Letters To the Ethical Spectacle

Sometimes I work on the ambulance overnight. The nights are quieter and you can sleep for a few hours. However, you also see more violence. A few weeks ago, I bandaged the head of a man who had been in a bar fight in a real dive in Queens. Then later we parked the ambulance in an out of the way area, amidst some trees, and while my partner slept, I looked out the window. The weather was still very warm, the traffic noises were distant and I could hear the wind in the leaves. For a few minutes I felt transcendently happy. It doesn't happen very often.

I really enjoy your letters, and particularly did this month, because of the variety of intelligent responses to articles in last month's issue. I can be reached as always at jw@bway.net.


Spectacle Letters Column Guidelines.
If you write to me about something you read in the Spectacle, I will assume the letter is for publication. If it is not, please tell me, and I will respect that. If you want the letter published, but without your name attached, I will also respect that. I will not include your email address unless you ask me to. This is in response to many of you who have expressed concern that spammers are finding your email address here. Flames are an exception. They will be published in full, with your name and email address. I have actually had people follow up on a published flame by complaining that they thought they were insulting my ancestry privately. Nope, sorry.

Dear Jon:

I must agree with your November essay on SUV's. I don't have the NYT article in front of me (I couldn't find the link in a search of the NYT site) but I vaguely remember seeing it and thinking several of the thoughts you expressed. As an owner of several SUV's over the past several years - admittedly getting smaller from Explorer to Grand Cherokee to Honda CRV - I've taken assurance from the increased traction for the one or two days a year I've had to go to the hospital in weather suitable for hibernation only. I've progressed to a smaller vehicle for the improved gas mileage but the lack of bulk and room inside for stowing my bicycle has me thinking of migrating back to a larger SUV when my current lease expires.

Your closing line of "The vilification of SUV's by the Times series and by Arianna Huffington's silly campaign leave me mainly with an impression of a kind of reverse snobbery, coupled to a puritanical prudishness which says "you must live as I do".", strikes me as the problem with those on the far (and sometimes not too far) right and left. Too many people believe that they know what is best and want to enforce their thoughts as law. In the past I must admit to be guilty of this orientation as well. On countless occasions I've closed a political discussion with friends, usually those who agree with me, "If only we were ruling as dictator, everything would be alright!".

Over the past decade or so I've come to the view that I might be right only part of the time. That different times require different approaches. That having a political structure that acts as a pendulum going from one solution to another solution going from right to left, up to down, provides a dynamic stability that permits adaptation and growth, that inhibits stagnation and self destruction. And invites frustration because of the back and forth of political debates usually not much is done until a crisis is at hand. But then what defines a crisis depends on your viewpoint.

For example, in New Jersey, my fair state (it was traumatic moving here but now I can't see myself living in the city) has a problem with open spaces. We have very little left as NJ is the most densely populated state in the Union. Several politicians over the years from both the Republican and the Democratic side have tried to put in limitations and regulations on the use of the remaining open space. They failed. And the reason is that many people still want to have a back yard for their one family home (you might call these people IWABY - I Want a Back Yard) hence all the good intentions of limiting the use of open spaces gets lost. But who loses? Not the people who gain a new home with a back yard. And they get a home that doesn't cost as much because the land is less expensive (always a relative thing). The people who lose are those already established when the forest or farm beyond their backyard is converted to a new neighborhood and the value of the home doesn't rise as much as it might with a limited supply of homes. So for the people without homes maintaining open spaces might be considered a crisis for them.

In the last several years I've veered to a more libertarian point of view, or perhaps a more lazy attitude towards problems. At least some problems.


Joe Schuster

Dear Mr. Wallace:

I usually agree wholeheartedly with much of what you write. In this case I cannot. Perhaps it is a question of national character.

Pollsters say that Canadians have much geater sensivity for "collective rights" than Americans. I think that the issue of SUVs is a classic case. The argument about SUVs and safety is that the safest sort of road system is one where everyone drives in a vehicle that is designed to "crumple" on impact. Passenger vehicles, like Toyota Camry's, are meant to become large "pillows" that collapse around the drivers and lessen the harm they suffer. SUVs, because they are exempted from the rules that govern the design of other automobiles, do not "play by these rules".

There is a type of risk analysis called "game theory". It talks about situations where individuals pursue specific strategies in order to maximize their benefit. It is often the case that a strategy that maximizes the benefit for one person, if followed by a majority or even large minority will actually minimize the benefit for the majority and even the individuals. In the case of SUVs, it might be the case that if you are the only person driving a SUV in a sea of Camrys you will be better off in vehicle-to-vehicle collisions (but not in single vehicle collisions or roll-over situations). But if you collide with another SUV your advantage over a Camry is removed and you lack the "crumple zone" that is built into the Camry.

I've gone at some depth into discussing the Camry versus SUV collision issue because it is very similar to the environmental issue. If you are the only person who drives to your pond or along the beach, you see a natural paradise. If lots of other people do the same thing, you end up with Yahoos running down box turtles. My opinion is that all natural areas should be off limits to people with motorized vehicles. You could have carried a canoe to the pond---lots of wilderness treckers routinely go over portages of 3 miles or longer.

People often say that banning motorized vehicles is elitest. Yes, it is. Banning snowmobiles means that only people who feel safe and strong on skis and snowshoes go into the woods in the winter. Banning SUVs and offroad vehicles means that only people who are willing to hike through blackflies and swamp get to go to the best fishing holes. The important point is that this means that the best fishing holes get preserved as the best fishing holes and box turtles have a chance of surviving into the the 22nd century.

This gets back to the collective rights versus individual ones. I know that banning SUVs, snowmobiles and offroads vehicles means that I am infringing on the life of other people. But the way I see it, destroying box turtles, wiping out fishing holes, etc, is also infringing on people's "collective rights"---such as that of future generations of people unborn.

Perhaps this is why Canadians are very happy to wait in line for non-emergency medical service in exchange for knowing that everyone will get the medical service they need, when they need it. I have heard Americans absolutelly appalled that rich people in Canada have to wait in line with everyone else to get things like hip replacement surgery, et al. In the same way, we are appalled that people stick with jobs they hate in order to keep medical coverage, or even worse simply have no medical coverage at all. The difference in viewpoint is whether you place a higher emphasis on collective rights versus individual ones.

The situation is similar. I don't acknowledge that you have a "right" to endanger other drivers on the road (ie: the people who drive Camrys), moreover, I don't believe that anyone has the "right" to drive through the forest and kill box turtles---either by desire or because they are oblivious to the consequences of their behaviour.

-- Bill Hulet
Policy Research for the Green Party of Ontario
Read the Green Party Review!: http://GreenPartyReview.ca


I'm not a Democrat, but I am a "liberal" in terms I define. I hope it's still okay to define one's own political position without having to concede to the dictates of political opponents as to what I champion and what I oppose. Straw men are easy to defeat: that's why we see so many of them being stuffed with presumed "liberal" malefactions these days.

Bob Wilson (not his real name) wrote in Iraq: A work in Progress that "making Bush look A. foolish, B. tyrannical, C. oblivious or D. fiendishly clever and cunning...but evil" constitutes the current "Liberal" strategy against the regime in Washington, a "fall-back" position adopted since "America succeeded" in Iraq against what he calls "a nation with the world's fifth largest army."

At one time Iraq may have had a substantial army. At one time Iraq may have had "Weapons of Mass Destruction." But the modus operandi of the current regime is curious for its propensity for getting "unstuck in time," as Kurt Vonnegut's Billy Pigrim (Slaughter-House 5) often did.

It would be disingenuous to claim that at the time of the American invasion Iraq controlled "the world's fifth largest army," just as it is clear now how dishonest it was for the Bush junta to claim that Iraq was actively developing a nuclear weapons program, had tried to import weapons grade uranium from Niger, had constructed "drones" capable of sending biological and/or chemical weapons beyond its borders and even to the continental US, had the capability of launching chemical and/or biological weapons against its neighbors or US invading forces within 45 minutes notice....

Fact is, one need not be a Liberal to see through the lies. One need not be a conservative to stand for a just and necessary defense of our own land. But one probably must be an ideologue with little respect for facts in order to continue to defend the indefensible corruption of the civilian oversight mechanisms that make US military action contingent not on ideology, but on real national interests.

US interests, of course, need to be defined. I would suggest that war profitteering by political cronies of the current regime does little to advance American interests, unless Americans have really devolved so low into consumerism that they believe that "corporate citizenship" is anything but marketeering-based fiction and that their own citizenship as sovereigns in a democratic republic no longer supercedes and overrules false claims to sovereignty by corporate hegemonists.

Bob Wilson (not his real name) likes to put words in the mouths of his debating opponents. It makes it much easier to seem to win arguments when you've decided what the opposition will be allowed to have seemed to have said. It's a tactic Liberals are pretty tired of, but I admit that most good liberal-minded people I know are reluctant to show their indignance. They are, largely, too polite for my taste, even when I agree with them on issues.

Bob Wilson (not his real name) is NOT too polite for my taste. He is abrasive and likes to call names, dismiss people for their affiliations, and do anything he can to avoid comparing facts with his claims. I'd respect his opinion if he'd pit it against those really held by those he opposes. Democracy is all about presenting opposing views. Bob (sic), if you want to oppose Liberal views, some day you'll actually have to stop putting words in their mouths and start listenting to what those opinions are!

Ben Price

The following is a letter to Peter Bearse about Ben Price's comments on Peter's recent campaign finance essay.

Dear Peter:

I have read that fellow Ben G. Price, partly, and though he writes beautifully and speaks of you affectionately, I am somewhat put out because he is criticizing you but not doing his job very well: he is supposed to make me, the reader (if he has all these disputes and disagreements with you) understand what it is you wrote in YOUR piece, and he does not do this. Rather, he goes on about what HE thinks best and how you don't agree with that, and lets it be known here and there that, oh yes, you and he go way back and, yes, he has to hand it to you that he admires your charm, insight, wit, etc. the point of having been on the verge of collaborating with you, ha, ha!!) but somehow you just don't get it, despite all his long, patient efforts to enlighten you. Is this some jocularity, some kidding going on, that's habitual fun and affectionate between Ben Price and you? Because if not I find myself becoming somewhat uncomfortable and indignant. Either way, though, he ought to be letting me know, in HIS essay what your piece SAYS, whether I have read it or not. Grouch.

Listen, I've had a thought. Does that Ben G. Price matter bother you very much? It seems not, which is a relief to me. Because though it did not sink in right away I got quite upset realizing that I'd been the one who had signalled (one "l"?) that piece to you though good you should pick up on it quickly as possible. Actually, though, what about just sort of letting Ben G. Price just lie there--sort of à la C.P. Snow years ago after the F.R. Leavis attack on the 2 Cultures? I went back and tried to finish up Mr. Price's ridiculous and pompous "response" to Dr. Bearse--and not only could I not understand or follow (or finish it) but it had me howling with laughter. I put it into a different font, without serifs (word?); got the general idea and can still tell you objectively and authoritatively (HA!) that it is very much a piece about him more than it is about you or even the supposed subject matter--which, in itself would not be overly offensive, just juvenile, to me at least, speaking as your new friend, or even just as s'one who chanced upon the article. What is truly objectionable is the tone: just compare that first sentence of his with the last--do you see the word "genuine" that he uses with regard to your dédicace to him? (WHICH, by the way, if you the reader skips "ahead," or back, I should really say, to your own "YEAR 2000" (which is wonderful, by the way; I am a slow reader and a slow study) context in which he takes your dedicating is somehow, at least to my own ear, inauthentic, and I hasten to say Peter that it is only very cautiously that I put this forward--I'm being quite presumptuous.

At all events, I'm SO glad you did not collaborate with this fellow, though I can see how your collaboraTIONS have been fruitful.

Marina Frederiksen

Dear Alex:

Re How Psychology Majors Corrupted America's Youth:

Hello, my name is Colleen Finnerty and I am a college student. I stumbled across your article while researching a paper. I found it quite interesting and enlightening, since I am a Psychology and English double major. Fear not - this isn't hate mail from a disgruntled youth. I actually agree with many of your points - most college students *are* misguided, pampered, selfish partyers. I have had the misfortune of coming in contact with more than a few of them. However, there are several shortcomings in your logic (i infer that many of your points have a note of sarcasm, but i will include them in my (psycho?)analysis nonetheless):

You point to a fear of math as a deciding factor in choosing majors such as Psychology and Sociology - what about English majors? We hate math too! :P But seriously - what is wrong with knowing your weaknesses and deciding to focus on strengths? It is true that if fear is the sole reason for choosing to avoid a subject then the decision is unbalanced, but if it is part of a larger decision to go with what you're good at, then it is a healthy and rational reaction.

You mentioned that idealistic youth often pursue irrelevant issues that they don't fully understand. However, I am a budding activist for many extremely relevant issues, such as trafficing in women and sex slavery. This travisty happens in frightening frequency in the U.S. as well as around the world. Women are the 3rd most in demand product on the black market, behind drugs and guns. I am involved in homelessness issues, which i see played out on the street i live on. I have also researched William McDonough's New Industrial Revolution and had the good fortune to meet him and discuss his ideas, which are currently changing the way the global economy functions. These are all real, immediate, and overlooked issues that may not be the cool cause to support, but have become my focus anyhow.

As for the practical application of a Psychology degree - I agree that many students major in Psychology without any genuine intention to take the necessary step of going on to graduate study. I personally plan on pursuing a career in English and going to graduate school for that; i am also getting a psych degree because i hope to write psychological dissertations on literature (the research that led me to your article was for a paper examining psychological issues in Rebecca Harding Davis' "Life in the Iron Mills"). The psych degree is to buttress the English degree - why get one degree when you could get two for the same price?

Well, Mr. Dashevsky, I have a paper to write, but I would love to discuss these issues further with you. I think it would benefit both of us to find that despite generational gaps, there are still shared viewpoints between the young and the young at heart. Or the old and the old at heart.


Colleen Finnerty

Dear Jonathan Wallace,

I'm writing in response to Direct Deposit by Dom Stasi, in which he compares America's fiscal policies to a back alley crapshooter, with the shy crouched behind him.

I recently learned where the word "shy" (meaning "loanshark") came from, and I thought it might interest your readers.

In Shakespeare's comedy "The Merchant of Venice," the villian is Shylock the Jew. Shylock lends money to Antonio, demanding "a pound of flesh" as collateral.

Antonio agrees to the terms, thinking he will be able to repay the money on time. But Antonio defaults on the loan. Shylock takes Antonio to court, determined, once he wins the trial, to excise the pound of flesh closest to Antonio's heart. But the tables are turned, and Shylock is forced to give up all his money and convert to Christianity. (Did I mention this is a comedy?)

There has been much debate as to what Shakespeare's motives were in creating the character of Shylock the Jew. Some schools of thought are: (1) the play (and Shakespeare himself) are blatantly anti-Semitic; (2) the play itself is a criticism of absurd Jewish stereotypes, and the play is anti-anti-Semitic; (3) the play is anti-Semitic, but Shakespeare was not malicious when he created it, because the play simply reflects the accepted values of Shakespeare's day; (4) Shakespeare's villians were a variety of different ethnicities, Jews were not singled out, therefore the play is not anti-Semitic.

In support of the last point, "Merchant of Venice: Complete Study Guide" (Cliff's Notes Incorporated, 1965) says this: "But Shakespeare was concerned with neither anti- nor pro-Semitism, except in the way it shaped individual characters. Nor was he ever interested in defining or condemning a group through the presentation of an individual. The murderous hypocrisy of King Richard III does not represent the English, any more than Macbeth's blood lust is particularly Scottish or Iago's venom Italian."

So a shylock, or shy, is a loanshark, and its original connotation was a rich, unscrupulous, Jewish moneylender. Dom Stasi probably didn't intend to suggest that the Jews would be the ones threatening to break America's legs when America continues to crap out and can't keep up with the vig. But his choice of words has that suggestion built right into it.

Just an example of how stereotypes are woven into the very fabric of our language.

Virginia Kent

Dear Mr. Stasi,

With all the philosophical rhetoric erupting from both the right and left, you have hit the right nail directly on the head with your editorial entitled Direct Deposit. After all, it is economics that is the de facto ruler of the world, not philosophies nor seemingly detached political agendas. NO ONE from either end of the political spectrum can rationally deny the truth in "Income must equal or exceed outgo in the long run.", and yet most will continue to believe in the tooth fairy or delude themselves like the Ostrich by burying their collective heads in the sand. Thank you for your clarity and ruthless speaking of the truth that must be spread.

Thom Riddle

Dear Mr. Wallace:

re: The Scorpion Game and What I Learned From Auschwitz-- Fascinating -- thank you for posting these.

*** re: The Prisoner's Dilemma: The Holocaust, The phrase you give here, or almost, "hope killed the Jews", is provoking.




Re Natural Rights Don't Exist:

if you have *time*, please show up at this forum and respond to comments... (threads scroll off and are not archived.)

i have copied the text of two threads where you are critiqued, they sound reasonable. i hope you are not beyond reproach here, my only interest is in deeper clarity of all views.

the thread starts here... http://www.metropulse.com/metroblab/posts/99741.html

response to your reference starts here... http://www.metropulse.com/metroblab/posts/99912.html

Thoughtful and interesting. However, when Jonathan Wallace writes that Thomas Jefferson was being dishonest or lazy in writing in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness...

Wallace seems to be either dishonest or lazy himself, or ignorant of how ideas were expressed in the latter part of the 18th century. Which seems unlikely, given his obvious grasp of 17th century philosophers.

It's a rhetorical device, an attempt to put the best spin on a rebellion against what much of the world would have regarded as a divinely appointed monarch. If you can get God and natural law on your side, so much the better. The tell comes much further down into the document, with the words "these 13 colonies ARE, and of a right, ought to be"--hey, if they "are free" why does he need to write that they have a right to be, or they ought to be? Because it was the best possible spin he could put on an unlawful rebellion against his lawful monarch.

Again, the 13 colonies were doing their level best to convince the rest of the world of the justness of their cause. The framers of the Declaration called on divine law, natural law, physical laws (somewhere in it or in one of the other justifications for the rebellion is a statement about how, in nature, no large object rotates around a smaller one, and so, why then should the much-larger-geographically colonies orbit the British Isles, so to speak), etc., etc. anything they could to put themselves in the "right."

None of which negates Wallace's observations. It's just that, by starting as he started, he's using a rhetorical device too, and he "ought" to acknowledge it, if he's aware of it. Then again, I am "free" to point it out...


[Wallace said:]"We are taught in school that the founders were all intellectuals and lived in a world of pure ideas."

He didn't go to the same school I did. In his zeal to dismiss as meaningless much of the rhetoric in the Declaration, Wallace reveals himself to be more intersted in establishing his philosophical superiority and less willing to acknowledge the purposes the Declaration served. The words aren't meaningless unless one insists on that "pure philosophy" nonsense. But that's no more appropriate than talking about what rights one ought to have in a perfect world.