SO YOU WANT TO BE 120
Is aging necessary? (“The Aging Enigma,” by Jonathan Shaw, September-October, page 46). You bet it is, because death is necessary, too. Do you think that healthcare, Social Security, and our environment are in crisis now? Imagine what they would be like if we succeeded in extending human life expectancy to 120 years. It saddens me to see the human race grow so rapidly in knowledge while its wisdom is at best standing still. Have scientists learned nothing from the Manhattan Project? The only time to stop a bad idea is before it becomes a reality; I would ask these scientists for the love of humanity and the planet we already overpopulate stop doing this research now.
Benjamin L. Sapers ’90, M.D. ’96
Hope Valley, R.I.
John Deutch in his Phi Beta Kappa oration (“Exiting Iraq,” September-October, page 32) suggests prompt withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. Certainly the ability of the insurgent forces to assassinate Iraqis cooperating with us, to ambush significant numbers of ill-equipped Iraqi soldiers and police, and to slowly but consistently produce casualties in American forces should prompt consideration of a change in strategy and not just to “stay the course.” Continuation of the current policy may turn out to be a significant factor contributing to loss of American hegemony as the world’s only superpower.
However, some questions remain. What is to prevent the insurgents from continuing to pick off any Iraqis who seem to be leading the country on a more stable path? One could envision the successful escape of Saddam Hussein and his eventual return to power. What about the private security forces protecting some leaders? Will these highly paid individuals (numbering about 25,000), many of them former U.S. Special Forces personnel, remain? If so, they might be considered by neighboring Arab states to indicate that the United States was still involved militarily. If ground troops are removed, would U.S. air power provide battlefield support on request? Would we be willing to supply Iraqis with sufficiently powerful weapons to match the insurgents, even if that meant that they could fall into insurgent hands?
Stephen J. Seligman ’52
Briarcliff Manor, NY.
Deutch has let an opportunity slip. He failed to address with any specificity those areas where we impute special knowledge to him. As former Director of Central Intelligence, he was responsible for producing and coordinating the flow of intelligence to the national security apparatus. As deputy secretary of defense, he was one of the key recipients of it. Granted that most of what happened did not occur on his watch, he did bring to the pulpit a uniquely well honed understanding of the system. But apart from hinting that intelligence reorganization is probably not the answer to whatever went wrong, nowhere in his words do we find any direct opinion as to how (or more usefully whether) intelligence producers failed the country in preparing against past or future Islamist terror attacks. He did not address the even more serious questions of bias-based interference on the part of some principal intelligence recipients. Nowhere is there any reference to the politicization of the process, which may be a prime, unaddressed cause of our needing to get out of Iraq in the first place. Nor of the need to root that sort of misfeasance out of our government’s performance.
John R. Harney ’46
New Carrollton, Md.
The resignation of Conrad K. Harper from the Harvard Corporation (“I can no longer support the president,” September-October, page 56) and the ensuing publicity bring shame on him. The continued inability of Harper and others to move on and let some questionable events go is appalling. In my view, former University Professor Cornel West’s behavior is more of an issue than that of President Lawrence H. Summers, in an example Harper cited.
In my view, Harvard needed some fixing. Grade inflation was just one example of a number of issues that needed to be addressed. The Overseers and the Corporation elected an individual capable of making changes. I cannot find any way that Harvard has been unfair to any minority. Claims by Harper and others of unfair treatment in the examples he listed are ridiculous. With or without the appropriate style, Harvard and Summers will do the right thing about the lack of women in tenured faculty positions and other issues before the University. Enough is enough of this silliness. Life simply is not a journey where you get what you want when you want it. We all learn that people will not always see things our way. Harper’s behavior in my opinion is comparable to that of an immature crybaby. I believe this attitude is unbecoming to a man of his stature and accomplishments.
Richard A. Jones ’55
How long will it take for Harvard to really embrace the full intelligence and wisdom of people of all genders, races, and social class?
I grew up in the South, went to Syracuse University, and then came to Harvard for my M.A., went on to MIT for a Ph.D., and returned to the Harvard environment as a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for two years. I coach CEOs globally and am a lifelong scholar of leadership and an educator of business and government leaders. A president shouldn’t have to be dragged and shocked into appreciating diversity: she or he should be a role model for embracing humanity with grace and enthusiasm. One who doesn’t should not be president and definitely doesn’t deserve a raise. Harvard needs to wake up.
Hannah S. Wilder, A.M. ’64, RI ’76
Evelynn Hammonds’s appointment as senior vice provost for faculty development and diversity (“Diversity Director,” September-October, page 56) makes it certain that prejudice, bias, and a lack of diversity will be enshrined as policy at Harvard. Affirmative action will run rampant and scholarship will be a distant second. Polls or studies have demonstrated that more than 90 percent of university faculties are made up of liberal Democrats. Is this what Harvard considers to be an example of diversity? Or does Harvard agree with the professor who said the reason there are few conservatives in academia is that conservatives are generally stupid? Will a Caucasian from Idaho ever be accepted to Harvard? My guess is that it will only happen if that person is female or maybe a white male, provided he is gay. Or is this post that will be filled by Hammonds an admission that minorities and women are less capable and need the help of the administration in order to reach parity with white males? Unfortunately, no matter how capable, qualified, and smart Evelynn Hammonds is, it looks as if she was chosen because she is a woman and a person of color. We will never know why she was chosen, because we know that Harvard is on the cutting edge of affirmative action, which means it is more likely to choose a person because of race, ethnicity, and gender than it is to choose on the basis of qualification. My advice: Don’t accept the position, Evelynn Hammonds.
Edward H. Parker Jr. ’60, M.D.
THE DARKNESS OF THE FOREST
“Congo Report” (September-October, page 68) adds enormously to the public’s awareness of the late New York artist Anne Eisner, who married Patrick Tracy Lowell Putnam ’25 and lived with him at Camp Putnam in the Congo more than half a century ago. But surely your readers would like to know the rest of the story. Joan Mark sets this all out in her book, The King of the World in the Land of the Pygmies, her 1995 biography of Putnam.
Although Colin Turnbull may not have mentioned Eisner much in his own book The Forest People (1961), Marks states in hers that “On January 26, 1967, [when Anne Eisner Putnam] at the age of fifty-five, died of cancer, Colin Turnbull spoke at her funeral, recalling ‘her inexhaustible generosity of spirit,’ her warmth, and her kindness. He described the mud hut she and Patrick had lived in in the Congo, ‘in a simplicity that they transformed into magnificence, and in a poverty that brought them riches.’ He ended his remarks “with words of a song he said the pygmies sing at the death of a person who is believed to have lived and died well, a song expressing their belief that whatever happens is the will of the benevolent forest:
‘There is darkness upon us;
Darkness is all around,
There is no light.
But it is the darkness of the forest,
So if it really must be,
Even the darkness is good.’”
Paula Budlong Cronin ’56
Jonathan Shaw’s “Witness to Violence” (September-October, page 42), discussing Jill Lepore’s new book, New York Burning, about the 1741 slave-conspiracy hysteria in New York, is emotionally and historically riveting. He cites Lepore’s description of the 2003 reburial of the executed victims in a public funeral in New York City especially her thoughts about a string of beads found around the waist of a woman identified as Burial 340. “Glass beads like these were manufactured,” Lepore reveals, “in Venice and Amsterdam and traded, for slaves, on the African coast.” She also reports the words of a black woman as the coffins were readied for burial: “‘They will not rest, they will not rest, until we are repaid!’ All eyes turned to her. ‘They owe us!’ she called. ‘They owe us! They owe us!’ And the crowd hollered back: ‘Reparations!’… ‘Reparations NOW!’”
However, Shaw’s article fails to mention who traded slaves for these beads on the African coast. The evidence is incontrovertible: the overwhelming majority of Africans shipped to the Americas were kidnapped by African slave dealers. Historians estimate that as many as 20 million Africans were abducted by African raiders who typically surrounded a village before sunrise, attacked and seized as many prisoners as possible, and burned the village to the ground. Perhaps 10 million of these victims died during horrific forced marches to the coast still chained, yoked, and shackled by their African captors and before they ever laid eyes on a white slave trader. The captives were either purchased by white dealers or beheaded by the African traders if they could not be sold. The survivors, of course, still faced the even more appalling brutality of the middle passage. The enslavement and sale of millions of Africans in Africa by Africans was therefore decisive in facilitating the Atlantic slave trade and the growth of slavery in the Western Hemisphere.
The only way to put this terrible joint legacy behind us and move forward as one nation is to honestly confront the whole story of the Atlantic slave trade. Young Americans are not well served when, as one historian put it, “old myths of African barbarism” are replaced by “new myths of African innocence.” There are encouraging signs: the textbook for a new course on African-American history in Philadelphia high schools tells the full truth about the Atlantic slave trade. Only the whole truth can free us all from the burden of our shared and shameful past and reinvigorate our commitment to a more democratic future. As Martin Luther King Jr. dared to dream at the 1963 March on Washington, we can then join hands and sing together in the words of the great black spiritual: “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”
Sheldon M. Stern, Ph.D. ’70
AT WAR WITH AN HISTORIAN
With regard to the piece about Professor Jill Lepore that the editors entitled “Witness to Violence, An [sic] historian interprets….” (September-October, page 42), I write to ask what rule of grammar you were recalling when you used the article “an” before the word “historian.”
The indefinite article, as far as I know, has two forms “a” and “an.” “A” is used before words that begin with a sounded consonant. “An” is used before words that begin with a sounded vowel. The only time “an” is used before a word beginning with the letter “h” is when the “h” is silent; and, thus, in pronouncing it, the word begins with a vowel. For example, with the word “herb” (American pronunciation), you would use the article “an,” because the letter “h” is not pronounced. “Hour” and “honest” are two further examples of words beginning with a silent “h.” The word “historian,” however, as with the majority of words that begin with the letter “h,” requires the article “a,” because the “h” is heard.
It seems remarkable to me that no one on the staff of Harvard Magazine knows this rule of grammar. Can you defend your use of “an” in front of a sounded “h,” or was it a mistake? I’m hoping you would never write about “an Harvard graduate.”
New York City
Editor’s note: We received several letters on this subject. Harvard Magazine uses the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, second edition, for spelling and some matters of usage. Our Random House equivocates, defining “an” as “the form of a before an initial vowel sound…and sometimes, esp. in British English, before an initial unstressed syllable beginning with a silent or weakly pronounced h: an historian.”
The text on usage continues under “a”: “Such adjectives as historic, historical, heroic and habitual, which begin with an unstressed syllable and often with a silent or weakly pronounced h, are commonly preceded by an, especially in British English. But the use of a rather than an is widespread in both speech and writing: a historical novel; a habitual criminal. Hotel and unique are occasionally preceded by an, but this use is increasingly old-fashioned. Although in some dialects an has yielded to a in all cases, edited writing reflects usage as described above.”
Jill Lepore comments: I’m fascinated to hear that “an historian” has inspired debate or, rather, censure. In all matters to do with the American language, I like to consult Noah Webster, best known for his American Dictionary of the English Language. (I’ve written about Webster at some length in A Is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States.) I did a quick check through some of Webster’s writings, only to discover that his strategy appears to have been one of determined avoidance. “The historian” was his favored phrase, alas.