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Letters

Cambridge 02138

Authoritarianism, labor law, climate change, and more

May-June 2020

A Note to Our Readers

This issue of your magazine was laid out on March 16—the day after undergraduates able to leave by the College’s Sunday deadline had departed; the day most University staff members began working remotely; and two days before scholars were told to suspend or conduct noncritical research remotely for at least six to eight weeks. Thus, apart from a report on page 14, the contents reflect Harvard BC (before coronavirus): professors reexamining U.S. history and vexing policy problems; alumni leading in the arts and letters.

Although profoundly affected, the University remains a preeminent teaching and research institution, and those roles, when fully resumed, will be more critical than ever. Meanwhile, its biomedical experts are focused on critical work on coronavirus, and its affiliated hospitals’ staffs are fully engaged in caring for COVID-19 patients.

As we all enter uncharted territory, we will do our best to keep you informed by continuing to produce and deliver this magazine to you in a timely way. We will report University news online (www.harvardmagazine.com) and cover important biomedical developments as they arise. We ask for your understanding if we encounter glitches along the way. Please support our work to keep you connected to the University and each other (donate.harvardmagazine.com)—and we hope you will also support our advertising partners, when possible, in these challenging times for them and their employees.

Above all, we wish you, your colleagues, and your loved ones safety and health.

 —Irina Kuksin, Publisher, and the staff of Harvard Magazine

 

Healthy Eating

I was pleased to see the work Frank Hu and his team did in creating the Healthy Plate—it’s really wonderful to have our dietary recommendations based on scientific rather than corporate priorities (“Healthy Plate, Healthy Planet,” March-April, page 34). I was, however, surprised at the inclusion of tea and coffee as default beverage choices. Sleep disturbances and deficiencies can contribute to ill-health, in particular to the sorts of chronic diseases the Healthy Plate is intended to prevent. Encouraging people to consume sleep-unfriendly caffeine as part of their meals seems counterproductive.

Rama Kocherlakota, Ph.D. ’89
Burlington, Vt.

 

A true Harvard Health Eating Plate would not contain meat, poultry, fish, or dairy in any quantity. Frank Hu knows this but apparently is compromising on the grounds that student and faculty cannot handle the truth—that you are not carnivores but herbivores; animal flesh is not your friend but your mortal enemy. Harvard continues, with full knowledge to feed the best and brightest substances that eventually will cause them pain, suffering, and death. Half of my closest classmates are dead or dying due to the Standard American Diet.

James M. Hardin ’57
Solomons, Md.

 

I agree with Dr. Hu that the Western diet and lack of exercise has been bad for the world; however, I don’t think that the data support beef being the bad part of the diet. When I graduated in 1970, the per capita consumption of beef was over 70 pounds, and the estimated consumption for 2020 is 58 pounds, per person. I cannot reconcile the 27 percent reduction in beef consumption in the last 50 years with the idea of beef being a major cause of these Western diet diseases.

In addition, the EPA says enteric fermentation (methane produced by digesting grass) is only 1.5 percent of the total U.S. greenhouse gas production (GHG), and that can be greatly reduced by proper grazing. By following all the principles of soil health in Regenerative Ag, we can economically sequester billions of tons of carbon in the United States.

Integrating livestock with the soil management is one of the principles of Regenerative Ag soil health. Proper grazing has been shown to reverses desertification and enhances methanotroph (methane-eating) bacteria. Blaming cattle for the mismanagement of their grazing is like cussing a hammer when I hit my thumb and not the nail. We should promote better grazing practices and the sequestration of carbon as Audubon is doing with its Certified Bird Friendly Beef.

Hustace H. Scott ’70
Casper, Wyoming

 

Speak Up, Please

Harvard Magazine welcomes letters on its contents. Please write to “Letters,” Harvard Magazine, 7 Ware Street, Cambridge 02138, or send comments by email to yourturn@harvard.edu.

Authoritarianism

Pippa Norris proffers a socio-psychological explanation—no doubt backed by substantial empirical data—for the rise of populist authoritarianism around the world: insecure traditionalists, feeling threatened by the inevitable spread of socially liberal ideas, seek authoritarian leaders to push back the tide of history (“The Authoritarian Reflex,” March-April, page 40). It apparently does not occur to her to seek a deeper cause—perhaps in liberalism itself.

It is common today to equate liberalism with good government. But historically, authoritarianism has surfaced precisely at moments of liberal failure. The reactionary European Restoration was prompted by the disastrous consequences of the liberal revolution in France. Challenges from both left-wing and right-wing totalitarianism thrived on the economic crisis of liberal capitalism in the 1930s. Today’s populist authoritarianism responds to liberalism’s sociocultural as well as economic and political failures.

No one, including Norris, seems to be able to identify the roots of those failures—or even to search for them. Instead, they reassert the superiority of liberalism and try to diagnose its detractors’ wrongheadedness.

Could it be that liberalism is inherently flawed? Could it be that one cannot build a state or society upon the necessary but insufficient principle of individual liberty? Perhaps Harvard’s professors can answer that question—assuming they have the intellectual humility to ask it.

Andrew Sorokowski, A.M. ’75
Rockville, Md.

 

We live in an increasingly tribal world where it seems that everything is black or white. That makes it much easier for authoritarians, left or right, to unilaterally do whatever it takes to advance their agenda.

There is nothing new or unusual about authoritarianism. Leaders—whether the chairperson of a condo association, the sheriff of Maricopa County, or the president of the United States—are often prone to authoritarianism if they can get away with it. Unfortunately, there are at least two trends that facilitate authoritarianism at the national level.

First, Congress has ceded everything from the declaration of war to control over a wide swath of our society to the executive branch. Members of the supposedly co-equal legislative branch of government seem satisfied either to cheer on or to attempt to obstruct whoever is in power. We should not forget that President Obama was actually applauded by many of those charged with checking and balancing his power when he said that he would act unilaterally if Congress didn’t do what he wanted, and Donald Trump, of course, is going to build his wall one way or another.

Second, social media make it much easier for authoritarians to communicate directly to their supporters and to “Corker” those tribal members who question them. Our next leader will almost certainly behave more presidentially than President Trump but will also almost certainly govern authoritarianly; and their tribe will cheer them on. It is much easier, at least in the short term, to deride those with whom we disagree than it is to engage with them in good faith.

Interestingly, Norris’s conclusion actually illustrates the problem by attributing our authoritarian president and our divide to those who can best be labeled and dismissed as “traditionalists who feel threatened, marginalized, and left behind.”

Howard Landis, M.B.A. ’78
Naples, Fla.

 

There is a curious contradiction in Pippa Norris’s views as expressed in “The Authoritarian Reflex.” In her use of pejoratives, data from international organizations, and condemnations of popular views, she both endorses authoritarian structures and calls democratic popular movements authoritarian. This allows her to dismiss the issues majorities have about being governed by elites on a range of democratic initiatives from Brexit to voting Republican in the U.S. If nothing else, it is proof positive that elites like Norris have no intention of studying why majorities are voting the way they do. She would have to take their concerns seriously rather than merely characterize them as uneducated bigots who favor nationalist demagogues.

Williamjames Hull Hoffer, J.D. ’96
Professor of history, Seton Hall University
South Orange, N.J.

 

I agree wholeheartedly with Pippa Norris’s contention that cultural backlash is a significant factor fueling the current wave of populism sweeping many Western nations.

However, this trend becomes easier to understand when one considers her casual dismissal of “conventional values and attachment to ‘tradition’ ” as fundamentally the result of an authoritarian impulse. It is precisely this refusal by so many “elites” to recognize any validity in these conservative sentiments that has helped create this situation and may well exacerbate it in the future.

James Cucinatto, M.Ed. ’75
Bridgewater, Mass.

 

So…another Harvardian has waxed poetic on ‘just what is happening “out west,” ’ in the United States where a ‘populist authoritarian,’ Donald Trump, was elected President. Unwittingly, you have answered the question you’ve raised. Correlation between voters of moderate means (the middle class) & DJT is real. It is what our Republic is grounded on. Decent working Americans are sick & tired & done with footing the bills for an academic self-serving globalist ‘democratic’ nation building nightmare. I thought we were done with shallow ‘analysis’ 50 years ago. We’ve died fighting the wars do-gooders created, only to come home to broken lives, jobs lost to China, shattered adults who can’t find work enough to sustain themselves in their own hometowns. And worse, the loss of hope and the devastation of opioid addiction and death. I lost my friend in that way in 1969.…Your data crunch may reveal some truths about what it takes to instill democratic (but Not republican) ideals in far flung nations (Uruguay, Slovenia), but therein is just the point. Our founding fathers in this country spoke loudly, clearly that simple democracy was the shortcut to mob rule. That it must be tempered with Representative Republicanism. Which they then somehow invented on the spot while running the British out of town & out of the country. Decent people have the Right to protect themselves, their families, their values from every crazy ideology that percolates out of the Ivory Tower. We Are all ‘live and let live.’ It’s time you let us do just that, live our lives, without worrying about our ‘authoritarian’ proclivities. Germany? Tread not there. But to compare (and analyze) the U.S. with Scandinavian countries, each no larger than a single U.S. state, each with homogeneous and obedient populations such as America has Never had, is sheer stupidity, elitist bias, ignorance, and meanness. People need to work, and to be left the Hell alone. Europeans don’t understand that. Fine. Just keep the Hell off my grass. And Antifa, not the KKK, has been the scourge of the last four years!

The author appeared to suggest that enhancing the Youth Vote was one desirable outcome of her data crunching. That smacks of danger and is puerile by definition. As wealthy societies extend childhood by granting ever greater time to young people to find what they Love to Do (so You will Never have to work a day in your life) we need to raise the voting age, not lower it. We need to skew the vote Away from green, inexperienced, naive, dependent Children, not find ways to draw their silliness into our decision making process.…

After 380 years it’s time that Harvard Grow Up and start putting Its Own Country First. Wake up, smell the coffee, Harvard. It’s not that hard. And that’s not nationalism, it’s survival.

Thomas M. Zubaty ’72
Marstons Mills, Mass.

 

Labor Law

“Reworking the Workplace” (March-April, page 18) is, in my view, a highly partisan, one-sided depiction of American labor law and labor markets. As General Electric’s chief labor negotiatior in many national-level bargaining sessions, I recognized that there were consequential issues of inequality and power in both our company and our country that needed attention and improvement. But Sharon Block’s and Benjamin Sachs’s sweeping prescriptions are insufficiently refined or nuanced; they are the essence of wishful thinking that will not advance us to a useful resolution.

Admittedly, they do their Clean Slate best “to shift power from corporations to workers.” They also engage in gratuitous calumny of a sometimes-flawed Trump administration. Yes, the independent-contractor designation is abused, but giving “workers,” however defined, 40 percent representation on corporate boards is knee-jerk nonsense.

I am not holding my breath awaiting your coverage of a similar screed from some arch-apologist for corporate rapacity. Your readers would be much better served by your reporting on the thoughtful comments of someone like Tom Kochan or Bob McKersie at MIT.

Dennis J. Rocheleau, J.D. ’67
Waupaca, Wisc.

Editor’s note: The article reports on research done at Harvard Law School, and explains clearly the context for the Clean Slate project. Harvard Magazine gladly featured the views of Thomas A. Kochan, of MIT’s Sloan School, in “The Workforce” (September-October 2012, page 35)—in a set of articles on Harvard Business School’s U.S. competitiveness project.

 

Open Book

“Court-Ordered Inequity” (Open Book, March-April, page 56) contains a glaring error. The excerpt, from Adam Cohen’s book, Supreme Inequality, makes the claim that in Jack Gross’s case, the “Court decided, however, that victims of age discrimination had a higher burden of proof [than race or sex discrimination cases] even though the federal laws against race, sex, and age discrimination used identical language.”

This is seriously mistaken. As the Court’s decision makes clear, Title VII was amended to provide that cases thereunder could be based on a claim that improper consideration was a motivating factor for the adverse action. The decision added that while the Age Discrimination Employment Act (ADEA) was also amended at the same time, the relevant provisions that amended Title VII were not included in the ADEA amendments. For Cohen to claim Title VII and the ADEA use identical language is, quite simply, wrong as a matter of law. It is not the Court’s fault for following Congress’s statutes; indeed, given Congress’s clear intention otherwise, it is the dissenters who would be guilty of “judicial lawmaking.”

Mark E. Dennett, J.D. ’83
Palm Coast, Fla.

Adam Cohen replies: The Court did, in fact, interpret the same language in the two statutes two different ways. The language was “because of,” which the Court construed to make it more difficult for employees to win age discrimination lawsuits. It is true that Congress expressly made clear, in an amendment, that “because of” in Title VII should apply to cases in which discrimination was one of the factors in an adverse employment action, but the Court should have applied the same interpretation in age discrimination cases, since the age discrimination law uses the same wording: “because of.” (Congress has had ample opportunity to say it wants a higher standard of proof for age discrimination claims, but never has.)

The accusation that I made a “glaring error” is reckless and untrue. I adopted the precise logic adopted by the dissenting justices in Mr. Gross’s case—a rather distinguished group: John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer (the last was my professor at Harvard Law School). Justice Stevens wrote, in a dissent all four justices signed, that “Today…the Court interprets the words ‘because of’ in the ADEA ‘as colloquial shorthand for “but-for” causation.’ That the Court is construing the ADEA rather than Title VII does not justify this departure from precedent. The relevant language in the two statutes is identical, and we have long recognized that our interpretations of Title VII’s language apply ‘with equal force in the context of age discrimination, for the substantive provisions of the ADEA “were derived in haec verba from Title VII” ’ ” (emphasis added). I share those justices’ deep regret that the Court chose to interpret the age discrimination’s “identical” language in a way that has no basis in law and that does grievous harm to older Americans who hope not to be discriminated against when they show up for work.

 

Climate Change and Divestment

The letter from William Nickerson ’61 (March-April, page 2) rightly calls for urgent action by Harvard to address the climate crisis. But his idea of action is sadly off base. His objection to divestment ignores the power of symbolic gestures and community pressure. His advice to rely on courses and research was relevant 20 years ago. I salute the Harvardians calling for decisive, visible, urgent action now.

Ironically, the Allston complex he touts will be under water before the buildings are ready for that woefully belated research.

Kitty Beer ’59
Cambridge

 

Karl May

I READ with great interest your article about Karl May in the March-April issue (page 44). I was born in Poland and as a young boy read the books by Karl May. I came to the United States in 1949 and after I got married I lived for many years in Lexington, Massachusetts.

When my son was a young boy, I wanted to read to him the books by Karl May that I had enjoyed reading. I went to the Lexington Public Library and discovered that they had no books by May and that the librarian had never heard of him.

The library did however have a book listing various authors. In that book I discovered an entry about Karl May, which said that in Germany his books were the “second most popular after the Bible.” After my conversation with a Lexington librarian, showing her the entry about May, the library procured some Karl May books. At his bedtime, I read them to my son. He loved the story about Old Shatterhand and Winnetou.

Thank you for your article introducing the Harvard community to Karl May.

Julian Bussgang, Ph.D. ’55
Dedham, Mass.

 

A Poem for These Times

I wrote this short poem just two weeks ago to reflect the current feeling of social isolation I may now be sharing with a majority of people, especially those who may currently live apart from their loved ones. I hope it may offer solace and solidarity with the thousands of others for whom Harvard provides a common valued connection.

Homebound in a Pandemic 

Will I speak a word today?
Nine muted hours
Since the promise of dawn  
The question’s tacit crescendo
Grows deafening.

Last year, 
I anticipated each homecoming
Welcomed the sanctuary
That softened life’s glow
Enough to open my curtain.

Now,
Hermetically sealed
From the sound
Of other people’s lives
I awake each morning
To wonder if and when
I may be blessed to say “hello.”

 Peter A. Gorski, M.P.A. ’94, M.D.
Miami

 

Passive Corporate Governance

HAVING WORKED in investment and fiduciary administration for 50-plus years, I’m writing in response to Erin O’Donnell’s article in the March-April issue (Right Now, page 12).

Many of us who buy index funds do so as a cost-effective way to obtain market-average returns. If we sought to outperform markets, we’d invest in individual stocks or with asset managers, such as mutual funds, we thought could do that. Someone seeking to outperform averages would try to influence corporate behavior, including governance, as active portfolio managers indeed do, apparently to the author’s surprise.

But underlying Professor Bebchuk’s and Lecturer Strine’s proposals is the notion that, if only we could improve corporate governance of index stocks, we’d improve their performance; like Lake Wobegon’s children, they’d all be above average. If so, why stop there? Corporate performance might also be improved if, for example, index-fund administrators persuaded managements to make electric cars rather than buggy whips—but that’s not the point of an index fund from an investor’s perspective. Influencing how corporations govern themselves or deploy their assets and knowing if they spend money on political activities are public-policy issues that are simply irrelevant for a passive investor.

If index-fund administrators follow these faculty members’ opinions and try to influence corporate behavior, they will have, in my opinion, begun to assume fiduciary responsibilities, such as for investment results, that are well beyond their traditional limited role of safekeeping securities and accounting for them accurately. The author seems to accept that the costs of such public-policy driven responsibilities should be borne by fund shareholders, but another major reason for investing in index funds is their minimal cost, the only factor in performance results an investor can control, a point made so well by John Bogle.

Alan J. Davidson, J.D. ’63
Dublin, Ohio

 

BDS and Israel

ALEX BRUNER (Letters, March-April, page 8) points out that the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement against Israel was founded by Omar Barghoudi, who opposes a Jewish state in any part of Palestine. Does Mr Barghoudi also oppose an Islamic state in any part of Syria or Iraq?

But I only vaguely remembered Barghoudi’s name, and I can assure Mr. Bruner that he neither controls nor directs the current BDS movement. Meetings of the local Jewish Voice for Peace have concerned billboards in Israel offering the equivalent of $19,000 to Israelis willing to settle in occupied territories; a Palestinian village in the West Bank that was abandoned for a time after one of their children was severely beaten by a Jewish settler; Israelis confiscating dozens of Palestinian vehicles for non-payment of fines because the office to pay the fines is off-limits; preventing development by charging Palestinians $5,000 for a building permit that is invariably turned down; and so on.

In 1936 the German Reichstag passed a law giving absolute authority to the Gestapo, exempt from any legal review. At a JVP meeting a few months back, a woman in her nineties, described as a Holocaust escapee, declared, “What I can’t understand is why no one is willing to point out that the Israelis are behaving just like the Germans in the 1930s.” On July 17, 2018, Haaretz reported that the democratic state of Israel passed a law limiting the High Court of Justice’s authority to hear petitions filed by Palestinians in the West Bank, which is a way for them to oppose Israeli land confiscations.

G. David Mendenhall, Ph.D. ’71
Pomona, N.Y.

 

Errata

InLegitimate Leadership?” (March-April, page 15), the reference borrowed from Porter professor of philosophy Christine M. Korsgaard should have been “bags full of mice.”

The group photograph in the Vita of William Monroe Trotter (November-December 2019, page 41) should have been credited to the Columbia University Library, and shows Trotter at a gathering, circa 1920, of Liberty League members. We thank Dr. Jeffrey B. Perry for calling this to our attention.

We regret the errors.

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