Letters to the Editor

Roger Ebert agrees: Critics get a raw deal. Plus: Debating disabled scholarship; don't let AT&T control our Internet!

Topics: Roger Ebert

Critics: Who needs ‘em?
BY CHARLES TAYLOR

(08/18/99)

I enjoyed Charles Taylor’s lament about being a well-qualified film
critic in a world where hardly anyone values such expertise.

When a viewer wrote suggesting that I should have a 15-year-old
guest critic on the TV show to express a teenager’s point of view, I
replied that when I was 15 I was reading Dwight Macdonald in Esquire and
trying to learn more about the movies. He shot back that I was a “rude
snob.”

Once at the Sun-Times my telephone rang and it was a reader saying,
“We’re going to the movies tonight and the Wilmette theater is playing
‘Cries and Whispers.’ What can you tell us about it?”

“I think it’s the year’s best movie,” I said.

“Oh,” he replied. “That doesn’t sound like anything we’d like to see.”

– Roger Ebert

Film critic, Chicago Sun-Times

What sensitive artiste — author, musician or filmmaker — doesn’t encounter
a bad review at some time or another, and feel compelled to dash off a
letter, correcting the myopic critic in question? If the creator’s
publicists are any good, though, they’ll nix the rebuttal before the stamp
gets licked: They know that such missives almost invariably come off as
petulant whines. So what do we make of a critic who feels the need to
respond to the crank e-mails of his readers? Well, in the case of Charles
Taylor, we make him out to be a self-infatuated blowhard.

Taylor contends that honest critics
such as himself are an endangered species. Sure, hype and gloss permeate
the world of entertainment journalism, with its celebrity profiles and
movie previews. But the review pages of the publications I read all feature
a healthy mix of pans and praises. Yet Taylor would have us believe that
giving “The Phantom Menace” a bad review should earn him a medal of valor.

The criticisms Taylor cites as emblematic are so witless, so
insubstantial, so self-evidently wrong-headed that I have to wonder why
they upset him as much as they evidently do. That he considers such points worth responding to suggests that he should have thought twice about ascribing the motives of others to
“an element of insecurity.”

– Derek Weiler

Charles Taylor is correct that we all need discerning minds to help sort out the hype and make reasonable choices. He failed, however, to address a big problem with many critics, which is giving away the end of the story. True critics are few and “reviewers” are many. They write (or broadcast) little more than summaries, giving away key plot points and depriving their audience of the chance to be surprised by the films themselves. Salon often has printed reviews and features that gave away too much, from Stephanie Zacharek’s piece on “In & Out” (you really got flamed for that one, too) to Gary Kamiya’s feature on “Saving Private Ryan.”

One high-profile critic who rarely lapsed this way was Gene Siskel. I sometimes disagreed with his judgment, but he could describe a film and discuss his experience of watching it without depriving his viewers/readers their own first-hand experience. He set a standard Taylor and his colleagues should emulate.

– Tim Merritt

Atlanta


Enabling disabled scholarship

BY NORAH VINCENT

(08/18/99)

I am a writer on disability issues and a polio quadriplegic, since 1952.
I congratulate you on your Salon piece. SDSers seem to be ever more off
their nut. A Not Dead Yet official said recently he would not rest until
newspapers carried the truth in their headlines, “Society hates the
disabled.” This is a society that spends billions of dollars each year in the
care, housing, education and job placement of disabled people. A society
that in my lifetime has remade the environment to be accessible to people
with disabilities. A society that has given overwhelming support to the
most sweeping civil rights law in our history, the Americans with Disability
Act.

The dirty truth is that far from society hating disabled people, it is these
disabled people (or at least the more vocal) who hate society, hate the
able-bodied. Their firmly held belief that doctors and politicians are out
to destroy them is paranoid and speaks of low self-esteem.

As one of the founders of the disability rights movement, I am afraid today’s
leaders have shrilly distorted and obscured the core purpose of the movement
– to obtain the full and equal civil rights for people with disabilities.
In so doing the are driving away the supporters of the movement and they are marginalizing themselves in the national political discourse.

The Rap Browns and “Burn baby burn” brought down the civil rights movement of
the ’50s and ’60s. I am afraid there are those in SDS who are doing much the
same thing. Too bad.

– Hugh Gallagher

Author, “FDR’s Splendid Deception”

What’s missed in Vincent’s article on disability studies is that the discipline’s goal is not to produce more disabled bodies or to hinder scientific research, but to examine the goals of those who are trying to stop disability.

What’s needed is acceptance of the disabled, not a constant desire to “fix”
those who aren’t “normal.” This manifests itself in many ways — from Janet
Reno refusing to resort to clutching a pen to make the rest of us feel
“comfortable” as she battles Parkinson’s disease to those who decide that
they’d rather be in a wheelchair than spending hours each day learning how
to walk. Disability studies can be empowering, allowing individuals (and not a doctor or a government agency) to decide what’s normal for them.
Vincent’s assertion that SDS can not be “group therapy” shows that she does
not realize the real goal of SDS.

– Martin Johnson

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I‘ve looked with horror at the growing disability rights movement over
the past several years, because I could see that it was heading in the
foolish directions that you so ably described in your Salon article. I
certainly never want to be part of a crowd that is running in the
direction of self-delusion.

I was born with spina bifida, with a variety of problems (orthopedic and
urological) and believe me, I would be exceptionally happy to have it
all fixed. The idea that I’m somehow superior to those poor, benighted
able-bodied people who can walk without pain, and who don’t get to spend
too much of their time in the company of doctors is simply ludicrous.

For a while, I was active on a spina bifida mailing list. I unsubscribed, though,
because there were too many people who thought that when I stated that
I’d like to be able-bodied, it was somehow an attack on them. And you
should have seen the uproar when I suggested that parents who knew
(through amniocentesis or other prenatal care) that their unborn children
would have severe disabilities, and had the kids anyway, were committing
an act I considered to be unwise and unethical.

– Tom Negrino

Norah Vincent, in what I took to be the heart of her argument in “Enabling
Disabled Scholarship,” writes that “it’s hard to deny that something called normalcy exists. The human body is a machine, after all … How then can we make the
case that blind eyes, or deaf ears, or mute tongues are serving the
purpose for which they evolved?”

If this is science, it’s science with an almost Kansan misunderstanding of
evolution. Eyes, ears, and tongues did not evolve for seeing, hearing,
and speaking; they just happened to work well for those purposes and stuck
around. Preferring sight to blindness is not eugenics, but defending that
preference on evolutionary grounds is.

I assume by “normalcy” that Vincent meant “normality,” but the slip is
illuminating. Normalcy is a conservative, culturally accepted, hegemonic
assumption of the way the world should be. And yes, normalcy exists; it’s
exactly what disability scholars are trying to fight. The human body may
be a machine, but humans are the ones who decide to what purpose to put
that machine. Such normative questions should always be open for debate,
and it is hard to understand why anyone would begrudge disabled scholars
the right to theorize their own bodies. However peculiar disability
studies is (for example, its intellectual success seems to me to depend,
like much postmodern theory, on its continued political failure) it cannot
be accused of being “anti-intellectual.”

– Jared Bjornholm

As a successful person with a disability, I found Norah Vincent’s article
to be ignorant and offensive on numerous levels. I am flabbergasted,
however, by the audacity of this quote: “SDS theory is
also self-contradictory … How can we say that Western culture has demonized, oppressed or
ignored the disabled, and then turn around and claim that many of
the great works of Western culture were created by illustrious
disabled people whose disabilities deeply influenced their work?”

Would anyone be taken seriously if they said the same thing about African-Americans, women or gays? The fact that James Baldwin, Virginia Woolf and Oscar Wilde made illustrious
contributions to literature (that were influenced by their identities) does not mean that
racism, misogyny and homophobia never existed. To try to apply this
fallacy to disabled studies and the disabled community proves just how
much our society needs disabled studies.

The fact is that historically, disabled people have been abused and
marginalized by society’s need to create an Other. The liberation movements for other
similarly marginalized groups used both street-level and academic activism to meet their goals. Disability studies is our academic activism; there are several street-level activism groups, as
well. The author’s notion that somehow disabled studies is sucking away funding from
these groups to educate disabled people would be laughable if the lack
of intellectual rigor it displayed weren’t so sad.

The disabled studies scholars I have read demonstrate a
key understanding of society’s construction of normal. Yes, the body
undoubtedly has its standards of “normal” and “abnormal” behavior, but what disabled
studies is trying to teach — a point the author misses — is that because the body
is abnormal does not mean that the person is abnormal. And that is not a
distinction that is made in the world today.

Disabled studies is important because, at its best, it explains these
phenomena to the academic elite and those without disability, and says that having a
disability is no less normal than having brown hair instead of blonde.

– Eric Brunick


Local regulators and the Net

BY MARK GIMEIN

(08/17/99)

Mark Gimein argues that if local regulators are allowed to restrict AT&T’s
demand to have a monopoly, it will supposedly open the door for local
regulations to restrict other things. The examples he then gives are a
prosecutor in Tennessee seeking to sanction a pornographer in California,
the U.S. government blocking the Web site of a casino in Antigua and China
trying to shut down a pro-Taiwan Web site in New York. In all three cases, however, jurisdiction is the defining issue: The governmental body does not have its opponent within
its domain, so its power to regulate simply doesn’t exist. AT&T, however, having obtained an exclusive contract with the local government agencies (such as
Portland) trying to regulate AT&T’s never-agreed-upon use of cable lines,
is most certainly under the jurisdiction of these local governments.

Gimein then tries to bring up the boogeyman of content suppression,
indicating that allowing local governments the right to regulate business
contracts opens up the door to restricting certain Web pages through its
service. This again is a frivolous argument. Restricting Web pages is an
issue of First Amendment rights, issues not even remotely
involved with in the AT&T battle, despite the company’s whine. This is
an issue involving contractual rights, not constitutional rights. Last time
I checked, AT&T did not have a constitutional freedom to screw customers on
a whim with sweetheart business deals.

In fact, Gimein misses the reverse danger of giving AT&T free rein
over Internet access: that the company may regulate access to the Net for its own
benefit. It is quite possible that AT&T may restrict the access of Web
pages critical to its business dealings or those high up in its corporate
structure. Should local governments allow them to do this blindly?

– Robert Sterling

Editor, the Konformist


Shootout among Arkansas Republicans


BY SUZI PARKER

(07/16/99)

Suzi Parker’s story is shot
through with errors. There is one significant error of fact that we’d like
to discuss immediately below, but we feel that her errors of judgment and
representation are at least as significant.

Parker alleges that our magazine, the Arkansas Review, stated that the
governor of Arkansas “refused” to sign a fund-raising letter. This is false:
We stated specifically that the fund-raising mishap “occurred without the
governor’s knowledge.” She then suggests that we “didn’t tell the whole
story” and quotes a gubernatorial spokesman to the effect that the governor
wanted to wait until after he had finished with an election campaign to get
involved with a fund-raising campaign. This is also false: The Arkansas
Review discussed exactly that gubernatorial explanation just two paragraphs
after the one that Parker misinterpreted.

But the errors of judgment she made were in some respects more severe. For
instance, her story uses three paragraphs to reproduce three different
allegations from three different people that we made errors in the coverage
of a local political campaign. But her story never discusses the errors we
purportedly made. In a two-hour interview, she never bothered to ask us
about any of the details of this story — the one that she claims “appears
riddled with errors.” Although her apparent reportorial method –
reproducing controversial allegations without doing any work to see if
they’re true — would make things a lot easier for journalists, it would
also make journalism close to worthless.

Just as important, though, is her fundamental lack of fairness in her
representation of the interview she conducted with our magazine’s staff. We
recall making a simple point, again and again, during this interview in
tiresome detail: that our magazine’s accuracy is extraordinarily important,
we take great pains to get our facts right, and we take any suggestions
that we fail to do that very seriously and are eager to make retractions if
we get things wrong.

Through the magic of creative redaction, this was transformed into two
remarkable epigrams: “‘Factual mistakes will happen in any publication,’
adds Greenberg. ‘You can’t take this too seriously.’” No fair-minded
person who heard any significant portion of the interview would take this
as remotely representative of our conversation. More generally, no
fair-minded person would reproduce a pronoun as she does without being
scrupulous about its referent, or reproduce what is obviously an
extraordinarily ambiguous sentence without its appropriate context.

Hilariously, Parker’s article is in large part a discussion and criticism
of our “journalistic integrity and ethics.” Some integrity. Some ethics.

– Dan Greenberg

Editor, Arkansas Review

SALON NEWS EDITOR JOAN WALSH RESPONDS …

The Review reported that the “governor’s office refused” to sign the certificates in question. The Review article gave odds on various people as having been behind the decision not to sign the certificates — including the governor. Salon reported correctly that the governor “was livid when the Review claimed he refused to sign” the certificates.


Uncle Sam wants you — in the dark

BY JEFF STEIN

(08/18/99)

I was employed by Sandia National Laboratories, in Albuquerque, N.M., when the explosion on the USS Iowa occurred, and when one of our top scientists at the laboratory assembled a group that investigated the accident. The findings were
published, in our company organ, “Sandia Lab News,” as well as
disseminated to the local media, the Department of Energy, the
Department of Defense and the Navy.

The report clearly pointed the finger
at the Navy, even though it was somewhat embarrassing to the lab to do
so, because as prime contractors to the Department of Energy, the lab works closely with the U.S. military in the design, development, oversight of production, deployment,
retirement and dismantling of all nuclear weapons. The government funded the investigation, and the results — clearly pointing at the
Navy as responsible, and clearing the allegedly “gay” sailor –
could not be considered a coverup by the government. The full report should be available from: Sandia National Laboratories, Office of Information Services, P. O. Box 5800, Albuquerque, NM 87085-0165.

– George W. Perkins

Apache Junction, Ariz.

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