Letters | Letters
The meaning of life, diabetes, Gandhi, burlesque
Bothered by a Blogger
If Andrew Sullivan can be regarded as even possibly the “World’s Best Blogger?” (May-June, page 34), my imagination boggles at how awful the rest must be. His hagiographical profiler writes, “Sullivan’s Catholicism didn’t allow for situational morality.” But Sullivan has been—to be euphemistic—selective in his Catholicism in his personal life. Why should anyone take seriously a self-anointed pundit whose “views are ever-changing and all over the map,” who “often goes from one extreme to another,” and whose “reasoning” is “as much psychological as political”?
You would have improved the aesthetic quality of the magazine by putting Elise Paschen’s picture [“Poetic Paschen,” page 22] on your cover. Nothing will improve its intellectual quality beyond the puff-sheet level except a total editorial overhaul.
John Braeman ’54
The Meaning of Life
I was saddened to read “The Most Important Course?” (The Undergraduate, May-June, page 56) by Madeleine Schwartz, who decried the dearth of student discussions about what was important in life and how to live it. It seems that was all we talked about when I was in college in the early 1960s. We’d meet in cafés, drink black coffee, smoke cigarettes, alas, and no doubt pretended we were Left Bank intellectuals. Getting an education rather than a career was, at that time, considered the purpose of college. Sad to think these discussions have gone the way of parietals.
Carol Delaney, M.T.S. ’76
Just read the excellent article by Madeleine Schwartz. Her description of students too busy to reflect on the meaning of what they are doing, and their deeper goals in life, is quite troubling. It seems student society has changed a lot since our day, when all-night “bull sessions” about the meaning of life and social issues like civil rights and war were the norm. It’s no accident that it turned into a time of political action and rebellion against the status quo.
It seems to me that college has traditionally been a time to think deeply about things. If college students now are too busy getting on with their lives to reflect on society and the world, then who will be prepared to lead? Who will be thinking about the big questions, like building a world economy that preserves the environment, and how to keep our democracy from degenerating into fruitless partisan battling and demagoguery?
John F. Schivell ’63, Ph.D. ’68
Editor’s note: Dean of freshmen Thomas Dingman, Hobbs professor of cognition and education Howard Gardner, and Gale professor of education Richard Light—the three “architects” of the “Reflecting on your life” sessions for freshmen described in Madeleine Schwartz’s column—wrote to note, “We wanted to acknowledge the indispensable role of Katie Steele, director of freshman programming, who has been a partner in the conceptualization of the program and the individual most responsible for putting it into operation.”
Wildlife, Afoot and in the Yard
I had the very good fortune as a mid-career professional to enroll in 1989 in the M.D.S. program of the Graduate School of Design (GSD), focusing on “Landscape Planning and Ecology.” While I was pleased to see “Throughways for Wildlife” (Right Now, May-June, page 9), I thought it appropriate to share that at least 22 years ago, seminal work at the GSD on wildlife crossings—led by Richard T.T. Forman [now professor of advanced environmental studies in the field of landscape ecology], one of America’s preeminent landscape ecologists, and Carl Steinitz [Wiley professor of landscape architecture and planning emeritus]—was a topic of almost daily discussion among a cadre of devotees.
The issues of reconnection of habitat and the safe passage of wildlife—surely measures of global health—were often topics of intense discussion and debate, seeking to elevate landscape ecology from the deep, dark morass of artsy design that too often seemed to inform both process and solution, while almost trivializing essential ecological tenets. The work of Forman and Steinitz in landscape ecology and landscape planning would be a wonderful topic for a future article.
Ted Baker, M.D.S. ’90
Thank you so much for featuring Honeybee Democracy (Open Book, May-June, page 16). Your timing is perfect: in 1976, I collected a swarm from a tree branch in the Yard on the morning of Commencement!
Thomas D. Seeley, Ph.D. ’78
Professor of neurobiology and behavior, Cornell
Metabolites and Diabetes
Your magazine is a great read. However, I feel it is the editor’s job to insist that authors clearly make a distinction between diabetes types 1 and 2. In “Fathoming Metabolism” (by Jonathan Shaw, May-June, page 27), professors Gerszten and Wang speak in considerable detail about “diabetes” without telling us which they are targeting. One would hope both are being studied, but expect that they would have quite different metabolomes. In most respects they should not be lumped together.
Frederik Hansen, M.D. ’53
Jonathan Shaw responds: Robert Gerszten guesses that there would indeed be metabolic differences between type 1 (juvenile/gestational) and type 2 (adult-onset) diabetes. The patients in this study of a population of middle-aged adults were all adult-onset cases, as the text makes clear.
I was intrigued by the last sentences in the article. In the exercise study, metabolic markers were able to distinguish between the more fit and the less fit, but the fundamental question would be whether metabolomics can explain why some people effortlessly maintain a stable weight throughout adulthood while others with similar lifestyles and dietary habits face a lifelong struggle. The thought that a constant weight simply reflects equal caloric intake and expenditure over days, weeks, or years is simplistic, and we know that metabolic expenditure varies in response to caloric intake. Professor Lewis points out that some people quickly lose weight when they exercise while others cannot, and it has also been shown that an increase in caloric intake over steady-state levels (2,500 calories per day) resulted in weight gain for only some of the study participants. The strength of the metabolome in explaining why some people get fat and others don’t is that it encompasses both diet and heredity, and this is the question many of us would love to have answered.
Frank Gump ’49, M.D.
In his review of Joseph Lelyveld’s Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India (May-June, page 19), Sugata Bose states that Hermann Kallenbach made “an unsuccessful attempt to enlist Gandhi’s support for the Zionist cause. Gandhi consistently supported the rights of Palestinians to their land from 1919...on.” Not so fast.
First, it is unclear whether “Palestinians” even existed at this time. Local Arabs generally self-identified as members of clans (one reason for the failure of the local Arab uprising in 1947). George Habash of the rejectionist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine bragged that the term “Palestinian people” had been invented, out of whole cloth, to bolster the Arabs’ claim on “Palestine.” And until 1948 Jews used the term “Palestinian” to define their own culture; I own a book of Hebrew songs from the period, printed in Israel, called Palestinian Song Book.
Second, wholly aside from population migrations making “rights” to land irrelevant, the land Jews occupied during Gandhi’s time generally was bought by the Jewish Agency—sometimes from absentee landlords, but bought nonetheless. It was not “their [Palestinian] land.”
Third, Zionism does not conflict with Palestinian rights to “their land.” In fact, in what historian Benny Morris now views as a historic mistake, Israel declined, in the confusion of 1948, to expel all of its Arabs. Those who remained and their descendants live in Israel today, many as citizens. By contrast, Saudi Arabia is officially Judenrein [clean of Jews]; nearly all Arab countries expelled their Jews in fact if not in law; and the Palestinian negotiating position—shockingly, accepted by Israel—is that all Jews must leave lands under Palestinian control.
Bose implicitly confirms that from 1919 onward, the “Palestinians” believed that everything east of the Mediterranean was “Palestinian land” on which Jews did not belong. Gandhi evidently agreed.
Orrin Tilevitz ’75
Sugata Bose’s review, subtitled “The enigma of Mahatma Gandhi,” notes that it took time for Gandhi to shed his racial prejudice against Africans, but fails to note that he never shed his prejudice against Jews. He subscribed to the canard that the Jews killed Jesus, a sin that branded the Jewish People for eternity. He denounced Zionism as depriving Muslims of their rightful claim to Palestine. In the Holocaust, he advised Jews to accept their fate: “I can conceive the necessity of the immolation of hundreds, if not thousands, to appease the hunger of the dictators.” In 1946, when it was known that the Germans killed not hundreds or thousands, but 6,000,000 Jews, Gandhi said, “They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs…It would have aroused the world and the people of Germany…As it is they succumbed anyway in their millions.”
That is not an “enigma,” it’s Jew hatred.
Burton Caine, LL.B. ’52
Professor of law, Temple University
I enjoyed Sugata Bose’s thoughtful review and commentary. However, I was surprised that he twice characterized Gandhi’s method as “passive resistance” and never used the term “nonviolence.” Gandhi’s method was the opposite of passive, as the examples in the essay attest. Gandhi once wrote that there are three options when confronted with violence or injustice. The weakest is passivity; stronger than that is violence; most powerful of all is nonviolence (satyagraha). It is not merely resistance, but creative action to transform the situation, without violence. This clarification seems essential.
Joel Nigg ’80
Sugata Bose suggests that Gandhi’s relationship with Hermann Kallenbach in the Transvaal during which Gandhi left his wife and shared a bedroom with Kallenbach is of little “relevance” and the same-sex attraction “speculative at best.” Irrelevant to what? Informing us that Gandhi had same-sex feelings does not lessen his life or stature. It was an important element in his emotional life. That Bose chooses to denigrate the importance of this chapter in Gandhi’s life is his right as a critic, but it should not be his aim as a scholar.
Paul L. Marsolini, M.A.T. ’65
New York City
Quote-Master Harry Levin
Thank you for the wonderful quotes in the May-June issue (“The Quotes Queue,” page 6) from my great former professor Harry T. Levin. He was a superb teacher and it was a major honor and pleasure to have also been the assistant in his “Proust, Mann, and Joyce” course. His ironic wit, lexical learning and scholarship, boundless memory, and dazzlingly informative and entertaining lectures were legendary. His friendship, too, was inestimable. But woe unto him who, as I once did, incurred his wrath. Your quotes could be multiplied ad near-infinitum, but I’ll limit myself to one, about Gertrude Stein: “Unfortunately for Miss Stein, words have meanings.”
John Simon ’46, Ph.D. ’59
New York City
Political Passions, Continued
Editor’s note: The letter by Peter McKinney ’56 in the March-April issue (page 7), questioning why most Harvard-affiliated members of Congress are Democrats, prompted sharp responses in May-June (page 2) that prompted sharp rejoinders; we offer a sample here. This heat may shed some light on the political divisions in the nation today.
Seven letters responded to McKinney on the unthinking political conformity at Harvard. Two disagreed politely. Five disagreed smugly, asserting the self-flattery that alumni are Democrats because Republicans are stupid, bigoted, evil nitwits. Congratulations for making McKinney’s point. I hope at least a few Harvard liberals are thoughtful enough to have been embarrassed by the condescending intolerance.
Eugene Kusmiak ’81
The phrase “herd of independent minds” came to my mind in reading the letters reacting to comments by Peter McKinney.
Most of the letters harp on the same litany of half-truths and out-and-out absurdities about Republicans as a way of explaining why no self-respecting Harvard grad would have anything to do with such conservatives. Writers focused on two specifics above all: Conservatives and Republicans are flawed because they believe global warming is a “hoax” and the world was created 6,000 years ago.
As a conservative, I do not believe global warming is a hoax. But like many conservatives, and MIT’s Sloane professor of meteorology Richard Lindzen and a good many other climate scientists, I do believe that the nature and causation of climate change in our era are a very long way from being understood and explained. This tentativeness on our part is what was once known as science. As for evolution, neither I nor any other conservative I know personally (or ever read) has any doubts about most aspects of it, in particular what it implies about the age of the earth. I realize some Christian fundamentalists do adhere to creationism. This is not the view of the Republican Party, Republicans in general, or the vast majority of other conservatives.
It is profoundly worrisome to me that the letter writers are so ill-informed about the views of conservatives. Perhaps this proves McKinney’s point most dramatically. Harvard people simply do not know much about conservatives or conservative political ideas at all. Why?
Jonathan Burack ’64
I am disappointed, but hardly surprised, to find so many letters castigating (all?) Republicans—apparently without irony—for their ignorance and bias. I hold a different stereotype of Republicans and the Tea Partiers: people who want much less (unnecessary) interference in business and personal lives, as well as much less spending. It’s really not that complicated.
Scott G. Davis ’66, A.M. ‘68
Americans consistently deny holding bias attributed to social class, yet display those biases openly. Harvard harbors America’s governing class, which self-servingly adopts the “liberal” or statist view of political organization that enforces their privileges. The opinions expressed by certain writers in the May-June issue about Republicans could very easily be those of segregationists concerning blacks in the 1940s, eugenicists concerning Eastern Europeans in the 1920s, Muslim Egyptians concerning Copts—or Cavaliers concerning Puritans when Harvard was founded.
Bruce P. Shields ’61
“Yesterday’s News” (March-April, page 45) noted under 1951, “Burlesque queen Sally Rand appears at the Freshman Smoker and lectures the class of 1954 on the evils of Communism.” There’s a lot more to this story.
The Smoker started off in Memorial Hall with good fellowship (i.e., a lot of beer-drinking), after which we trooped across to Sanders for the show, which featured fan dancer Sally Rand—not to perform (imagine the headlines!), but to do stand-up comedy. Rand had a different idea.
The Korean War had broken out three months before our class entered Harvard, so after a few ribald jokes she pulled a sheaf of papers from her low-cut gown and started reading the anti-Communist speech. We thought it was the build-up to another joke, but the punch line never came and the unruly crowd grew restless.
Then a guy threw a penny, and Rand shot back one of the best retorts I ever heard. “Boys,” she said (itself a putdown), “there’s only one animal I know who throws a cent.” That drew a rousing ovation—and a lot more metal hurled her way. She gamely finished her speech, and the poor woman left the stage in tears.
Sensing a riot in the offing, the quick-thinking emcee hurriedly had a piano rolled out, and a bespectacled young math instructor sat down and started playing and singing his own catchy, satirical compositions. He was so good that soon everyone had forgotten Sally Rand. Tom Lehrer always acknowledged that this Freshman Smoker was his “first big gig.”
Since we all took credit for launching his career, our twenty-fifth-reunion organizers tried to get him to come back to relive old times. To his credit, he declined, saying his humor was of a different time. But he is fated to be tied to the class of 1954. In this same issue that shows a cartoon of Sally Rand lecturing ’54 freshmen, there is on page 32 a caricature of none other than Tom Lehrer—and next to him is our class’s most illustrious graduate, John Updike.
F. Harvey Popell ’54
Erratum: Marijuana Matters
Keith Dobbs writes: The profile of Dale Gieringer ’68 (“Marijuana Advocate,” The Classes, May-June, page 64F) attributes Proposition 19 to California assemblyman Tom Ammiano. The article should have said, “That discussion influenced…Tom Ammiano to introduce the first-ever legalization bill, Assembly Bill 390, in 2009.”