Crime

Letters

|

A Better Memorial

I wish to thank Robert O. Blanchard for articulating the issues of Matthew Shepard's death and pending hate crime laws with such clarity, such reason, and such compassion ("The `Hate State' Myth," May). The article serves as a powerful reminder of both the terrible nature of the crime and the poor memorial that hate crime legislation pays to Mathew Shepard and others who fall prey to violent crime.

If I had any criticism to levy upon the article itself, it is that the author did not write more about alternatives to hate crime laws or of the existence of organizations such as Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty, Log Cabin Republicans, Libertarians for Gay and Lesbians Concerns, the Independent Gay Forum, and Highly Productive Publishing Page. These groups address gay rights in a forum respectful of the free market and individual liberty.

If Matthew Shepard is to be remembered as something more than a two-dimensional poster boy for hate crime legislation and religious "God Hates Faggots" groups it will be because his name is invoked to celebrate individuality and secure liberty. So let us never forget Matthew Shepard and let us implore peaceful means to fight homophobia. Let us push for pro-liberty changes, from abolishing sodomy laws to ending the military ban to the many other areas where the government has stuck its nose where it never should have.

Edward T.J. Brown
Perham, MN
edwardtjbrown@yahoo.com

Hometown Hosannas

As one who grew up in Brasilia, I take issue with "In a State's Eye" (May), Jesse Walker's review of Seeing Like a State. The article calls the city "a new capital in inland Brazil, constructed without regard for the country's present or past; a crowdless, cultureless monument not to the nation that built it but to an abstract idea of what a great city should be."

First of all, the main reason for constructing a new capital in the "planalto central"–a dry flatland in the heart of Brazil–was to spread development toward Brazil's central region, which at that time was extremely underdeveloped compared to the coastal regions. So the plan of building Brasilia not only did take into account the geographical reality of the country but was in part a consequence of it.

At the time it was built, most Brazilians thought it was a crazy idea that would never work. For this reason the government had to propose incentives, such as free housing, to attract people to settle in the middle of nowhere for a new life. Nowadays, Brasilia itself is enough of an incentive to new settlers that the government no longer needs to provide them.

With regard to its original goal, Brasilia did work just as intended: The entire Federal District has become an industrial center, where, incidentally, polluting industries are forbidden. It has also spawned other centers beyond its outskirts. Yes, Brasilia does have settlements around it, but don't all big cities? The fact that these settlements proliferate at such a high rate is in part the result of people leaving their home place to try their luck in Brasilia.

I grew up in one of the city's "huge concrete apartment buildings and gigantic, lifeless squares." The small streets that enter each square or "quadra" dead-end there. That means there is no traffic on these small streets. That, and the huge open spaces between the buildings within a quadra, make it a paradise for kids. As a kid I had a football-field-sized lawn right in front of my building to play in, and I could go to local stores of the quadra without having to cross any traffic.

Finally, those who come for a quick visit might agree with Walker that Brasilia has no landmarks, but I believe the landmarks are just more subtle. Of course much of what are called "cultural landmarks" belong to a city's history–which, being only 39 years old, the city currently lacks. What it does have that others might lack is a mixture of cultural backgrounds of people from all over Brazil; it is a city of contrasts. We say there that there is no in between; either you hate it or you love it. Walker hates it; I love it.

Valeria Damiao
Boulder, CO
damiao@dana3.colorado.edu

Jesse Walker replies: One theme of James Scott's book is the difference between knowledge rooted in local experience and knowledge rooted in abstract theories. In that spirit, I will not presume to dispute a Brasilian's account of her own city, and certainly not her right to love it. I'm afraid, though, that Damiao's civic pride may have clouded her reading of my review.

Scott had many criticisms of Brasilia, but the settlements around it were not among them. His point–and mine, in reviewing his book–was that Brasilia could never have survived without such settlements; that for all the planning that went into building Brasilia, it was the unplanned, spontaneous side of the metropolis, from the squatters' settlements to Damiao's "subtle landmarks," that sustained the city.

As to whether Brasilia was built without regard for Brazil's present and past: Surely a bureaucratic government's efforts to draw "development" to a part of the country that no one had heretofore felt the need to develop fits the bill. The fact that the government now props up industries in the same region doesn't change that diagnosis one bit.

In Military's Defense

I found several faults or misinterpretations in Glenn Harlan Reynolds' article ("It Takes a Militia," May). Militias in the United States have had, at best, a mixed history. The review glorifies them for being of the people but doesn't touch on their faults. Reynolds claims that militias can be a check on foreign wars. (The Mexican War of 1848 was largely fought with militia units.) However, militias have tended to be inordinately wasteful (chiefly in lives), due to a lack of training and discipline, both tactically and administratively. The Civil War illustrates this clearly. By the middle of the war the volunteer units had become almost carbon copies of the regulars except with slightly looser discipline.

As for the threat of a coup, it's no lie to say that the military community has drawn away from the civilian world to some extent. However, most military personnel still take the oath seriously. There's a big divide between the senior leadership and the rank and file. The average GI still believes in this country; too many have been overseas and seen just how good we still have it. We're far more loyal then most of the civilian leadership. Expensive, yes, but much of that cost comes from Congress and the senior leadership looking for miracle gear.

I'm a regular Army infantry noncommissioned officer with 19 years of service. I agree that those who do not wish to defend their freedom may not be deserving of it, but after 19 years, I still have to believe they are.

Charles A. Temm Jr
Ft. Benning, GA
uniontrp@aol.com

Glenn Harlan Reynolds replies: Charles Temm's remarks about the militia echo those from other professional military men. They are not so much wrong as beside the point. Before one assesses how good a military force is, one must consider its mission. During the 18th and 19th centuries, militia forces proved quite effective at their primary purpose: defense of local terrain against invasion and insurrection. (Militia-like forces are still good at this, even against professional soldiers, as the U.S. experience in Lebanon and Somalia illustrates.)

When it comes to projecting power abroad, militias aren't as good. Part-time soldiers are less willing to go on such missions, and, as Temm rightly notes, preparation for such work requires more and different training than does the defense of familiar terrain. To the Framers, who feared not only standing armies but also the imperial ambitions they would bring, this unsuitability for foreign missions was not a flaw but a feature: A militia-based defense strategy was far less likely to produce foreign entanglements and wars. As Gary Hart correctly points out in the book I reviewed, our current situation–with so many foreign troop deployments that even military buffs can't keep track of them all and with wars initiated essentially on presidential whim–would have horrified the Framers. A professional army is better suited to our current situation, but the militia system was meant to keep us out of the situation altogether.

Likewise, I find Temm's profession of military loyalty reassuring. But the Framers, knowing that human institutions are fallible, sought to create a framework in which our liberties were not dependent on the loyalty of a standing army.

Courting Distortion

I found Jonah Goldberg's review of Wendy Shalit's A Return to Modesty ("Conservatism Without History," May) a stream-of-consciousness ramble of reactions which did not have much relevance to the text ostensibly under consideration. Perhaps he ought to have waited until the audiotape version became available.

First, I cannot share Goldberg's perception that Shalit "ignores the essential insight of modern conservatism" about the need for gradualism in reform. His assertion that she is indifferent to history completely inverts what strikes me as her goal, a recovery of memory. It's not that she believes restoring the use of calling cards would instantly solve the problems of modern courtship; Shalit's service is in reconstituting a vision and ritual of courtship which commonly is distorted or derided today.

Second, Goldberg adduces an "inconsistency" in Shalit extolling paternalism while, at the same time, condemning a House of Lords case acquitting men of rape on "implied consent" grounds. But such a reading confuses Shalit's support for the duties and privileges embedded in familial relationships with her opposition to the modern liberal regime, which has subjected even social relations to contractarian ideology.

Finally, his review completely avoids mentioning Shalit's criticism of those conservatives who have readily acquiesced to the destruction of romance because it releases them from the obligations of chivalry and marriage that once afforded women a measure of protection. Neoliberal economics and sexual libertinism are viable only when human persons first have been reduced to individual economic agents. Although Goldberg remains curiously silent about the subject, here is where he might direct his concerns about ahistoricism and abstract political theorizing.

Morgan N. Knull
Baton Rouge, LA
mnknull@eatel.net

Jonah Goldberg argues that the main problem with Wendy Shalit's prescription for a return to modesty is that it ignores the changed historical context. Modesty flourished in a historical context far different from the modern context, in which modesty, he seems to think, cannot exist. We can't go back to calling cards because we have the telephone now. And birth control and other technological inventions change the whole context in which we live our lives and make our sexual decisions.

But does the changed historical context really mean that we can't go back to modesty? The historical context obviously influences human behavior but does not determine it (perhaps Goldberg underestimates the role of ideas in what human beings do). I see no reason why we can't implement Shalit's prescription in a way that is sensitive to the historical context.

Greg Feirman
San Diego, CA

Jonah Goldberg replies: I have no gripe with Greg Feirman's comments. If I was unclear, let me say it now: I'm pro-modesty. Again, if Shalit were arguing for "neo" Victorianism she might have won me over.

Which brings us to Morgan Knull, who says my critique runs counter to Shalit's goal. So what? If she'd written a cookbook on cake baking and I said her recipes didn't work, would I be against cake? I can applaud her goals, and some of her insights, without rubber-stamping her arguments.

Don't blame me for confusion; go to the source. Simultaneously embracing notions of modesty–or sexuality–from several different centuries causes confusion. Ms. Shalit rejects today's "contractarian" regime. Hey, me too. But does she want to replace it with a system from the 19th century or the 15th? I've read the book and have no idea; yeah, maybe I will when the audiotape comes out.

Lastly, let me dispel the mystery of my curious silence about fellow conservatives who've abetted the destruction of romance. They seem like straw men to me. But if these conservative cads exist, they should be thrashed about the head and neck with a wet fish.

Hot Coffee, Bad Example?

In his article bemoaning the effects of local actions far beyond a given state's borders ("Firing Squad," May), Contributing Editor Walter Olson uses the famous McDonald's coffee case as an example. He complains that now he cannot get a cup of too hot coffee on a frigid morning in New England, apparently overlooking the fact that in a free society he is welcome to pour it, boiling hot, into a thermos from which he can for hours scald his mouth. Olson's spin on the McDonald's coffee case is inappropriate because:

1) The plaintiff suffered third-degree burns despite receiving assistance from her companion immediately after spilling.

2) McDonald's had earlier received numerous complaints that its coffee was served too hot. The company decided not to act due to the high cost.

3) The jury settled on the amount to award the plaintiff, punishing McDonald's for its penurious attitude toward the safety of its customers, by requiring that it pay damages equal to just one day's income from the sale of its coffee nationwide.

I am not aware of anything in the court case that requires McDonald's to reduce the temperature of its coffee nationwide. The company apparently decided that it is now cost-effective to do so. Good thinking. I can't say the same for Olson.

J. Citti
Revere, MA
jer100@compuserve.com

Walter Olson replies: J. Citti does not dispute the point for which I cited the hot coffee case: If one New Mexico jury can compel McDonald's to alter its nationwide course of conduct even though many juries elsewhere would have decided the same case in favor of the company, then the coffee temperature "policy" we get will represent neither local option nor a national regime geared to the preferences of the median jury, but instead a national regime geared to the preferences of whichever local juries the plaintiff's lawyers can find that are most favorable to their cause. (As I pointed out, litigation against gun makers is going to follow the same model, which may allow unrepresentative local juries to impose, in effect, nationwide gun control.)

Stung by the public's predominantly negative reactions to the McDonald's case, lawyers have expended vast amounts of energy trying to turn those reactions around, claiming that the public has been fooled and would certainly take their side if it knew the true facts of the case. Their problem in trying to swing this, it seems to me, is that since day one virtually all the cards have been face up on the table.

Everyone knows that water boils at the same temperature at a restaurant as when you put the teakettle on the stove for your own family. Everyone old enough to have drunk much take-out coffee knows why big chains prefer to hold it at a higher temperature, which has relatively little to do with saving money (lower holding temperatures would in fact save electricity) and a great deal to do with the preferences of take-out buyers themselves. And everyone with even a slight exposure to statistics finds it unsurprising that when a hot liquid is sold so many times a year there will be, despite reasonable precautions, people who spill it, and that some of the resulting injuries will find their way into the hands of lawyers.

Few were shocked, then, to learn that McDonald's had faced a steady trickle of such claims for many years, which (until it got unlucky in the New Mexico case) it had fought with much success by invoking the time-honored common law defense of assumption of risk. It is one of the tort system's more appalling vices that this very record of having zealously and successfully defended the blamelessness of its conduct should be turned into a reason for extra punishment. The message comes across loud and clear: Don't try to resist.

As for the efforts at sarcasm about my right to go on filling a thermos at home, I suspect they're likely to backfire among REASON's liberty-loving readers. Yes, I'm still allowed to boil water at home; but I can't pay other people to re-create the same beverage while on the road unless I simultaneously buy from them an insurance contract covering some of the injuries that might result from the purchase.

Advertisement