||Column Shows “Centrist Bias”
I read Amy Gutmann’s article “Keeping Our Republic” [“From College Hall,” May|June], and I have to say, civilly and respectfully, that I could hardly disagree more. She’s right that our political discourse has become more polarized and ugly. However, she misrepresents the nature of the problem and obscures its cause. What’s worse, the remedy that she suggests would make things worse, not better.
By complaining that polarization is the problem and urging people to find compromise, Gutmann is expressing her own centrist political bias. To me, it seems obvious that the ugliness of our current political climate is coming almost entirely from the right. It cannot really be otherwise, as the left has been so effectively marginalized. Our news media are in such a bad state that the comedians on Comedy Central have a better journalistic reputation than the journalists on our news programs do.
The problem, as I see it, is a failure of education at many levels. It’s as if Sam Cooke’s song, “Wonderful World,” has become our unofficial national anthem: an alarmingly large percentage of Americans take perverse pride in the fact that they “Don’t know much about history. Don’t know much biology. Don’t know much about a science book. Don’t know much about the French [they] took.” Our public schools have also given up formal instruction in grammar, logic, and rhetoric. As a result, many Americans are shockingly ignorant of important facts, and they don’t know how to evaluate arguments based on facts. In other words, they don’t know how to hold a serious conversation about anything important. They become easy marks for propagandists.
Part of the problem is that public-school curriculum decisions are made locally, often by people of limited education. Worse yet, the people who have the biggest influence on the content of our textbooks are the right-wing ideologues on the Texas State Board of Education.
We are suffering from a breakdown in civic values, but it’s not because the left is anywhere near as obnoxious as the right. It’s because the peace and social-justice advocates on the left have been practically silenced while a handful of influential people on the right have spent some of their billions on phony-baloney “think tanks” whose spokespersons have dominated our media, and thus our national consciousness.
Pretending that the left is as obnoxious as the right is simply ridiculous, as one can easily see from comparing the footage from the protests in Madison, Wisconsin, with that from any of the Tea Party rallies. What we need is not “compromise,” which would really just mean giving up more ground to the plutocrats and the theocrats and the racists and the misogynists. What we need is for the people who are genuine experts on history and biology and climate change and economics and healthcare reform and even basic logic to get off their butts and involved in the movement to reform our media and educate our benighted people.
Laurie Endicott Thomas C’83 G’85 Madison, NJ
Apparent Incivility is a Sideshow
Amy Gutmann’s argument that we must restore civility and compromise in public debate ignores the fact that both the Democratic and Republican parties represent increasingly the financial interests of the wealthy few who provide the purse strings in political campaigns. The apparent incivility is nothing more than a sideshow for the so-called party bases. What will further the common good is not civility and compromise but independent legislators freed from the necessity to please corporate business interests that are increasingly in direct conflict with the interests of the common good.
The wealthy few are defining the debate in the interests of corporate welfare. The American public or our political representatives should not remain civil or compromise in a debate that disregards the interest of the majority of Americans. Guttmann’s call for us to resist the “siren’s song of polarizing rhetoric” asks the American public to accept ubiquitous voices funded by corporate interests in our political and media sources.
Dennis Knepp GEE’68 GrE’71 Monterey, CA
Dr. Gutmann engages in false equivalence when she attributes incivility and an unwillingness to compromise to all sides in the American political discourse. Since the 2006 midterm elections, only one side has adopted a platform two letters long: N-O! Only one side has engaged in obstructionist tactics at a level rarely if ever seen before in Congress. And only one side is intent on holding the US economy hostage (for example, by blocking an increase in the debt ceiling) to achieve its ends.
It’s impossible to compromise when one side refuses to negotiate in good faith, and when one side defines compromise as “give us everything we want, or else.”
The example she offered as a glimmer of hope for bipartisanship was no such thing. President Obama negotiated only with the Republicans on the bill extending the Bush tax cuts, the GOP demanded that extension, and they got it. (And we’ll get the same demand and the same battle next year when the extension expires). Seventy programs got the axe in that deal.
Until the Republican Party abandons its platform as the Party of No (and as long as the Tea Partyers are running the show, it can’t), compromise and bipartisanship will be absent from national politics.
D.F. Manno C’81 Philadelphia
Compromise is the Problem
President Gutmann’s piece begins with a flawed premise, namely, that “public debate and discourse” that is “so hateful, so untruthful, so raw, [and] so much of the time” threatens “our very pursuit of the public good.”
She fails to convince me, for one, that the “public good” is causally related to rhetoric, whether “polarizing” or otherwise. I would submit that the “public good,” whatever that might be (she did not tell us), can come from any place, any time, in any form.
I would also submit that it is excessive compromise—that is, excessive absence of “polarizing rhetoric”—that has brought us to a point where Gutmann became motivated to try to calm her readers down. Had more of us seen sooner that compromise was only greasing the skids for rapid displacement of the Republic—the American system for securing the public good—by statism, the “polarizing rhetoric” would be much louder.
Stu Mahlin WG’65 Cincinnati, OH
Gazette Allowed “Hateful” Rhetoric
At first I hesitated to write for fear that you were playing some sort of a sour joke. One of the first articles in the May|June issue is by President Gutmann, mixing history with a call for civil discourse and the avoidance of “so hateful, so untruthful, so raw” discourse that threatens “our very pursuit of the public good.” Nice sentiments and what is to be expected from someone in her role.
But not five pages later the Gazette chose to publish a letter from Ricardo Ashbridge Hinkle that is the very antithesis of all that President Gutmann called for. This diatribe is replete with the same old nasty accusations of a bygone era: “the right wing is conducting an odious war against public workers and their unions,” which somehow Hinkle considers the “backbone of our middle class.” If in fact public workers, whose wages depend absolutely on the non-public workers, are the backbone of our middle class, we need real help.
By inference Hinkle acknowledges that this middle class of public union workers must be supported by other classes, both lower and higher. There was more, accusing Republican governors and Penn law professor David Skeel [whose views on allowing states to declare bankruptcy was the subject of the Mar|Apr “Gazetteer” article that prompted Hinkle’s letter] of preferring “to starve the children and overcrowd their schools.”
We all know that people like Hinkle exist, and some even went to Penn, but why do you have to provide a forum for their spews of hatred and class warfare? Especially when it looks like you are bent on embarrassing President Gutmann with her obviously unrealistic call for civil discourse. Can you not practice what she preaches?
Dr. Leonard M. Guss C’49 Woodinville, WA
Cloud Cuckoo Land Has Not Changed
Received the May|June Pennsylvania Gazette and opened it to scan the issue. What liberal nonsense will attract my eye? was the thought that whipped through my mind as I turned pages. Well, it didn’t take long as an Edgar Guest-level piece by President Gutmann was on page 4.
Scanning on I found my attention was grabbed by a letter with the headline “State Bankruptcy=War on Workers,” where one can see that the writer has learned nothing in the school of hard knocks (life outside the University) but remains a prisoner of his Penn programming and views reality through a prism of conservative bashing, class warfare, and the unfettered glory of government regulation, taxation, and neverending spending.
He is in for a rude awakening: the Nation is broke. Take your pick: hyperinflation or depression. Why not try both in turn? And while at it, add a large measure of governmental defaults: cities, states, and the federal behemoth hurtling over the proverbial cliff, all the while blaming Bush.
Next my attention was arrested by “Among the Asylum Seekers” [“Alumni Voices”]. The writer, Livia Rurarz-Huygens, is a real true believer, on a quest to bring the Third World to the USA. O tempora, O mores. Where does it end?
Our southern border is a sieve not a border, with millions of people with needs arriving to tap on the teat of the government. (I know they all come to work. Yes, work the system.) Now comes gentle Livia who, as did Oliver, wants more, more “needy” to sop up America’s largesse, to deliver the “asylum seekers” onto the backs of the taxpayers of America. She is all heart and no brains. Her generosity knows no bounds—or should I say her using the generosity of the taxpayer knows no bounds.
No more for me. I had to close The Pennsylvania Gazette. Your Cloud Cuckoo Land has not changed since I last was in West Philadelphia in January 1974.
John Kundrat M’67 Res’73 Lewiston, ID
Speaking of Flaws
Dennis Drabelle’s article on James Wilson [“Flawed Founder,” May|June] brings deserved attention to a Founding Father who has been unfairly swept under the rug of history, apparently because of his troubled final years. I would, however, like to correct the record on a couple of points.
Wilson’s series of scholarly lectures on the law at the College of Philadelphia—considered to be the beginnings of Penn Law School—began in December 1790, not 1789 as Drabelle writes. Also, the Supreme Court had not yet developed the concept of majority, concurring, and dissenting opinions when Wilson served. Instead, the justice’s individual opinions were read seriatim from the bench, so, although Wilson agreed with most of his fellow justices in the landmark case, Chisholm v. Georgia, it cannot truly be called a “concurring” opinion.
More information on Wilson’s years on the Supreme Court can be found in The Documentary History of the Supreme Court of the United States,
1789-1800, for which I served as an associate editor. For a fictional treatment of Wilson’s last years, and his marriage to Hannah Gray—32 years his junior—readers may be interested in my historical novel, A More Obedient Wife: A Novel of the Early Supreme Court.
Natalie Wexler L’83 Washington
What’s Happening on Campus?
Somewhere along the line the monthly column, designed originally to describe for the alumni the collective experience of all of the undergrads, changed to “Notes From the Undergrad”—the personal experience of one of them. As interesting and well written as these experiences are, they are beside the point.
The point is (or was, when I was writing the column as an undergrad in 1948 and 1949) to capture the tone and mood of student life: to listen carefully and write accurately what was on the minds of the students (all of them). How are they (or not) connecting to what is going on in the president’s office; what are they are worrying about? What are their hopes, and what (with a presence still in student life) their dreams? What does the campus look like as the Philadelphia winter becomes spring? The colors and the sounds and the angst? (Students always have angst!)
It takes nothing away from the fine young students you have writing about their personal experiences to suggest that alumni really want to know what undergrad life is like on the Penn campus—years after they have left it. Tell us.
Gil Sandler C’49 Baltimore
I read “Drinking Games, Wharton Style,” [“Gazetteer,” May|June] with a growing sense of disbelief. Was this some sort of late April Fool’s article? Unfortunately not. We live in a time of economic collapses, currency bailouts, fights over balancing the national budget, and earthquakes affecting industry, and the students at the country’s premier business school are spending their weekends flying to France for wine-sipping contests? Sacre bleu! It doesn’t get any more ivory tower than that, folks.
Dana Caldwell Borda C’96 Atlanta
On the “Big Issues,” Ask the Experts
The May/June Gazette had an interview with author James Morrow C’69 [“Arts”]. I appreciate the wit expressed in satiric science fiction as well as anyone. But your interviewer seemed to be less interested in the entertainment value of Morrow’s work than in the “big issues” with which he wrestles. I find it interesting that the interviewer focused on the existence of God and the role of religion in history.
Surely, your readers would be better served if your team interviewed University of Pennsylvania graduates who have achieved some level of leadership in the various religious traditions represented by our University alumni. Certainly we can have some fun enjoying the wit of a science fiction writer’s satire, now let’s have some sharing of the work by our talented associates who contribute to our religious traditions in our time.
Joseph C. Lamont GPU’81 Mt. Gretna, PA
Someone Likes Us
Your May|June 2011 issue was one of the best issues of any higher education institution I have read. It was informative and broad-based and did not just contain feel good articles of past students. You’re to be congratulated. I only hope you continue in this vein.
Tom Saylor WG’70 Minneapolis
The Pennsylvania Gazette judges submissions as capriciously as Penn and other Ivy admissions offices judge applicants. I submitted an article about leaving my career behind and choosing an alternate career path, along with a story about traveling halfway around the world. But that wasn’t good enough because the editors at the Gazette prefer stories about people being in normal career paths pretending they’re adventurous and off doing exciting things (while being backed by grants, non-profits, or academic positions with little accountability). This is why most of what is supposed to be alumni news ends up being articles about research that doesn’t show scientific or social progress (i.e., unsuccessful research), and written in a style that’s not much beyond eighth-grade English. And God forbid you say anything negative about investment banking or consulting. Well, I will no longer be receiving the Gazette, which is a shame because I really would like to hear what my fellow alumni are up to. If only they would publish it.
Jeremy Saxton EAS’97 W’97 Beverly Hills, CA
Legal, but Not Legitimate
Alex Hoffman states that my claim that animal-enterprise terrorism statutes compromise freedom of speech is “misleading” [“Letters,” May|June]. Any elementary First Amendment analysis, however, will establish that a statute that criminalizes expressive activity based on the content of the message (in this instance, opposition to animal vivisection) is an absolute violation of the public’s right to free speech.
Hoffman references attacks on animal vivisectors, such as detonation of pipe bombs, yet he fails to recognize that such dangerous activities are already codified in our states’ criminal statutes. Why should crime in the name of animal rights be elevated to the federal charge of “terrorism” and face much harsher penalties than the same crime that is perpetrated without any such cause?
I also take exception to his value-laden phrase “legitimate animal use.” Exposing sentient creatures to painful, agonizing, and fatal experiments when there is little, if any, scientific evidence that such torture yields accurate results in human subjects can hardly be considered “legitimate.” “Legal,” yes; “legitimate,” no.
Dara Lovitz C’00 Philadelphia
Kaplan Clears Things Up
Some readers complained about the language in our March|April “Arts” interview with alumna and singer-writer-comedian Cindy Kaplan. Here is her response.—Ed.
Let me just say two things about the use of profanity in my writing. The first is this: I make no apologies. And the second: I’m sorry.
Cynthia Kaplan C’85 New York
Another Civil War Story
“Penn Fights the Civil War” [Mar|Apr] sharply reflects North-South divisions and connections in Civil War times, Penn’s unique importance in medical education, and Philadelphia’s proximity to the Mason-Dixon line.
Another aspect of Penn’s involvement deserves mention, and perhaps further research: in December 1859 more than 200 students from the South withdrew from the Penn Medical School and returned South to continue their studies.
The Southern students’ withdrawal was apparently motivated by the passing of John Brown’s body through Philadelphia in early December 1859, an event that generated intense and conflicting reactions in Philadelphia.
As a result, Dr. Hunter H. McGuire and Dr. Francis E. Luckett, both Virginians then studying in Philadelphia, rallied 400 Southern students to go home. The faculties of the Medical College of Virginia (MCV) in Richmond, and of the Charleston, Augusta, Nashville, and New Orleans medical schools agreed to admit them free of charge. The result was that on Wednesday, December 21, 1859, 244 students came to Richmond from Philadelphia with 144 enrolling at MCV—which also paid the train fare for all 244 students that totaled $3,555.95.
Juan Giusti-Cordero C’75 University of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras
The exploits of Matthew H. Cryer, DDS, MD (1840-1921) merit recognition.
Cryer served in 25 engagements with the Sixth Ohio Volunteer Cavalry, eventually achieving the rank of major. He led “the last assault of Grant against Lee and commanded Lee’s escort from Appomattox to Farmville after the surrender.” I am indebted to Milton B. Asbell, whose book, A Century of Dentistry, A History of the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine 1878-1978, recorded Cryer’s exploits.
Cryer was installed as assistant professor of oral surgery at Penn in 1897 and is remembered as “the Father of Cranial Anatomy.” A memorial tablet and portrait of Cryer placed in 1922 is still on view at the school.
H. Martin Deranian D’47 Worcester, MA
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