CAN WE TALK? GUESS NOT

Los Angeles

Eric Alterman’s April 21 “Stop the Presses” is most courageous. I hope he will be strong enough to withstand the barrage. He raises questions that must be asked.

ARVID KNUDSEN


San Francisco

Eric Alterman’s column is misdirected, without balance and fans the flames of anti-Semitism in America. First, in making statements like “this war has put Jews in the showcase as never before,” Alterman portrays us Jews as being so arrogant that we entertain such self-absorbed questions at a time like this. This is not a showcase or a case of “our inability to engage the question” or “forc[ing] the discussion into subterranean and sometimes anti-Semitic territory.” This is a time of war. Our country has invaded another. Civilians have been killed. Precious children have been maimed. Eric, where is your humanity? Our questions should be centered on the rule of law and human decency.

Alterman goes on to say, “We ought to be honest enough to at least imagine a hypothetical clash between American and Israeli interests. Here, I feel pretty lonely admitting that, every once in a while, I’m going to go with what’s best for Israel.” Well Eric, I certainly hope you are lonely, because I can categorically say that I don’t support this view. Maybe it’s my West Coast roots, but I’ve never heard a Jewish family member or friend say they support Israel’s interests over America’s. I find this statement out of step with Jewish America. In the future, if you plan to write such personal, provocative viewpoints, I suggest you add alternative points of view to provide perspective and balance.

Last, Alterman has chosen to focus on a Jewish conspiracy theory rather than address the question of Jewish sentiment on the war and on the actions of the White House cabal. Even with comments like “American Jews seem no more prowar than the US population,” the underlying theme is that the wishes and actions of the cabal and the media represent the primal desires of all US Jews. This focus can only work to divide Jews and non-Jews. I am Jewish, but I am first a human being. I was not raised with a “dual loyalty.” I was raised with a deep respect for the law and the American political experiment. From that perspective, I find Alterman’s perspective irresponsible.

STEVEN HERTZBERG


ALTERMAN REPLIES

New York City

Thanks to Arvid Knudsen, who correctly anticipated the “barrage” of mail I’ve received. Steve Hertzberg’s letter is silly. I thought Jews were smarter than this.

ERIC ALTERMAN


DIVERSITY BY STEALTH?

New York City

David L. Kirp’s review “Diversity and Its Malcontents” [April 21] is more disturbing than one of its subjects, Peter H. Schuck’s Diversity in America: Keeping Government at a Safe Distance. Kirp is deeply troubled by Schuck’s thesis that government should not seek to bring about “diversity” by engaging in affirmative action to integrate schools, housing and workplaces. Yet Kirp partially buys into Schuck’s argument that less adversarial approaches and more reliance on “less visible” voluntary approaches “may achieve more enduring diversity than government can bring about.” Kirp’s examples are public school desegregation and the attempts, in New Jersey, to bring about housing in the white suburbs for poor African-Americans. A central reason attempts to bring about school and housing integration met with failure, however, is that governments and the courts–federal, state and local–either gave up or radically changed course or that the judiciary backed down.

For example, the New Jersey Supreme Court in its second Mount Laurel decision forcefully imposed a “fair share” obligation on the suburbs to allow African-Americans to escape the cities and bring about some residential integration. When the state legislature undid the court’s order, the state Supreme Court ignored its own constitutional analysis and accepted the legislative prescription for continued housing segregation.

Similarly, with regard to public schools, at least in the South, it was both the US Supreme Court and the federal government that changed their approaches, allowing and even mandating that local school boards take actions that inevitably resegregated their schools. As for the North, when the Supreme Court prohibited court orders requiring virtually all-white suburbs to participate in the integration of inner-city black schools, it sounded the death knell for desegregation above the Mason-Dixon line.

If governments and the judiciary at all levels had forcefully required real integration and resisted the backlash, and if liberals had funded their think tanks and public-interest law firms the way the right does, we’d be much further on the road to racial equality. We who believe that society and the entire rainbow it encompasses are best served through integration and equal opportunity should struggle for no matter how many years it may take to reconstitute government and the judiciary so they will act to make America a fairer and more decent country. Sure, we should support housing vouchers and equal funding for all public schools and other programs that may have the appearance of being racially neutral. But giving in to those who advocate voluntary approaches to racial discrimination is no solution, and saying so is not “preaching to the choir.” And even if it were, what we must do is work to expand the choir to the point where it can change the preacher.

LEWIS M. STEEL


New York City

Although I appreciate David Kirp’s serious and insightful review of my new book, Diversity in America, he makes a fundamental error. Kirp says that my argument, that preferences by public institutions are more objectionable than private ones, is “plain wrong” and an “artificial” distinction. Noting that even private institutions receive some public support, he says we need “one rule for all.” But as my book shows, Kirp’s preference for a mandated uniformity is precisely the wrong prescription for a society as diverse and contentious as ours. The line between public and private can indeed be blurry, but respect for this distinction is essential to a polity that values freedom, choice and diversity.

PETER H. SCHUCK


KIRP REPLIES

Berkeley, Calif.

As a onetime civil rights lawyer and the chronicler of the landmark Mount Laurel affordable-housing case in Our Town: Race, Housing, and the Soul of Suburbia, I’ve made arguments similar to Lewis Steel’s. I share his belief that integration belongs at the core of the good society. But wishing takes us nowhere, and the history that Steel recites is sadly instructive. Even when judges are fiercely committed to racial justice–and these days such jurists are not thick on the ground–they cannot indefinitely sustain integration without the support, or at least the acquiescence, of the polity. A different road map to racial fairness is needed. Despite its shortcomings, this is what Diversity in America is endeavoring to provide, which is why we card-carrying liberals ought to pay close attention.

I appreciate Peter Schuck’s praise of my review as “serious and insightful,” but on this point he simply misreads my argument. In admissions decisions, public and private universities alike should be free to take into account a wide variety of criteria, including race. Schuck’s prescription–one rule for Yale, a different rule for Berkeley–is both morally and legally objectionable.

DAVID L. KIRP


NOT EXACTLY TICKLED PINK

Berkeley, Calif.

In her March 24 “Subject to Debate,” Katha Pollitt complains about “gender-based appeals to women” in the peace movement. Would Pollitt have us return to the monolithic face protest wore decades ago, a face that, though white and male, claimed to represent all of us, erasing not just our identities but the complexities of our lives? The massive movement against the war on Iraq grew from an extensive coalition of countless organizations, including labor unions and environmental, Hispanic, Asian, African-American, gay and lesbian, and women’s groups.

Code Pink (www.codepinkalert.org) has been especially effective in organizing women against the war, seeding new organizations, bringing various women’s groups across the country into the large demonstrations and planning and inspiring countless creative events, including many acts of civil disobedience.

There are good reasons for women to be against war, as women. To cite just one, rape accompanies warfare. And the brutality and trauma soldiers suffer in battle are brought home, as the rate of rape and assaults against women, wife battery and the sexual abuse of children increase during and after a war. Code Pink has continually drawn a connection between the war on Iraq and worldwide problems, not only women’s issues but also poverty, racism, environmental destruction and the growth of corporate power.

I agree with one of Pollitt’s arguments, but she aims it at a straw women’s group she creates. Code Pink does not argue that women are biologically determined to be less violent than men. But although regarding gender and war there may be no biological determinants, socially constructed differences are significant. As Pollitt mentions, without explaining why, there is a gender gap. Women have been raised to seek peaceful solutions to conflict and to find no humiliation in backing down or being flexible.

Pollitt implies that women “use” children as a pretext for protesting war. But when women speak about war endangering children, they do so to protect and speak for them, not use them. It is no accident that women like Jody Williams (who spoke at a Code Pink rally), famous for her campaigns against landmines, are so prominent in this regard. For many women worldwide, including this nation, caring for children is still a central part of our lives. The profound knowledge gained from this work shouldn’t be dismissed. Whether they are mothers or sisters (or fathers) or teachers, years of nurturing children can lead to a profound understanding of what’s needed to sustain human life and thus foster unique and different philosophies and visions.

Many women, and men too, say they’re very moved by Code Pink events because, to paraphrase Gandhi, the rallies don’t just advocate peace, they are living models of peace. Are men the problem? Not at all. Code Pink does not blame or exclude anyone; it invites us all to wear pink and in so doing to begin to embody a more peaceful way of living.

SUSAN GRIFFIN