Gangsta Chains

To the editor:
You write that children stuck in ghetto schools are taught that they “should nevertheless have high self-esteem” because they are fine just as they are (Myron Magnet, “In the Heart of Freedom, in Chains,” Summer 2007). I spent a year teaching public school in Virginia, and the kids didn’t believe that they were just good; they believed that they were magnificent. But they didn’t want to learn about anything that didn’t involve blacks of a certain class. Poor as they were, most had MP3 players, iPods, or cell phones. They all wanted to listen to rap while working—if they worked at all.

I’ve never met kids so impervious to learning. They had no aspirations beyond the material. Efforts to open them up to new ideas were met with indifference. These kids had made a choice to be ignorant, and they refused to let anyone convince them otherwise.

Helen Lewis
Newport News, VA

To the editor:
Martin Joos’s book The Five Clocks identifies the intimate, casual, consultative, formal, and frozen styles of English. The casual style—circuitous and laced with meaningless emotionalism and profanity—seems to be the only one used by the population known as the “underclass.”

Can we understand any social problem without understanding the language issue?

James Janecek
New Brighton, MN

To the editor:
During the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, urban flight by educated, middle-class, and upwardly mobile African-Americans precipitated the destruction of historically black communities. Jobs, schools, and businesses left urban communities in droves. We are now witnessing the results of urban black flight and the welfare system: widespread ignorance, mayhem, and violence against our people by our people. Yet our urban brothers and sisters had enough moxie to make it through relatively intact. They created their own variant of the English language, which we misnamed Ebonics. They created a lucrative and often-copied music called hip-hop. They gave their children distinct identities, with names like Shenikua and Royhame.

What were Bill Cosby and others doing when our poor communities were being ripped to shreds by the post–civil rights black exodus? The Cosby generation failed us when we needed its help.

Heru Ammen
Temecula, CA

Myron Magnet responds:
As the first two of these letters vividly show, economic deprivation alone doesn’t define the underclass. The real problems are intellectual deprivation and—at the furthest extreme—deficits of basic socialization that all but doom individuals to failure. Such basic deficits, hard for any later schooling or training to repair, flow from family breakdown. A ghetto culture that perpetuates isolation with its own in-group names and dialect—and that endorses and even celebrates the pathology of family breakdown and marginalization with hip-hop’s nihilism, resentment, misogyny, and rage—is no solution (as Heru Ammen would have it) but only a worsening of the problem.

Opera Wars

To the editor:
Bravo, Heather Mac Donald (“The Abduction of Opera,” Summer 2007). As an opera professional in Germany for the last eight years, I can say that the intellectual dishonesty and elitist snobbery that have produced and defended Regietheater are crippling the European opera houses and having a dramatic impact on opera attendance. I have seen Regietheater productions, refused engagements in that style, and hope that it goes the way of the dodo. As for Calixto Bieito, he should be paying for the therapy he so clearly needs.

Via e-mail

To the editor:
This is a preposterous article. Opera as an art form is not realistic—and it is this that Regietheater attempts to address. Berlin’s opera houses are devoted to opera as a vital, contemporary force. Someone who sees opera as a museum art should stick to the Metropolitan Opera; it is a laughingstock.

Meaning changes; it appears to be only the U.S. that wants to cling to simplistic and “literal” interpretation. Regietheater productions provoke not just controversy, but thinking. They show us that opera has contemporary relevance.

David Haslett
Berlin, Germany

Heather Mac Donald responds:
Mr. Haslett assumes that treating opera as a “vital, contemporary force” requires burying a composer’s musical understanding under a grotesque gloss from some talentless director’s puny, pop-culture-sated brain. Yet somehow, operas have managed to survive centuries of what Mr. Haslett calls “simplistic” interpretation whose primary obligation was to the composer’s intentions. Only a narcissist would demand that every precious work from the past parrot our current obsessions. Of course, interpretation is always complicated and will never literally recover the “original” meaning of a work. But it takes someone wholly devoid of musical understanding and literary sensibility to hear in the score for the Abduction from the Seraglio the soundtrack for a snuff film.

Some Racket

To the editor:
Although a liberal, I agree wholeheartedly with Bruce Bawer’s article (“The Peace Racket,” Summer 2007). But I don’t think conservatives are ones to argue that “real education exposes students to a range of ideas and trains them to think critically about all orthodoxies,” given that they uncritically accept unbridled capitalism and educational institutions that bring religious ideology to bear on every question. Placing ideology over the hard task of evaluating ideas is not unique to the Left.

Brian Erb
Omaha, NE

To the editor:
Bruce Bawer reminds us to trust freedom and to remember that tyrants never learn. Every September, I recall when I landed at Nagasaki with the 2nd Marine Division in the original occupation of Japan following World War II. When we landed in Japan, for what came to be the most humane occupation of a defeated enemy in recorded history, it was with great appreciation and thanksgiving for the atomic bomb team, including the air crew of the Enola Gay. Countless American homes had been spared the Gold Star flag, including, I’m sure, my own.

Jim Baxter
Santa Maria, CA

Bruce Bawer responds:
I can assure Mr. Erb that, whatever political label he chooses to attach to me, when I describe a “real education” as teaching students “to think critically about all orthodoxies,” I mean all orthodoxies. He could dispel any suspicion that I am excessively patient with religious orthodoxy by reading either of my last two books, Stealing Jesus and While Europe Slept.


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