November 16, 2005: Letters
Letter Box Online
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Critics of Bill Cosby like Michael Eric Dyson *93 (cover story, Oct. 19) see in Cosby’s self-help and “get-your-act-together” message little more than the smugness and self-congratulatory arrogance of the successful black middle class. The Coz and his well-heeled supporters, they say, fail to recognize the enormous obstacles faced by today’s black poor, who continue to suffer because of institutional racism, structural changes in the economy, heartless Republican presidents, and the like.
While there may be a grain of truth in what Dyson and others like him have to say in this matter, their own message, which downplays personal responsibility and tends to blame the plight of poor people on forces entirely outside their control, is surely more destructive to the aspirations of the poor than the facile “pull-yourself-up-by-your bootstraps” message of their opponents. The reason for this was well stated by economic theorist Friedrich Hayek almost 50 years ago. “It is often contended,” Hayek wrote, “that the belief that a person is solely responsible for his own fate is held only by the successful. Its underlying suggestion ... is that people hold this belief [only] because they have been successful. I, for one, am inclined to think that the connection is the other way around and that people often are successful because they hold this belief. ... And if the smug pride of the successful is often intolerable and offensive, the belief that success depends wholly on [individual effort] is probably the pragmatically most effective incentive to successful action, whereas the more a man indulges in the propensity to blame others or circumstances for his failures, the more disgruntled and ineffective he tends to become” (The Constitution of Liberty, University of Chicago Press, 1960).
What Hayek says here has been confirmed by more than 25 years of social psychology research into what is sometimes called “self-efficacy” or “internal locus of control.” People who have a strong belief that their success in life (however defined) is determined largely by forces internal to themselves — forces such as determination, perseverance, hard work, etc. — are much better at seizing the opportunities that life accords them than people who believe that outside forces over which they have little control — such as luck, circumstances, “the economy,” or the malevolent powers that be — are the ultimate determiners of what they will become in life. The implication of this research is quite clear: Cosby’s message for the poor is ultimately more liberating than Michael Dyson’s.
RUSS NIELI *79
I do not understand why the Alumni Weekly feels the need to give Dr. Dyson a forum for his and others’ failed rhetoric. Rather than attacking Bill Cosby and poverty as the problem, and treating symptoms rather than causes, it is time to talk about individual responsibility for our individual circumstances and the individual solutions that must follow.
JOHN W. MINTON JR.’ 50
Michael Eric Dyson is wrong.
By focusing on peripheral “race-card” issues such as white perceptions of rap music, morals, and colorful names, he diverts attention away from the central issue of how to move blacks up the economic ladder through better academic achievement. And he diverts attention from problems among Hispanics whose backs are against similar walls.
Bill Cosby has identified the central problem that needs fixing, and that won’t be easy. Dyson’s attacks using race-based “fog balls” will only delay the solution.
PETER W. MCDAVITT ’56
First of all, congratulations to Graham Phillips ’05. I am proud to call him a fellow soldier.
It pains me to read letters like Matthew Ferraro ’00’s (Oct. 19). Does he sincerely think that soldiers enlist because they love to kill, because they think all war is moral, or because they somehow missed the lessons of history? No. People become soldiers because they feel duty-bound to contribute to a country that has given them much.
I remember the words of retired Lt. Col. Matthew McCarville, who led the Army ROTC program when I was a student. “When you lose motivation,” he told me, “think of the people you love, and remember you are doing this so they don’t have to.”
Mr. Ferraro, no one, not the inexpert and not the most experienced soldier, thinks that war is beautiful. But duty, sacrifice, and personal integrity are.
FIRST LT. KATE BUZICKY ’02
How sad that a graduate just five years out of college has already lost his sense of humor. Referring to the laughter during the salutatorian’s Latin address, Matthew Ferraro wrote: “It is an embarrassing and repellent piece of theater that the graduates take part in out of coercion.”
Repellent? Coercion? How about an amusing graduation tradition? Life is too serious to suffer without the gift of laughter. Keep it up, Princeton.
DON DWIGHT ’53
J. Preston Selvage Jr. ’51 presents an interesting argument (Letters, Oct. 5) against the University funding a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Center. He states that the University was originally founded by Christians and that Princeton has “done a 180-degee turn from its original founding purpose.” Using Mr. Selvage’s logic (or lack thereof), we can surmise that he is also against University funding for women’s studies, the Jewish Center, and the Carl Fields Center, and he must vehemently oppose the African-American studies program. If Princeton’s founders had their way, our beloved University would be composed of nothing but white male property owners. Kudos to the University for supporting all students, regardless of age, creed, color, sex, race, or any other distinguishing factor.
DANIEL J. SATTIZAHN ’99
In a Sept. 14 letter, David Schechter ’80 calls Niehaus Chair candidate Rashid Khalidi an “individual with a political agenda” and a “pseudo-academic” because Khalidi has supported a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a solution that Schechter equates to “the destruction of Israel.” In fact, Khalidi is a respected Columbia professor who is expert in the history of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Egypt, and his proffered policy views could just as easily be described as the only truly just — and democratic — formula for peace in the Middle East. In any case, I, for one, feel that Princeton would be the richer for Khalidi’s scholarship and his politics. I hope the Niehaus Chair committee agrees.
ROB BUCHANAN ’81
I returned from vacation to find the letter by David Schechter in which he dismisses Rashid Khalidi as a “pseudo-academic,” calling him “a person with a political agenda rather than a scholar ... .” I had the good fortune to be a colleague of Khalidi’s for almost 20 years, from his arrival here around 1986 until his departure for Columbia a few years ago. I can assure Mr. Schechter that Khalidi is truly a scholar of the first caliber, not a “pseudo”-anything. Khalidi’s many publications have earned widespread recognition for their excellence. He was also an outstanding colleague and teacher who won the admiration and warm esteem of all not only for his knowledge and intellect, but also for his unfailing professionalism, his fairness, and his helpful mentoring of students, including our Jewish and Israeli students. Several of the latter have related to me how they first went to his office with trepidation but were delighted to find a man who was kind, welcoming, and supremely supportive of their academic aspirations.
Schechter’s letter also attempts by innuendo to associate Khalidi with a kind of political extremism that is absolutely alien to his character, and this attempt should not be allowed to pass unchallenged. Schechter states: “Khalidi promotes a ‘one-state’ solution (i.e., the destruction of Israel) that negates the Jewish people’s right to self-determination ... .” I do not follow the Israel-Palestine debates, or Khalidi’s writing, closely enough to know whether he has in fact declared his endorsement of a “one-state” solution. But usually the “one-state” solution refers to the idea of establishing a single, democratic state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean in which both Jews and Palestinians would enjoy equally the rights of full citizenship (and live, one would hope, under a constitution that includes strong protections for the rights of minorities). If such a plan “negates the Jewish people’s right to self-determination,” it equally negates the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination, a mutual sacrifice that can be seen as being in the best interests of peace for both peoples.
Rashid Khalidi is a superb scholar and a tolerant and humane colleague and teacher. If Princeton refuses, or has already refused, even to consider inviting him to join its faculty, it will be because Princeton, not Khalidi, has a political agenda.
FRED M. DONNER ’68 *75
Word has just reached me of Jeremiah Finch’s death (Notebook, Oct. 5). I first got to know Jerry as an undergraduate. As assistant dean of the college, he was the senior administrator who oversaw student life. I knew him later when I was a junior member of the University’s admission staff.
We stayed in touch regularly after I left Princeton and, in 1975, I invited him to join the Board of Trustees of Ripon College, Ripon, Wis., where I was president. He seldom missed a meeting and made an invaluable contribution to my small college. He received an honorary degree upon his retirement from the board.
Princeton’s current dean of the college, Nancy Malkiel, speaks of Jerry Finch as “the wisest, most generous, most supportive mentor and friend.” He was that and much more to this Princetonian. For me, Jeremiah Finch will always represent the very best of Princeton.
BERNARD S. ADAMS ’50
It is gratifying to see PAW recognizing UNESCO. The accession of Peter Smith ’68 (Class Notes profile, Sept. 14) to assistant director-general for education makes him one of several Americans to reach the third level of this U.N. agency in its 60-year history.
PAW’s description of UNESCO inadvertently leaves an inaccurate picture of what it does. It is not a development agency; it tries to encourage all nations to improve education — and puts half its budget into that work. It operates not in 50 countries but in all of them, 190 at latest count.
The responsibility Dr. Smith has accepted is enormous in scope. Beyond alumni pride in his achievement, we should wish him luck and ask him how we can help.
RICHARD T. ARNDT ’49
Norman Ravitch received his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1962. PAW reported the year incorrectly at the end of his letter Oct. 19.