PRIESTS’ ENTRAILS & PROFS’ FREEDOM

New York City

In her excellent June 27 “Subject to Debate” column, Katha Pollitt attributes to Diderot the phrase “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” In fact, Diderot lifted this formulation from the atheist French priest Jean Meslier (1664-1729), who preceded Diderot, and whose multivolume memoir’s subtitle says it treats “Of the Vanity and Falseness of all the Divinities and All the Religions of the World, to be addressed to my Parishioners After my Death to serve Them as a Testimony to Truth.” Meslier’s memoir, Mon Testament, was rediscovered and posthumously published by Voltaire, who frequently borrowed from Meslier, as did Diderot.

Meslier became very popular not only among the intellectuals of the French Enlightenment but among liberal revolutionaries in czarist Russia–an 1819 quatrain by Pushkin nods to Meslier when it says, “with the entrails of the last Pope, we will strangle the last Czar” (this was one of the poems that got Pushkin sent into administrative exile in South Russia by the czarist police). Marx appreciated and quoted Meslier as well–and when the Bolsheviks came to power, they erected a stele in Red Square dedicated to the “Heroes of Liberty,” where Meslier’s name appeared next to that of Spartacus. Louisa May Alcott, too, borrowed the Meslier “entrails” quote (citing Voltaire as its author).

Meslier also wrote, “The real original sin of men is to be born in poverty, in misery, in dependence and tyranny of the mighty one. We must do everything to free them from this disgusting and damned sin.” Indeed. Part of Meslier’s Testament is available online, in English, at www.geocities.com/Athens/7842/jbconv15.htm. By the way, I don’t blame Katha for the misattribution–many dictionaries of quotations erroneously do so as well, although the Oxford one cites both Meslier and Diderot.

DOUG IRELAND


Washington, DC

In her June 27 column, on Brooklyn College professor Timothy Shortell, Katha Pollitt states that our organization’s Academic Bill of Rights would “empower state legislatures to mandate ‘balance’ in the classroom” and claims that we oppose the introduction of controversial material in the classroom. She is wrong on both counts, which can easily be checked by going to our website at www.studentsforacademicfreedom.org.

The term “balance” is nowhere to be found in the Academic Bill of Rights. What the bill actually says is: “Faculty and instructors shall be free to pursue and discuss their own findings and perspectives in presenting their views, but they shall make their students aware of serious scholarly viewpoints other than their own.” Does Pollitt have a problem with this?

This past January the American Historical Association supported the identical concept in its revised Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct, declaring: “Students should be made aware of multiple causes and varying interpretations. Within the bounds of the historical topic being studied, the free expression of legitimate differences of opinion should always be a goal” (emphasis added).

Pollitt claims that we want to ban “controversial material” from college classrooms. This is both ridiculous and false. Pollitt has omitted the end of the sentence, which refers to “controversial matter that has no relation to the subject.” For example, the showing of Fahrenheit 9/11 in a biology class at Penn State on the eve of the last election. Pollitt may object to this restriction, but it is a principle of academic freedom endorsed for the past sixty-five years by the American Association of University Professors.

SARA DOGAN
National campus director, Students for Academic Freedom


POLLITT REPLIES

New York City

Who disagrees that students should be exposed to multiple points of view in the course of their education? This is not going to happen in each individual class, however, because professors, whether liberal or conservative, design courses around their own scholarly interests and perspectives. Professors are not simply conduits for assorted position papers by other people. How much time would you expect Gary Becker, renowned rational-choice economist, to spend presenting the objections of Marx, Freud, Simone de Beauvoir and John Paul II? If you study modern poetry with Helen Vendler, you get lots of Wallace Stevens, not so much Charles Olson. Inviting state legislatures to get involved in course content is a huge mistake. It simply invites rule by tabloids and talk shows–the tactic apparently favored by Students for Academic Freedom.

SAF would do much better to push government to fund public universities generously. The real problem with higher education is degraded conditions of teaching and learning. I am much more worried about students being stuck in huge lecture classes with multiple-choice exams, or being taught by harried adjuncts with no secure relationship to the school, or having to take out big loans and so many part-time jobs they can’t focus on school, than I am about their having to endure their professors’ political perspectives, whatever they happen to be. I had many conservative professors in college (or at least so they seemed to me). I survived.

I did not say that SAF wants “to ban controversial material from college classrooms.” I reported that their website lists “introduced controversial material” as a category of professorial abuse, along with “mocked political/religious figures” and “biased grading.” While I agree that Fahrenheit 9/11 does not belong in bio class, I really doubt this is a widespread phenomenon deserving of national notice. I read through the entire list of complaints on SAF’s website, and most of them struck me as trivial, dubious or open to other interpretations. The students who post seem to expect their professors to behave like computers, spewing out information with never a flash of personality. Heaven forbid a professor should actually disagree with a student! Or venture an aside about current events!

As for biased grading, maybe their profs took off points for spelling and grammar.

KATHA POLLITT


MOVE OVER, JAMES JOYCE

Troy, Mich.

Congratulations to Stuart Klawans for his one-sentence review of Cinderella Man [“Films,” July 4]. And what a sentence! Four hundred and thirty-two words of bliss and sheer agony having to reread said sentence over and over to decipher its true meaning.

ALLEN SALYER


AMERICANS IN WONDERLAND

Ellicott City, Md.

Jonathan Schell’s July 4 “Letter From Ground Zero” made me feel like I’m living in the Twilight Zone or fell down a rabbit hole. The irony that the US Army in Iraq is training the future resistance to itself is typical of the rest of our current situation. We have a President who told outrageous lies to drag us into an unnecessary and seemingly endless war that is decimating our Treasury and maiming and killing our young men and women in uniform, yet he swaggers, leers and preens during his rare press conferences like a cowboy hero. We move ever further from our stated foreign policy goals, while the world becomes ever more dangerous and antagonistic toward us, yet we’re told we’re spreading democracy throughout the world and winning the “war on terror.”

The incompetence of our bloated intelligence and law enforcement bureaucracies led to the most disastrous attack on our soil since the Civil War, we have the largest gulag in the world and the largest number of people per capita imprisoned in the civilized world, mostly for nonviolent violations of hypocritical and pseudo-moralistic drug laws. We have a 376-page law called the USA Patriot Act that was passed unread and is antithetical to everything our Founding Fathers believed in. Our fiscal policies benefit only the wealthiest Americans, corporate welfare is the norm, yet we begrudge national healthcare and assistance to the neediest. When does the fantasy end–when the Queen of Hearts screams, “Off with their heads”?

WILLIAM P. TROLINGER


HAPPY BIRTHDAY, PETE

Oakland, Calif.

So Pete is two years younger than I am [Studs Terkel, “Pete Seeger Is 86,” May 16]. Our first meeting was long after Studs’s. I was on my way into the apartment of the country’s first tape editor, who would convert my recorded testimony before Senator Joe McCarthy (1953) into a disc for phonograph, and Pete was on his way out, having worked on a record of his own. He was a reader of my books and later listened to my nearly four decades of Pacifica broadcasts.

My autobiography was published in 1999, and I wrote him for a blurb. He replied in longhand: “Bill–I feel we have several jobs to do (1) stay alive and kicking; (2) reach out ever more widely to people we only partly agree with; (3) keep a sensayuma; (4) work hard on local, national, & international battles that can–be–won–now; (5) keep in mind long-term imperatives, but not concentrate on ’em right now. Meanwhile use this if you want: ‘Bill Mandel gives a good example to us all. Stay involved. Don’t give up. Will we make mistakes? Of course. Grin and learn. Pete Seeger, July 27, ’99.'”

WILLIAM M. MANDEL


Coral Gables, Fla.

Pete Seeger played at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival thirty years ago, scheduled on a main stage late in the afternoon. Doug Kershaw, who wrote “Louisiana Man,” and his band were up before Pete. Doug is an electric and energetic performer with a great backup band; he had the crowd of 10,000-plus dancing up a storm throughout his set. We, the festival organizers, were really worried that when Pete followed him the crowd would disperse to other stages. We loved Pete and were honored he’d come to our festival. Funny thing happened. Pete came out on that stage alone and put that crowd in the palm of his hand. No one left. He had a choir of 10,000-plus that grew throughout his performance. It was incredible.

I remember standing on the side of the stage with the stage manager and several festival organizers–we were all crying with joy and amazement. After two encores Pete and his wife, Toshi, got a schedule and a cold beer and went off to hear more music. They don’t get any better than Pete Seeger, “America’s tuning fork.”

DAVID McBURNETT


AS AMERICAN AS CHERRY PIE

Trenton, NJ

Readers’ responses in your “Letters” column [June 27] to Sasha Abramsky’s “Democrat Killer?” [April 18] show profound ignorance of the gun situation in America today. The gun lobby is out of control, pushing for more and more protections for gun manufacturers and fewer for the public. The Democrats should drop guns as an issue? Get serious. They dropped it years ago, after passing a few pieces of legislation in the 1990s that were so weak as to guarantee failure. While liberals have delusions of making gains by courting the gun lobby, the city where I live, and many cities across the country, are ravaged by gun violence. Eventually, America is going to have to get serious about gun control. I’m hoping The Nation won’t be trailing behind.

MICHAEL KERR


Miami, Okla.

I am a Democrat, a gun owner and a member of both the ACLU and the NRA. I appreciate Sasha Abramsky’s article and the letters that followed, but they miss the point. Dropping gun control as an issue for tactical reasons will never work. We Democrats must make it plain that we understand that gun ownership is a civil right, just as privacy and free speech are. Whenever a restriction on gun ownership is proposed, we should ask ourselves, “How would I react if this restriction were placed on freedom of speech or assembly?” What if computers had to be registered, or two people needed a permit to get together to talk politics?

HANK COINER


AIR AMERICA–FRESH!

Brooklyn, NY

Several readers wrote that they are still tuning in to the ever more conservative and content-deprived NPR because, basically, there’s nothing else on where they are–whether that’s driving cross-country or living in right-wing commercial radioland [“Letters,” June 20]. But investing in a little technology and spending a few bucks will remedy that. Even if you’re not within broadcast range of an Air America Radio outlet, listeners can get it on satellite radio or stream it on the Internet.

AAR’s hosts and shows appeal to a range of progressive listeners’ tastes–from the fearless satire of the Morning Sedition crew to the Mike Malloy Show‘s righteous ranting. For my money, two gems are the Rachel Maddow Show, a news-packed hour that in my hometown is on at 5 AM (!), and the Laura Flanders Show, burning up the airwaves on Saturday and Sunday evenings.

And if you really miss Bob Edwards, he’s on satellite radio too. So, really, honestly, there are no excuses!

NANCY CADET


WHO LET THE DOGS OUT?

Matt Steinglass’s “The Heart of the Matter,” in the July 11 issue, should have identified the title of Robert Stone’s 1975 National Book Award winner as Dog Soldiers, not Dogs of War.