Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99 per year.
Subscribe for Full Access

The Secret History

Randall Kennedy’s claim that respectability politics has “improved the racial situation dramatically” [“Lifting as We Climb,” Essay, October], overstates the centrality of that phenomenon to black freedom struggles. Kennedy believes that he is providing a historical corrective to today’s young activists, who condemn attempts by police and their defenders, and by mass-media outlets, to discredit and criminalize African-American victims of police and vigilante violence. These activists know what Kennedy apparently does not: that respectability ideologies have a deeply problematic history. It is ironic that in his attempt to lecture those critical of respectability politics, Kennedy misreads the history of the civil-rights movement.

While Kennedy notes that E. D. Nixon made Rosa Parks the public face of the Montgomery Bus Boycott because of her “exemplary image and reputation,” he seems unaware of the unrespectable actions of Jo Ann Robinson of Montgomery’s Women’s Political Council in connection with that protest. In the middle of the night, at the Alabama college at which she taught, Robinson used school paper to duplicate the 50,000 flyers that set the Montgomery boycott in motion. The Montgomery movement galvanized all classes of the black community. Churchgoing ladies, their ministers, and the rank and file — even street winos — supported the boycott, putting the bus company in economic distress.

Kennedy’s personal memories of the movement are selective, not historical. He remembers the Freedom Riders in shirts, ties, and dresses (which did not prevent white racists from pummeling and arresting the black and white activists, who in this instance were not breaking the law), but civil-rights organizers in Mississippi and Alabama more often wore overalls. Martin Luther King Jr. himself donned overalls in the profoundly segregated and violent city of Birmingham when he decided he could best serve the movement by going to jail. Indeed, it was the rejection of respectability that led blacks in Birmingham to decide that their parents’ sense of propriety and fear of white judgment were part of what needed to be “overcome.”

Kennedy misidentifies King’s call for blacks to maintain “a calm and loving dignity” in their protests and conflates that with respectability politics. Respectable dress and comportment were of course intended by activists as a show of dignity, but we shouldn’t forget that the mass civil disobedience of thousands of African Americans was viewed by much of the press and by many others as anything but respectable. King reminded us in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that “pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities” caused the respectable white moderates of the South to oppose the movement. In his new role as one of the incarcerated, King was embracing what was, in 1963, the very unrespectable position of “outside agitator” and “extremist for justice.”

Mary Helen Washington
University of Maryland
College Park, Md.
Kevin K. Gaines
Cornell University
Ithaca, N.Y.

Randall Kennedy responds:

I hope that readers of the letter from Professors Washington and Gaines will note that in “Lifting as We Climb,” I stated that the politics of respectability is “a tactic of public relations that is, per se, neither necessarily good nor necessarily bad” and that “a sound assessment of its deployment in a given instance depends on its goals, the manner in which it is practiced, and the context within which a given struggle is being waged.” I acknowledged that certain practitioners of respectability politics have made errors (as when they have condemned jazz and hip-hop wholesale), and I asserted that, in confronting an oppressive status quo, antiracist activists have often rightly defied stultifying conventions, including unjust laws. Hence I wrote that “in the context of the battle over segregation, lawbreakers such as Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis are heroes.” Professors Washington and Gaines have concocted a straw man to demolish. Alas, they are not engaging the piece I wrote.


Death Is Not the End

In James Boyce’s “Rethinking Extinction” [Criticism, November], I saw hints of my own paradigm for future conservation: success will not involve pitting nature against humans. But I also saw a fundamental misunderstanding of what de-extinction means.

Boyce is correct to note that the environmental movement often attempts to return us to a kind of “prehuman nature.” In the process, the dynamism of ecosystems is lost. But de-extinction is not about restoring the biodiversity of the past; it is about restoring dynamic ecological relationships in the ecosystems of the present. Ecological relationships are what allow ecosystems to adapt and flourish even as conditions change.

A truth often overlooked by current conservation ideology is that ecological relationships are lost well before species go extinct: when a species becomes rare it no longer performs its ecological role. The conservation of bioabundance is as vital as the conservation of biodiversity, if not more so.

What spurs both biodiversity and bioabundance in eastern North American forests is forest regeneration — the creation of the successional habitats that so many declining species need to flourish. Large flocks of passenger pigeons created these habitats. (Boyce had this right in front of his nose, but didn’t seem to make the connection between the return of passenger pigeons and the benefit to currently declining species.) In the absence of complex ecological interactions, extinction in all its forms has an unfair advantage.

Ben J. Novak
Lead Researcher, The Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback
Revive and Restore, The Long Now Foundation
San Francisco


A Chilling Effect

A faithful Lewis Lapham fan, I’m nonetheless not entirely sure what his diagnosis of the American body politic [“Bombast Bursting in Air,” Essay, November] means for me, aside from the fact that I, along with my middle-class family, am fundamentally screwed — and have been since I cast my first presidential vote, for Jimmy Carter in 1980. A reasonably intelligent citizen with limited time, energy, and resources for electoral politics — beyond informed voting — I despaired under Reagan and Bush I, let out a big sigh of relief at Clinton’s inauguration, went into deep denial during Bush II’s eight-year reign, and have been holding my breath for each of Obama’s seven years in office, grateful for his profound intelligence but chagrined by the stifling backlash of all those threatened by it, who have opposed any progressive change whatsoever. In thirty-five years of casting votes, I have never once felt that I had any real political influence. Lapham’s description of our gilded campaign carnival and its predictable Electoral College conclusion only serves to underscore the utter helplessness I feel.

What might we do, Mr. Lapham, to change the course of American history and politics? The truth illuminated in “Bombast Bursting” may well set us poor citizens free from our democratic delusions, but what does it set us free for? In the long shadow of America’s millionaires and billionaires, commiseration is cold comfort indeed.

Tom Kerr
Syracuse, N.Y.


Hindsight Is 20/20

I have been asked to identify what was fabricated in my article “Prophets and Losses,” which ran in the February 1998 edition of Harper’s Magazine.

I fabricated the text from “The man” to “the psychic” in paragraph 5; “Sharona” and the attributed quote in paragraph 6. I exaggerated and fabricated the facts in paragraphs 7, 8, 9, and 10. I fabricated the text from paragraph 13 to “August 1.” I fabricated the last sentence of the first paragraph following “August 1,” the following discussion with Ruth, and the last sentence before “August 3.” I fabricated the events labeled “August 4”; “August 8”; “August 9”; the last paragraph of “August 10”; “August 12”; “August 13”; the first, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh paragraphs of “August 15”; “August 19”; “August 21”; “August 22”; “August 23”; and “August 24.”

In addition to the content of the article, I fabricated notes in support of this story. I lied to the staff of Harper’s. I fabricated in interviews about this story. I engaged in egregious misconduct. This story should not be relied upon in any way.

I believe that this list is complete. However, there may be inadvertent omissions or errors, as I am relying exclusively on my seventeen-year-old memory.

I would like to publish a retraction of these fabrications. That said, you may prefer that my misdeeds not be referred to in your pages again.

Stephen Glass
Venice, Calif.

The editors respond:

Stephen Glass suggests that Harper’s Magazine may not wish to have his misdeeds mentioned in our pages again. On the contrary, we welcome the opportunity to correct the record — even almost eighteen years after the fact. Glass’s letter makes clear that at least 5,647 of the 7,902 words of “Prophets and Losses” were based on fabrications. A deception of that scale requires more than a simple enumerating of errors and falsehoods; we must retract the entire article. We won’t remove it from our online archive, but we’ve stamped the digital version with the word retracted. (Glass voluntarily returned the $10,000 fee we paid him for “Prophets and Losses.”) This is the first retraction in 165 years of Harper’s Magazine; that we’ve had to do this only once speaks to the excellent work of generations of fact-checkers. We remain committed to getting the story straight month after month, year after year — and to making sure no one like Stephen Glass is ever allowed to fool us again.

| View All Issues |

January 2016

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now