I was honored this week when The New Yorker printed a version of a letter I submitted in response to an article discussing the enigmatic notion of equality. You can read the published version of my letter here. It’s impossible for me to read that version objectively, but I feel it doesn’t capture all that I was trying to say.
As with all publications, letters to The New Yorker are subject to editing for clarity and space. The “space” part is understandable, even if a prideful author is tempted to argue that they could make the space if they wanted to. However, the “clarity” part can result in the editors skewing the message in a direction at odds with the author’s intentions. The last thing I wanted was to tell yet another tale of overcoming adversity. Instead, I used my experience to explain my appreciation for the concept of “equal opportunity.”
By the time the editors sent me their revised version, several days after I submitted my original, I’d thought of changes I myself would make. Below, I reproduce the version I would have published had the decision been entirely mine. Time permitting, I would have negotiated with the editors over the additional changes required to make the letter fit the column, but time didn’t permit and I won’t anticipate any further possible revisions I would have accepted.
This is in no way meant as criticism of the magazine’s editors. They have a difficult task. But since I went to the trouble of articulating something in which I believe strongly, I’ll take advantage of my website to post my version. I recommend reading Joshua Rothman’s thoughtful article for itself and to learn the context for my letter.
Joshua Rothman’s “Same Difference” (January 13th) aptly describes the ambiguities in our thinking about “equality.” Personally, I interpret the assertion that we are all created equal as meaning we are each due equal respect, no matter our place in society. Hence no one, even a nation’s leader, is above the law.
When considering how to achieve the kinds of equality addressed in Mr. Rothman’s article, I turn to “equal opportunity.” This remarkably sophisticated concept implicitly acknowledges that we are not created equals in physique, intellect or moral sense. Rather, it holds out the promise, or at least the hope, that we can each obtain what we need to achieve something like the “happiness” advanced in the Declaration of Independence. Mr. Rothman cites the example of a blind daughter. I myself lost my vision at the age of thirteen. I may not be equal in a physical sense, but the special instruction I received in Connecticut’s public education system created the opportunity for me to attend college and law school, and ultimately to pursue a career in the law.
My story hardly ends the inquiry. One person’s opportunity could be another’s closed door, and for any number of reasons, including temperament, upbringing and intellectual capacity. We also know that government’s and the public’s willingness to dedicate resources to education and other services fluctuates. So many factors go into how we create and exploit opportunities that the concept of “equal opportunity” will remain a work in progress, just as pure equality will. But it is surely more workable.