Letters to the editor

Life isn't like the movies, Conason Plus: Who will vouch for vouchers? Men respond to essays on rape.

Published March 30, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Lessons from "Erin Brockovich"



I am no authority on either the PG&E case or plans for tort reform. I do, however, have enough sense to realize the difference between movies and real life. No one in their right mind believes that they are learning physics from "Star Trek," or female psychology from "American Pie" or computer technology from "The Net." Yet when a movie about politics or the law appears, suddenly people assume it is a flawless depiction of real life.

The fact of the matter is that real life is complicated and that even many documentaries are limited in their presentations of subjects. How much more inaccurate is a movie where the director has carte blanche to restructure, add and omit material so as to heighten tension, to increase the badness of the bad guys and the goodness of the good guys, to move the story faster?

One goes to a movie to get the emotions pumping, not the mind thinking. But I don't want legal and political decisions made by people who are driven by pure emotion with little knowledge of the facts, and I don't like to see columnists advocating such a style of decision making.

-- Maynard Handley

Conason's article implies that that limiting punitive damage awards to plaintiffs leaves Americans "defenseless against corporate depredations."

This is untrue. Victims are still entitled to compensatory damages, which are meant to approximate the actual full cost of the harm they have endured.

Punitive damages are altogether different; they are not meant to compensate the victim but simply to punish the defendant. Even under the most popular tort reform approaches, punitive damages are still available if the defendant has acted recklessly -- just not the disproportionately high punitive damages that have become so fashionable.

While Conason is to be credited for his insight that potential punitive damage awards create an incentive for better corporate behavior, he should consider the longer-term consequences: The prospect of unpredictable, astronomical and frequently unjustified punitive damage awards also leads to higher corporate insurance rates and other substantial expenses. Ultimately, these costs are covered by raising the price to the consumer.

As this trend continues, the bottom line becomes clear: Plaintiff's lawyers pad their pockets while the poor, with whom Conason is rightly concerned, pay the price.

-- Matthew Estabrook

Joe Conason makes some good points about tort reform. However, for each of the high profile cases like Erin Brockovich there are hundreds that do more harm than good. You forget that the lawyers rake off the first third of the winnings and even the defense lawyers can make a "killing." The asbestos class-action suit provided a few tens of thousands each for the people hurt while making the lawyers richer than Arab oil sheiks and closing factories forcing good union laborers out of jobs they had held for many years. There is room and need for some good realistic tort reform. And I believe that is the direction that Dubyah and the other Republicans are headed.

-- Mel Stanley

Corporate giants and their insurers have done everything in their power to take away the ability of the individual to fight back. I hope this movie is seen by everyone in America and that monopolies like PG&E are broken up and made to pay for all the damages, physical and financial, they've inflicted on the unsuspecting public.

-- Joan Barrymore

Vouchers and the law

It seems to me that the voucher issue is a critical one and, more importantly, is solvable. I would bet that most Americans can agree that public education can do better, and that alternative models should be tried. The only stumbling block that I see is the problem of shifting public funds from public schools to religious schools, which raises nontrivial Constitutional issues and simply rubs a lot of people the wrong way.

Why not take religious schools out of the equation? Let's try using public funds in private secular schools, or to help fund new educational business ventures that could arise in communities as funding becomes available.

If it is not possible to remove religious schools from the debate, perhaps the issue isn't, after all, about educational attainment as much as an excuse to bring government support to struggling religious institutions.

-- Gerald Lindahl

My concern about school vouchers is not the First Amendment concern but the possible weakening of public support of our public schools. It seems possible that unfettered use of school vouchers would "skim off" the better pupils to private schools, leaving the more challenging children in the public school system. It can be argued that this is exactly what is happening in most urban districts today.

I believe that there is a solution to this concern. Any school accepting publicly funded vouchers would be required to admit all students without regard to academic, physical or any other "qualifying" standard. If there were more applicants than classroom spots available, children would have to be selected by a random lottery system. In addition, private voucher schools would have to provide the same level of services to special need students as would the neighborhood public school. However, the voucher school would also receive the additional public monies allocated to these special need students.

With these ground rules, the public and private voucher schools would be competing on a leveler playing field. It could then be determined just how well our public schools are performing.

-- Dale McDonald

The preface to the voucher debate stated that the arguments against vouchers were only that they hurt public schools and that it encroaches upon religion. An often overlooked third argument is that vouchers do not in fact allow needy families to attend better private schools, as promised.

In Florida, the voucher is to be about $3,500, but the well-regarded private schools in Miami-Dade County, for example, charge up to $5,000 to $10,000. Needy families cannot make up the difference. Moreover, the private schools which do accept the vouchers are not subject to the oversight or grading that the public schools are, so there is no guarantee or in fact any method for assuring the private schools are better than the public school the child left.

All vouchers will do is remove children from a poor public school and put them in the lowest common denominator private school. The damage to the public schools, which do lose funding under Bush's plan and therefore cannot improve their poor rating to help the children who stay, and the entanglement in religion at the few private schools that will accept the limited vouchers as full payment cannot even arguably be worth it if the private schools cannot be shown to be an improvement over the public school.

The best way to assure a good education is parental involvement, small class sizes, and well-paid meritorious teachers. The best place to achieve that is in reformed public schools, not in unregulated for-profit private schools.

-- Jonathan D. Colan

Stop raping my loved ones

Thank you for your two articles today on rape and its lasting effects in relationships throughout the victims' lives. When I saw Andrew Strickman's revelation that "six of the last nine women I dated had been sexually assaulted," I started counting examples from my own life and realized that five out of the last seven women I have dated had been sexually assaulted.

I had been frantic trying to figure out if there was something weird about me, if I was, being a "nice guy" type, somehow acting as a magnet for women who have experienced rape and molestation, because I seem "safe." Now that I have someone else's description of exactly what I have experienced too many times, I see that I am unfortunately far from alone. I can only hope that as more individual men face the pain of dealing with this aftermath of all men's war on women, we might get to a critical mass that can bring this so-easily-avoidable suffering to an end.

-- Kevin Tomblin

I'd really like to thank Strickman for a wonderfully balanced article on a subject that often isn't spoken about. I too have dated far more women than not that have been sexually assaulted in their past. All too often I've shied away from even thinking about how their experiences affect me because of a deep-rooted sense of guilt that such thoughts are selfish. Strickman's article has articulated my feelings and thoughts on these women that I have loved and their horrible trials. I hope that it is much read by both men and women who are dealing or have had to deal with the effects of sexual assault on their relationships with others. It might help offer perspective and understanding to help keep their relationships together.

-- Ryan Howard

What an insightful piece. I learned so much more about Andrew Strickman's sex life than I ever would have expected in an article ostensibly about assaults against other people.

May I suggest an alternative title: "Rape and Its Effect on Andrew Strickman's Penis."

-- Andrew Smith

The conversation

With all due respect to Shreve and her experience, one of the most
grossly negligent assumptions our society has with the traumatic,
life-altering event of rape is that it only happens to women. This false
assumption tends to make the issue more of a battle of the sexes than it
needs to be.

The truth is, men can be and are raped more often than most people care to
know. When it is female-on-male rape, the glib response tends to assume the
guy was asking for it (sound familiar?). When it is male-on-male rape, the
truth is no one wants to hear ANYTHING about it. Period.

As with Shreve, my life has been forever altered by my horrific
experience. My views of men and women, of religion, of the precious and
fragile innocence of youth, have been forever changed -- all for the better,
I believe.

Our society can
more easily acknowledge women who have been forced into this most unwanted
of experiences, but it refuses to comprehend -- as Shreve's column
exemplifies -- that these events do not always discriminate based on gender.

Male victims of rape and sexual abuse are not always found in prison
showers, but also in playgrounds and offices, churches and closets, and
everywhere else imaginable. The issue of rape and sexual assault is too
complex and far-reaching to say we as a society should discuss it, yet then
manage to overlook such a significant part of the discussion.

-- Billy Faires

I too am involved with a woman who was assaulted. For me, it brings up shame about what animals men can be. There is absolutely never a reason or excuse to take something so precious from another person. I see myself politically as an iconoclast, and am preparing to graduate from law school. But frankly, on this issue, as well as pedophilia issues, I am open to arguments of the kind that an ayatollah might make as far as punishment goes. Women who have this experience should never be required or feel obligated to justify their feelings -- whatever those feelings might or might not be.

-- Ted

By Salon Staff

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