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The Big Hurt

Winter 2009-10

I enjoyed the feature about Kathryn Bigelow and The Hurt Locker (“Shoot Shoot, Bang Bang,” Winter 2009–10), especially because I was an ordnance bomb-disposal officer during WWII. The Hurt Locker is a great movie and Bigelow surely deserves an Oscar for it.

My novel A Choice of Evils, published in 1968 by New American Library, was based largely on my bomb-disposal experience. I wonder if I’m the only alumnus who was so foolhardy.

Paul S. Sandhaus ’44CC
New York, NY

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As Old as Print

I’m surprised that President Bollinger’s interviewer was surprised at the “nuttiness” on the Internet (“Freeing the Flow,” Winter 2009–10). The same “promotion of crazy ideas” occurred the last time a fundamentally new publishing technology emerged, as Elizabeth L. Eisenstein explained so well in her 1980 book, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change.

J. Peter Saint-Andre ’89CC
Denver, CO

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Stalking Celiac

I want to compliment David Craig and the magazine on your recent article about celiac disease (“Against the Grain,” Winter 2009–10). It was informative, interesting, up-to-date, and — in contrast to many pieces I read about celiac — completely accurate.

Diana M. Gitig
White Plains, NY

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Great informative article on celiac disease and the potential of gluten to be a major contributing cause.

Robert J. Lafayette ’93TC, ’97GSAS
New York, NY

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Congratulations on the article about celiac disease. It is exceptional and should be required reading for all physicians and medical students. There are many other shadowy illnesses that are poorly understood by the medical profession that still await a champion clinician like Peter H. R. Green, who understood the symptoms and was able to tie them to celiac disease.

Robert Lerner, M.D. ’50PH
New York, NY

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On the Waterfront

The Winter edition’s “In the City of New York” had two items of interest to me: floating pools and Governors Island (“She Covers the Waterfront,” Winter 2009–10).

I was about 10 when I visited the pool anchored in the Hudson at 96th Street. It was a hot day, and at the urging of my gang, I dared the pool’s waters, despite seeing some flotsam there. It was a memorable day because someone had stolen my sneakers. I had to endure the hot pavement in my bare feet from the pool to my home on 104th Street. (“Barefoot boy, with cheek of tan” was not I.)

In 1942, shortly after graduation, I spent the whole day on Governors Island for my pre-induction physical. Normally, the physical should have taken two hours at the most. But I was stuck the whole day because I was unable to give my specimen on command. At the end of the day I succeeded and left Governors Island for Fort Hancock, New Jersey.

Kenneth G. Von der Porten ’42CC
Boynton Beach, FL

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Cred GAP?

The guide from Columbia’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED), The Psychology of Climate Change Communication, is a far-from-neutral campaigner’s handbook (“Changing Minds on Climate Change,” Winter 2009–10). CRED assumes that human-caused carbon emissions are the principal cause of climate change (confirmation bias) and that reducing those emissions is the only way to avoid the consequences of climate change (single-action bias). CRED invokes the precautionary principle to argue that even if the science is not yet certain, failure to act would be disastrous if CRED’s analysis of the problem is correct. The report’s tone throughout is that the public can’t walk and chew gum at the same time, never mind understand climate change.

I’m a believer (not a “true believer”) in the fact that climate is changing for the worse. I’m agnostic about the causes of climate change (that is, I’m not a denier, a skeptic, a believer, or a true believer). The contemptible behavior revealed in the University of East Anglia’s e-mails moved my belief in climate change and my agnosticism about its causes away from the position advocated by CRED and the scientists CRED admires. The e-mails, which are not addressed by CRED’s report, reveal scientists who are themselves unwitting prisoners of confirmation bias and single-action bias.

One hopes that CRED will now turn its efforts to writing a report that will tell scientists how to avoid confirmation bias, single-action bias, and special pleading, and how to leave moral judgements to everyone individually, because scientists have no special access to morality and should probably eschew expressing such judgements in public so as to protect the credibility of their scientific work.

Ian Gilbert ’67LAW
Washington, DC

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David Craig’s comment, “looking to talk sense to the doubters,” is incredibly arrogant. Is it possible for doubters to talk sense to the conformers?

Harvey Seline ’64BUS
Bedminster, NJ

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Faulty Models?

Columbia magazine is an excellent forum for educated discourse on difficult topics like global warming, and I was interested in the discussion between Gordon White ’57JRN and Bärbel Hönisch (“Significantly Small,” Winter 2009–10). I tend to agree with White’s perspective, but what I find most fascinating is the certainty with which Hönisch and other earth scientists discuss the issue. Hönisch’s statements about small CO2 shifts having large impacts, as well as her comments on the earth’s atmosphere over millions of years, are made with no room for doubt. In fact, however, they are based on man-made computer models and extrapolated data. I think that, as a journalist, White sees the importance of citing “purported” or “alleged” circumstances, while most of the scientific community seems to have forgotten that rule. If my Columbia education has taught me anything, it is that a “consensus” isn’t worth the paper it is written on.

Remember that computer models of the economy, built on real data and tested by smart people, showed that the housing market was solid, mortgage-backed securities were a good investment, and credit default swaps were an excellent hedge. Look at the economy now.

Martin Moskovitz, M.D. ’85CC
West Orange, NJ

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In this Corner. . .

Not everyone is as enthralled as Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation dean Mark Wigley is with architect José Rafael Moneo’s new science building under way at the northwest corner of the campus (“Northwest Corner Building Takes Shape,” Winter 2009–10). If university architecture should be a teacher (as every architect from Thomas Jefferson to Mark Wigley has asserted), then what is the lesson to be learned from the building? Engineering innovations embodied in platform and cross-bracing technology? Design solutions exemplified by diagonally mounted aluminum grating that references the steel crossbeams running beneath them? Perhaps. And yet, there are indeed larger lessons to be learned from the Northwest Corner Building, namely, that planning and historic preservation should play crucial roles in campus redevelopment and deserve an equal amount of attention to those of meeting programmatic objectives.

In 1998 the University commissioned a comprehensive planning study titled Columbia University in Morningside Heights: A Framework for Planning that, in the words of then Executive Vice President for Administration Emily Lloyd, would lay “the foundation for future deliberations and discussions and, ultimately, for better-informed decisions” regarding new construction and additions to the University’s on- and off-campus historic-building stock. Among the eight planning principles espoused by this study were to “identify the existing area context to inform new building design” and “reflect the characteristics of the architectural setting in new building design.”

With regard to the “existing area,” one would be hard-pressed to find a more significant crossroads of historic educational institutions anywhere in the country than at the Northwest Corner Building’s location of West 120th Street and Broadway, an intersection that boasts Columbia to the southeast, Barnard College to the west, Union Theological Seminary to the northwest, and Teachers College to the north. Given this historically sensitive location of national importance, the planning study’s recommendation that existing area context inform new construction was all the more relevant and dire.

Given the enormousness and incongruity of the Northwest Corner Building, one has to wonder about the University’s commitment to sound planning and historic preservation practices beyond what it teaches within its studios and classrooms. This is not a building that makes any pretense of respecting campus or neighborhood context, but rather dominates its historic counterparts like an uninvited guest monopolizing the dinner party conversation. If, as Moneo says, the Northwest Corner Building will embody a passageway to Columbia’s Manhattanville Campus, then perhaps it is time for the University to revisit its 1998 planning study and rethink that project before similarly irreparable damage to that historic neighborhood has been done.

Gregory Dietrich ’03GSAPP
New York, NY

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“Northwest Corner Building Takes Shape” neglects to point out that the design, while interesting and innovative, is an example of a building that ignores both the history of the campus and the use of materials that have been so important to both the original McKim, Mead & White design and the other buildings added over the years.

I have no quarrel with the interior of the building, or even the scale, but the facade, which can be seen from as far away as Butler Hall, is a shiny, garish, architect’s attempt to say, “Look at me!”

Some years ago I read that when Frank Gehry designed the Fisher building at Bard College, President Leon Botstein insisted that the performing arts center stand by itself in a setting that would not clash with the older buildings. With the development to the Columbia campus north of 125th Street, this new location would have been the correct solution.

Peter Krulewitch ’62CC
New York, NY

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The Northwest Corner Building has intruded onto the campus like architectural graffiti in the midst of the original McKim, Mead & White–designed grandeur and symmetry. I find it to be dissonant. To me it does not reflect a coherent aesthetic framework. It seeks attention rather than trying to blend in. It would fit in better next to the new Xanadu Meadowlands building in New Jersey.

Why was something not designed similar to Bernard Tschumi’s Lerner Hall, which tastefully echoes the style, texture, colors, and proportions of the surrounding buildings?

I recognize that others may find the Northwest Corner Building much to their liking and that we needn’t endlessly copy the design aesthetics of prior generations. But this was not the place for experimentation. It is rudely imposed Bauhaus reductionism and relativism where custodial responsibility should have prevailed over innovation. Another time, another place, like the North Campus.

Still, I do wish to recognize the innovative engineering design that made the building possible; it will be a great resource for the future of the University, at least if the tenants stay inside looking out at the masterpieces that surround them.

Arthur E. Lavis ’61CC
Montvale, NJ

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Ghost Stories

Jay Neugeboren’s review of Christopher Payne’s Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals brought back powerful memories (“Ghosts,” Winter 2009–10).

In the late 1960s I was able to attend Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons thanks to a scholarship from the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene. I worked at Pilgrim State in Massachusetts during the summer of 1968 and was at Creedmoor State the summer of 1969 as a student and in the early 1970s as an occupational therapist.

Occupational therapists and their assistants were the “shop foremen,” in large rooms, where rugs and wall hangings were created on floor looms, furniture was built in wood shops, and the newly admitted (zombielike from electroconvulsive therapy) were guided to tear used fabric to produce stuffing for toys created in another shop. Once or twice a year the hospital sold the items and put the money back into the till to buy supplies for the next year.

This was occupational therapy in its truest form — focus given to people’s lives through meaningful work — except that the participants were not there by choice and had little choice in their assignments.

As the large hospitals closed down, patients were moved to adult foster care and welfare hotels. The homeless population was created. People who were unable to find “focus through meaningful work and leisure” on their own now wander the streets.

How poignant to see the photos of the empty halls, peeling paint, and one vacant chair. The buildings are now as anachronistic as the people they once housed.

Susan Salzberg ’71OT
Chapel Hill, NC

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Dining with Koestler

Michael Scammell’s magisterial biography of Arthur Koestler well deserves Michael Kimmage’s enthusiastic review (“Heart of Darkness,” Winter 2009–10). In 1954 I went to Paris en route to Munich, the headquarters of Radio Liberty, for which I was a programming executive in the New York bureau. One afternoon I visited Les Deux Magots, the famous café in Saint-Germain-des-Prés frequented by the literary elite, and noticed that Koestler was sitting alone at a nearby table. I introduced myself, he invited me to join him, and he showed interest in my work. In the 1940s, after he broke with communism and attacked “the god that failed,” he urged that radio broadcasts to Eastern Europe be set up to counter the powerful propaganda of the Kremlin and its Cominform. This seems to have carried weight in the American government’s decision to create Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, which began broadcasts to the Soviet Union and its satellites in the early 1950s.

I mentioned to Koestler that during dinner with friends the night before, we marveled at the musical quality of the French language. Someone recalled that in his book The Yogi and the Commissar, he had cited as evidence a sign in railroad coaches: “L’usage du cabinet est interdit pendant l’arrêt du train en gare.” Koestler wrote that it “means only that you should not use the toilet while the train is standing in the station, but it sounds like the pure harmonics of the spheres.”

Koestler and I discusssed Darkness at Noon. Its impact on world public opinion had led to a successful adaptation for the Broadway theater starring Claude Rains as Rubashov, the ill-fated hero. It was made into a radio play in German for broadcast from Berlin by RIAS (Radio in the American Sector), and Radio Liberty aired a Russian version to the Soviet Union.

Gene Sosin ’41CC,’58GSAS
White Plains, NY

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UN in the Middle

Mark Mazower’s book No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations and Claudia Rosett’s review of it are both flawed (“Creation Myths,” Winter 2009–10). The United Nations did not create the State of Israel. General Assembly Resolution 181 recommended the partition of the British mandate of Palestine, it did not authorize it. According to the United Nations Charter, General Assembly resolutions are nonbinding and are advisory only. Israel declared its independence unilaterally, and the United States, along with other countries, recognized it. Failing to get the General Assembly to authorize an advisory opinion by the World Court, the Arab nations went to war. Having survived, Israel itself became a member of the United Nations, accepting its charter as law.

After the 1967 Six Day War, the Security Council, whose resolutions are regarded as binding on member states, adopted a series of resolutions calling for Israel to withdraw to the 1967 borders. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 declared that territory could not be legally obtained through war and were adopted unanimously, which meant that the United States endorsed them. Since that time, Israel has ignored them, violating its obligations as a member of the United Nations.

Rosett’s condemnation of the United Nations as somehow conspiring to isolate Israel behind the mask of self-determination is grotesquely inaccurate. The Security Council resolutions stand and have never been repealed. As a matter of international law, Israel’s obligations are clear. Since the United States, Israel’s strongest ally, has endorsed those resolutions, it cannot be said that the UN is isolating Israel.

Israel is isolating itself. Israel cannot have it both ways, insisting on its right to exist as a sovereign Jewish democratic state and a member of the international community while at the same time exempting itself from the principles of international law that bind all members of the United Nations and the international community. It is not in Israel’s long-term self-interest to perpetuate these policies, since to do so will lead to an even greater crisis in the Middle East and an increasing likelihood of violence.

At the same time, Mazower’s analysis of the United Nations is also deeply flawed. It was not founded somehow to perpetuate the Western imperium, as Mazower suggests. It was, in fact, the Soviet Union that first endorsed the right of the Jewish people to a homeland in Palestine, in a speech by Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet Union’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, before the General Assembly at the UN’s first home at Lake Success.

It is true that the UN did not stop the genocide in Rwanda, but it did thwart the invasion of South Korea by North Korea and endorsed the repulsion of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Certainly, the UN is in need of reform. The Security Council should be expanded, and, as Truman advocated, there should be a standing UN military force. But to denounce the UN from the left and the right, as Mazower and Rosett do, is hardly constructive. They both should have been present at the jubilant reception in honor of Susan Rice, President Obama’s choice as America’s ambassador to the United Nations, to experience the euphoria among United Nations ambassadors from throughout the world that America had rejoined the international community as a full participant and not as an arrogant unilateralist.

Richard Cummings ’62LAW
Sag Harbor, NY

Cummings taught international law and organizations at the Haile Selassie I University in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Reviewer Claudia Rosett responds:

Ambassadorial euphoria at the UN over the humbling of America may be a delight to those invited to the diplomatic cocktails. But it is no excuse for ignoring deeply troubling and dangerous realities, which Richard Cummings so lightly sums up and shrugs off with the stock phrase, “Certainly, the UN is in need of reform.” Since the jubilant reception last year for America’s new envoy, Susan Rice, the UN’s performance might be summed up by its failure to stop the nuclear pursuits of Iran — which, while murdering its own dissidents in the streets, has now been emboldened to seek a seat on the UN Human Rights Council.

In claiming that “it cannot be said that the UN is isolating Israel,” Cummings himself provides a marvelous example of the same bias with which the UN condemns and isolates Israel (which one most certainly can say, and I did). Singling out Israel for his critique, Cummings ignores the routine and flagrant violations of UN principles by scores of its member states, and in some instances by the UN itself — which, if true to the terms of freedom and human dignity espoused in its charter, would expel such members as, say, North Korea, Syria, and Iran. Nor does he address the reality of continuing terrorist attacks on Israel, and threats to its very existence, all of this de facto tolerated by the UN. Does he seriously believe that if Israel declines to defend itself, the UN will rally to the job?

Finally, in arguing that “the United Nations did not create the State of Israel,” Cummings appears more interested in setting up a straw man than in reading the words I wrote to sum up a complex scene: “Mazower’s chief beef with the UN is its role in the establishment in 1948 of the nation of Israel."

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Wrestling with Jacobs

Josh Getlin’s review of Giant Slayer (“Wrestling with Moses,” Winter 2009–10) states, “The push to preserve older neighborhoods . . . block[ed] construction of much badly needed housing across the country.” Actually, the older neighborhoods contained more housing units than the new housing developments built (or planned) on land cleared by demolishing old neighborhoods.

Look at how much space the new housing developments devote to neither housing nor greenery but parking.

Jeanette Wolfberg ’80GSAS
Mount Kisco, NY

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Health Care Follies

I was puzzled by the reactions of Brian Wagner, Frederick Schweitzer, and David Blaustein to the “College Walk” article on Betsy McCaughey (“Care Tactics,” Fall 2009). Wagner and Blaustein seemed to imply that writer Jeremy Smerd did not treat her with enough disdain, while Schweitzer suggested that an article about someone as heretical as McCaughey should not even appear in Columbia.

How are we to understand the objections of the letter writers? In the case of Wagner and Blaustein, do they just not understand sarcasm, or do they consider the passage of this legislation, however seriously flawed it is, so sacred that any opposition must be thoroughly demonized? Or in the case of Schweitzer, that even the acknowledgment of opposition must not be allowed to appear in Columbia?

In either case, if opinions like these prevail, the restoration of civil political discourse seems more remote than ever.

Robert Reimers ’61SEAS
Gardner, KS

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Fair and Balanced?

I am surprised by Stan Edelman’s ad hominem attack on me in response to my opinion of the negative tone of Columbia magazine compared to the more positive tone of Princeton’s alumni offering (“Accentuating the Positive,” Winter 2009–10). My message is that Columbia magazine is too negative; let’s focus on that, not on what kind of a messenger I am. We need balance, with more positive stories that reflect the good news about our alma mater.

Marshal Greenblatt ’61CC, ’62SEAS
Potomac, MD

God and Butler at Columbia

I was editor in chief of the Columbia Spectator in 1933–34 and sometimes had occasion to meet with President Nicholas Murray Butler. On our first meeting he told me that he had just returned from giving a lecture in Toronto. He said he had been approached by a minister who asked him whether there were Columbia faculty members who did not believe in Christ; and if so, would Butler give him their names so he could write to them.

Butler agreed, and he told me he passed along the names of Lionel Trilling, Irwin Edman, and Meyer Schapiro, all of them ethnic Jews like me. Only later, in an esprit de l’escalier, did I think of telling Butler that he should have answered that he did not inquire into the religious beliefs, if any, of his faculty.

Arnold Beichman ’34CC, ’34JRN, ’73GSAS
Naramata, British Columbia

We were sorry to learn of Beichman’s death on February 17. — Ed.

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