Bah, “Humbug”

To the editor:
The strong political bias of your publication is clear. You are, of course, entitled to promote a particular political and social ideology. And you do. So it is with some sense of futility that I write to express the sorrow and dismay I felt upon reading Heather Mac Donald’s absurd caricature of the work of a group of feminist and critical race theory scholars (“Law School Humbug,” Autumn 1995).

“Law School Humbug” is such an extreme example of an absence of balance and fairmindedness that I feel compelled to protest. The article reflected an utter inability (or staunch refusal) to comprehend the rich and complex body of work that it ridiculed. Working from the astounding pretense that feminist and critical race scholarship is now dominant in the legal academy, the article cruelly undercut some of the most humane, most intellectually sophisticated, and most devoted teachers and scholars I have known.

Of course, these people are not dominant in the legal academy. They are (in several significant respects) minority voices seeking a pluralism grounded in mutual respect and understanding. They are vulnerable, and Ms. Mac Donald’s words have done them harm. More importantly, her words have made more difficult the already astoundingly difficult task of teaching developing lawyers to function responsibly in the face of what virtually every legal scholar since the early decades of this nearly elapsed century has recognized to be our challenge: a measure of indeterminacy that is not unlimited, but deeply significant.

Peggy C. Davis
Professor of Law
New York University New York, N.Y.

To the editor:
I wish to concur fully in my colleague Professor Peggy C. Davis’s letter. Careful criticism is one thing; condemnation based on false facts and innuendo is another. Ms. Mac Donald’s article was mostly the latter, and, as perhaps was intended, it has caused great personal hurt to those attacked in it and undermined the career possibilities of younger members who must still face the obstacles of the tenure process.

I am often deemed the “father of critical race theory.” It is an honor that I don’t deserve but that I carry proudly. The writings of many young minority teachers have provided a heretofore unrecognized perspective on the law and the society it serves. This writing is varied in its approach, content, and emphasis. But those who are pioneering in this area are honest and courageous individuals who observe a far more objective and honest critique than in Ms. Mac Donald’s “Humbug” piece.

In addition, I have known some of the individuals whose classroom comments were set out in the article, and I know for a fact that some of the statements attributed to them were either grossly false or yanked out of context. A number of these teachers are my former students and now my friends. They are some of the most caring and humane people I know, and certainly are far more sensitive to students’ views and feelings than many of their majority-race colleagues. This article has done them a great disservice.

Derrick Bell
Visiting Professor of Law
New York University
New York, N.Y.

Heather Mac Donald responds:
Professors Davis and Bell fail to refute my characterizations of the tenets and methods of critical race and feminist legal theory. Do feminist scholars not hold that law is a male construct designed to silence the oppressed? Do critical race scholars such as Professor Bell not argue that American society is so ineradicably racist that even its civil rights laws aim to keep blacks down? And is the introduction of subjective anecdotes into legal scholarship not a proud achievement of both feminist and critical race theorists? I would welcome evidence to the contrary; Professors Bell and Davis have not provided it.

The practitioners of critical race and feminist legal theories may well be humane and caring people. The only issue for the public, however, is the possible effect of their scholarship on law and society. Until shown otherwise, I will continue to maintain that the majority of this new scholarship is trivial at best, dangerously divisive at worst.

Drive to Succeed

To the editor:
I read with considerable interest Howard Husock’s article on community vans (“Enterprising Van Drivers Collide with Regulation,” Winter 19961. Clearly, vans are more economical than city buses in most parts of the city for most parts of the day. Yet in all the discussions of the recent fare increases, no one mentioned just how costly the buses are. The gross operating subsidy for the buses approaches $600 million per year, almost equal to the subsidy for the subways, which carry two and a half times as many riders.

Maintenance costs are much higher for buses than are comparable costs for the private van fleet, in part because of the limited production run of spare parts for buses and in part because of the poor condition of city streets. New York City buses experience twice as much wear and tear as buses in other cities; vans, in contrast, can alter their routes to avoid the worst-maintained streets.

The city’s efforts to regulate vans, like its efforts to license other trades, seem to aim at protecting the income of those already employed. As Mr. Husock points out, New York City will surely suffer economically when its government thwarts the drive in the marketplace for the lowest-cost solutions to transportation needs.

Frank McArdle
New York, N.Y.

Beyond Left and Right

To the editor:
As a regular reader, I was finally provoked by your Winter 1996 issue to challenge you to broaden your magazine’s political perspective.

Issue after issue, you present articles suggesting that there are only “conservative” lessons to be learned from efforts to improve urban life. But both David Watkin’s article (“It’s Back to the Future in the Heart of London”) and David Garrard Lowe’s article (“Urban Lessons from Paris”) reveal a more complex reality. Was it not, after all, the power of “government” (albeit in the form of the Prince of Wales) that sustained the vision described by Mr. Watkin? And is not Paris a city that benefits from enormous investment by its national government?

The Harlem Diarist by Kathryn Wylde (“Doing the Right Thing”) brilliantly shows that smart urban development is a matter of what gets done, not who does it (public or private sector) or whether it is ideologically “conservative” or “liberal.” Boldness, imagination, creativity, a can-do spirit, a passion for solving problems, and a commitment to help all the citizens of a metropolis, particularly the disadvantaged, are crucial elements monopolized by no political persuasion. The best solutions to urban problems, even short-term ones, are generally triumphs of pragmatism, not philosophy.

Most of us learned long ago to question the sacred cows of both left and right. Rome not only was not built in a day, it was not built by conservatives or liberals alone. In a journal admirably diverse in its choice of subjects, how about a measure of political diversity?

Michael E. Clark
Woodmere, N.Y.


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