The Lost Art of Drawing the Line will appall and irritate - and entertain - readers every bit as much as Philip Howard's first book. Why is it that no one can fix the schools Why do ordinary judgements fill doctors with fear Why are seesaws disappearing from playgrounds Why has a wave of selfish people overtaken America In our effort to protect the individual against unfair decisions, we have created a society where no one's in charge of anything. Silly lawsuits strike fear in our hearts because judges don't think they have the authority to dismiss them. Inner-city schools are filthy and mired in a cycle of incompetence because no one has the authority to decide who's doing the job and who's not. When no one's in charge, we all lose our link to the common good. When principals lack authority over schools, of what use are the parents' views When no one can judge right and wrong, why not be as selfish as you can be Philip Howard traces our well-meaning effort to protect individuals through the twentieth century, with the unintended result that we have lost much of our individual freedom.
Howard offers a powerful though myopic look at our litigious society. When the common interest is undermined by the fear of being sued, as in America today, Howard claims, we have a social dysfunction rooted in the embrace of individual rights. Understanding justice as the right to champion individual interests and judicial fairness as neutrality between claimants provides no standard for what is good or even reasonable: "Justice today is purposeless" and has become "a kind of sporting contest." Instead of protecting society, law has become a vehicle for the pursuit of individual entitlement, while judges shy away from making value judgments. What's missing, says Howard, is authority, a recognizable source of values and leadership that asserts a hierarchy of goods in place of the undifferentiated arena of individual rights. Far from threatening individual freedom and democracy, Howard argues, authority is indispensable if we want to overcome the "structural flaw" of individual rights, with its unintentional transfer of "power for common decisions to self-interested individuals." While this argument is sensible and persuasive as far as it goes, it suffers from an oddly truncated view of the world. It's as if society consists only of individuals and government, with interests limited to individuals and the public as a whole, without corporations, interest groups and other organizations anywhere in sight. With the exception of teacher's unions, Howard strips his analysis of much of the sources of power and interest in American society, leaving his otherwise thoughtful efforts seriously incomplete. (Apr.) Forecast: Howard's last book, The Death of Common Sense, earned him a reputation as a cultural pundit, so his 10-city tour should garner him media attention if not respectable sales. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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April 24, 2001
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Excerpt from The Lost Art of Drawing the Line by Philip K. Howard
The double slide in Oologah, Oklahoma, donated to the town park by the Kiwanis Club, was a local landmark. For fifty years this slide, looking like two legs of a spider, had provided fun for the children of Oologah. In 1995, however, a child suffered minor injuries while playing unattended on the slide, and the parents made a claim against the town. "I knew it was going then," said Judy Ashwood, fifty-three, who herself had played on the slide as a child. "It's hard for me to think that people who live here would actually sue the city if their child fell off the slide." But the town board decided it had no choice, notwithstanding a citizen petition asking that the slide remain in the park. It auctioned off the slide to a resident of a nearby town, getting $326.50, and the Oologah park slide was carted away.
All across America, playgrounds are being closed or stripped of standard equipment. In 1997, Bristol, Connecticut, removed all of the seesaws and merry-go-rounds from its playgrounds. When told of the decision, the face of thirteen-year-old Jennifer Bartucca fell with disappointment. "Every time I come here, I ask a friend to go on the seesaws. It is one of my favorite things to do at the park," said Jennifer: "I love merry-go-rounds. My father would push me on them when I was a little kid." Nicole LaPierre, sixteen, was equally disappointed. "If you play right, you're not going to get hurt."
Being safe has come a long way since Ralph Nader pointed out the absence of safety guidelines for cars and other consumer products. Avoiding risk is now practically a religion. But it's not clear that the results are necessarily what most people want. Some towns, for example, have the resources to replace the playground equipment with new, safer alternatives, including transparent tubes to crawl through and a one-person seesaw that works on a spring. Can you wait? The new equipment is so boring, according to Lauri Macmillan Johnson, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Arizona, that children make up dangerous games, like crashing into the equipment with their bicycles.