Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Letters

Cambridge 02138

Mill girls, mushroom mirth, folklore myths

November-December 2010

On Presidential Powers

Charles and Gregory Fried’s article “In the Wake of War” (September-October, page 36) is very principled, scholarly, and intelligent, but it misses a major point: What Bush II faced and Obama faces now cannot be fairly compared with earlier incidents, e.g. Jefferson and Lincoln. We are dealing with the real threats of massive slaughter and destruction, involving hundreds, even thousands, of people.

If we could have tortured Mohamed Atta or one of his jihadist team, and so prevented 9/11, would that not have been justified? And in such emergency situations, would that not have been within the commander-in-chief powers of the president?

Granted, we have to be very careful not to antagonize the world, but we are dealing with extreme dangers and we need effective responses for survival!

John McVickar, M.P.A. ’59
Richmond, Va.

 

I am somewhat puzzled by the philosophical proposition the Frieds implicitly maintain, namely that torture is never morally justified. I believe their motivation for maintaining this debatable proposition is the serious practical concern that recognition of occasions when torture may be morally justified creates conditions for a “slippery slope” where torture might become a commonplace instrument of political policy. As I understand the abstract, the Frieds propose as a categorical principle that torture is always immoral, but that it may be excused under certain conditions. This seems to me to be wrong. My understanding of morality has always been that it is categorical: if an action is immoral (e.g., slave owning), you don’t perform it, regardless of its legality. There are no excuses that justify the immoral act.

I also believe that there is at least one relatively well-known counterexample that convincingly undermines the “torture equals always immoral” theory. The counterexample is based on the grounds that moral rules logically imply a community in which moral discourse takes place among moral agents. As a matter of logic and reason, the observance of any categorical rule of behavior that could or would result in the extinction of that community qualifies the observance of that categorical rule as immoral and irrational.

Suppose for a moment that a fanatical member of a small and obscure misanthropic environmental group is captured by duly authorized officials of a community of moral discourse. It is an article of faith of that captive and his associates that the extinction of humanity is necessary in order to save the environment and all other species currently living on Earth. Suppose, further, that the fanatic has knowledge of the whereabouts and the means to disarm a “doomsday” device designed to cleanse the environment of human life. The device will annihilate all human life within a week. The captive refuses to talk or cooperate with officials.

In these circumstances, should the officials of this community torture the fanatic to obtain information that could lead to the disarming or destruction of the “doomsday” device? Are they acting immorally if they do? If they don’t? I believe the answers in turn are straightforward: yes, no, and yes.

As I understand the Frieds, on the other hand, their answers would be: yes (it’s a politically necessary, excusable immoral act); yes (but it is an excusable immoral act), and no (but the officials should do it anyway because it is a politically necessary and excusable immoral act). If the Frieds are in fact worried about a slippery slope, their moral theory merely moves that serious concern to the issue of what constitutes an excuse and at the seeming cost of logical coherence, simplicity, and clarity (e.g., if it’s immoral, don’t do it).

Jim Behnke, J.D. ’81
Hanover, N.H.

 

While Charles and Gregory Fried have written a stimulating and useful article on torture, they seem to have gotten it wrong about public safety, which for a great many Americans trumps the morality, civility, Constitution, and rule of law that concern the Frieds. Thus they refer to events “in which torture truly is the only way to prevent a catastrophe” and to a case “when the usefulness of torture…might seem clear.” But experience shows that torture is not the only way, the clear way, nor even the best way to elicit accurate, timely information from a suspect. Consider the following:

  • Lieutenant General John Kimmons, Army deputy chief of staff for intelligence, stated in 2006: “No good intelligence is going to come from abusive practices”;
  • FBI director Robert Mueller III stated in 2006 that though the “ticking bomb” case presents a difficult issue, he would rely on the FBI’s non-coercive methods;
  • In 2007, General David Petraeus, then the U.S. commander in Iraq, told his forces that torture is both wrong and ineffective; FBI general counsel Valerie E. Caproni noted in 2008: “[T]he FBI has consistently stated its belief that the most effective way to obtain accurate information is to use rapport-building techniques in interviews”;
  • Citing the “ticking bomb” case in 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder said that he would not authorize torture under any circumstances, callling it “a false premise that torture will result in the receipt of good useful information”;
  • Jane Mayer in The Dark Side, her excellent account of the Bush-Cheney descent into torture, reported that their extraordinary-rendition program has “produced a file of confessions forced out of prisoners claiming to have suffered unimaginable torment. Much of this intelligence, however, proved demonstrably false, leading the United States tragically astray”;
  • Mayer relates that CIA agents tortured a captive named Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi into claiming that ties existed between al-Qaeda and Saddam regarding various weapons of mass destruction. This claim, which was false and which al-Libi later recanted, became a key element of Colin Powell’s pivotal pitch to the UN Security Council in February 2003 for attacking Iraq.

Fortunately, the public safety and the values that concern the Frieds (and me) demand the same result: no torture. I hope that people of the Frieds’ stature will come to embrace and proclaim this conclusion.

Malcolm Bell ’53, LL.B. ’58
Weston, Vt.

 

I haven’t read the book by father and son Fried. However, it strikes me that if the excerpt in the magazine is exemplary of the arguments pursued throughout, it is undoubtedly a tortuous journey stumbling through a nearly indefinable issue.

Whatever the case, I cannot conjure up the image of the president--any president--voluntarily turning around to Congress and announcing that he or she had violated the law and oh, by the way, here are the articles of impeachment that apply. It is nonsensical. While torture (not further defined) may be in a class by itself for retribution and punishment, once such a precedent were set, the partisan divide would be exacerbated even beyond its present nearly intolerable state. The first thing the literalists would jump on as not in keeping with the Constitution would lead immediately to refusal to sanction, after the fact, earlier emergency actions deemed beyond the law in retrospect. Cries would go up for self-impeachment proceedings to be initiated. It seems likely that every president has had “chalk on his cleats,” some a great deal, some not so much. We do not need this kind of post facto agitation. We need to pull together now, not tear each other further apart.

Bernard G. Elliker, M.P.A. ’69
Laurel, Md.

 

Lowell’s Laborers

Dan Yaeger (Vita, September-October, page 30) offers an all-too-short eulogy of Francis Cabot Lowell’s introduction of the industrial revolution to our country. The model Lowell studied in Lancashire in England he imitated in Waltham in the early teens of the nineteenth century. By then Robert Owen and parliamentary committees were already reporting on Lancashire working conditions, with some degree of horror. As in his model, Lowell’s imitation involved a workforce of girls 15 and up, at the mill by five in the morning and through 12 or 14 hours later.

As Yaeger says, “[C]loth flew out of the factory as fast as the company could make it.” But it wasn’t, of course, “the company” that functioned so satisfactorily; it was the girls and young women. “The operation soon returned 20 per cent annual dividends to its lucky backers.” For “operation” again read “girls and young women.” Their wages were another story that produced strikes beginning in little more than a dozen years. Yaeger has called attention to an interesting story but it is not best told in terms of abstractions.

Ramsay MacMullen ’50, Ph.D. ’57
New Haven

 

On Scientific Misconduct

The news that professor of psychology Marc Hauser had been found responsible for eight instances of scientific misconduct after a Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) investigation--widely reported in August--attracted passionate correspondence and extensive comment and discussion prompted by the accounts at the magazine’s website. One letter is published here; for the online comments, see http://harvardmag.com/marc-hauser; for detailed reports on the whole matter, see “After the Storm: Presidential Perspectives,” page 53, and “Scientific Misconduct, and Its Aftermath,” page 57.    ~The Editors

 

Dean of FAS Michael Smith’s public statement on the findings concerning Professor Hauser is a great disappointment. Like the police captain in Casablanca, he is shocked that there is something untoward going on. The statement does not deal with a real problem in the scientific world, and instead of using the opportunity to do some real work on the problem, Harvard is shocked.

Armin U. Kuder, LL.B. ’59
Washington, D.C.

 

Football Flag

A self-appointed committee of alumni intends to revive the custom, dormant since 2000, of providing an H flag for the alumnus who has attended the most Harvard-Yale football games [see “First and 100,” September-October 2003, page 42, and “Football Fandom,” in Letters, March-April 2010, page 6]. Since the flag formerly provided is no longer available, on November 20 we plan to present a new flag to Paul Lee ’46, who first saw Harvard play Yale in 1935 and who plans to attend his sixty-eighth Game that day.

Stephen V. R. Goodhue ’51, Katonah, N.Y.
Spencer Ervin ’54, Bass Harbor, Me.
Jeffrey P. Lee ’74, Norwalk, Conn.

 

Amanita Expertise

I was intrigued by the illustration by Boudier of Cortinarius torvus (Treasure, September-October, page 72). Although I knew that mushrooms in the genus Cortinarius develop with a universal veil, the veil is rarely seen and then only as a fine remnant of the veil as a volva; I have never seen one with the veil remnants on the cap.

The illustration did not look like C. torvus (which does not have cap remnants) and so I checked the Revision of Species in Boudier and found that specimen was identified as Cortinarius praestans (Cord.) Gill. I found a description of this species in a British book and it is described as “rare”; Fungi of Switzerland describes it as “not common” but a good edible and “highly prized”! This is in contrast to most of the fungi in this genus, for some are poisonous and we have a saying, “Eat no corts.”

Of over 200 Cortinarius species in the Swiss book, only one other is described as having some veil remnants on the cap. C. praestans has been described in Maine, but in my 40 years of mushroom collecting in Maine I have never recognized it. I will now keep a lookout for this unusual mushroom.

Lawrence M. Leonard, M.D. ’56
Falmouth, Me.

 

Isaac Asimov’s poetic advice on amanita aroused my muse: En garde, Isaac!

If you nosh an amanita,
You will surely quash your vita!

or

When you fill a luncheon pita,
Do omit the amanita!

Robert Carricaburu ’63
Berthoud, Colo.

 

Folklore and Myth Myths

Enough already! On this, the fortieth anniversary of Harvard’s first awarding degrees in Folklore and Mythology, I submit it is time to stop drubbing those of us who have chosen this fascinating, but financially unrewarding, specialty for our lack of foresight (Patricia Marx, The New Yorker, “On and Off the Avenue,” as quoted in “Laugh Lines,” July-August, page 57).

As the only member of the first class awarded an A.B. by the Committee on Degrees in Folklore and Mythology to have pursued the discipline on the graduate level, I have been subjected to the ridicule of friends and colleagues longer than most. I was inspired by Albert Lord’s Hum 9, “Oral and Early Literature,” to consider choosing the newly created folklore and mythology concentration at the end of my freshman year. When I asked Jack Reardon, then my freshman proctor in Mower B [now executive director of the Harvard Alumni Association], whether majoring in this field would keep me from getting into law school, he assured me that I had nothing to worry about as most law schools reserved about 5 percent of their entering classes for complete “wackos” and I would certainly qualify in that category!

Undaunted by Jack’s reassurances, I committed to majoring in folklore and mythology and soon became the butt of jokes among my teammates on the varsity football team, who decided my major best suited me to the position of children’s librarian at the New York Public Library. Over 20 years later, when my wife and I brought our son to Boston to tour prospective colleges, the “rising sophomore” who led our trek around Harvard’s campus noted that the University offered such a broad-based liberal arts curriculum that “We even have a degree in--ha, ha, ha--folklore and mythology!”

While admittedly an unusual major, folklore and mythology has served me well over the four decades since graduation. From 1979 to 1985, as a staff member of the Folk Arts Program at the National Endowment for the Arts, I was privileged to be part of the creation of the National Heritage Fellowships, which recognize the lifetime contributions of master traditional artists from throughout the United States. In fact, one of the artists recognized in 1983 was Ada Thomas, a Chitimacha basketmaker from Louisiana who exemplified the tradition of double-weave basketry described by Ivan Gaskell in his Vita of Clara Darden in the same issue of Harvard Magazine (page 30). Years later, as executive director of the Cedarburg Cultural Center, I received the 1998 Governor’s Award for the Arts for the exhibition Wisconsin Folk Art: A Sesquicentennial Celebration, which traveled throughout the state during its 150th anniversary.

So, please, after 40 years of reminding us folklore and mythology majors how frivolous and fanciful our focus might be, give us a break and find some other equally arcane major to thump!

Robert T. Teske ’70
M.A. ’72, Ph.D. ’74 in folklore and folklife (University of Pennsylvania)
Mequon, Wisc.

 

All-Star Greek Chorus

The story on James Laughlin ’36 and Harry Levin (“Brat. Faker.” The College Pump, September-October, page 64) mentioned that Harry Levin ’33 was later Babbitt professor of comparative literature. Indeed he was.

It might equally have been noted that Robert Fitzgerald was also ’33 and later Boylston professor of rhetoric and oratory. I guarantee you that Fitzgerald’s Greek was not phonetic.

What a story Primus missed! Also in that same legendary version of the Philoctetes, besides Parry (who had no Harvard degree, as I remember but of course was teaching), was Henry Hatfield ’33, later professor of German; Mason Hammond ’25, LL.D. ’94, Pope professor of the Latin language and literature; and John Finley ’25, who began his teaching career at Harvard in 1933, and was director or coach of the chorus or something like that for this production. No less amazing was that the choral music was written by none other than Eliot Carter--also class of ’33!

Furthermore, although this is not recorded, I frequently heard Henry, Mason, and Robert tell the story of how Harry Levin uncharacteristically got drunk after the final performance, and had to be helped home and to bed by the three of them. If you ever knew Harry that is almost inconceivable to imagine.

James Laughlin could not have done any more than have seen the play, as he must have been a freshman at the time.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Fitzgerald’s birth. He was not simply Boylston professor and the translator of the Odyssey, Iliad, and Aeneid, but also the very close friend of Laughlin and of Harvard men Jim Agee [see “Vistas of Perfection,” May-June 2009, page 29] and [author and New Yorker editor] Bill Maxwell, who owed much to their friendship with him.

Penelope Laurans, Ph.D. ’75
New Haven

 

Dropouts

As a relative of Famous Dropout Bucky Fuller, I found Craig Lambert’s story on less famous Harvard dropouts fascinating (“Dropouts,” July-August, page 32). I might be deemed “successful” in some eyes, solely (merely?) because I managed to graduate from Harvard despite real internal obstacles of my own. I was staggeringly immature as an undergraduate. And I knew several incredibly high-quality classmates who did drop out (in the 1960s, in the face of nearly zero intelligent help or counseling whatever at Harvard). Thus one reader’s self-congratulatory and simple-minded reaction to Lambert’s story deserves a rebuke.

B. Dan Berger’s letter (September-October, page 2) was so smug, so clueless about the writer’s own Entitled Privilege, so self-congratulatory, and so judgmental about others, about whose backgrounds, hardships (real or emotional), or level of family support (or lack of it) he hasn’t a clue. What he conveys is that because he graduated, he’s the super-duper self-made man, while the others are stupid, bad, and lazy. Now there’s a sophisticated appraisal for you.

Perhaps Berger should ponder the hilarious anti-Barry Goldwater bumper sticker from 1960s: “Show Some Initiative--Inherit a Department Store.”

Berkeley F. Fuller ’69
San Francisco

 

On Caregiving

I enjoyed reading Arthur Kleinman’s article, “On Caregiving” (July-August, page 25). I am currently working with a home-health-aide agency in New York City, assisting their aides to complete training and sustain employment. Kleinman’s article spoke to the humanistic and moral dimension of healthcare that often seems to be neglected in today’s pragmatic discussions of healthcare reform. When I meet with the home health aides, I ask them to read an excerpt from the article and express their thoughts afterwards. I have found that this exercise helps to remind them that behind the technical requirements and bureaucratic regulations, home care is at heart about caregiving.

Grace Kim ’10
New York City

 

Amplification

After publication of “The Social Epidemic” (September-October, page 22), assistant professor of medicine Bisola Ojikutu, founding director of the Umndeni Care Program, notified the magazine that the list of donors supporting the program should also have included Lauren and Gary Cohen; the Sullivan Family Foundation; the Gilead Foundation; and the Massachusetts General Hospital Multicultural Affairs Office.