A letter from a reader about Cosby, Dyson, and personal responsibility
Russ Nieli *79 (Letters, Nov. 16) cites passages from Hayek, along with research in social psychology, to support his claim that “Cosby’s message for the poor is ultimately more liberating than Michael Dyson *93’s (cover story, Oct. 5). He and similar critics seem to be missing the point. Let’s grant Hayek’s rather obvious claim that “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 a propensity to blame others or circumstances for his failures, the more disgruntled and ineffective he tends to become.” All this shows is that whatever one’s social circumstances, a “can-do” attitude is likely to promote one’s success more effectively than preoccupation with blaming others.
It is entirely consistent with this that one’s circumstances may nonetheless be deeply unjust, and that some others may in fact be very much to blame for exacerbating that injustice. I take it that Dyson’s call is not for the poor to wallow in self-defeating blame, but for them to recognize and fight against continuing social injustice while also believing in themselves and working to improve their lot. And this call extends to the rest of us as well.
Instead of accepting platitudes about the magic of “personal responsibility” without regard to the harsh realities many people struggle under (which allow some to achieve success but make it exceedingly difficult for many others to do so), we should educate ourselves about those realities, their causes, and their ethical implications, and work to make sure that people who are willing to live responsibly have a fair and equal shot at a good life. That would be a fine example of personal responsibility (as fellow citizens) on our own parts.
WILLIAM J. FITZPATRICK ’86
The subject of your Oct. 5 feature article on Professor Michael Eric Dyson is an important one. His views deserve to be understood as part of the ongoing critical debate on race in America. How, then, can PAW permit publication of such a superficially fawning and critically deficient article by Katharine Greider ’88? It’s been a long time since I’ve read about the “American masses” – a term one would have thought went out with Brezhnev – who are somehow “edifying themselves on certain fine points of this interracial conversation according to the demands of the news curve,” and on and on. Or how about the seven-line sentence that begins, “When Dyson thinks about poor African-Americans, he reflected in a cab hurtling away from Bryant Park, he thinks ...”?
Don’t PAW and your readers deserve better?
ROLAND KUCHEL ’61
Upon reading the responses to Katherine Greider’s article about Michael Eric Dyson *93, I immediately returned to being a 12-year-old, mixed-up Polish-Mexican “white boy” in a magnet high school in Chicago. My school was majority black and filled with “personally responsible” and self-motivated students. When I was a high school freshman, I remember thinking to myself, “Why are they still complaining about slavery? That happened hundreds of years ago.” To me, my surroundings said, “Everything’s fine. Blacks are doing well.” It wasn’t until I began attending Princeton, under the guidance of incredible minds like Nancy Malkiel, Cornel West, and Toni Morrison, that I began to understand the history and the obstacles that the black community faces.
Professor Dyson is in no way indulging in “the propensity to blame others or circumstances,” in the words of Friedrich Hayek, for the failures of the black community. For example, in regard to the black community’s connection to pop culture, Dyson says, “We are redirecting these questions at ourselves: What does it mean for us?” The title of his book, Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost its Mind? is a real question. The only way that we can answer it is to openly analyze all aspects of society. It’s not just as simple as hard work and perspiration. Russ Nieli *79, there is more than simply a “grain of truth” in what Dyson says, although you did hit it on the head (Letters, Nov. 16) (insert link here) with Hayek’s quote that “people often are successful because they hold this belief [that they can be successful].”
A majority of our impoverished youth (still disproportionately black and Latino) are still not being told that they can be successful. There are generations of anger, hate, frustration, judgment, and violence that are still not being addressed. I am in no way saying that we should dwell on the past. But our past is still our present and if we do not look at the full picture, it will be our future. I believe that none of us wants that.
JOE HERNANDEZ-KOLSKI ’96
The article “Is Michael Eric Dyson *93 right?” brought home the frequent accusation that Princeton and other universities have become bastions of weird left-wing pseudo-correctness.
Cosby spoke plain truth that needed to be said. Dyson speaks gibberish that promotes his career by appealing to academics at Princeton. I am increasingly embarrassed to have graduated from the school, even more to have (previously) been a donor.
Dyson is an embarrassment, and a strong argument for ending the practice of tenure.
And PAW is making itself increasingly irrelevant as a fund-raising or community-building tool by taking positions that are blatantly partisan or fringe. PAW is both shameful and incompetent.
NICHOLAS KARP ’84
Go back to our online Letter Box Table of Contents