Letters

Summer 1999
Corrections

To the editor:
Peter Reinharz ("Free the Druggies?" Spring 1999) is in error in figuring that one in 12 black Americans is behind bars. He gives the number of Americans behind bars as 1.8 million; blacks make up 42 percent of that population, as the previous item, "Whitman Wimps Out," quoting criminologist Jackson Toby, indicates. (This percentage is for state prisons, but it would be similar for federal prisons.) This would make about 756,000 blacks incarcerated, and with the black population of about 30 million, we get one out of 40 blacks, which is much less than one out of 12.

Nathan Glazer
Harvard University

Peter Reinharz responds:
Mr. Glazer is correct when he says that the number of blacks in prison is more like one in 40. One in 36 is closer still, given a prison population that is 46 percent black—as Toby has it—or some 828,000 adults.
 

The Doggy-Centric Speak

To the editor:
It took a while to get to the key sentence in Brian C. Anderson’s article "Scared of Pit Bulls?You’d Better Be!" (Spring 1999): "Gotham can do a lot of good by simply enforcing laws already on the books." First, we read pages of the obligatory "breed specific" rhetoric proclaiming the pit bull "different" from other protective breeds. It is different: it’s smaller.

Drug dealers keep pit bulls not because they are the breed most capable of hurting, or most likely to hurt, an intruder. Dobermans, rottweilers, and other breeds can do that. But pit bulls can do something these other dogs can’t: fit into an apartment. They’re also a low-maintenance, low-energy breed compared with many larger man-stoppers. These qualities make pit bulls attractive to urban "tough dog" owners.

The pit bull’s small size also ensures that its owner is two to three times its body weight. Hence, when a pit bull is properly chained to its owner—as the law requires for all breeds in New York City—it is a safe animal. One could argue that large, highly protective breeds, when poorly trained, can’t be restrained effectively by smaller owners; but this argument does not apply to the pit bull, which weighs less than a Labrador.

Unfortunately, the city’s leash laws often are disobeyed and go unenforced. Less than a month after the city’s most recent "crackdown" on leash-law scofflaws, my son and I were riding our bikes through Flushing Meadows Park and passed six loose pit bulls. Curiously, we passed many other dogs walking with their owners on our ride that night, but only pit bulls were loose. Clearly, this says more about pit-bull owners than about the breed.

Our unwillingness to en-force existing laws makes pit bulls a threat; another breed will be the perceived threat tomorrow. In the meantime, the responsible citizen is stuck with another useless imposition upon his civil liberties. Enforce existing license and leash laws, and those who let their unlicensed pit bulls run loose in city parks will realize that handling their dogs this way is more trouble than they can handle.

Carl Semencic
West Hempstead, New York

To the editor:
When Brian C. Anderson says that the city’s "best course" would be to require "all dogs weighing more than 40 pounds" to wear muzzles in public, I’m assuming he really means all dogs—standard poodles and golden retrievers included. Please, Brian. Get hold of yourself. You’ve convinced me that pit bulls are menacing and scary, but your solution approaches the hysterical. And I must say it’s offensive to those of us proud of our "strangely askew, doggy-centric view of the world."

Nice piece otherwise.

Tucker Carlson
The Weekly Standard

Brian C. Anderson responds:
Muzzling all bigger dogs—even gentle breeds—isn’t hysterical, as Tucker Carlson suggests. It’s a second-best solution. As I argued in my article, New York’s absurd ban on breed-specific legislation means that we can’t single out potentially dangerous dogs like the pit pull or the Dogo Argentino for any kind of restriction. So it’s muzzles for poodles—or no muzzles at all.

Contrary to Mr. Semencic, I’m not convinced that just enforcing existing leash and license laws would solve the serious problem pit bulls and other dangerous breeds pose to public order. A pit bull on a leash can still intimidate, as when a thug strutting his spiked-collared "man-stopper" down a crowded sidewalk scatters nervous pedestrians. Pit bulls are smaller than other fighting breeds, as Semencic points out. But he says nothing about pit bulls’ genetically wired ferocity, tenacity, and quickness to anger—traits that few other dogs share and that make the breed dangerous and unpredictable. It doesn’t surprise me that few pit bull owners were obeying the leash law. As I had pointed out, the pit bull has become an accessory to underclass life. Many pit-bull owners have an uneasy relationship with the law, to say the least.
 

Hail from Jail

To the editor:
Just a note to express sincere gratitude to Paul E. O’Connell, Frank Straub, and your staff for letting readers learn what has happened in the Correction Department. We are extremely proud of our successes, which parallel those that Mayor Giuliani has achieved all over this great city. Without City Journal, these accomplishments would remain, in your words, "unsung."

Bernard B. Kerik
Commissioner Department of Correction
 

Not Holy Writ

To the editor:
Myron Magnet might be right about one thing: it may not be a good idea for the City Charter to stipulate that the public advocate succeed the mayor when the mayor resigns. Otherwise, Mr. Magnet is all wrong.

First, he’s wrong to say that the mayor "should appoint a charter-revision commission to change the succession rule in time for the voters to approve it before the 2000 election"—even though that’s pretty much what the mayor did.

State law says that a mayor-appointed charter commission must "examine the whole charter," and then describe in a formal report why it wants to change the parts of the charter it wants to change and why it wants to leave alone the parts

it doesn’t want to change. It’s illegal to appoint a charter commission to do X or Y. The mayor has to be more inhibited than Mr. Magnet, so at his press conference on June 15, he simulated indifference to the succession question and urged Randy Mastro et al. to propose whatever they want. Nudge, nudge; wink, wink.

Then there’s the problem of writing a good-faith final report. If the mayor and Messrs. Magnet and Mastro have their way and the voters are presented with a ballot question this November, then the final report is due in early September. So hearings and research and careful sifting of evidence regarding the whole 300-page document will take place between the Fourth of July and Labor Day. Right.

One might argue that two months is more than enough for a distinguished group of jurists and other authorities well acquainted with the last big charter revision in 1989. But the commissioners empaneled by Mayor Giuliani are shockingly underqualified and distressingly obligated to the mayor for their professional livelihoods.

The City Charter is not holy writ. It could use an overhaul and some sharp editing. But as our city’s constitution, it should not be changed lightly; and it must not become an instrument of short-term political warfare.

Mayor Giuliani has done a lot of good things for New York: preserving constitutional decorum isn’t one of them.

Conn Nugent
Citizens Union

Myron Magnet responds:
Those who revised the charter a decade ago were not Jefferson and Madison, and one glaring flaw in their work was the smoke-filled-room deal that didn’t junk the now-irrelevant job of City Council president but transmogrified it into the even more useless public-advocate position to keep the then-incumbent in office. When the City Council president truly was New York’s second-highest official, it made sense to designate him as the mayor’s successor, but to devolve the succession, almost by inadvertence, on so superfluous a placeholder as the public advocate is ludicrous. Should we really not solve this glaring problem until we can solve all our problems?
 

Reconstructing Aristotle

To the editor:
The quarrel between deconstruction and the Western classical tradition of reason has been treated predominantly as a matter of metaphysics. Roger Scruton ("What Ever Happened to Reason?" Spring 1999) has rightly pointed out the fundamentally political character of the debate, observing that the deconstructionist project of "debunk[ing] the old authorities in the name of liberation" is, in effect, a political obliteration of reason that leaves us swimming in a sea of disparate cultures, none of which "has any specific claim to our attention." Jacques Derrida admits the radically political nature of deconstruction: it is "not primarily a matter of philosophical theses . . . but a question of the very possibility of law, of authority, of representation." He seeks to subvert Western classical rationalism—"the origin and alibi of all oppression in the world"—and so cast off its cultural, political, moral, and legal shackles. Yet taken to its logical conclusion, deconstruction has the potential to go beyond the political correctness and the relativistic postmodern curriculum of which Scruton speaks and eliminate any possibility for communication or political action.

The deconstructionist seeks to liberate us by exposing the ever-changing and inconclusive character of all political, legal, and ethical "discourse." Yet if man becomes a mere vessel for the whimsy and "play of language," he is stripped of what distinguishes him from the beasts: his political expression, his ability to discriminate, his agency. In eliminating binding discourse between humans, deconstruction annihilates any possibility for self-knowledge or political community. Man is left in a linguistic state of nature—a war of all against all.

The postmodernists’ limited insight into the indeterminacy of language and insufficiency of reason was recognized by the ancients, particularly Aristotle. The Socratic task of constant questioning, of judiciously limiting and being limited by an other, embodies a mindfulness of tyranny’s dangers. In alluding, in his conclusion, to a postmodern absolutism that "excludes all but the relativists," Scruton shows that unchecked deconstruction may be just as poisonous to human liberty as an unchecked tyrant.

Kirsten Weick
Munich, Germany