Letters to the Editor

Are American voters ignorant -- or just apathetic? Plus: Shuttling blame for declining sex drive; polluting Bob Marley's legacy

Published December 1, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Is voter ignorance killing democracy?


Chris Shea correctly notes that voters want less government but want more
from it. But he is wrong about the source, which is ambivalence, not ignorance.

The recent study by Albert H. and Susan Davis Cantril, "Reading Mixed
Signals: Ambivalence in American Public Opinion about Government," presents the results of an
extensive national survey designed specifically to get at this group of
voters. The Cantrils find that, as a group, these voters are no worse informed than
a) voters who seem more consistent in wanting to shrink government and
have fewer programs or b) voters who think government size is fine and
want more programs. The Cantrils do, however, find other distinguishing
features about ambivalent voters, features that are extremely important
because they are also important swing voters.

The study finds that people's opinions on issues in public debate today
have more to do with ambivalence than with demographic characteristics,
with the exception of age, or with whether they describe their political views
as conservative, middle of the road or liberal. Among people generally critical of
government, the Cantrils find, six considerations stand out as especially
important in explaining levels of ambivalence:

1) Differences of opinion about how much attention government should pay
to the concerns of low-income Americans. Those who think government is
paying too little or the right amount of attention to the poor are more
likely to be more ambivalent in their criticism of government than those
who think too much attention is given to the poor.

2) Differences in how much people think
their communities are affected by what goes on in other parts of the
country. Those who sense interdependence tend to be more ambivalent as
critics of government.

3) Differing levels of confidence in the
executive agencies of the federal government. Critics who are more
confident are usually more ambivalent in their criticism of government.

4) Differences of opinion about how to deal with the issue of race. Government's critics who think the country still has a long way to go in working for racial equality are more ambivalent.

5) Age. Younger critics of government tend to be more ambivalent in their thinking than older critics.

6) Differences of opinion about getting ahead. Those who think there are times when circumstances stand in the way are more likely to be ambivalent as critics than those who think anyone
can get ahead with hard work.

-- Joseph Brinley

Director, Woodrow Wilson Center Press

Americans aren't ignorant and uninformed -- just the opposite, in fact -- but
the elites who run for office obviously believe the myth. We're bombarded
with idiotic, name-calling, preschool-level ads, debates that are composed
of smirky remarks and no substance, and a choice of two people who support
the same thing -- the status quo.

Quite frankly, under the electoral system we have today, my vote doesn't
really count. Because a choice between two
wealthy spoiled brats whose main goal is to protect their interests --
interests that are alien to mine -- is no choice at all. The system is
so dependent on money that it is really just a bidding contest.

-- Juliane Schneider

Americans aren't too dumb to vote -- but we are too dumb to have "direct
democracy," an idea we're going to hear more and more of as the average
Joe American goes online: "To hell with all these representatives.
We'll vote for everything over the morning coffee." I want a deliberative
democracy which has a lot of smart and principled representatives working
full-time for me. I wouldn't know the first thing about how to balance
the budget or which missile would be the best buy, but I would hope I could
elect someone who shares the same principles as I do to go to Washington
and do that work for me.

-- Vincent Basehart

In many ways, our republican form of government is
designed to allow the people not to sweat the details. My neighbor and I
don't need to know how milk subsidies work; we elect representatives to
take care of that kind of thing for us.
Ignorance is no virtue, but there was no golden age of informed voting in
America. In the 19th century, voters often knew their congressman by sight
but couldn't name the president. Furthermore, voters in the past were far
more likely to vote party tickets than voters today. If the republic could
survive the Know-Nothing movement, it will probably survive the MTV

-- R. Scott Rogers

What's really needed is an examination of just how much information the
"average" American really has access to. In cities like Washington
and New York (where many journalists and pollsters live), it's easy to
assume that everyone has ready access to reams of daily political
coverage. In fact, though, this is not the case in much of the country.

I look at my father, who lives in a
small town in Pennsylvania. He reads two papers daily -- one from the town
in which he lives and one from a neighboring, larger town. Neither devotes
much space to national politics. Sure, he could subscribe to the
Washington Post or the New York Times to round out his reading, but many
people are too busy to read that many papers each day (and television news
is certainly not that enlightening) or surf the Internet for news (and despite the incessant media coverage of the Internet, many Americans still do not have computers).
Are American voters truly ignorant or do they just not have as much access to information as we'd like to think?

-- Julia Thomas

Not this year, dear


I was married to a man with virtually no sex drive for 10 years.
Unfortunately, in order to cover up his inadequacies, he blamed it on me,
telling me that I was "completely undesirable." It was unbearably
frustrating, and the frustration caused other problems, until we were
constantly fighting. I couldn't take it anymore and finally divorced
him. I think men like him should tell their intended spouses how they feel
about sex. In our case (this was 1958), he told me that he "respected"
me, and wanted to wait until we were married. I was too naive to know any
better. I often wondered whether he was gay; after reading this article,
I probably have the answer.

-- Barbara Herman

Most religious and philosophical traditions have viewed sexual desire as a
distraction from the real business of attaining understanding. Freedom
from sexual desire is one of the great compensations of old age.
Perhaps the pseudonymous husband's problem is not lack of desire, but
living in the wrong culture.

-- Stephen Judd

Trapped in a health net


The healthnet.com vs. healthnet.org problem would be easy to straighten out if
people paid attention to what those domain name suffixes mean. A .com
is a corporation; an .org is a nonprofit. Is HealthNet HMO a for-profit
corporation? Then it gets the .com, and it can't have the .org -- enough

But more and more, people are disregarding this elegant, straightforward
scheme, and those who assign the domain names are guilty of dereliction of
duty in letting them get away with it. Companies that can't have the
.coms they want are shamelessly poaching the .nets (which are supposed
to be reserved for network service providers). Meanwhile, nonprofits have been
forgoing their rightful .orgs and snatching up .coms, at least in part
because of the browser makers' incredibly vile and annoying decision to
use .com as a default suffix (that is, if you type "blarg" on the address
line, it automatically resolves to www.blarg.com, not www.blarg.org).
How much longer can the .edus, .govs and .mils keep their respective
suffixes sacrosanct?

As for the behavior of the HMO -- well, we don't really expect any better
of an HMO, do we?

-- Keith Ammann

Albany, N.Y.

This latest domain name/trademark battle highlights the difficulty in legislating the
appropriate distribution of domain URLs. The fact is that for almost any
domain, there are multiple uses, multiple meanings and multiple people or
organizations with an interest in the pride of ownership. Attempts to decide ownership based on legal
threats or suits are arbitrary at best. They completely contradict the
concept of reward for personal ingenuity. Let the free market reign.

-- Douglas Bates

Sharps & Flats: "Chant Down Babylon"



Bob Marley was the one man you would think people would respect enough not to sample and steal from. It's shameful and ridiculous. Even more
ridiculous than the act itself is the reason given to justify it -- to
fulfill his dream of reaching young black Americans.

That's a little too simplistic and selfish. Marley's goal was to spread the
word of his god, Jah, and the ideals of his religion and Haile Selassie.
This included reaching more than just young black Americans. Marley's
son and the artists on the "tribute" are the ones who want to reach young
black Americans, and for no other reason than for the money in their pockets.

-- Jason A. Cato

On being Ken

Tim Cornwell must be the smartest dad in the world. Not for his ability to
improvise being Ken, but for his instinctual awareness of the benefits of
spending an hour playing Barbies with his daughters rather than insisting
on playing something he perceives as fun. Cornwell is right: He will eventually long to hear
his daughters' pleas of getting on the floor and mixing things up with
Barbie and Ken. I know I do -- especially when my 14-year-old is heading off
to rock concerts and repeated midnight showings of "Rocky Horror Picture
Show," and my 11-year-old is begging to wear makeup to the Friday night
teen gathering.

-- Kathy Hogan

Tim Cornwell seems to have the Barbie spirit down.
But why did he "nervously" put a stop to his daughter's inter-Barbie love
plot line? I'm guessing Cornwell's daughter isn't a budding lesbian or even old
enough to be fishing for a father/daughter sex talk. She does seem
innocently curious. One day she may wonder why Daddy let Ken go without pants in public, but
wouldn't let the queen of China kiss Ariel the mermaid.

-- Dale Tegtman

"The Devil's Cup" by Stewart Lee Allen and "Uncommon Grounds" by Mark Pendergrast

I want to defend myself against reviewer Richard Reynolds' perception that my book, "Uncommon Grounds," is overly academic. I'm proud of my scholarship, and the book is indeed thoroughly
documented, but I think readers will find that the writing itself is casual,
informative and sometimes quite funny. I'm fond of the "Women's
Petition Against Coffee" (1674), for instance, in which the women of
London vented their frustrated belief that coffee had rendered their "more
kind gallants" impotent. "Never did Men wear greater Breeches," they wrote, "or
carry less in them of any Mettle whatsoever." There's coverage of the Maxwell
House Showboat, a radio show so popular that people lined the Mississippi
waiting for a glimpse of the mythical coffee boat. And then there's the
hilarious 1939 radio show featuring Mae West that nearly got Chase &
Sanborn kicked off the air.

-- Mark Pendergrast

Author, "Uncommon Grounds"

Essex Junction, Vt.

Cult of the cloth


Lisa Moricoli Latham says she joined an online parenting group looking for information. Once there, she found an abundance of friendly advice and guidance in making a
pricey purchase. (She writes, "The ladies were welcoming and gracious,
spending what must have represented several collective man hours answering
questions.") She used this advice to her advantage in caring for her own
child, and then proceeded to turn the entire experience into fodder
for an article making rather nasty and highly specific fun of the nice
folks who assisted her.

-- Katie Allison Granju

I was very dismayed at the tone of the article "cult of the cloth." We
have two wonderful children we adopted in '97(at 20 months and
9 months). After about four months I was amazed at the amount of money we were
spending keeping two kids in disposable diapers and the amount of garbage we
were generating. When I walked in my son's bedroom one afternoon and caught him eating pee-filled gel capsules from his diaper I decided to switch to cloth
diapers and wraps. I didn't pin or deal with velcro, but used snap
diapers and snap wraps. I didn't dunk my diapers in the toilet, though I did
wash them at home. It was amazingly simple and easy. And I was
amazed at how quickly my two kids wanted to start using the potty.

It is easy to become "addicted" to cloth diapering and want to buy all
the latest kinds and styles. But it is a harmless addiction -- and it can be a lot of fun.

-- Patricia Davis

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