October 23, 2002: Letters

Mideast message

Remembering R. R. Palmer

Let in by lottery

For the record

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Mideast message

Many statements by Bernard Lewis in your September 11 cover story defy common sense and show Lewis’s bias against Arabs.

When he says, “The level of performance in freedom of expression, education, job creation, rights for women, science, and technology is abysmal in the Arab world,” he is not enlightening us about the Arab world; he is simply stating a truism about the entire third world, of which the Arab world is a part. To carry his argument to its logical conclusion would force him to decry the entire third world on these points. To single out the Arab world for such criticism not only reflects his bias, it does not serve to usefully inform the reader what, in particular, distinguishes the Arab world from the third world. This, in turn, further serves to confuse any rational analysis of Middle Eastern politics.

When asked, “What do you think is the most important single factor for their [the Arabs] falling behind?” his reply concerns the treatment of women and lack of women in the workforce. If employment of women is a necessary principle of economic success, how does he explain the economic success of Japan?

Randolph W. Hobler ’68
Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.


Bernard Lewis calls for a regime change in Iran to further democracy. In fact, Iran had something of a fledgling democracy in the early 1950s, headed by Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. When he nationalized the oil fields that had been exploited by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the British, when they had lost in the World Court, persuaded the Americans to get them back for them. Kermit Roosevelt, head of the CIA mission in Teheran, organized the CIA-backed coup that overthrew the legitimate government of Iran and engineered the return to the throne of the shah, an absolute dictator who received unqualified support from the U.S.

Is it any wonder that there is deep suspicion of American motives in the Middle East? The U.S. has uniformly supported the worst and most repressive regimes in order to control the natural resources it needs. Besides this, there is the rather abysmal colonial record of both Britain and France in the Islamic world, including the destruction of Beirut by the French. Britain invented Iraq, Kuwait, and Trans Jordan (later, Jordan) and placed dubious kings on thrones that suited British hegemony. The Jordanian royal family and the former royal family of Iraq are both descendants of Hussein ibn Ali, King of the Hejaz, who lost the war for control of Arabia to the House of Saud and Abdul Assiz ibn Saud. As an ally of the British, Hussein got a consolation prize for his Hashemite family. When Britain was finally obliged to give Egypt its independence, did it give the Egyptians democracy? No. It gave them King Farouk. The legacy of the Middle East and the Islamic world is something psychoanalyst and writer Frantz Fanon understood perfectly. The kind of rage the West has engendered will go away only if this history is acknowledged.

Richard Cummings ’59
Bridgehampton, N.Y.


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Remembering R. R. Palmer

Robert Roswell “R. R.” Palmer was one of the most distinguished historians of Europe Princeton ever had on its roster (Notebook, September 11). Those of us who studied under him knew him as a shy man of great generosity who was an exemplary gentleman and scholar. His work on the period of the French Revolution opened up many new perspectives in a field somewhat deadened by the pall of conventional thinking.

As he was a liberal and a proponent of the French Revolution we affectionately referred to him as Robespierre, since he did share that French leader’s moral rectitude and cool pseudo-Calvinistic or northern self-assurance, but certainly not his fanaticism or self-righteousness. Despite being a liberal, Palmer was generous with students of other views and was singularly sympathetic to the Catholics in the revolutionary drama. Though he was not a Marxist, he also popularized for Americans the work of Georges Lefebvre, a Marxist historian of great ability and encyclopedic knowledge.

His textbook, The History of the Modern World, was probably one of the most successful textbooks ever in the field of history, both pedagogically and financially. It is also an unintentional witness to the decline of the American mind, for sometime in the 1970s or 1980s it ceased being widely used in college history survey courses because students had come to find it too difficult.

Norman Ravitch *62
Savannah, Ga.
Professor, Emeritus
University of California

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Let in by lottery

President Tilghman’s letter to alumni and statement of August 13, 2002, and reports in the New York Times about the Princeton admission office’s tapping into a Yale admission office computer have led us into a train of thought that we now send to PAW’s readers for consideration. What seems most unfortunate about the event and the public response to it is what it seems to imply about the admission process at Princeton, Yale, and, we are sure, Harvard and others.

It seems to reflect an atmosphere of intense competition between these places over the selection of candidates for admission. Admission officers have the duty of selecting a few hundred from among thousands of qualified candidates, any of whom could, if admitted, benefit from the education they would receive. The admission officers grade the applicants on vague and subjective criteria, allowing the narrowest gradations and distinctions to determine answers to the ultimate, arbitrary question — admit or deny.

Our suggestion is to ditch this process and replace it by a drawing of lots. We do not see it as part of Princeton’s mission to compete for the “best qualified.” Rather let her devote her efforts and resources to increasing the advancement and dissemination of learning among her beneficiaries, whoever they happen to be.

Random selection would eliminate whatever incentive motivated the computer break-in. It would shorten and simplify the work of the admission office and would eliminate the task of drawing hair-splitting distinctions among the indistinguishable. It would reduce the difficulty of applying for admission — candidates would find less benefit in embellishing their records and their applications. And it would reduce the anguish of the applicants who fail to be admitted.

Had the Class of 2006 been selected at random from among the applicants who applied in 2001—02 we have no doubt that the resulting class would have been consistent in its composition with the ideals of the university.

In the future, however, once the policy became known, there would be an incentive for students with lesser qualifications and, indeed, with inadequate preparation, to apply. To deal with that risk, minimum standards would have to be imposed.

No longer could there be separate pools for athletes or for the children of alumni. Any benefits gained from the dedication, sacrifice, teamwork, and sportsmanship attributed to their sports could as well be obtained from intramural athletics, open to all students.

We favor giving up the preference for children of alumni. This is not easy or clear-cut, for we are both children of alumni. But we feel the greater good is to be found in the equality of treatment that our proposal presupposes. Among other benefits, suspicions that some of those denied admission were somehow “worthier” than some of those admitted would become meaningless. “Worth” in that sense would have no relevance, and self-esteem would depend on present success in the classroom and laboratory, not past success in the admission office.

T.S.L. Perlman ’46
Deborah G. Perlman ’92
Washington, D.C.
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For the record

In our cover story on Bernard Lewis (September 11), on page 23, there is a correction to the final sentence in the third-to-last paragraph. The sentence should have read, “And the Jews and Christians from central and northern Arabia were removed to Syria, Iraq, and Palestine.” PAW regrets the error.
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