Letters

Sex Wars

Dear Editors,

Last issue’s “Intellectual Situation” noticed how many articles in the Atlantic have been “patronizing” toward women. As a childless old lady with no regrets (except my Atlantic subscription), I was delighted to read your spirited rebuke. Imagine my disappointment, then, that the IS went on to characterize the women who currently edit Harper’s as “administrative staff.” In the 1960s I worked for a prominent news magazine, first as a typist and later as an accountant. In both roles I was said to be part of the “administrative staff.” No one would have thought to place our (male) editor-in-chief in that category.

Many years later I had the pleasure of working at a magazine run by a brilliant woman. I worked with her closely enough to see the extent to which the book was genuinely hers. Nonetheless she had to battle persistent rumors that she was the puppet of her ambitious deputy. No points for guessing the sex of her deputy, or which of these two rivals ultimately became the gray eminence we’ve all heard of. So it was frankly chilling for me, a real blow, to find the IS portraying Ellen Rosenbush, the “staffer” who edits Harper’s, as a puppet in the hands of her omnipotent male publisher.

Call me an old-fashioned feminist, but I can’t help wondering if you would have imputed powerlessness so blithely to, say, the New Yorker’s David Remnick.

—Susan Dougherty

Dear Editors,

A few of us women out here in Silicon Valley were interested to learn from the “Intellectual Situation” that we are the internet. Apparently this new reality is reflected everywhere except on the boards of a few stodgy East Coast magazines. Looks good on paper! But before declaring victory, you might want to examine a few other boards. Here are the executive officers of Google: Larry Page, Eric Schmidt, Nikesh Arora, David Drummond, Patrick Pichette. Here’s the list for Amazon: Jeff Bezos plus eleven senior vice presidents, the top ten of whom are male. You don’t even want to see the list for Apple, believe me. Or Microsoft. Or fucking Twitter. There’s a reason why Facebook’s second-in-command, Sheryl Sandberg, is so famous: she’s the exception. It doesn’t make my day to report this, but the truth is that a few thousand men are the internet, along with Sheryl Sandberg. You’re not doing us any favors by pretending otherwise.

—Katie Park

Dear Editors,

If the internet “is” women, as the “Intellectual Situation” says it is, I’m disappointed that you didn’t see fit to mention the internet’s accelerating pauperization of freelance writers and draw the obvious analogy: that writers are being asked to work for free because supposedly they’re doing what they love, just as women are doing what they love when they stay home and cook and change diapers.

—Jon Franzen

Dear Editors,

As a woman, a former editor of Harper’s, and an entity that is not the internet, I can confirm that, at least in my day, Harper’s employees did indeed get a discount at Hammacher Schlemmer. I used the discount to buy a full-bottle wine glass, by which I mean a wine glass into which one can pour an entire bottle of wine. I gave it as a gift to a male editor who was my senior, and I believe a male editor who was my peer put it on his credit card. In that sense, I suppose, I did not actually get a discount at Hammacher Schlemmer.

—Miriam Markowitz

Positive Attitude

Dear Editors,

In his article on Anthony Kennedy and the Affordable Care Act decision, Jeremy Kessler highlights one of the most important challenges confronting progressive constitutional lawyers and theorists. After decades of embracing a civil libertarian approach to a range of social issues, liberals are discovering that, in the hands of more conservative judges, this same civil libertarian framing has become a threat to the post–New Deal regulatory state. As Kessler describes, the problem is not just that conservatives have succeeded in remaking constitutional doctrine in their own image, it’s that liberals have been too reluctant in articulating a convincing alternative.

Nowhere is this challenge more pronounced than with respect to the First Amendment. Building on the antidiscrimination and civil libertarian logic of earlier opinions, the Court’s conservatives have recrafted the First Amendment over the past three decades into a powerful antiregulatory tool that has been used against a variety of public health, safety, and welfare regulations. Under this doctrine, food and drug labeling requirements have been struck down, antitrust enforcement has been undermined, and campaign finance law has been absolutely decimated.

While liberals have criticized these decisions, they have failed to come together around a compelling counter-vision. Kessler is right that what is needed is a “substantive account of liberty rooted in social and economic equality and realized through public power.” With respect to the First Amendment, there is no shortage of cases or theories to draw from.

The history of the First Amendment is filled with instances where equality and positive liberty, and not simply noninterference by the state, were among the Court’s guiding principles. There are strong currents of egalitarianism in the decisions that protected the speech of syndicalists, political dissenters, and religious minorities. There are positive freedoms, such as the right to strike, the right to vote, and the right to sue in court that have all been recognized under the First Amendment. And decisions to open up public spaces and make public funds available to private individuals demonstrate how state involvement can give rise to more free speech from more people. These cases do not stand for the idea of freedom from government interference, but for freedom that is deeply interwoven with the promise of government interference.

The same equality and positive liberty values should continue to guide progressives toward a constitutional theory of freedom more compatible with democratic rule. As Kessler points out, articulating this alternative will require progressives to confront their own ambivalence about state power. But without such a rethinking, individuals are powerless against the forms of economic and political inequality and coercion that exist because of the ostensibly private sphere.

—Anthony Kammer

Collective Unconscious

Dear Editors,

In his review of Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Anand Vaidya identifies a central concern of economist Amartya Sen: the question of capabilities, or the ability of individuals to lead lives they have reason to value. Vaidya contends that Boo’s preoccupation with this question causes her to approach Annawadi — the Mumbai slum that is the setting of her book — as a methodological individualist. Boo’s narrative, he argues, documents the exertions of individuals but fails to trace the collective efforts that sustain life in “the undercity.” Vaidya’s own walk through Annawadi turned up evidence of collective action — local residents’ associations have negotiated for electricity, paving stones, toilets, and other amenities. The visit confirms for him that greater attunement to collective capability would have revealed that local development is achieved not simply through individuals pursuing their own lives but through the effort of people working together.

There is another explanation for why collective action does not appear in Boo’s narrative: it does not feature in how most Annawadi residents perceive their social world. Even those residents who ostensibly have access to the infrastructure of collective action might not hold local associations as significant for improving their lives. In Sen’s capabilities approach, decisions about how to expand individual capabilities depend on open public discussion — a fundamentally collective activity — so that shared values can be forged and ways to pursue them formulated. But in Annawadi, residents attribute their progress to individual initiative and skill at navigating the urban economy, not interdependence and associational life within the undercity. Sociologist Peter Evans argues that naturally occurring associations such as families and neighborhoods require more formal organization in order to become viable arenas for capability expansion. Democratic public exchange requires dense, organized collectives and mobilizing structures to sustain them. It is true that the individualist approach does not see how collectives mediate between the individual and her social context. But Boo cannot be faulted for being blinded by an individualist method or ignoring the theorized importance of collective action. The collectives that Vaidya observes in Annawadi generate public benefits that, its residents would concur, are important to support life in the slum. But while the collectives deliver material goods, they may not confer a sense of identity or constitute a public sphere where values can be discussed and shared goals imagined.

If collective action is elusive in Annawadi, then the relevant social-scientific model of inquiry might not be the study of collectives but rather the study of the absence of collective action under conditions of oppression. For example, in Weapons of the Weak, political scientist James Scott studies a peasant community in Malaysia undergoing disruptions to local social relations and livelihoods during the Green Revolution. Through a two-year-long ethnographic study, Scott suggests why overt revolutionary action is less common than one might expect. His work discerns the “moral economy” that holds the peasant community together — the actually existing balance of norms of reciprocity, hierarchy, and power as understood and notionally accepted by community members. Vaidya rightly says that collectives are difficult to study because they do not continuously exist. But what we can study, as Scott shows, are the conditions that hinder or facilitate collective action, the norms that enable a particular way of life to continue. In Annawadi, the relevant moral economy is devoid of the sense in which personal experiences may be construed as collective concerns. It provides poor ballast for the sort of collective action whose real (not textual) absence we might rightly lament.

—Radhika Gore

Dear Editors,

Among the virtues of Anand Vaidya’s review of Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers is its focus on literary form. Boo’s portraits of Mumbai’s poor, Vaidya writes, owe a formal debt to the realist novel, a debt that “accounts for both the book’s power and its limitations.” Where is the form “that both conveys collective agency and tells an engaging, empathetic story”?

Putting it this way suggests that we, social scientists and narrative journalists, only have to discover this elusive form in order to know how to write about collectives. But surely there are as many potential solutions to the problem of writing insightfully and engagingly about collectives as there are collectives to write about.

One imaginative response to the stylistic conundrum is Mumbai playwright Ramu Ramanathan’s Cotton 56 Polyester 84 (2006), which chronicles the decline in Mumbai’s trade unionism to which Vaidya devotes his final paragraphs. Ramanathan’s working-class characters reminisce and monologize as individuals, but the substance of their reminiscences is a shared memory. The actors are individuals one moment, members of collectives the next — the lighting cues effect the shift with striking economy.

Freed formally from having to depict inner lives, the play devotes its artistic energies to evoking them. It does not struggle to accommodate the collective into its vision, the staging itself being a collective enterprise. Boo’s limitations might point not to the limits of this or that literary form, but to the limits of the literary itself.

—Nakul Krishna

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