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All the World's a Stage Set

I thoroughly enjoyed Arthur Miller's essay about acting and politics ["American Playhouse," June]. But Miller's theory that our politicians are actors does not explain the results of the last presidential election. Last fall we were constantly asked questions such as "Who would you rather have a beer with?" After the debates, I always wanted to ask, "Who would you rather cast as Mark Antony?" Gore had massive stage presence, knew his script and source material forward and backward, spoke boldly and cheerfully (when he permitted himself to do so, that is), and could probably have improvised in iambic pentameter.

By contrast, his costar Bush kept going up on his lines. He appeared fearful and skittish, with perpetually hunched shoulders and darting eyes. Everything he said was a string of meaningless words leading to memorized phrases. It was in fact some of the worst acting I've ever seen. I wondered, Why is there even a contest?

The answer is that the agenda, proposed by Bush and accepted by the media, had nothing to do with leadership or issues but was rather an attempt to find out, as in some cynical social experiment, just how incompetent a person can be and still run for president. Idiocy has reigned supreme in popular music and movies and on TV, why not in the White House? Gore tried to dumb himself down--tried to limit his vocabulary, tried to stop himself from thinking--but he just couldn't do it. It was painful to see him make the attempt. Like Mark Antony falling on his own sword, he lost not because he was weaker or less resolved than his opponent but because he was too old-fashioned.

William D. Michie New York City

When will Arthur Miller and others like him stop wailing from behind a curtain of prose about George W. Bush's victory? Mr. Miller goes into great detail about how past presidents playacted on the political platform, and how Bush and Al Gore tried to cover up their real personae during their campaign. But then, in just a few condemning words--"given the fractured election and donation by the Supreme Court"--Mr. Miller abandons his role of unbiased observer. He adds, "After this last, most hallucinatory of elections, it was said that in the end the system worked, when clearly it hadn't at all." The political play, he says, left people feeling "cheated and even mocked."

I'm afraid Mr. Miller will have to get over it. A1 Gore didn't win the president's trophy despite his performance. Obviously, he couldn't cover up his arrogant condescending nature or his past robust loyalty to Bill Clinton, who put on a performance that brought his audience to tears, disgust, and finally abandonment. Now, that's true art--but only a very few would relish an encore.

Ouida J. Lewis Rowlett, Tex.

Arthur Miller's essay on politicians as actors was a delightful exploration of some cultural peculiarities that have been perplexing me over the past several years. I have been trying to understand why we were all so fascinated with the private lives of Presidents Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy and Senator Gary Hart. Miller's observation that politicians are continually performing made me realize that what we are really hungering for in obsessing over private lives is not the drama of scandal but something much rarer: reality.

Larry Green Vancouver, B.C.

The Things We Tally

I was excited to see Joshua Wolf Shenk's essay on things, value, and the Antiques Roadshow ["The Things We Carry," June]. I looked forward to seeing a true materialism expressed, an understanding and appreciation for what the scholar Peter Stallybrass calls "the life of things." But it turns out Shenk is no materialist: he invokes his love of things but refuses them their full life, and indeed ends his piece by arguing that value does not exist in things at all but in their production.

The Antiques Roadshow is interesting because it operates at the nexus of our multiple economies--the emotional, sensual, monetary, and aesthetic--economies that for the most part are indifferent to one another. Because Shenk begins with the obvious prejudice that monetary value trespasses on emotional value, he never really expresses anything of interest.

The fact that the monetary is vilified throughout Shenk's piece is particularly ironic given that he uses his rabbi grandfather's typewriter as the central motif. Jews have been considered cheap and hateful over the millennia for (among other "offenses") being pawnbrokers; that is, for offering the monetary value of things that the pawner finds dear.

His article, then, is not at all about the things we carry; it's about the inability of individuals to enjoy the multiple and intersecting values of things, to enjoy the life of things.

Daniel Coffeen San Francisco

Joshua Wolf Shenk, after long reflecting on the nature of his grandfather's typewriter, is disappointed by its lack of monetary value. But he should count himself lucky that the rest of the world is unimpressed. Grandma's antique painting that she loved so much because it was from her hometown in the Old World, which at auction might bring $15-20,000, starts to look like a new pickup truck. Shenk and his descendants will, one hopes, never be so desperate for $150 that they will start to eye Grandpa's typewriter with a notion that it can solve their problems. Burglars will not even notice the crappy old typewriter as they go about disconnecting his television and drinking his scotch. Because only he and his family will ever appreciate its true value, it is safe from the aspirations of others. It can be kept in plain sight, it can even be shown to children without fear for its safety. Because it will be accessible in this way, its true value can be shared: worthless to others and priceless to them. I hope those who go to an Antiques Roadshow appraisal and discover that their objects are without monetary value will reflect on this.

Peter Finlay Toronto

Let's take location into account when appraising a vintage Hebrew-lettered manual typewriter and when evaluating the career of a south Texas rabbi.

That Remington-Rand manual once owned by Rabbi Sidney Wolf would be worth far more, monetarily and intrinsically, in Corpus Christi than in New York or New England, where Joshua Wolf Shenk took it for an appraisal. He should have taken it to a dealer down along the Gulf Coast, where a Hebrew typewriter is a rarity and where the man who used it was a celebrity.

Yes, a celebrity. Rabbi Sidney Wolf may not have been a standout to classmate Albert Goldstein, who retired from a pulpit in Brookline. Goldstein concludes that Rabbi Wolf must not have amounted to much because he published nothing and spent fifty years at a Texas pulpit where "his tenure was never in danger." Can't he see that Rabbi Wolf's accomplishments were greater and weightier than those of many a rabbi at a more prestigious post? Rabbi Wolf launched a symphony orchestra, forced integration of the municipal golf course, taught English to illegal aliens, opposed the Vietnam War, and supported his spouse's involvement in Planned Parenthood. He accomplished all this not in sophisticated New York City but in a more difficult milieu, in a town named for the Body of Christ.

Hollace Ava Weiner Author, Jewish Stars in Texas: Rabbis and Their Work Fort Worth

A Murder of Crows

The fine satire "Tomorrow's Bird" [Ian Frazier, Readings, June] is true on several levels. First and foremost, Frazier writes--Jonathan Swiftly--of predatory crows speaking to their public-relations men like conservative foundations speak to academics.

But seriously, our skies have already been taken over by flocking predators such as crows and their partners the starlings and sparrows. Flocking predators use birdsongs to locate songbird nests and their nestlings. Starlings seem to flock with crows and share in their depredations. Sparrows perch on wren houses to starve young wrens, and in our Fox River valley the once numerous bluebirds have been nearly killed off by sparrow death squads. Songbirds are now best known from their photos in birding magazines. Flocking predators may truly be tomorrow's only bird.

John Heinz Aurora, Ill.

Back in the Saddle

The map detailing the current locations and positions of those who participated in the Iran-Contra affair ["Patriot Games," June] failed to include another "patriot": John D. Negroponte, currently George W. Bush's nominee as ambassador to the United Nations. Negroponte was Reagan's ambassador to Honduras during the U.S. war on Nicaragua. During his ambassadorship, U.S. military aid to Honduras grew from $4 million to $75 million. The additional aid was a payment for the CIA's use of the country as a training ground, arms depot, airfield, and safe haven for the Contras while they waged their terrorist war against the Nicaraguan people. Having been trained by the CIA and at the School of the Americas, the Honduran military command knew immediately what to do with the millions. They created the Honduran version of the CIA and brutally repressed trade unionists, agrarian reformers, students, and human-rights activists. Apparently, Bush's advisers believe Negroponte should be rewarded for his work in Honduras with an ambassadorship to the United Nations.

Lois Ahrens Northampton, Mass.

On the Genealogy of a Quarrel

Can there be no end to linguistic nonsense? In response to David Foster Wallace's review of my book A Dictionary of Modern American Usage ["Tense Present," April], four of your readers argue over the "prohibition," in Standard Written English, of the split infinitive [Letters, July and August]. One of them, Greg Felton, argues that "there is no persuasive argument for split infinitives in SWE." This is the kind of folderol that gives prescriptivism a bad name.

To begin with, even conservative grammarians have long acknowledged that split infinitives can be perfectly proper. Among these defenders are Onions (1904), Lounsbury (1908), Bierce (1909), Hall (1917), Fowler (1923), Weseen (1928), Curme (1931), Leonard (1932), Jespersen (1933), Partridge (1942), Stratton (1949), Vallins (1951), Ralph (1952), Lewis (1961), Bernstein (1965), Follett (1966), Copperud (1970), Safire (1980), Bryson (1984), Sabin (1993), American Heritage (1996), O'Conner (1996), and Wallraff (2000), and must I really keep multiplying these examples?

Now for a look further into history. The most influential grammarian of the nineteenth century, Lindley Murray (1745-1826), never mentioned the split infinitive in any of his books. Nor did his contemporaries. The earliest named critic of the split infinitive was Joseph P. Chandler (1847), and several grammarians joined him in condemning it--Alford (1866), Bache (1869), Hodgson (1889), Nesfield (1906), and Folsom (1928).

Somehow, though, in the days when people actually cared, as a community, about their language, these few condemnations stuck in the collective linguistic craw. Even after a century of regular debunking, it's tough to dislodge the shibboleth from the popular mind. Yet most good writers don't worry about it much.

Still, more than seventy-five years after H. W. Fowler exploded the superstition, Felton makes a two-headed argument against split infinitives: that they (1) "bury adverbs and thus suck the life out of them," and (2) "create `structural ambiguity.'" Both points are badly out of step with modern prescriptive thought on the point, the opposite of each one being true. In fact, splitting an infinitive intensifies the adverb (to boldly go), and splitting generally cures what would otherwise be structurally ambiguous (Mr. Bush is proposing to al. most double to $59 million a program started by his father). Try moving "boldly" or "almost," and (if you have a good ear) you'll hear lifeless, ambiguous sentences.

On the very day when I received the Harper's issue containing Greg Felton's letter (June 15), the front page of the New York Times had a split infinitive heading on page 1: "China Said to Sharply Reduce Emissions of Carbon Dioxide." The headline writer could have sent "sharply" to the end, but then it's rather badly separated from what it modifies. And if the writer had put down, "China Said Sharply to Reduce ...," a couple of syntactic ambiguities would have resulted. (China said it sharply? To whom? The passive "said" now seems active, and "sharply" doesn't seem to modify "reduce.") These are the kinds of issues that copy editors deal with hourly.

When my Dictionary of Modern American Usage was published in late 1998, there was a widely printed AP wire story: "To Split or Not to Split: Oxford Abandons Rule Governing Infinitives." It was big news throughout the nation. And it will be big news again when the New Oxford American Dictionary comes out this month, no doubt blessing the construction. It'll be on the front pages as an amazing revelation. This phenomenon will doubtless repeat itself throughout the twenty-first century. And each time will be a mindblower because nobody quite gets it the first time or the second ... or the ninety-ninth time.

And, of course, the people blasting this bugaboo are prescriptive linguists--the people who want to promote normative principles of writing.

Bryan A. Garner Dallas

A Sound Argument

Gordon Reynolds's June letter regarding Garret Keizer's essay on noise ["Sound and Fury," March] hypothesizes that students in classrooms adjacent to noisy trains do worse in reading because they are taught by "newer, less experienced teachers who are assigned the inferior classrooms." He dismisses my conclusion, which Keizer cites in his essay, that the intrusive noise of the elevated trains was responsible for the poorer performance--a conclusion substantiated by many other studies linking noise to poorer cognitive thinking, language, and learning skills.

Let me add that, in a second study, when noise-abatement treatments were installed on the tracks and in the classrooms facing the tracks, and thus the noise in the classrooms was lowered significantly, the reading scores of the children facing the tracks were at the same level as those of the children on the quiet side of the building. Had Mr. Reynolds known the result of this later study when he wrote his letter, he might not have injected his hypothesis, one that he did not support with data.

Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D. New York City

Baby Snatchers

In their response to Peggy Farber's Annotation ["Broken Homepage," April] on the fad of rushing poor children into middle-class adoptive homes to solve child-welfare problems, Rowena Dodson and her colleagues at Pittsburgh's Adoption Legal Services Project were misguided in defending the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 [Letters, July].

The consequences of the Adoption and Safe Families Act were made plain in an outstanding four-part front-page series in Dodson's hometown paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The series presented case after case in which authorities in neighboring Beaver County wrongfully took children from impoverished homes, undercut efforts to reunite those families, and then rushed the children into adoptive homes, sometimes with families that had connections to the county child-welfare agency and court system. The series illustrated how Beaver County used the Adoption and Safe Families Act to turn its child-welfare system into the ultimate middle-class entitlement: Step right up and take a poor person's child for your very own. How could Dodson & Co. have missed it?

Richard Wexler Executive Director National Coalition for Child Protection Reform Alexandria, Va.

Harper's Magazine welcomes reader response. Please address mail to Letters, Harper's Magazine, 666 Broadway, New York, NY 10012, or email us at Short letters are more likely to be published, and all letters are subject to editing. Volume precludes individual acknowledgment.
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Publication:Harper's Magazine
Article Type:Letter to the Editor
Date:Sep 1, 2001
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