Letters to Lingua Franca should be accompanied by the correspondent's name, address, telephone number, and e-mail address. Letters may be edited for clarity or length.
If you prefer not to use this (following) form, you may email us at email@example.com.
Submit a Letter to the Editor
RE: April/May 1997
Lawrence Osborne's article "Does Man Eat Man?" [LF, April/May] unintentionally revealed two of the great secrets of anthropology: Cultural anthropologists tend to believe everything they hear, and archaeologists tend to believe everything they think.
All archaeological evidence is to a degree ambiguous, and results remain opinions. Little or nothing is ever definitely proved in archaeology, despite the statements of Timothy White and Peter Robinson in your article. If the patterns presented as evidence of cannibalism (whether from the prehistoric American Southwest or the European Neolithic) reveal anything, it is a common belief shared by the archaeologists involved that they're dealing with "limited or simple" cultures exhibiting little variability of behavior. In this situation cannibalism may be a logical conclusion since other possible explanations, such as warfare-related corpse disfigurement, domestic abuse, or ritual bone cleaning and secondary burial, are not even considered options.
How wonderful the world would be if only things were so straightforward and easy. How secure White, Robinson, and the others mentioned in your article must be in their belief that it is.
PETER Y. BULLOCK
MUSEUM OF NEW MEXICO
M.G. Lord's "Pornutopia" [LF, April/May] fails to give a balanced view of feminists who oppose pornography. I am a feminist scholar who opposes pornography, by which I mean most American pornography, which is male-oriented and misogynist.
If this male porn (Playboy, Penthouse, Hustler, etc.) were really so subversive, do you think the ruling class would allow it to be sold on every street corner in the U.S.? If Hustler allows working-class and poor men to dump their rage on working-class and poor women, how is that liberating for the women?
My current view of this male-oriented pornography is that it is actually pushed by the ruling class because it acts as a drug on men. It gives them a false sense of superiority over women and deflects them from looking at their economic problems. And it keeps women feeling inferior and depressed. Along with other prevailing forms of media, it suppresses unrest and dissent.
The phenomenon of feminists embracing this male-oriented pornography reflects the moral and political bankruptcy of some segments of academia. Humanists ought to be championing ideas and expressions that promote the dignity and worth of the human being, male and female.
JUDITH A. RANTA
WHITE PLAINS, NY
I find two things particularly striking about Scott Sherman's article "Fighting Words" [LF, March] profiling Northwestern University political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. First, the failure of those like Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cornel West to confront the primary arguments developed in Reed's April 1995 Village Voice essay exemplifies the kind of evasion of conflict and engagement among so-called black public intellectuals. Furthermore, for all of the finger-shaking about Reed's penchant for personal attacks, Gates, West, William Julius Wilson, and Manning Marable paint Reed as a reform-school escapee who is "smart" yet saddled by lots of unfulfilled potential. West, for instance, suggests Reed's early work was promising but that, "owing to whatever it is-insecurity, intellectual laziness-he just ended up doing this flat journalistic stuff." Unsurprisingly, discussions of Reed's essay within academic circles have mirrored these evasive maneuvers, characterizing his article as motivated solely by jealousy and bad feelings, while largely ignoring his analysis.
Second, I am unconvinced that Reed has as much in common with his critics as Sherman and others assert. Sherman, like others (most notably Marable in the New Politics exchanges), finds it noteworthy, if not downright puzzling, that Reed would be going after those who are "left-liberal" when there are so many on the rabid right with whom to contend. Black public intellectuals' support for the Million Man March offers a perfect illustration of the distance between Reed and the intellectuals in question, however. West, Marable, and Michael Eric Dyson busied themselves with explaining to their "liberal" allies how things were so dismal for blacks that they were compelled to jettison their feminist and anti-anti-Semitic sensibilities in the service of community progress. All of this tortured logic aside, however, Louis Farrakhan's program for black Americans is the same type of retrograde, self-help, conservative politics supported by Newt Gingrich and the Democratic and Republican right. Where critics find Reed sectarian and "out of touch with the black masses," I find him ideologically grounded, principled, and consistent.
NIKOL G. ALEXANDER
DEPT. OF POLITICAL SCIENCE
Your report on the quarrel between members of the University of Chicago's philosophy department and its dean concerning promotion criteria was very welcome to me ["Peer Pressure," LF, March]. It helped illuminate why, like Professor Howard Stein, some colleagues and I have always objected strenuously to any policy that automatically gives lesser weight-or, as in this case apparently, no weight at all-to invited publications than to those that have appeared in refereed journals that follow blind-review procedures.
However, your reporter's suggestion that Chicago administrators might have been "chary about promoting someone who didn't have a conventionally credentialed curriculum vitae" because the philosophy department's National Research Council ranking had slipped over the last fifteen years raises a different issue that needs to be addressed. The implicit assumptions that these rankings are thoroughly objective and highly meaningful and that university administrations are expected to forgo independent judgment and rely on outside rankings are very disturbing. These assumptions are particularly pernicious for the discipline of philosophy, which thrives on raising questions about whatever is conventionally regarded as objectively true, at any given time, both in the world at large and within the discipline itself.
WILLIAM L. MCBRIDE
PROFESSOR OF PHILOSOPHY
"The University of Chicago might have let [Wittgenstein] go"-so one reads in the article "Peer Pressure." That is striking. And the thought is imputed to me: "At least that's how it seems to Chicago professor Howard Stein...." That, it seems to me, is artful. The article does not say that I expressed that opinion, and I did not. Nor do I in fact think the University of Chicago would have denied tenure to Wittgenstein. But would any reader receive the impression that your reporter is merely attempting to read my mind? Does not the statement, on the contrary, rather strongly suggest-although without expressly stating-that she is paraphrasing my words?
Your article seems to put in my mouth an opinion that I consider both false and unjust to the dean and the rest of the administration, one that is certainly calculated to do exactly what I wished to avoid-namely, inflame the dispute. The disagreement involved is serious enough. I think it a disservice, not only to the disagreeing parties but also to the public that may have an interest in these events, to depict it in heightened colors.
Let me add one thing. The article refers to my announcement that I had requested a demotion from the rank of full professor as more shocking still than my objection to the standards I was protesting and goes on to ask: "What could make an academic philosopher sacrifice his rank?" My own view of that point is quite different. I do not regard my reduction in rank-nominal, as it is; formal, as I requested it be-as any sort of "sacrifice" at all. I did of course intend the "demotion" as a protest and, at the same time, as a demonstration of my own view that (in contrast to the question of tenure, which is a matter of obviously deep importance for a professor and for the university) the use of distinctions of rank as a source of prestige in research universities is really a deplorable one.
I do not think my standing with my colleagues, or with anyone whose opinion matters to me, depends on my rank. Indeed, in the letter to the provost in which I requested the reduction I also remarked that "my view of such things has tended to be the proverbial one of the demobilized World War II veteran: 'Call Me Mister.'"
PROFESSOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO
The editors reply:
The allusion to Wittgenstein was intended to help clarify Professor Stein's disagreement with University of Chicago administrators over promotion criteria for candidates in philosophy. We did not intend to imply that Professor Stein necessarily believed that Chicago would have refused Wittgenstein tenure. But we do think the analogy was apt.
LOST IN TRANSLATION
Perhaps the best comment on the allegation that the Iroquois Confederacy influenced the formation of the U.S. Constitution ["Tribal Lore," LF, March] came a few years ago from a docent at Sir William Johnson's mansion in upstate New York. Johnson, a white land speculator married to an Iroquois woman, served as a superintendent of Indian affairs during the mid-eighteenth century. While visiting the mansion in August 1994, I asked a docent what he thought about the controversy regarding the Iroquois and the Constitution. He hadn't heard of it, and I briefly outlined the claims in the case for him. His response: "They modeled the Constitution on the League of the Iroquois? They didn't do a very good job, did they?"
WILLIAM A. DOBAK
RE: February 1997
In his celebration of "slow-motion scholarship" in your February issue ["In the Franklin Factory"], Jack Hitt finds it hard to understand why the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) no longer gives top priority in its grant making to projects to annotate and publish the papers of the Founding Fathers. Let me help:
When historical records are in jeopardy all over the country; when the NHPRC has only $5 million annually with which to do something about it; when it finds itself spending 23 percent of its funds to pay for just eight "founding era" projects to annotate and publish documents, most of which are already safely preserved; and when most of those projects, which are collectively less than half completed after twenty to fifty years, will not finish until well into the next century, the NHPRC cannot afford to give them top priority.
We are trying to help institutions nationwide preserve all kinds of historical material and open it to scholars. If our appropriations hold up, we will be able to do that and still help finance the annotation and publication of such material as the long-term Founding Fathers editions.
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, NHPRC
Did my eyes deceive me or did this article claim that automobiling in An American Tragedy ["Dreiser's Holiday," LF, February] was nothing but carefree? Your writer misstates her case in trying to prove that Dreiser departs from his contemporaries on the cultural meaning of cars. In fact, it is noteworthy how similar this novel's use of the killer automobile is to Fitzgerald's in The Great Gatsby. The downward moral spiral of Dreiser's protagonist can be seen as resulting from his role as a passenger in a hit-and-run car collision that kills a girl. He turns tail and runs away, leaving the child dead on the road. Not exactly carefree motoring.
I have read with great interest the recent profiles in Lingua Franca of neoconservative intellectuals, their careers, and their goals. Given their present influence in the cultural arena, those of us who proudly belong to the left-leaning majority of academics should welcome further informative articles of this sort.
I was disturbed, however, by the apparent lack of critical perspective in James Surowiecki's portrait of Eugene Genovese ["Genovese's March," December/January]. While Surowiecki may have intended to let Genovese's contradictions and more outrageous statements "speak for themselves," I found this attitude of ironic admiration for the "tough old bird" more troubling than even a straightforward hagiography would have been.
What seems abundantly clear is that, however insightful Genovese's work on Southern history may be, he has profound shortcomings in his more general ideas about history. Overlaying his specialized insight is an anachronistic, irrationalist "great man" theory of history. Great men are great because of the fervor and sincerity of their belief, which allows them to galvanize followers and exercise authority. Hence we can admire Stalin, Mussolini, Goebbels, and Andropov (all mentioned affirmatively by Genovese in the article) for their will and dedication, their "toughness" in the face of a resistant world. Such a view is thoroughly values-blind and atavistic in its bracketing out of the substantive content of these men's ideas in favor of a blind celebration of the charismatic energies that led their followers, Genovese himself in Stalin's case, to believe in them.
The pedagogical analogue, which Genovese also celebrates, is an authoritarian relation of teacher to class and sectarian relations between pupils. As suggested by his positive remarks about his teacher Hans Rosenberg, even lying and distortions of fact may be justified in supporting a strongly held belief.
It takes no professional historian to see the absurd, often horrific results were such a view of history and historical argumentation taken seriously. Are we to prefer Reinhard Heydrich over Heinrich Himmler because the Prague-based SS leader had none of the effete aestheticism and queasiness of his more successful rival in genocide, and to suggest that the Czech partisans who assassinated Heydrich did the right thing solely because it was the expression of their tough-mindedness and iron will? Are we also to say, too bad about the Cambodian people's dying in droves, but those Khmer Rouge were some "tough boys" who really believed in their anti-intellectual, collectivist utopia and did what it took to make a real go of it? Are we truly to credit the notion that the elderly head of Brezhnev's secret police would have been the man to lead the Soviet Union through the changes necessary for it to have survived as a political entity? Such questions, it seems to me, can be answered in the negative by any intelligent person with a reasonable amount of historical knowledge and moral sense Yet this famous, often brilliant historian appears stymied at this basic level of historical and moral reasoning.
I find it most unfortunate, however, that Genovese's wrongheaded appeal to charisma proved so contagious to the writer of his profile. Because Genovese, from all indications of Surowiecki's well-written piece, is charismatic and fascinating. Yet many of his views, and the ways he chooses to express them, are also repugnant and wrong. Surowiecki, in setting aside his critical judgment, asks his readers to yield to his fascination with this "great man."
OF COMPARATIVE LITERATURE
I read with some perplexity Eugene Genovese's apparently favorable reference to "corporatism," cited by James Surowiecki in "Genovese's March." Perplexity, because this word, as Genovese has better reason to know than most, was virtually synonymous with fascism in the Italy of the Twenties and Thirties. Palmiro Togliatti, the leader of the Italian Communist Party in the postwar period, offered this summary in his 1935 Lectures on Fascism:
1) the corporative regime is a regime that is inseparable from total political reaction, from the destruction of every democratic liberty; 2) the corporative regime corresponds to an advanced economic stage and is a form through which finance capitalism seeks to strengthen its positions in the country's economy; 3) the state form must be totalitarian so as to force the large working masses under its control; 4) the corporations are an instrument for suppressing any attempt by the working masses to liberate themselves; 5) the corporations are an instrument for the ideological propaganda of class collaboration; 6) hiding behind the mask of an "anticapitalist" ideology, the corporations represent the most reactionary organization of the capitalist regime.
Is Genovese in effect declaring his own sympathy for fascism or for certain aspects of fascism? If so, that would go some way to explaining his hostility to political correctness and multiculturalism.
PROFESSOR OF HISPANIC
LANGUAGES AND LITERATURES
UNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURGH
Rachel Shteir has written an important piece about standardized testing in America ["Screen Test," LF, December/January]. But, in describing the computer-adaptive GRE (CAT), she makes one serious error. It is not the case that students may see their scores before deciding whether or not to cancel them. As with the paper-based test, a student must decide whether to cancel the scores before he or she ever sees them. When I finished the CAT in October, my last act was to choose between two onerous little ovals. If I clicked on one, I would see my scores and they would forever be part of my GRE file. If I clicked on the other, the score would remain hidden forever, and no record of my taking the test would even exist-like theunfortunates in Catch-22, the scores would be "disappeared."
This clarification is important. Being allowed to see the scores and then cancel them would mean that enterprising people, taking a couple of years off before graduate school, could pay to take the test twenty times, and only their final, best score would matter. The rich and leisured would have an advantage unlike any that presently exists.
I would like to correct some misrepresentations in Emily Nussbaum's otherwise fair and informative account of the impact of Women's Ways of Knowing in the decade after its publication ["The Group," LF, December/January]. Nussbaum quotes me as "bemusedly" ruminating about who is to blame for accusations of essentialism. I disclaim this. Certainly I (and we of WWK) do not "blame" Carol Gilligan (after all, we dedicate our new book, Knowledge, Difference, and Power, to her). Furthermore, I do not tend to think in terms of blame, since I believe blaming only furthers the antagonisms and factionalization within feminism. When I spoke to Nussbaum, I suggested to her that the real story in the post-WWK decade is why theories about women/men/gender offered in the Eighties (whether ours or anyone else's) have become anathema to certain academic feminists in the Nineties. Why has it become impossible to talk about "women"? What has transpired in feminist thinking and strategizing over the last decade that has led to name-calling (labeling one group of theorists "essentialists," and therefore beyond redemption)? Why are we pitting ourselves (and being pitted) against one another?
Feminists need to move beyond the oversimplifications of one another's work and intentions and urge the media to do likewise. (For example, for Nussbaum to call WWK "an ode to women's intuition" misrepresents the book's message and contributes to its negative reading.)
What has been left unexamined and unexplained by the media and feminists who are preoccupied with staying on the theoretical high road is the impact that books such as WWK have had on the general public and on parts of academia. I am proud that WWK has been personally meaningful and politically useful to vast numbers of women and men of different races and classes (contrary to what Carol Stack asserts), teachers and students, community workers, and clinicians who have found that the focus on "ways of knowing" resonates with personal experience and helps name the feeling of having what you know and how you know minimized and shunted to the side. Others tell us that WWK has aided in opening up the important issues of how knowledge claims are established and evaluated on both a personal and an institutional level and why some approaches to knowing are devalued in America today.
To be sure, WWK can be charged with doing too little to address the important factors of class and race (even though our sample was ethnically and racially mixed and included almost 30 percent working-class women). In our new book, Knowledge, Difference, and Power, several essays highlight these issues.
NANCY RULE GOLDBERGER
PROFESSOR OF PSYCHOLOGY
THE FIELDING INSTITUTE
SANTA BARBARA, CA
Emily Nussbaum's "The Group" will, I fear, seriously mislead your readers. Questions about "women's ways of knowing" have become so inflamed in today's academy that the words themselves have become unspeakable. But this state of affairs cannot be "blamed" on the authors of WWK, or on Carol Gilligan, or, indeed, on any individual authors. What we must ask ourselves is not who used these unspeakable words, but how did the words become unspeakable? Fifteen years ago, questions about the intellectual and moral implications of gender differences in socialization provided useful and productive sites for study. In some countries (Sweden, for example), they still do. But, in late-twentieth-century America, such questions have become so inflamed that, in many places, they cannot even be asked. Not surprisingly, feminists everywhere are rushing to get out of the fire; more surprising (and certainly sadder) is the enthusiasm with which many academics (even feminists) seem wont to add fuel.
The main point, however, is that the fire itself-and not the authors of books (like WWK) used to feed the conflagration-is the cause for alarm, and, therefore, that which we most urgently need to understand. When will Lingua Franca take on its responsibility to help its readers in this need?
EVELYN FOX KELLER
PROFESSOR OF HISTORY AND
PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE, MIT
Emily Nussbaum responds:
I am surprised by Fox Keller's fiery letter, as our conversation dealt mostly with her frustration that WWK had led to essentialist misreadings of her own work. I sympathize with Goldberger's concerns regarding feminist infighting; nonetheless, my representation of Goldberger's comments is accurate-as the transcript of our interview confirms. Whether WWK can be properly described as an "ode to women's intuition" is question I will leave readers to judge for themselves.
SPEAKING IN TONGUES
Paul William Roberts's "My Translation Problem" [LF, December/January] is aptly titled. The author demonstrates an abysmal ignorance of language, writing systems, and scholarship. Roberts complains that because so few scholars work on certain dead languages, the scholarship in these fields goes unchallenged and unreviewed. In my thirty years of research and publication in one of the fields Roberts singles out, Sumerian studies, I assure you that I have found no dearth of colleagues who are willing and even eager to vigorously critique my work, and my friends in Egyptology would say the same.
Roberts also claims that translations from dead languages are often "arbitrary, illiterate, or bizarre" and "unverifiable." His first example is a Mandaean hymn, in which he ridicules a phrase translated as "the radiance within Radiance." Had he bothered to find out even a little about the gnostic theology of the Mandaeans, "the radiance within Radiance" would have caused him no difficulty.
His statements about the ancient Egyptian language and writing system are astounding. Egyptian is hardly "impervious to direct 'translation'" because it is "pictographic." Languages are not pictographic; scripts are. But a pictographic script does not make a language inherently more difficult to translate. We understand ancient Egyptian far better than we do ancient Ugaritic, which is alphabetically written. And it is absurd to claim a "fundamental incompatibility between hieroglyphs and modern languages." All ancient languages can be translated into modern ones; the difficulty is that we do not completely understand dead languages that were recovered (deciphered) only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Ancient Greek is a different matter. It may be dead, but it has an unbroken tradition of study from ancient times as well as a modern descendant. Egyptian and Sumerian have neither. This is why most Egyptologists and Sumerologists aim at providing the most accurate literal translation of the texts they publish. To compare scholarly translations of Egyptian texts to poetic translations of Aeschylus is beside the point for many reasons. There is, of course, much to criticize in our disciplines, but Roberts, it seems, hasn't a clue.
JERROLD S. COOPER
PROFESSOR OF NEAR EASTERN STUDIES
JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY
Paul William Roberts responds:
In his letter, Jerrold Cooper accuses me of ignorance regarding the "gnostic theology of the Mandaeans." In doing so, however, he only reveals his own ignorance of the subject. Having spent considerable time among the Mandaean communities in Iran and Iraq, and having studied gnosticism for twenty years, I can assure him that their proto-kabbalistic theology cannot properly be termed "gnostic." Indeed, my fieldwork convinces me that pretentious translations like "the radiance within Radiance" are simply lousy-in this case, the "limitless light" would be better.
As for the quibble over "scripts" and "languages," I'll ignore it-a script is a written language, okay? But thoughts expressed in pictures are qualitatively different from thoughts expressed in words. And therefore the pictographs of a long-dead civilization-particularly one as immersed in complex symbolist expression as ancient Egypt-are "inherently more difficult to translate." (A Web site at the University of Chicago details over a thousand ancient Egyptian words deemed "obscure" or "difficult to translate"-which is more than the entire vocabularies of some languages.) With regard to Cooper's comments on this subject in general, I quote from a recent statement by Oxford University's Griffith Institute concerning their version of translation exercises in Sir Alan Gardiner's Egyptian Grammar: "No two Egyptologists would agree on the correctness of these translations; if there is a difference of opinion, your teacher (if you are lucky enough to have one) is likely to be right. We cannot enter into discussion of these translations-life is just too short for it." So much for "all ancient languages can be translated into modern ones."
Finally, the professor refers to "poetic translations of Aeschylus" as if these are necessarily "unscholarly" and inaccurate. They are not, of course. And, while there may well be "many reasons" that my comparison is "beside the point," just one would have sufficed here.
In the end, I can only conclude that Jerrold Cooper inhabits an environment where, to paraphrase Robert Lowell, the Sumerologists talk only to the Egyptologists and the Egyptologists talk only to God. Asking colleagues in Sumerian or Egyptology to critique translations is like asking the cast members of a bad Broadway musical to critique each others' performances: You'll get comments on individual technique, but no one will admit the production as a whole stinks.
Paul William Roberts's "My Translation Problem" [LF, December/January] only recently came to my attention. As the steward of Lady Drower's scholarly archives, as the translator of a Mandaean text (The Scroll of Exalted Kingship, American Oriental Society, 1993), and as a student and scholar of the Mandaean religion for nearly thirty years, I take the strongest possible exception to Roberts's assertions about the religion and about Drower's work on it.
Roberts phoned me as he was working on the piece, and he quotes me on p. 71, evidently seeing me as one of the "drones toiling in [Drower's] Mandaean hive." He is annoyed that I would say nothing to impugn Drower's reputation. Indeed, I have the highest regard for her work.
JORUNN JACOBSEN BUCKLEY
INSTRUCTOR IN LITERATURE, M.I.T.
RE: November 1996
THE NOT-SO-NEW CLASS
I was amazed by the assertion of your otherwise stimulating contributor, Professor Robert Westbrook, in the November issue ["The Counter-Intelligentsia: How Neoconservatism Lived and Died"], that, "of course, the New Class concept was not formulated by the neoconservatives as a serious analytical tool but as a political weapon."
Professor Westbrook's jab might come under the same derisory rubric of exaggeration as the infamous charge that "political correctness" was invented by the right. However, it sends the very, very alarming signal that the American academy has completely abandoned the study of such thinkers as Saint-Simon, Robert Michels, and Vilfredo Pareto, all of whom theorized the rise of a "new class" of intellectuals that would challenge the established entrepreneurial bourgeoisie for influence over society.
In other words, these conceptions were not "formulated by the neoconservatives" but have a long and important presence in the history of modern ideas. Given the interest of post-Sixties academics in obscure figures on the left; given the publication in English of the works of Jan Waclaw Machahski, the great articulator of these matters in the Russian revolutionary movement at the turn of the century; and given the precedence of Auguste Blanqui, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Mikhail Bakunin, and Pyotr Kropotkin in this controversy, Professor Westbrook's comment seems especially wrongheaded. These political writers saw, more than their sociological predecessors and contemporaries, the role of the state in fortifying the "new class." And they anticipated that class's potential to compete with and suppress the working class on the presumptive road of the latter to domination of society.
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
SECRETARY, NORTHERN CALIFORNIA NEWSPAPER GUILD, AFL-CIO
THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT
In her eagerness to criticize "legacy preference" in college admissions, Jessica Burlingame ["All in the Family," LF, November] badly misrepresents my views and wrongly implies that I am a critic of colleges that do this.
As I clearly told Ms. Burlingame, colleges that give admissions preference to children of alumni have good reason to do so: They believe this practice will help attract a well-rounded student body with a sense of loyalty to the school and its history. Moreover, these students are likely to excel once enrolled. Because college officials believe this strategy is in the best interest of their institution and have made a conscious decision to pursue it, it is completely rational, even if it does not, according to her calculations, seem economically wise.
TERRY W. HARTLE
AMERICAN COUNCIL ON EDUCATION
Submit a Letter to the Editor