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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Letters

Cambridge 02138

January-February 2011

Obama’s Democracy

By selecting favorable evidence and ignoring other sources, you can prove almost anything. That’s what James T. Kloppenberg did in his biased glorification of President Obama (“A Nation Arguing with Its Conscience,” November-December 2010, page 34). Additionally, phrases like “the philosophy of pragmatism” and “deliberative democracy” are coarse food for intelligent readers. If you insist on publishing such obvious propaganda, you should at least balance it with an opposing piece.

Charles Block, A.M. ’52
Greenwich, Conn.

 

Professor James Kloppenberg explains that in understanding the thought of James Madison and other founders, many scholars in recent decades have rejected the emphasis on “realist pluralism” and noted the importance to the founders of “democratic deliberation.” Among recent scholars named, Kloppenberg might have included the late Harvard professor Samuel Beer. Madison’s emphasis on “government by discussion” was a theme of Beer’s To Make a Nation: The Rediscovery of American Federalism (1993). But Beer added another dimension. He pointed out that Madison and other founders envisioned the Constitution not only as a restraint, but also as having affirmative objectives in promoting the general good, including prosperity and security. Highlighting the founders’ emphasis on democratic deliberation also expands our understanding of American ideas about justice. In Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (2009), Bass professor of government Michael Sandel suggests three approaches to justice: free choice, utility, and reasoning together about the common good. In conceiving of democracy in terms of deliberation, or what Beer called government by discussion to promote the general good, the founders brought together these three ideas of justice.

Paul Joffe ’69
Washington, D.C. 

 

I presume you are aware that “Obama’s Democracy” is a red flag to most Americans. His “democracy” is not ours. In accordance with Harvard Magazine’s policy of fairness, are you planning to have a replying article in the next issue even though it will be after the election?

It astounds to me that you would include the article immediately before a national election. That is a violation of your ethical obligation and I strenuously object on behalf of a majority of Americans.

George Burditt ’44, LL.B. ’48
Chicago

 

Editor’s note: The article was designated a “Forum,” the magazine’s category for faculty-written essays expressing views on contemporary issues, based on their research. The timing of the excerpt was determined by the book’s publication, over which the magazine exercises no control. It was chosen for excerpting as an interesting, thought-provoking intellectual-historical analysis, not as a partisan article, in keeping with the magazine’s standards.

 

It didn’t take me long to find disagreement with James Kloppenberg’s piece. That’s probably because he gauges President Obama based on Obama’s writings and speeches. I gauge him by what he does or what he says when the teleprompter is off.

So, when Kloppenberg writes that Obama “insists that all propositions, positions, and policies must be subjected to continuing critical scrutiny,” I ask: how does that square with Obama during the healthcare debate, when he insisted on rapid passage of a 2,000-plus page bill that lawmakers hadn’t even read?

Kloppenberg goes on to laud Obama as “very much an intellectual” for his “well-informed” and “sophisticated” thinking on political philosophy. But how intellectually sophisticated is the philosophy, articulated by Obama impromptu when responding to a question by the now-famous Joe the Plumber, of “spread the wealth around”?

Obama is no deep thinker; he only pretends to be because he knows intellectuals will lap it up. Kloppenberg certainly has.

David McKenna, M.L.A. ’85
Marietta, Ga.

 

I noticed a significant omission in Professor Kloppenberg’s list of “deeply flawed institutional structures put in place by the Constitution.” The flaws he lists as “most serious” were two: the “failure to address the outrageous practice of slavery,” and “the second antidemocratic feature ...was the provision of electing two senators from each state.” 

It seems to me that there was a third major flaw: the failure to provide anywhere in the Constitution until 1920 for the existence of women in the United States, and the role they might play in its government. It might be argued that the role of women in government was far beyond the thinking of the time, but that isn’t the case at all. The framers of the Constitution were very much aware that women could even be heads of state, such as Queens Elizabeth I and Anne of England, Empress Catherine the Great of Russia, etc. In [their] thrust to democracy, without any provision for women’s participation, they deprived women of the opportunity of having any governing power in the United States for well over a century. Perhaps we need not only historians, but Freudian psychologists as well, to provide us with deeper insights into the Constitution and its framers.

Frank R. Tangherlini ’48
San Diego 

 

Psychic Postures

As a leg-crossing woman psychologist I was, at first, dismayed to learn that this pose marks me as a “low-power” type (see page 52 within “The Psyche On Automatic,” November-December 2010, page 48). Good thing I already have a job, or I’d be at risk competing with one of those wide-stance men. Fortunately, before the doldrums hit, I turned the page and--lo and behold--there was low-power Drew Faust conversing with Charlie Gibson, both of them crossing their legs and smiling warmly at each other (page 54). Whew! 

Marian Kaplun Shapiro, Ed.D. ’78
Lexington, Mass.

 

I really enjoyed Craig Lambert’s article on Amy Cuddy’s research into first impressions. In fact, I’ve shared the article with others as part of my work coaching executives. Cuddy’s work reinforces the guidance I’ve long given high-ranking leaders: to spend more time focusing on sustained eye contact with their audience members rather than worrying about the precise words they use in an important presentation. Anecdotally, the results have been powerful time and again. 

The thing I found fascinating, perhaps even ironic, about the story was Cuddy’s cover photo, where she appears to assume a “low power posture” with closed arms, a position Cuddy herself has observed to be much more likely found in women than men. Lifelong habits and ingrained culture can be hard to change, even with knowledge and awareness.

Grace Migliaccio, M.B.A. ’89
New Hope, Pa.

 

I read with great interest the article about Amy Cuddy’s findings on the dimensions of how one perceives others. She suggests that those seen as both competent and warm are well liked--in fact, admired. She also mentions the “mommy penalty” phenomenon, whereby there is a seeming contradiction along the two dimensions. If you are seen as embracing motherhood, you are seen as nice but your perceived level of competence is decreased!

I submit that there is yet another variable among women that works against how they are seen in the workplace. It has been my observation that my competence has been fully appreciated and esteemed by male interviewers and older females, but not among same-age, female peers. Could it be that females of the same age feel envy or contempt for women who seem too smart or too invested in successful outcomes on tasks? This would be a great inquiry!

Mandy Stern, Ed.M. ’96
Beverly Hills, Calif.

 

Monetizing Kindergarten

Kindergarten Matters” (November-December 2010, page 13) presents Raj Chetty’s thesis that “those who had the best kindergarten teachers make more money.” My granddaughter attends kindergarten at a public school in Eugene, Oregon. Her teacher, Polly Moak (who graduated Harvard Divinity as Polly Anderson), has a different goal in mind. Polly visited in the homes of all 23 children in her class before school began. She told them they are all writers. They begin making wavy lines and hash marks (from left to right) and soon are forming letters and numbers. I believe Polly’s students will learn to write and love doing it. That will enrich their lives whether or not they realize “a gain of $1,000 a year” in adult life.

The Reverend Fred Fendon ’58
Concord, Calif.

 

Torture

On the Letters (November-December 2010, page 2) with, to my eye, torturous justifications for torture: do we ever see a suggestion that the energy that goes into torture requires a sadistic attitude? There’s no question that, unconscious or conscious, belligerence and the desire to hurt is common among humans. Academic and lawyerly euphemisms don’t deal with that. For that matter, why do we devote so much to preparing and waging war, and so pitifully little to waging peace? Oh, we must be always on our guard and have an excellent “defense.” War is much more fun and certainly more lucrative.

Tom Blandy ’54, M.Arch. ’60 
Troy, N.Y.

 

Addendum and Erratum

Susan Meiselas (“A Lens on History,” November-December 2010, page 41) reports that the documentary Pictures from a Revolution was a collaborative effort involving both her filmmaking partner, Alfred Guzzetti (now Hooker professor of visual arts), and Richard Rogers ’67, Ed.M. ’70. In addition, a comment by one of her Nicaraguan interviewees was misreported in our article. The text should have read: “…things were little better under the Sandinistas than under Somoza, especially with the rise of the Contras--who, said one man, Justo, had cut off the alas, the wings, of the revolution.” We regret the error.

 

Amanita Encore

Don’t Eat Amanitas” (September-October 2010, page 72) put me in mind of a poem I wrote years ago.

Alan L. Boegehold, Ph.D. ’58
Providence, R.I.

Who Made Up All Those Names Anyway?

Crepidula fornicata, lovely name,
coracle shell on a glinting strand,
edible all
except for a small
indigestible ball
of teeth.

Amanita phalloides, deadly bane,
fleshy thrust from autumn duff,Heaven, my friend,
from you forfend
the downward trend
of a bite.

Amanita vaginata, blushing dame,
No hurtful herbs in her dear cup,
only be sure
when tasting her
you’re not with Sir
Look-Alike.

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At Harvard African Students Association’s Africa Night (from left): Tom Osborn ’20 of Kenya; Joshua Benjamin ’21, of Phoenix, Arizona (whose ancestors are Angolan but were first brought to Charleston, South Carolina, in the late seventeenth century); Tawanda Mulalu ’20 of Botswana; and Mfundo Radebe ’20 of South Africa

Photograph by Christabel Narh

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You Might Also Like:

At Harvard African Students Association’s Africa Night (from left): Tom Osborn ’20 of Kenya; Joshua Benjamin ’21, of Phoenix, Arizona (whose ancestors are Angolan but were first brought to Charleston, South Carolina, in the late seventeenth century); Tawanda Mulalu ’20 of Botswana; and Mfundo Radebe ’20 of South Africa

Photograph by Christabel Narh

Harvard through an African filter