurdish fighters, who could do little
as Northern Oil, an Iraqi-owned company, was looted and the smoke from a
series of fires lit the horizon. Only at nightfall did the 173rd
Airborne arrive. "It was like the Los Angeles riots," said one American
soldier as he patrolled the burning fields the next morning.
For now, Kirkuk's oil is in US hands. Though Turkish observers have yet
to arrive, the peshmerga have begun pulling out of the city without
incident. After their unscheduled invasion, even the Kurdish fighters
are trying to sound diplomatic.
"We are happy to let America control the oil," says Brigadier Rostum, a
senior commander of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan's military force.
"Even if they keep most of it and we benefit only a little bit, it will
be the first time that Kurds receive anything from oil. Besides, this is
not about oil, it's about freedom." But this is still the first week,
and, even so, ripples are beginning to disturb Kirkuk's surface.
As the peshmerga claim to pull out, the Arabs are calling for blood.
They feel that they were victims of Saddam, too, so why, they ask,
should they now be victims of Kurdish looting? In Mosul, angry vigilante
groups have set stones in the road to check cars against incoming Kurds.
It is not yet clear whether street fighting here will be next. Soon,
120,000 Kurdish families, displaced since 1991, will start to return
home, and political assertions by Turkmen groups, supported by Turkey,
will begin to emerge--and what good will gratitude be then? Rebuilding
Kirkuk in this brittle political climate will show whether a coalition
between hostile ethnic groups is at all possible in Iraq.
The battle for Kirkuk raises questions about Syria as well. While the
city fell easily, there were some fierce pockets of resistance by
fedayeen loyalists and foreign mercenaries. As Kurds in the north of the
city spent the afternoon tugging down statues of Saddam, near the former
secret police headquarters a cluster of fighters refused to surrender.
Finally, after a gun battle lasting several hours, the peshmerga
advanced to find several dead bodies of the fedayeen. One was still
alive, though badly beaten, his black tunic covered in blood. As he sat
on the curb, several peshmerga discussed whether to kill him. The man
held his head in his hands as this conversation went on, saying only
that he had come from Syria fifteen days earlier to fight for Saddam.
The Bush Administration's claims about the presence of chemical weapons
in Syria smack of propaganda, but the presence of these Syrian fighters
in Kirkuk may be spun by Washington as evidence of a relationship
between Syria and Saddam.
In the short term, Kirkuk has descended into a stunned sense of order,
but these quiet days are likely to give way to explosions of older,
deep-seated resentments. Already Arabs are accusing the incoming Kurds
of brutality reminiscent of fascism. The United States in its limited
role as policeman can maintain order for now, and helped set up a
governing committee of six Kurds, six Arabs and six Turkmen that will
soon begin to meet, offering at least a fig leaf of transethnic
cooperation. But whether, in the long term, any occupying force can
mediate the longstanding ethnic divisions is an open question. The
challenge before Washington is whether it has the will and the way to
establish the presence necessary to truly rebuild the city and not just
keep an uneasy peace.
The Bush Administration and its cheerleaders in the media are claiming
that the "remarkable success" of the US war in Iraq proves its opponents
were "spectacularly wrong"--even, some charge, unpatriotic. Intimidated
by these allegations and the demonstration of overwhelming American
military power, many critics of the war are falling silent. Indeed, the
chairman of the Democratic National Committee, no doubt speaking for
several of the party's presidential candidates, has rushed to urge that
"the war...not be on the ballot in 2004."
But critics of the war have no reason to regret their views. No sensible
opponent doubted that the world's most powerful military could easily
crush such a lesser foe. The real issue was and remains very different:
Will the Iraq war increase America's national security, as the Bush
Administration has always promised and now insists is already the case,
or will it undermine and diminish our national security, as thoughtful
In the weeks, months and years ahead, we will learn the answer to that
fateful question by judging developments by seven essential criteria:
(1) Will the war discourage or encourage other regional "preemptive"
military strikes, particularly by nuclear-armed states such as, but not
only, Pakistan and India?
(2) Indeed, will the Iraq war stop the proliferation of states that
possess nuclear weapons or instead incite more governments to acquire
them as a deterrent against another US "regime change"?
(3) Will the war, and the long US occupation that seems likely to ensue,
reduce the recruitment of young Arabs by terrorist movements or will it
inspire many new recruits?
(4) With or without more recruits, will the war decrease or increase the
number of terrorist plots against the United States, whether at home or
(5) Will the war help safeguard the vast quantities of nuclear and other
materials of mass destruction that exist in the world today, and the
expertise needed to operationalize them, or make them more accessible to
(6) In that connection, will Russia--which has more ill-secured devices
of mass destruction than any other country and which strongly opposed
and still resents the US war--now be more, or less, inclined to
collaborate with Washington in safeguarding and reducing those weapons
(7) Finally, considering the rampant anti-Americanism it has provoked,
will the war result in more or fewer governments willing to cooperate
with--individually or in multinational organizations like the United
Nations--George W. Bush's stated top priority, the war against global
It is by these crucial (and measurable) criteria that the American
people, and any politician who wants to lead them, must judge the
Administration's war in Iraq and President Bush's own leadership. Those
of us who were against the war and continue to oppose the assumptions on
which it was based fear that future events will answer these questions
to the grave detriment of American and international security. As
patriots, we can only hope we are wrong.
Even before US forces could establish order in the cities of Iraq and
bring humanitarian relief to its people, the Bush Administration
unleashed a barrage of threats against Syria, accusing it of aiding
Islamic fighters in Iraq and possessing chemical weapons. Administration
officials suggest they are sending an appropriate warning to Iraq's
neighbor that certain behavior will not be tolerated. To millions of
Arabs watching the events unfolding in Iraq, however, these actions are
confirmation that the United States has a larger agenda in the Middle
East that has little to do with the security and well-being of the Iraqi
Instead of rushing on to threaten its next potential target of
pre-emptive war, the US should focus its energy on the reconstruction of
Iraq, since it will be judged for years to come by how well it handles
that task. Judging by the first weeks, there are reasons to worry that
the Administration has failed to understand the nature of that
challenge. If it wishes to legitimize US military action, it will have
to draw on international support to bring order to the Iraqi people and
to make good on its claim that it will bring them democracy. Yet Richard
Perle revealed the arrant indifference of Administration hawks when he
said recently, "What we have won on the battlefield is the right to
establish consistent policies that are for the benefit of the people of
Iraq." Uncle knows best.
After the regime's authority collapsed, seething ethnic and religious
rivalries and festering hatreds boiled over. In a cultural atrocity
unparalleled in our age, looters vandalized the priceless antiquities in
Baghdad's National Museum and burned the National Library, where reposed
the records of the world's most ancient civilization. The US government
had been repeatedly urged by museum directors, archeologists and
cultural leaders to protect Iraq's archeological treasures as required
by international law. Yet the commanders who had immediately posted
guards at the Iraqi oil ministry somehow were unable to find soldiers to
stop vandals from plundering the irreplaceable heritage of humankind.
(Nor were they able to protect hospitals from pillagers of desperately
needed medical supplies.) The Washington Post reported that the Pentagon
had expected before the war that Saddam's fall "would usher in a period
of chaos and lawlessness," yet it chose to go with a light, fast-moving
invasion force unequipped to deal with civil disorders. Order is slowly
being restored, but the explosion of destructive anarchy and lack of
coherent US policies has stirred up distrust among the Iraqis, whose
support will be needed to restore services and build a stable
Although the US military rapidly secured Iraq's oilfields before
Saddam's troops could burn them, its technical specialists were unable
to locate any weapons of mass destruction during more than three weeks
of war, when they could have menaced US soldiers; nor was any evidence
uncovered of Iraqi links to Al Qaeda. Thus the claimed basis for the
invasion has yet to be established. Of course, WMDs may well be
unearthed, but the question remains: If Saddam didn't (or couldn't) use
them in self-
defense, how can it be said he would have pre-emptively launched them
against America or Israel?
If such weapons are found, under the Chemical Weapons Convention they
should be verified and destroyed by international inspectors. Inspectors
from the International Atomic Energy Agency should also be allowed to
return to Iraq and continue their work in accordance with the
Those who opposed the war must refuse to be browbeaten or silenced by
the gloating "I told you so" chorus on the right (and center) and must
continue to hammer at the false premises that underpinned the war. The
reality is Bush deceived the American people when he said the war was
necessary to national security, and in so doing he has abused the powers
of his office, undermined the Constitution and flouted public opinion. A
recent New York Times/CBS News poll showed that a majority of Americans
oppose Bush's pre-emption doctrine. It has no basis or justification in
international law--as Arab and world opinion, and Kofi Annan, agree. And
it sends a message to states facing US threats that they should quickly
acquire nuclear weapons in self-defense.
The only claim of legitimacy the Administration can make for the war it
misled America into is that it was a humanitarian war to liberate an
oppressed people. But to sustain such a claim to a skeptical world, the
Administration must prove that its intentions for Iraq are honorable,
and it can do that only by inviting the UN Security Council's full
involvement--political as well as humanitarian--in the reconstruction of
Beyond that, the Administration should cool its threats against Syria.
It must rejoin the international community and work with it to bring
democracy, freedom and human rights to Iraq, and peace to the entire
region--starting with a vigorous push to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian
Now that the war has been won, is it permissible to suggest that our emperor has no clothes?
One of the many maddening feats of this Administration is that in
choosing to fight the war on terror by going to war with Iraq, George W.
Bush has inspired new terrorist threats to the United States--according
to the official testimony of his own CIA--where none existed. At the
same time, he purposely starves those localities and institutions on
which the complex and expensive task of terrorist protection ultimately
The Economist compares New York City to Atlas, bearing the weight of the
world on its shoulders. Already reeling from a massive deficit,
declining income and the economic aftershocks of 9/11, the city must pay
$1 billion a year for emergency and counterterrorism costs. Bush could
care less. After attempting to stiff New York entirely, Congress has
finally agreed to kick in about $200 million, far more than Bush
proposed. My shaken city can ill afford to make up the difference. It
already has 4,000 fewer cops than it did two years ago but must assign
more than a thousand of those remaining to the terrorist beat. It may
shutter forty fire companies. Massive layoffs, tax hikes and cutbacks in
every kind of social service are in the offing. And Gotham is hardly
alone. Enhanced security measures cost the nation's cities an estimated
$2.6 billion in the fifteen months after 9/11.
But as with Vietnam, "W" is AWOL and Cheney has "other priorities." They
have not merely ignored "homeland" protection, they have sabotaged it.
Shocking, yes. But don't take my word for it. A January Brookings
Institution report explains, "President Bush vetoed several specific
(and relatively cost-effective) measures proposed by Congress that would
have addressed critical national vulnerabilities. As a result, the
country remains more vulnerable than it should be today." A Council on
Foreign Relations task force chaired by Gary Hart and Warren Rudman
concurs: "America remains dangerously unprepared to prevent and respond
to a catastrophic terrorist attack on U.S. soil," it warns.
Power plants constitute obvious terrorist targets but are frequently
operated by private or semiprivate corporations unwilling to pay to
protect them. According to Brookings, the Administration has done
nothing--repeat, nothing--to help or encourage "private-sector
firms--even ones that handle dangerous materials--toward improving their
own security." Last year, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review discovered a
frightening series of security lapses at three separate chemical plants
in Houston and Chicago, which, if attacked, could endanger 1 million
people each. The New York Daily News found one plant in East Rutherford,
New Jersey, where an attack could threaten the lives of more than 7
million people (including, um, mine). And it employed virtually no
security at all. Spencer Abraham, Bush's Energy Secretary, worried in a
March 2002 letter to OMB director Mitch Daniels that firms "are storing
vast amounts of materials that remain highly volatile and subject to
unthinkable consequences if placed in the wrong hands." However, he
added, due to insufficient funding, "the Department now is unable to
meet the next round of critical security mission requirements....
Failure to support these urgent security requirements," he concluded,
"is a risk that would be unwise." Nevertheless, The New Republic's
Jonathan Chait reports, Bush agreed to propose a mere 7 percent of what
Abraham said would be needed just to get started.
Chait has more: Bush refused to compensate healthcare workers injured or
killed by the smallpox inoculation program. His budget is squeezing the
Coast Guard, in charge of port security. He is starving "first
responders"--the very heroes of 9/11 to whom he dishonestly promised so
much. And the Customs Service got not a single penny in new funding in
the Administration's budget. With everyone losing sleep over "loose
nukes" falling into terrorist hands, Bush even tried to cut overseas
nuclear security funding by 5 percent.
How does he get away with it? Quite easily, apparently. In the Orwellian
universe of the "liberal media," Bush can inspire new terrorist threats,
ignore the ones we already face and evade responsibility for both
because he is "tough" enough to spit in the face of world opinion.
In a sensible media universe, Chait's cover story, "The 9/10 President,"
would have set off a journalistic firestorm. But the only place I've
seen it picked up is in Paul Krugman's invaluable New York Times column.
Using the Homeland Security Department's original spending figures,
Krugman took Chait one step further on April 1, arguing that Bush's plan
to spend seven times as much per capita on protection for Wyoming as for
New York--where, need I point out, a few more obvious terrorist targets
are located--"was adopted precisely because it caters to that same
constituency" that enabled Bush's "election." Krugman puts the Rove/Bush
strategy thus: "Even in a time of war--a war that seems oddly unrelated
to the terrorist threat--the Bush administration isn't serious about
protecting the homeland. Instead, it continues to subordinate U.S.
security needs to its unchanged political agenda."
This is an eerie moment in American political history. George W. Bush
was defeated in the popular vote by his more liberal opponent but rules
from the most extreme wing of his party. He campaigned as a fiscal
conservative but has pushed tax cuts that will create a deficit larger
than any in US history. As a candidate, he articulated the need for a
"humble" foreign policy but now conducts it with a degree of hubris that
makes Lyndon Johnson look like the Dalai Lama. His hypocrisy, in other
words, is so great as to be almost unfathomable, and yet he has somehow
managed to convince the media to admire him for his "moral clarity."
Thanks to Bush & Co., America is hated the world over as never
before. Deficits are exploding, unemployment remains high, the stock
market is still in the tank and interest rates are poised to take off.
The country is headed to hell in a handbasket from so many directions
one can barely keep track. And yet the increasingly Foxified media tell
a story only of heroism: of the US military, of the American people and
of the President of the United States, who has so far managed to avoid
service to either one.
How do we know the economy is in bad shape? Unemployed white male
hotshots are back in the news. "This man used to make $300,000 a year,"
reads the New York Times Magazine's cover. "Now he's selling khakis."
The grim black-and-white cover photo shows a resentful-looking bald man
with a clipboard and Gap tag, sporting a Silicon Alley hipster's
five-day-old beard. He's "interactive industry pioneer" Jeff Einstein,
one of three men profiled in "Commute to Nowhere" by Jonathan Mahler who
lost their high-paying jobs when the New Economy tanked and have had
trouble resigning themselves to the kinds of jobs that are left: selling
pants for Jeff; substitute teaching in the public schools for Lou
Casagrande, a former information-technology consultant (at $100,000 a
year); and volunteering as a "networking" coordinator for Tom Pyle,
who'd left the stressful life of banking ($200,000) for the calmer
waters of the nonprofit sector ($100,000), only to be laid off within
After more than a year holding out for the next big thing, their wallets
are thin, their cars are falling apart, their self-esteem is wilted and
their marriages aren't in such great shape either: jeff takes the Gap
job only because his wife finally threatens to evict him if he doesn't
start helping out with the rent. (Just between you and me, I suspect he
could have done better but took the Gap job just to spite her.) It's all
about masculinity, Mahler informs us. Women have been as likely to lose
their jobs as men in the current climate, but "for most women, survival
trumps ego; they simply adapt and find some job." I like that "simply."
No cover story there.
But wait. Those $10-an-hour jobs, the ones we're supposed to pity the
men for having lowered their masculine dignity to take, look kind of
familiar, don't they? They're the "good jobs" women on welfare are
encouraged to get, the ones that are supposed to transform them from
mooching layabouts to respectable, economically self-sufficient, upright
and orderly citizens. (Of course, both Tom and his stay-at-home wife
recoil at the possibility that she may have to get a job. I guess this
is because, unlike poor single mothers, she's a "homemaker.")
What happened to all those homilies about personal responsibility and
the dignity of a job--any job--that were trotted out to justify forcing
welfare mothers to work off their checks at subminimum wage by cleaning
toilets in public parks or scraping chewing gum off subway platforms?
Somehow, those sermons don't apply to Mahler's guys, but only to those
single mothers of small children who get up at dawn for long bus rides
to jobs as waitresses or hotel maids or fast-food workers--jobs that one
calls "menial" at the risk of being tarred as an elitist snob by
welfare-reform enthusiasts. The point is not so much work--the exchange
of labor for pay and benefits--but work experience: work as behavior
modification. For Mahler's subjects, work is about masculine identity,
so a low-status job is worse than none. Poor women apparently have no
dignity to be affronted.
Take the first job you can get and be glad you have it is the philosophy
of welfare today. If you are poor and had the bad judgment to become a
single mother, well, no education and training for you. The welfare
reauthorization bill, approved by the House and soon to be voted on by
the Senate, raises the percentage of welfare clients who must work from
50 to 70 percent and ups work requirements for single parents from
twenty to forty hours a week. This is much more even than the norm for
working mothers, which is thirty-one to thirty-five hours. A proposal by
House Democrat Ben Cardin that education and training count toward that
total was rejected along party lines. In New York City, where
unemployment is 8.6 percent, and half of welfare clients didn't graduate
high school, Mayor Bloomberg vetoed a similar set of modifications from
the City Council. (The Council overrode his veto, and he has threatened
a legal challenge.)
Is there a middle-class person in America who doesn't understand the
relation of education and skills to self-support in the twenty-first
century? You'd almost think the people who write the welfare laws don't
want poor women to earn a middle-class income--just to adopt the
imaginary middle-class sexual values embodied in abstinence classes and
marriage promotion schemes, which welfare reauthorization funds to the
tune of $50 million and $300 million a year, respectively.
Maybe I lack sufficient regard for the male ego, but I found it hard to
shed a tear for the men in Mahler's profile. They may have lost their
dreams of financial glory, but this is not exactly King Lear. By the
standards of normal life they're not doing so badly: They live in safe
suburban neighborhoods, with food on the table and good schools for the
kids. Indeed, Jeff's wife earns $80,000 a year, which puts the family in
the top third of US household incomes before he's sold a single pair of
jeans. At the end of the piece, we learn that Lou and Tom have come to
terms with reality and are planning to become public school teachers.
This is hardly a tragedy. In fact, it will likely be the first really
useful and important work either has ever done.
Zora Neale Hurston, a great writer who made quite a bit of money in her
time, ended her days as a cleaning lady. That's what I call tragic. All
over America, single mothers with nothing like the advantages or
prospects of Jeff, Lou and Tom are being told to sink or swim, and their
children along with them. That's tragic too.
* * *
Once again, the Bosnian Initiative Frankfurt, a German human rights
group, is providing "vacations from war" for displaced children and
teens of all Bosnian ethnicities. Through their generous donations over
the years, Nation readers have become a mainstay of this wonderful
project, which last year provided two weeks of summer camp on the
Croatian seacoast for an astonishing 1,500 children. (This year, for the
second time, the group hopes to bring a hundred Israeli and Palestinian
kids together as well.) It takes $130 to give one child respite from war
and its aftermath, but donations of any size are appreciated. Checks
made out to Bosnian Initiative Frankfurt can be mailed to me at The
Nation, 33 Irving Place, New York, NY 10003, and I will forward
A well-trained army can depose a dictator. But changing a regime is another matter.
Who's really behind the crude equation between Israel and "the Jews"?
The film begins with a federal marshal intoning "This is a very
difficult time for our country" and ends with the singing of the
national anthem, performed before Rudy Giuliani himself. Between these
moments comes a journey of emotional healing, undertaken by an average
American Joe (or Dave, actually) who
can rightly describe himself as "a pretty nice guy." Too nice, perhaps.
Although this quiet hero lives underneath an Army recruitment billboard,
Dave has grown used to letting others push him around. He can--he
must--learn to stand up for himself. So must we all.
I affirm that the preceding paragraph is entirely descriptive and
contains no interpretation, except for that "So must we all" part, which
is hard to avoid. Such is the message delivered to a troubled America by
Anger Management, the movie in which Adam Sandler shows the way toward
national renewal by getting angry, and also really feeling his lust for
Jack Nicholson. I recommend it to everyone.
Now, I know there are skeptics among you. Some dismiss all Hollywood
movies as commercial products, incapable by nature of rising to the
level of art. (When art lovers want to watch moving images these days,
they turn to Matthew Barney's Cremaster cycle. Barney has taken to
embedding DVDs of his films into limited-edition sculptures, which then
sell for the price of a nice vacation home.) Others admit that Hollywood
movies may occasionally become artlike; but since the medium is
collaborative and famously prone to compromise, there are people who
doubt that an Adam Sandler comedy can mean anything, except in the
haphazard, semiconscious way that calls for ideological decoding. That
Anger Management might develop a coherent argument, point by point--that
it might think--is itself unthinkable.
So let's put Anger Management to the test. Granted, it is twice over a
genre picture: a buddy movie (meant to combine the audiences of two
stars) and an Adam Sandler vehicle (which operates by its own
now-familiar rules). If this were fast food, it would come with fries.
But then, maybe we're the ones who shouldn't be too fast.
The story casts Sandler as a 35-year-old corporate drone who abruptly
finds himself enmeshed in a legal proceeding fit for Josef K. Presumed
guilty from the start--and of what, exactly?--he is remanded to the
custody of one Dr. Buddy Rydell (Nicholson), a therapist who specializes
in treating the criminally enraged. This sentence seems not so much
unjust as inexplicable, since it's handed down to a man whose bland,
blinking face is an apology made flesh, whose tenor voice barely has the
strength to force itself through his nose. I might carelessly laugh at
the judge's decision and pass on; but I prefer to factor its incongruity
into the first proposition the movie sets forth, a proposition that
again recalls Kafka: It is absurd to treat a punishment as a cure, or a
cure as punishment.
The movie arrives at the next stage in its argument approximately one
reel later, when Nicholson moves in with Sandler, the better to perform
"full contact" therapy (or punishment). This is the moment when
Nicholson strips away his tweedy, professorial disguise to don a black
beret and shades, so that he may revert to his image as a cinematic lord
of misrule. The proposition here, I suppose, is that the person given
power over you to punish or cure might turn out to be a fraud or madman.
Sandler reasonably fears this possibility, which the audience, too, is
led to entertain, given the predatory looks that Nicholson keeps
stealing at his charge--predatory in a lounge-lizard way, I mean. No
sooner has Nicholson settled into the apartment than he's bedding down
naked with Sandler, demanding to see his penis, forcing him to sing
about being gay and taking him cruising for transvestite hookers. Third
proposition: The fraud or madman given power over you wants immediate
access to your body. Or maybe he won't be satisfied until you want
access to his.
By the way, did I mention that Sandler fears sudden, unprovoked assaults
below the waist, perpetrated by other men? That's why he's always
scanning the perimeter for danger, in a shlemiel's version of post-
September 11 anxiety; and that's why it's interesting that this
alertness to criminal threats (at a very difficult time for our country)
should temporarily be resolved into a psychological problem, through the
force of Nicholson's assaults.
Let's say there's a rupture of personal boundaries. (As description,
this is a fair minimum.) Such interpenetration is evidently needed
before Sandler can question himself seriously, so that he may wonder,
for the first time, whether he does need help. Self-questioning is also
needed to make criminal guilt go away. Once Sandler begins to yield,
Nicholson willingly announces his patient's innocence, in a speech that
may be insincere but makes an impressive racket. Through a form of
sexual submission, Sandler has changed himself from a potential
terrorist (a ticking bomb, as they say) into a loyal American, which in
this context means being a nut-case pure and simple.
But as I said, "pure and simple" is only temporary. Like a bright
teenager who's just picked up some Freudian jargon, the movie goes
through a phase of explaining everything psychologically and then,
fortunately, moves on. I think it would have been unsatisfyingly simple
just to say that wars are made by homophobes who obsess over basket
size; and the screenwriter of Anger Management, David Dorfman,
apparently agrees with me, since he complicates the argument during a
third act that sometimes plays shakily but is always worth thinking
about. To complete its train of reasoning, Anger Management reintroduces
the motif of crime, forces Sandler to act in a civic arena and demands
that his problems be solved not through private candor but by public
Without giving away too many of the jokes, I can say that this
conclusion involves a significant relaxation of official vigilance
against surprise attacks, accompanied by an assertion of the ties of
community; and by a stroke of cinematic integrity, both these actions
are conveyed through a well-known convention of the Adam Sandler movie,
the celebrity cameo appearance. As the famous faces pass by, you're left
with the impression that everyone in New York City, Dave excepted, had
already known Dr. Buddy Rydell. Now Dave, too, is at home in the big
group, which functions (to Kafka's astonishment) as a kind of benevolent
Q.E.D. I need add nothing more than that I laughed out loud about thirty
times, or approximately once every three minutes, with background smiles
and chuckles left unclocked. Peter Segal directed, efficiently for the
most part, with an obvious determination to put Sandler and Nicholson
together in the frame as often as possible (not a foregone conclusion,
in today's buddy pictures). The fine supporting cast is headed by the
ever-welcome Marisa Tomei as Dave's long-suffering girlfriend.
Did I mention he has a girlfriend? Did I say he's accused of being a
chronic woman-beater? It occurs to me that my point-by-point reading of
Anger Management is coherent but incomplete. So go--fill in the blanks.
Christopher Guest's comedies are pretty much free of celebrity cameos,
but they, too, seem like community affairs, since they're made with an
ever-widening circle of friends. A core group that includes Eugene Levy,
Catherine O'Hara, Bob Balaban, Fred Willard, Parker Posey and Larry
Miller worked with Guest in Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, two
mock documentaries about low-grade forms of show business. Now these
performers, joined by about a dozen other lunatics, are helping Guest
make not-quite-loving fun of yet another orphan genre of the
entertainment business: folk music.
As an object of satire, this would seem to be as unnecessary as it gets.
Searching for some reason for the existence of A Mighty Wind--a title to
bring out the sixth-grader in all of us--you might imagine that Guest
wants to laugh at those paunchy, graying people who still look back,
with earnest nostalgia, on their acoustic-strum youth.
I'm talking to you, hypocrite Nation reader--my lookalike! My brother!
But then, what Guest has always liked best in his characters is their
unstoppable, otherworldly belief in themselves, or rather in an image
that no setback or indignity can shatter. With grinning amazement at
such optimism, Guest now presents the ultimate show of the self-deluded:
a reunion concert in New York City featuring three folk-music acts of
the 1960s. They are The New Main Street Singers (a sweater-wearing
"neuftet" featuring John Michael Higgins, Jane Lynch and Parker Posey);
the love-bird duo of Mitch & Mickey (Eugene Levy and Catherine
O'Hara); and the less-than-stellar Folksmen (Guest, Michael McKean and
Harry Shearer--the same guys who were Spinal Tap, now playing identical
roles relative to one another but performing ditties about the Spanish
Civil War, or a train wreck in a coal mine).
All three acts are delectable, as are the showbiz oddities who gather
around them; but the most engaging of all are Mitch & Mickey. In a
departure from the previous movies, which featured balanced ensembles,
Guest has made this duo the focus of A Mighty Wind. The disadvantage is
unevenness; sometimes the film sags, when it turns to characters who
aren't fully developed. The benefits are two performances of
contrasting, demented intensity from O'Hara and Levy. As Mickey, O'Hara
seems to vibrate slightly from keeping in check her rage against Mitch.
After decades of separation, he remains to her the most powerful figure
in the world. To the audience, he's a guy who shuffles through the movie
in a daze, popping his eyes at the phantoms that hover before his face
and swallowing his words like spoonsful of codeine-laced cough syrup,
never quite understanding what Mickey's so upset about.
You should know that the climactic concert, sung and played by the
actors themselves, was recorded as a live performance. A wonderful
decision. It gives you all the fun of participating, without the
embarrassment of actually being there.
In a nation that nominally eschews class distinctions as unbefitting our
supposed classlessness, whose elected officials decry any protest over
government largesse to the rich as "class warfare," real Americans--most
of whom are suckers, it turns out--spend untold amounts of time, cash
and effort obsessing on a
tiny number of elite colleges that really, really don't want the vast
majority of them as members.
Never mind, though. For an increasing number of baby boomer parents,
it's never too early to stick kids on the Harvard-
or-bust fast track. It starts with Mozart and Shakespeare in the crib,
and then it's off to the $8,000-a-year and up nursery school that admits
toddlers on the basis of IQ tests (performance on which is heavily
influenced by the educational attainment of the child's parents). The
proper nursery school inexorably leads to the high-powered kindergarten
and prep school and eventually to thousands of dollars more in fees for
college consultants and standardized testing tutors.
Before a child can say "meritocracy," he or she is embarking on an
overseas adventure to New Guinea that will lead, by design, to that
killer college application essay that wows admissions counselors from
Harvard, Yale or Princeton for its originality and sense of social and
democratic purpose, a tonier version of the Miss America contestant's
"I'm for world peace" speech.
If all the time and effort devoted to this enterprise were about a
child's or young person's love of learning, creativity and personal
development, I for one would be considerably less cynical. But the elite
college admissions game--under the near-tyrannical guidance of US News
& World Report's annual ranking of the nation's "best" colleges--is
all too often about the pursuit of prestige at almost any cost, a game
that perpetuates the big lie that one can't find a decent education at
anything less than a Brand Name school.
I was excited to read Jacques Steinberg's new book about elite college
admissions, The Gatekeepers, anticipating a breath of fresh air on the
subject from the New York Times education reporter. As he introduces
himself and his book, we learn that this son of a Massachusetts
anesthesiologist sees himself as a sort of accidental alumnus of the Ivy
League, who pleads ignorance as to how he got admitted to Dartmouth in
the early 1980s. But he obviously owes a lot to his very assertive mom,
a former nurse, who on the family's exploratory visit to the Dartmouth
campus grabbed her son by the collar after an admissions officer's spiel
and strode to the front of the room to magisterially inform the
official, "We're the Steinbergs." The rest, as they say, is history.
Steinberg strikes me as a lucky man indeed. After joining the Times and
becoming a national education correspondent, he attended the 1999
conference of the National Association of College Admission Counseling
in Orlando, Florida. While there, he was approached by William Hiss, an
administrator at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. Hiss wondered whether
Steinberg would like exclusive access to the selective college's
admissions process, noteworthy in that it does not require applicants to
submit SAT or ACT scores. Although Steinberg and his editor, Ethan
Bronner, were intrigued by the idea, they declined Hiss's offer in favor
of a less "anomalous" college--i.e., one that continued to rely on
gatekeeping tests like the SAT.
After being turned down by several colleges for the kind of exclusive,
total-access deal the Times wanted, Steinberg found what would seem a
perfect match. At Wesleyan, located in Middletown, Connecticut, midway
between Hartford and New Haven, college officials agreed to provide the
reporter unfettered access to its admissions process from fall 1999 to
spring 2000, culminating in the Times's series of articles upon which
The Gatekeepers is based. Wesleyan agreed not to meddle in Steinberg's
stories, gave him access to individual students and their families and
allowed him to observe any and all meetings in its admissions
deliberations--in other words, a reporter's dream assignment. (It
couldn't have hurt Steinberg's cause that his boss, Bronner, graduated
from Wesleyan in 1976, as one discovers in the book's acknowledgments.)
It's all very cozy and well connected in these pages, with lucky people
and impressive degrees from prestigious institutions to spare. When we
meet Steinberg's featured "gatekeeper," a Wesleyan admissions officer
named Ralph Figueroa, a Los Angeles native who ends up in Middletown
after a stint working admissions at Occidental College in LA, I'm
thinking, cool choice. This ought to be interesting, a Mexican-American
man with a working-class background (the rebel in me hopes), now an
insider shaking things up at one elite private college in comfy New
Instead, we learn that the 34-year-old Figueroa's dad was a lawyer and
graduate of Loyola Law School; that his mom earned a master's degree in
education, and became a mover and shaker in an organization called
Expanded Horizons, a nationally recognized program (held in high regard
by Ronald Reagan and his Education Secretary, Terrel Bell) that helped
Mexican-American kids prepare for college. The family frequently took
their children on trips to colleges like Pomona, Occidental and Caltech.
The grooming and preparation paid off for the Figueroa clan. Ralph
graduated from Stanford--he turned down Harvard, Yale and Princeton--and
went on to UCLA Law. His several siblings also attended elite schools,
including UCLA Law and Stanford Law, and one sister, like himself, would
find a niche in admissions at Caltech.
As if adopting the same mesmerizing tricks as the colleges themselves,
holding out the impossible dream of an elite college education to the
masses in order to up their application counts (which improves
selectivity rankings), Steinberg and his publisher pitch this book as
"required reading for every parent of a high school age child and for
every student" who is applying to college. But it's easy to imagine
ordinary parents and their kids--the overwhelming majority of whom
attend ordinary public high schools that aren't even remotely on the map
of "feeder" schools highly regarded by elite colleges--being completely
intimidated by this book. I could scarcely find one person in these
pages, whether an admissions officer or student, whose parents weren't
at least modestly well educated or who didn't have some connection to
either a brand-name college or elite prep school. Most of the admissions
officers at Wesleyan were either Wesleyan grads or had connections to
other elite schools (a fairly common trait, from what I can tell, among
the admissions staffs at elite private colleges). In fact, I was able to
find just one student in Steinberg's world whose parents had not
attended college, a most admirable young New Yorker named Aggie. But
even she managed to find her way out of a downtrodden public school in
New York City to the Oldfields School, a venerable girls' prep school in
But let's be real. Readers of this book will more likely be the
well-educated parents and high-flying students who do attend schools
that are "on the map," and for whom prestigious colleges and personal
connections to those schools are all part of the entitlement package;
people for whom "state university" is a dirty word. And though Steinberg
is skillful at telling the stories of Ralph and a handful of young
people who apply to Wesleyan and other highly ranked colleges, I can
easily imagine sophisticated readers sighing a collective, "So what?"
There's very little in Steinberg's highly detailed narrative that such
readers won't already have surmised about the competitive admissions
When highly selective colleges talk about their admissions process to
prospective students, they like to convey the notion that there are no
formulas, no tricks, no standard combination of grades or test scores
that will insure one's admission. It's standard advice that Steinberg,
who calls the process "messy," would undoubtedly agree with. True, there
may be no magic formulas, but colleges like Wesleyan do pass their
judgments about individuals under some mighty formulaic parameters.
Readers probably won't be surprised to learn that Wesleyan admissions
officials watch their ranking in US News & World Report like nuclear
plant operators monitoring reactor heat levels. In fact, Steinberg
describes one seasoned admissions officer, Greg Pyke, whose task is to
keep running tabs on median SAT levels and other indicators of the
admitted class important to US News, in order to insure that the college
improves upon its previous year ranking.
The most revealing aspects of the process can be gleaned between the
lines of Steinberg's account. For example, many students and parents who
buy into this game have long known that test scores play a very
important, if not decisive, role in it. Recent surveys by the National
Association of College Admission Counseling confirm this. According to
NACAC's December 2001 survey, fully 86 percent of admissions officials
rated test scores as of either considerable or moderate importance, just
slightly below the importance the gatekeepers attach to grades in
college prep courses (89 percent).
As competition for admission has intensified and acceptance rates have
declined at elite private colleges in recent years, the weight attached
to gatekeeping tests has also increased, according to a recent report by
the Association for Institutional Research. Meanwhile, private colleges
have soured on high school grades, arguably a more egalitarian indicator
of merit and once the most important criterion in admissions, this
despite the well-known correlation between SAT scores and the
educational and income levels of one's parents.
Steinberg, like the admissions officers who are his subjects, is rarely
as explicit about these matters as the data presented in those surveys.
But parents and kids who know the game won't bat an eye at how heavily
colleges rely on gatekeeping tests, their claims to the contrary
notwithstanding. For example, Wesleyan admissions officers seem to think
that a 50- or 100-point difference in SAT scores among two candidates
means something significant about their future academic performance in
college, a patently false use of test scores. Steinberg, ever
nonjudgmental, allows such assumptions to pass virtually unchallenged,
although they have been powerfully refuted in numerous studies. Bates,
the SAT-optional college that first approached Steinberg, discovered no
differences between the academic performance of Bates students who
declined to submit SAT scores when applying, and that of SAT-submitters,
whose test scores were, on average, 160 points higher.
Deeply ingrained beliefs in the power of cognitive screens like the SAT
and about the importance of good grades in AP courses were not the only
things at the top of Wesleyan's gatekeeping criteria. There were two
additional ones, earmarked by a manila folder. "If an applicant was the
child of an alumna or alumnus, a dark orange square was added,"
Steinberg writes. "If an applicant had identified him- or herself as a
member of a minority group, a yellow circle was added. These details
were considered too important for a reader to overlook, and the coding
system was designed to ensure that they were given due attention."
Within these strictures Wesleyan's gatekeepers exercised a small degree
of wiggle room, and Steinberg does his best work describing the
difficult process of selecting a class of some 700 students from about
7,000 applications. Grateful, perhaps, for the access Wesleyan gave him,
he writes admiringly of the gatekeepers' studious commitment to be fair
and objective. But parents with high-school-age children are likely to
be appalled at the inconsistencies, and even arbitrary nature, of some
of the judgments made by Figueroa and his colleagues. The SAT, for
instance, which is often described by admissions officials, the College
Board and the Educational Testing Service as a "common yardstick," looks
more like a magic stick out of Alice in Wonderland, meaning whatever
Wesleyan's gatekeepers want it to mean, depending on whether the
applicant is a member of a minority group, an athlete or a member of the
Wesleyan "family." Isn't meritocracy grand?
Meanwhile, Andrew Fairbanks, a former Wesleyan admissions official, has
given us a very different account of elite college admissions, in a book
written with Christopher Avery and Richard Zeckhauser, both professors
at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. While Steinberg uses
character and nar-
rative to reveal the inner workings of one college's admissions process,
the authors of The Early Admissions Game: Joining the Elite seek to
expose this often-deceitful and manipulated game in order to make it
more fair to all comers. Indeed, they say they hope to arm more students
and parents with information on how the game is played, and therefore
help to reduce the unfair advantages the present system affords
well-connected and affluent students. Although the book is focused on a
detailed investigation of early admissions programs, its reach is far
broader, if only because early admissions has become such a key element
of competitive college-recruitment efforts in recent years. As one
student who was recently admitted to Harvard told the authors, "That's
just how you apply to Harvard."
Although the writing lacks the journalistic polish of Steinberg's
account, and although the organization is at times disjointed, readers
seeking solid information about elite college admissions will find The
Early Admissions Game refreshingly frank. Other readers concerned about
restoring some equity to the process will also appreciate the book's
generosity of spirit and suggestions for reform.
The authors present a devastating portrait of elite college
admissions--and early admissions in particular--as an elaborate and
complicated "game" in the most literal meaning of that word, played by
colleges seeking competitive advantages over rivals, students seeking to
maximize their opportunities for entry into prestigious colleges and
school counselors striving to maintain the reputations of their "feeder"
schools in terms of their efficiency in placing students at highly
ranked colleges. As in all competitive games, the various players often
have little incentive to be forthcoming about their tactics and every
incentive to conceal strategic information from public view. Not
surprisingly, the authors suggest, the winners of the game tend to be
privileged students who have access to highly skilled counselors with
information pipelines to elite college admissions offices.
At the center of the book is a social scientific investigation that
makes powerful analytical use of admissions data at elite colleges
spanning several years and including some 500,000 college applications,
which reveals a fascinating statistical portrait of early admissions.
(Early admissions programs include both "early decision" ones, which
permit just one early application and bind students to that college if
they are admitted, and "early action" programs, which allow multiple
applications and do not bind students to colleges that accept them
early.) In public, most institutions are quick to reassure students and
parents that there's no advantage to applying early as opposed to
waiting to throw one's hat into the "regular" admissions pool. But the
advantages afforded early applications are considerable.
Consider Princeton. One need only note the increasingly small number of
openings remaining from the regular admissions pool to see why many
students who don't walk on water might find it in their best interest to
apply early. Of the 2,000 students admitted in one recent year at
Princeton, for instance, only 500 had applied during the regular
admissions cycle. The rest were either early applicants or "hooked"
applicants (underrepresented minorities, athletes or children of
At Princeton, which runs an early decision program, the authors estimate
that while its acceptance rate from the regular applicant pool was
slightly below 20 percent, the college's acceptance rate for early
applicants ballooned to well over 50 percent. The same pattern held for
virtually all the highly selective colleges in the authors' study. At
Columbia, for example, more than seven in ten students who applied early
were admitted, compared with about three in ten students applying during
the regular period.
When colleges concede such glaring differences in their admissions
rates, they explain that early applicants tend to be more attractive
candidates in terms of test scores, grades and other factors. The
authors easily destroy this canard by comparing early and regular
admission rates for students with similar credentials. Applying early to
elite colleges, they demonstrate, produces the equivalent of a 100-point
SAT boost for early action applicants and a 190-point boost for early
decision applicants. For the time-strapped student oddsmaker, the game
presents some interesting choices. Spend $1,000 on an SAT prep course,
or apply early? "Which is easier?" the authors ask. "To submit an early
application? Or to master the trombone to the level of all-state
orchestra or become a semifinalist in the Westinghouse Science
So what's in it for the colleges? Why give early decision applicants the
equivalent of nearly 200 points on the SAT? Part of the answer, it
seems, is that they have an Enron problem. The unfortunate fact of elite
college admissions in the era of US News & World Report is that the
magazine's annual ranking of the nation's best colleges now rules this
marketplace with an iron fist. The magazine operates under the fiction
that college quality is tantamount to median SAT scores, acceptance
rates and other more arcane measures such as "yield" rates, defined as
the percentage of the admitted students who decide to enroll--which
might be more accurately dubbed the "prestige index." In any case,
colleges have discovered how early admission programs easily permit them
to manipulate numbers in order to elevate, however marginally, their US
News rankings. For example, an early decision applicant will almost
certainly enroll, thus instantly boosting the college's yield rate.
Who takes most advantage of early admissions and its generous payoffs?
Primarily children from affluent families, students for whom a college's
financial aid offer isn't a deal breaker. Because early decision
programs in particular lock needy students into a single college, they
are unable to compare or negotiate financial aid packages among schools.
The authors contend that colleges also exploit the monopoly power
granted through early decision programs in order to hold down their
financial aid budgets. Furthermore, students with access to good
information about early admission programs, including their improved
chances of admission, also gain. And, again, such students tend to be
affluent. Reliable information, the authors found, is a function of
whether students attend public high schools where many students do not
go to college or elite private schools and highly regarded public
schools where most students do attend college.
Among the most compelling passages in The Early Admissions Game is its
description of the elaborate, back-channel "slotting" operations by
which highly skilled and well-connected high school counselors work hand
in hand with elite college admissions officers to place students. To
outsiders, such collaboration might be scandalous, but for some students
recently accepted to places like Harvard and Yale whom the authors
interviewed, it's rather ho-hum. Listen to Mira (Harvard '98): "My
counselor has a good relationship with the Harvard admissions office. He
handpicks people for admission and tells Harvard who to admit." Or Dan
(Yale '98): "If I wanted to attend Yale, [the counselor] would get me
No book could paint such a damning portrait without offering suggestions
for reform of a system that produces such inequitable results. The
authors discuss various options, including the frequently suggested
proposal that colleges agree to a ban on early admission programs.
That's not likely to fly, the authors argue, because any given college
would have great incentive to violate the ban by picking off its
competitors' most promising applicants. "If we gave it up," Harvard
admissions dean William Fitzsimmons suggested, "other institutions
inside and outside the Ivy League would carve up our class and our
faculty would carve us up."
As an alternative to the current system, the authors propose to set up
an independent, Internet-operated clearinghouse, through which students
could state their first preference for college without a binding
commitment. The clearinghouse would share the information among all
participating colleges in order to preclude any deception. Colleges,
which currently spend a great deal of money on statistical models trying
to predict which students will ultimately enroll, could rely instead on
the students' stated preferences. Such a simple, relatively inexpensive
solution would also diminish the importance of the sorts of back-channel
slotting operations that now give privileged applicants such an
advantage in the early admissions game.
Meanwhile, however, there's little reason to hope the game will become
more equitable anytime soon. Elite colleges appear eager to install
early admissions programs as fixtures for building and managing their
entering classes. As of December, for example, the University of
Pennsylvania had already filled nearly half its freshman class with
early admits. At Yale and Columbia, more than 40 percent of entering
classes was already spoken for. Millions more high school students from
increasingly well-educated families will continue to place their hopes
and dreams on a tiny fraction of colleges that admit an increasingly
smaller percentage of those
who apply. At Harvard, for example, the acceptance rate of 11 percent in
the year 2000 was nearly half what it was in 1990. By midyear, testing
companies had reported surges in registrations for taking entrance
exams, with ACT Inc. boasting its biggest gain in thirty-five years.
All this in a nation where nearly 40 percent of adults believe they
currently are, or will be, among the richest 1 percent of Americans. Who
knows, maybe we'll all get lucky.