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
A Passing Problem
I was surprised to see myself cited in"Van the Man" [March] and appalled at how grossly erroneous the citation was: I have not written a biography of Nella Larsen (a fact easily checked); I did not attend a panel discussion on the Harlem Renaissance at the Modernist Studies Association (MSA) conference; and I have never referred to Nigger Heaven as Negro Heaven.
Here's the truth. I presented a paper called"Passing as Modernism" at the MSA conference. After giving examples of passing as I develop that concept in my book, Passing and Pedagogy: The Dynamics of Responsibility (Illinois, 1999), I said of Carl Van Vechten and in reference to the slipperiness of that term:
Surely [we think] Barbara Johnson's essays on African American literature differ markedly from Carl Van Vechten's Nigger Heaven, a novel which struck many, including [D.H.] Lawrence, as cashing in on the fad of the New Negro, but which Wallace Thurman, in his Messenger review, found to"pulsate" with the"genuine rhythms peculiar to Harlem."
I referred to Van Vechten's novel only once more:
Modernist writers, from Lawrence in his review of Nigger Heaven and Walter White's Flight, to Heba Jannath in her essay on passing in Nancy Cunard's Negro Anthology, to [Elsie Clews] Parsons in her essay on the Zuni la'mana, have portrayed passing as betraying conventional markers of racial sexual difference, thereby undermining the belief in intrinsic differences.
The irony of the misattribution is that in my book, as in that paper, I explicitly resist such efforts to be liberally correct. On the contrary, I argue that the risks we run in crossing identity boundaries, and the discomfort such crossing can provoke, are integral to the dynamics of responsibility I conceptualize in terms of passing.
If it weren't such a gross distortion of my work, I suppose I would find the misattribution amusing. The article has me passing as Thadious Davis, the author of a biography on Nella Larsen and the other presenter on my MSA panelóthough I never heard her re-title that novel either.
Pamela L. Caughie
Professor of English
Director of Women's Studies
The editors reply:
We regret the erroneous statement about the MSA panel and extend our apologies to Professor Caughie.
Within the System
Laura Secor's article"Testaments Betrayed: Yugoslavian Intellectuals and the Road to War" [September, 1999] is a fair and evenhanded account of the political transformation of the Belgrade Praxis philosophers. Gathered around the"literary clan" of the so-called father of the nation, Dobrica Cosic, this"philosophical vanguard" of Greater Serbia penetrated, in the midst of Milosevic's brutal pillaging of Yugoslavia, the centers of power. As such, as Secor correctly infers, they share structural responsibility for the war in Yugoslavia.
In his letter to Lingua Franca [February], the former Praxist Svetozar Stojanovic favorably presents himself as a central figure in the failed process of democratic transformation in Serbia but denies he contributed to this failure. The reader is left with a paradox: How could Stojanovic simultaneously have occupied an important position in Milosevic's power structure and served as chair of the Council for Democratic Transformation of Serbia?
In his work, Stojanovic has emphasized his close ties to Dobrica Cosic and his role in encouraging Cosic to accept Milosevic's offer of the Yugoslav presidency. And yet he has also acknowledged that"Milosevic's primary calculation has been to use [Cosic] in order to breach through the political, diplomatic, economic, and informational blockade and establish contact with the Western world...but at the same time not to run into a significant risk of losing the power he had captured earlier." He continues:"ExposingÖCosic, Milosevic attempted to present a more acceptable face, but at the same time he prevented any significant distribution and sharing of power."
As is evident from Stojanovic's account, Milosevic inaugurated internal opposition in order to trick Western diplomats and to simulate a"democratic Serbia" on the international political scene. In this endeavor, Milosevic received significant help from the irresponsible leaders of the so-called democratic opposition in Serbia, to which professor Stojanovic belongs.
Acting President of the Belgrade Circle NGO
In Paul Mitchinson's"All the Presidents' Tapes" [February], in New York Times Op-Eds, and elsewhere, a mushy-headed rehabilitation of Lyndon Johnson's gruesome Vietnam policy is taking place. We are now told by people like George McGovern, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Taylor Branch that Johnson felt bad about what he was doing in Vietnam. Poor fellow! This judgment seems more appropriate to an Oprah show than to serious history. Putting aside the old boys (and girls) club's admiration of Johnson's efforts to placate (i.e., lie to) whomever he was addressingósee, for example, Doris Kearns Goodwinówhat, finally, does it matter whether Johnson conveyed to some people, with his own tape running, that he felt bad about Vietnam? What matters, and needs more serious attention, is that he did it.
Department of History
John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York
I would like to make some low-profile clarifications of Christopher Shea's sketch"The Return of Ishi's Brain" [February]. The Smithsonian recommended repatriation of Ishi's brain in April 1999; if its report was"hurried," the scholarly judiciousness of the report is even more praiseworthy. Professional linguists with expertise in Yana/Yahi have been studying Ishi's language for several years through material dictated by himósome of their work will be published next fall. I am now searching for funds to assist these excellent scholars to publish more as quickly as possibleóI will appreciate any suggestions for support.
I am not writing an account of this affair. I am gathering for deposit in the Bancroft Library as full a collection as I can assemble of reports, scholarly articles, journalistic accounts (such as Shea's), personal correspondence, and commentary of every kind relating to this matter: I welcome any information or observations anyone cares to send me. Some items already sent me have revealed new sources of facts about Ishi, and the collection should become a useful source for future (possibly amused) students of American academia of our era.
In my minor and peripheral engagement with this affair, my primary purpose has not been to defend my father, Alfred Kroeber. The value of his accomplishments will not be diminished by self-promoters of current political correctness. My principal intent has been to protest against those who, under the guise of sympathy for Native Americans, disparage Ishi. The choice Ishi made to emerge from years of concealment and put himself in the hands of those who had wantonly murdered his people was an act of extraordinary moral courage. That he sought more than mere physical survival is proved by the hopefulness, intelligent energy, and responsiveness with which, in his final years, he made his terrible experience yield positive resultsónot just for himself but also for those with whom he associated, all of whom came to admire him and to enjoy his company. I believe that scholars who, whatever their idealistic claims, reduce Ishi to a stereotypical victim insult him as an individual and, through him, Native American cultures, such as the Yana/Yahi culture that equipped him with forms of living that enabled him to manifest in so exemplary a fashion the primary human virtues of dignity, self-respect, and a capacity for personal friendship with those unlike him in language, culture, and experience.
Mellon Professor in the Humanities
Faith Without Foundations
Charlotte Allen's"The Postmodern Mission" [December/January] confuses two issues that ought to be kept distinctóthe aim of evangelical Protestant colleges to sustain some sort of coherent identity and the work of theologians and Scripture scholars in those colleges who have been influenced by postmodernism. As a result, Allen presents misleading pictures both of the scholars' work and of the political battles that surround it.
Allen draws the inference that since many so-called postmodernists are skeptical about claims to universal reason and objective validity, theologians who draw on their work must therefore be liberals or revisionists dedicated to the radical revamping of doctrine. Yet a quick perusal of Kenneson, Hauerwas, and others shows that not to be the case. Both theological liberals and theological conservatives believe, as Hauerwas puts it, that they can affirm the truth of their religious convictions apart from the expression of these convictions in religious tradition, practice, and worship. The scholars mentioned in Allen's article think this is a blind alley and thus abjure this foundationalist quest. They are both postliberal and postconservative. Dispensing with the need to provide neutral foundations for religious faith, they are free to affirm its details without epistemic embarrassment.
The evangelical conservatives who see this scholarship as a threat to Christian identity and education thus either have not been reading it very closely or are oblivious of the extent to which their own agenda is tied up with"the Enlightenment project" of sliding independent, incorrigible foundations under their religious convictions. To view theological postmodernism as just another rehash of 1960s"death of God theology" or nineteenth-century revisionism is to miss the point massively.
Michael J. Quirk
The New School/ Hofstra University