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Letters

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Privacy, gender agendas, the Horsehead Nebula

March-April 2017

Democracy Details

Re: Lincoln Caplan’s article “A Conservative Counterrevolution” (January-February, page 69), reviewing Michael J. Klarman’s The Framers’ Coup.

The limits of the available evidence—about 90 percent of the actual words of the debates at the Convention are probably lost, as Caplan paraphrases Klarman saying—complicate the task of divining the Founders’ intent. The difficulties the readers of such a dense scholarly book will have, when even a reviewer like Caplan has trouble distilling that point, are evident. Without knocking the challenge he faces, I do have to call out a confusing line about the Founders’ collective undemocratic agenda: “They did not intend that their intentions would bind future Americans.” Perhaps Caplan intends this as paradox; or it may just be ill-phrased. The inadvertent effect, though: it reinforces the need to reinterpret the Constitution for each generation’s needs free of the “dead hand” of the drafters, instead of focusing, as originalism does, on intent devoid of contemporary context, based on sometimes scant or contentious evidence.

Jeffrey Schultz, M.P.A. ’04
New York City

 

The article rightly stresses the importance of Klarman’s book about the making of the U.S. Constitution. It fills a gap in our understanding of how it came about. Of particular interest is the fact that the Convention participants were the elites of their day (e.g., Madison et al.) working in secrecy to produce a charter which is revered today by almost everybody. It is quite popular for some to castigate today’s elites (e.g., as responsible for some of our current troubles), probably while unaware of the huge debt we owe the elites who were the Founders. 

Henry H. Moulton ’46
Cambridge

 

Lincoln Caplan’s review notes that Donald J. Trump was the fourth candidate in American history “to win the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote.” Strictly speaking, this is correct. However, in considering the deficiencies of the Electoral College, it is important to remember the first time a president was elected without winning a majority of the popular vote: John Quincy Adams, A.B. 1787, LL.D. 1822, in 1824. Adams also failed to win a majority in the Electoral College, but because neither he nor Andrew Jackson won a majority in the Electoral College, the election was decided by the House of Representatives. See http://www.factcheck.org/2008/03/presidents-winning-without-popular-vote/.

David A. Drachsler, LL.B. ’68
Alexandria, Va.

 

Lincoln Caplan replies: The writer is of course correct about Adams’s victory over Jackson—and over William H. Crawford and Henry Clay, as well. (Their respective electoral and popular vote totals were: 84 and 108,740 for Adams; 99 and 153,544 for Jackson; 41 and 40,856 for Crawford; and 37 and 47,531 for Clay.) Journalism often requires selection. While the writer is also correct that it’s important to remember this first example, it’s not essential to mention it in every consideration of the Electoral College. After consulting with the editors of the magazine, I didn’t mention the Adams example in the review because the larger point Klarman was making about the not-fully-democratic character of the Electoral College was amply supported by the four other examples, which I could refer to succinctly in a parenthesis.

 

Assaults on Privacy

The most important line in “The Watchers” (January-February, page 56) is “Although Snowden highlighted government surveillance, it may not be the worst problem. Corporations hold vast and growing troves of personal information that is often inadequately protected, its use largely unregulated.”

This is an understatement. The largest corporations have become transnational entities, with incomes bigger than many countries’ GDPs, distributed networks that are less vulnerable than our national-security infrastructure, and an agenda that owes not even notional loyalty to “citizens.” While it is not an IT company, Exxon/Mobil appears to be in the process of taking over our State Department, a disturbing confirmation that the nation state is becoming subordinate to large corporations. As the last section of the article makes clear, we are up against a powerful economic feedback loop. Our only hope of protection comes through non-market interventions (legislative, legal, etc.). When our public institutions themselves become departments of corporations, what hope have we of protecting ourselves?

Charles Hsu ’79
San Francisco

Thank you for your article “The Watchers.” It was excellent, engaging, informative, and timely.

Brendan Miller, M.P.A. ‘03
Venice, Calif.

Gender Agendas

What can they be thinking, these agenda-driven Harvard administrators and their student adherents (“Gender Agenda,” January-February, page 23)? All their specious cant about demographics and their nonsensical notions about certain independent associations being antiquated cannot justify the radical violation of rights these folks are proposing. Their impulse to overthrow civil liberties, including the freedom of association, seems so ill-suited to the fair Harvard, the tolerant, liberal, live-and-let-live Harvard, the Harvard that has always shone forth as a powerful beacon for human rights. That Harvard is the true Harvard. Oy vey! Johnny, we hardly know ye.

John J. Adams ’62
New York City

 

I noticed the brief review of the University-wide Women’s Weekend in November (“A Women’s Weekend,” January-February, page 74). It sounds like it was a success. 

Would it not make sense to organize a Men’s Weekend once a year as well? The world is changing for everyone. There are many issues that would be uniquely important, such as men’s health, family, being fathers, careers, sports, even feminism.

In the drive for women’s rights, one doesn’t want to marginalize men or be insensitive about their particular challenges and problems. Sexism can have two faces.

 Peggy Troupin, Ph.D. ’74
New York City

 

M.B.A. Anxieties

I enjoyed your reference to the dread Harvard Business School WACs in “Signs of the Times” (The College Pump, January-February, page 76). As an HBS student in the heyday of this time-honored practice, I have vivid memories to this day of rushing behind Baker Library to throw my Written Analysis of Cases into the gaping bin. My anxiety was further amplified by the fact I lived off campus with my Wellesley alumna wife and had to drive in via an unreliable old VW. The terrors of the “real” business world pale in comparison to the then-renowned WAC passage at the Business School!

Philip K. Curtis, J.D. ’71, M.B.A. ’74
Atlanta

 

Words Matter

Don Boyd’s letter in the January-February issue (page 5) maintains that intellectuals try “to kill innocent infants in the womb....” A womb will contain egg, zygote, blastocyst, embryo, and fetus. Infants are post womb. Terminology is important. Its misuse, when prompted by passion, politics, or carelessness, limits dialogue.

Robert Ruggeri-Koret, Ed.M. ’90
Melrose, Mass.

 

Going Green?


In your January-February issue (“Getting Greener,” page 24), Harvard takes great credit for “decarbonizing” by switching fuels from coal to natural gas. But making electricity by burning natural gas is “a bridge to nowhere,” destroying the climate faster than burning coal, because during fracking and distribution by leaking pipes over long distances, about 3 percent to 8 percent (depending on who measures and where) of natural gas (methane, a greenhouse gas) leaks and is not recaptured. Each unburned molecule of leaked methane is 86 times worse for the climate over 20 years than a molecule of CO2 from burning coal. Professor Robert Howarth of Cornell did the research on this, and NOAA and the National Academy of Sciences agree. Do the math and the only conclusion is that Harvard’s new electricity sourcing to gas-fired generators is making the climate worse between two to five times faster than burning coal, while Boston lies just a few feet above today’s sea. I hope that you will correct and not repeat your error. A great academic institution should not engage in unjustified self-congratulation and spread misinformation on a matter of the greatest importance to our little planet.

Richard W. Emory Jr., LL.B. ’67
Boynton Beach, Fla.

Heather Anne Henriksen, director of Harvard’s Office for Sustainability, replies: From the very beginning, Harvard’s commitment to tackling climate on campus has been based on science. Harvard’s initial 2006-2016 goal was recommended by a task force of faculty, students, and staff and we have always strived to use the latest in peer-reviewed science to inform our actions, making decisions with the best information available to us at the time. Underlying this principle is an understanding that we are constantly evolving, adapting as we learn. As part of a process of reviewing of our climate goals every four years, another faculty, student, and staff task force is currently deliberating to recommend the next stage of Harvard’s climate commitment. 

 

Heaney’s Aeneid

I thoroughly enjoyed Richard F. Thomas’s review of Seamus Heaney’s Aeneid Book VI: A New Verse Translation in “With Seamus Heaney in Elysium,” (July-August 2016, page 60). Previously, I had read Heaney’s “Introduction” to the work, and enjoyed reading of his personal connection to it, part of which I already knew from reading Heaney’s poems, both the more recent and the quite distant. The “Introduction” was the best prose piece I’ve read in some time. Indeed, a glorious voice sincerely addressing readers from the afterlife!

Thomas does well and justly to Heaney’s translation and provides a splendid introduction of his own. I had the good fortune to study with Heaney at Harvard years ago, and my memoir of the experience, “Eat Your Good Lamb,” appears in The Oxonian Review of the University of Oxford, where I studied after Harvard. I’ve always enjoyed the earthiness of Heaney’s Irish voice, which brought to life his translation of Beowulf, which I’ve shared with students. Among the more recent poems, Thomas’s mention of Heaney’s “Route 110” in The Human Chain seemed particularly apropos as clear evidence of Seamus’s personal connection to the work.

Daniel Picker, G ’84
Haddonfield, N.J.

 

Our (Multiple) Bad

We apologize for misspelling Martha E. Pollack’s name in its second appearance in a Brevia item about her appointment to Cornell’s presidency (January-February, page 27).

We regret the omission of Brian Mast, A.L.B. ’16, Republican of Florida, from our compilation of Harvard degree-holders elected to Congress in November (“Crimson on Capitol Hill: 115th,” January-February, page 30). Mast is the new representative from his state’s 18th District. We thank Jonas Akins ’01, M.B.A. ’12, for alerting us to the error.

Jonathan Handel ’82, J.D. ’90, of Los Angeles, queried why Vita subject Williamina Fleming (January-February, page 48) was born in 1857 but reported as being 22 in November 1878, observing, “Unless she not only discovered the Horsehead Nebula, but also visited it at relativistic speed, it seems more likely that she was 21.” We acknowledge that Fleming herself would never have made such an error, and author Alan Hirshfeld says he simply miscalculated.

Montage subject Betty Shamieh (“The Happy Misanthrope,” January-February, page 67) sent word that her play Territories was developed by a Palestinian company, Al-Harah Theatre, and not by an Israeli company, as author Olivia Schwob reported.

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