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Dramatis Personae

Spring 2011 Cover Illustration by Gary Kelley

The Spring issue really brought spring into my heart. Paul Hond’s article on Tony Kushner (“A Sentimental Education”) is an incredible piece of writing. One sentence says it all: “I wish I’d read more in college, devoured more, been confused more” — and I would add “and paid attention more.” More power to both Hond and Kushner, and to Columbia.

Gloria Donen Sosin ’49GSAS
White Plains, NY

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Paul Hond’s interesting cover story makes clear how Kushner’s art has seduced so many people, but the piece is deaf to the long tradition of art in the service of propaganda. The beautiful music, stained glass, and paintings carrying the Catholic message come to mind, as does the art of communism and fascism. All have been adept at expressing the “inevitability” of their viewpoints. Common to them all is the dictatorial and condescending assumption that they know best how everyone should live. These pernicious tenets are masked and sold under the guise of general benevolence.

Dolores Dembus Bittleman ’52GSAS
New York, NY

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Paul Hond’s article, which I read and admired, describes Vito Marcantonio, a long-time member of the House of Representatives from East Harlem, as a socialist. This is not quite accurate. I wrote my senior thesis at Princeton on Vito Marcantonio and interviewed his wife as well as several important political figures of that time, including labor leader Alex Rose, the founder of the Liberal Party of New York.

Marcantonio, a protégé of FiorelloLa Guardia, was elected to Congress as a Republican, but as he moved to the left, the Republicans wanted nothing more to do with him, so he joined the American Labor Party. Rose told me that the ALP was taken over by communists during this period, which is why he left to form the Liberal Party.

Marcantonio’s enemies always accused him of being a communist or at the very least a fellow traveler, even though he never joined the party. He said he disagreed with the communists, but defended their right to participate in the political process. In 1948, after the Justice Department indicted the top 10 American communists, Marcantonio, a lawyer, volunteered to defend them.

Marcantonio lost his congressional seat in 1936 but won it back in 1938 as the ALP candidate. Because he was a thorn in the side of the New York political establishment, and because of the tensions ofMcCarthyism, the Democrats, Republicans, and Liberals joined to get him out of Congress by offering him a place on the New York State Supreme Court. When Marcantonio turned them down, they all endorsed a single candidate to run against him in 1950 and redistricted to take away large numbers of people who had supported him. He lost, but still managed to get 40 percent of the vote. After this, he maintained offices in East Harlem, planning to seek election again. While out on the street collecting petitions, he died of a heart attack.

It was brilliant of Tony Kushner in his latest play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, to invent the character of Gus Marcantonio as a cousin of Vito Marcantonio and have him be a communist and a longshoreman. What Marcantonio’s defeat meant was that in New York, at least, third-party candidates of the Left would never be allowed to win. This has greatly diminished political discourse in New York, something Kushner’s play is clearly meant to revive.

Richard Cummings ’62LAW
Sag Harbor, NY

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I am impressed by Paul Hond’s report on his conversation with Tony Kushner, and on Kushner’s making it, deservedly, to the Spring cover of Columbia Magazine. The magazine reflects the thoughts and feelings of its readership, and I share in the pride. People who work hard to realize their God-given talents are admirable, especially if, like Kushner, they can already see the extraordinary fruits of their efforts.

By now, everyone is aware of the brouhaha surrounding Kushner’s almost not receiving, and then receiving, an honorary degree from the City University of New York. The argument in favor of CUNY’s conferring the degree was that Kushner’s criticism of Israel is free speech, protected not only by the U.S. Constitution but by that pinnacle of free thought and free speech, the university. Furthermore, his opinions are irrelevant to his accomplishments as a playwright.

But is a university merely a trade school, confining itself to the production of excellent craftspeople? Or does it also take responsibility for molding character, for helping its students to fulfill their potential as caring, honest, and fair improvers of humanity? Kushner is a social and political playwright and an activist — a public figure — so the burden of free speech should be even higher for him. He needs to get his facts right.

Kushner stated that Israel was “founded in a program that, if you really want to be blunt about it, was ethnic cleansing.” But I remember when Israel was founded and David Ben-Gurion entreated the indigenous Arab population to stay and be equal citizens. I clearly remember hearing on the radio, and reading in the newspapers one day later, about seven Arab nations ordering the local Arabs to leave and allow the invading armies to massacre the Jews.

W. Zev Wanderer ’64GSAS
Eilat, Israel

Polk Folk

Your Spring issue is one of the best ever, with its highly edifying, in-depth interviews with Tony Kushner and Rashid Khalidi. (And who is the well-learned interviewer of Professor Khalidi?)

But in noting the George Polk Awards won by two journalism-school graduates, you failed to mention that the Polk Award for Commentary was given to Juan Gonzalez ’68CC for his exposé of massive fraud surrounding CityTime, New York City’s computerized payroll-management system. This is the second Polk Award for Gonzalez, who was an active leader of the Young Lords in the 1960s and is now a columnist at the New York Daily News and a co-host, with Amy Goodman, of Democracy Now!

Sol Fisher ’36CC, ’38LAW
Pleasant Hill, CA

Casting a Poll

Rashid Khalidi argues that what we are witnessing is an authentic, universal yearning for “democracy, social justice, rule of law, constitutions,” which will leave behind the Islamists and terrorists. (“The Arab Reawakening,” Spring 2011). While this may be what Khalidi desires, the evidence argues against it. Rigorous face-to-face polls conducted independently over the past few years by the University of Maryland and the Pew Research Center report that while Arabs do support democracy, their version of democracy is directly antithetical to ours.

In Egypt, which Khalidi holds up as a prime example of a secular, democratic movement in action, 74 percent of citizens in 2007 favored the strict application of Shariah, 91 percent favored keeping Western values out of Islamic nations, and 67 percent supported unifying all Islamic nations under a single caliphate.

A 2010 Pew Research Center poll documented that 82 percent of Egyptians support stoning people who commit adultery, 77 percent support whipping or cutting off the hands of thieves, and 84 percent support the death penalty for persons who leave the Islamic religion. An April 2011 Pew poll simply reiterates these strongly held sentiments, confirming that Egyptians’ idea of democracy bears no resemblance to ours, with its separation of church and state; tolerance; freedoms of conscience, religion, and speech; and the like.

Moreover, the idea that the Muslim Brotherhood — the ideological front for violent movements like Al Qaeda and Hamas — with its motto ending with the words “Jihad is our way, dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope” is some sort of benign bogeyman is a bizarre concept to anyone familiar with its history or aspirations.

Allon Friedman ’89CC
Carmel, IN

Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies, responds:

Polls are tricky things. This is especially the case when they are quoted out of context, by people with an idée fixe and an ax to grind. I contacted one of the two scholars who produced most of the polls quoted (selectively) by Allon Friedman, and received a comment from Steven Kull, a member of the faculty of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland and director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes.

Readers of Columbia Magazine have a choice: to take what the pollster himself says, and look at the full polls, to which he has provided links; or to rely on your correspondent’s data, cherry-picked to buttress a predetermined conclusion: those Muslims are just not like us, and not to be trusted.

Writes Steven Kull:

Chapter 8 of my book Feeling Betrayed: The Roots of Muslim Anger at America pulls together data from numerous sources and provides an abundance of data showing strong support for democracy and other liberal values. Friedman is quite wrong in saying that we make the case that Muslims have antithetical views to the West. In the studies, and in more depth in my book, we provide evidence that there is strong support for these values as well as a desire to preserve a central role for Islam and sharia. I call it an inner clash of civilizations that has not been fully sorted out.

The 2007 study is here (page 15 and pages 21-24 are most relevant): http://www.worldpublicopinion.org/pipa/pdf/apr07/START_Apr07_rpt.pdf.

And here is more recent data on some of those questions: http://www.worldpublicopinion.org/pipa/pdf/feb09/STARTII_Feb09_rpt.pdf.

Deep Impact

Thanks for your fine College Walk piece celebrating the work of Joe DeGenova ’82CC and Community Impact (“Hands and Hearts,” Spring 2011). The remarkable choices Joe made and the wonderful success he has had brought tears to my eyes.

The story reminded me that those who decry the current generation aren’t looking at the real world. In reality, children of immigrants, and children of the affluent, too, sometimes turn away from easy dreams of worldly success and give their lives instead to helping others, in small ways and large.

My own way was small. Brought up in Little Italy and Queens, the first in my family to attend college, I chose to spend my professional life teaching almost exclusively at public universities and colleges. Like many of my contemporaries in the 1950s, I enrolled at Columbia at a time when college teaching was grossly underpaid and the best we could hope for was a life of genteel poverty and maybe a modest retirement. Fortunately, it turned out otherwise.

Joe DeGenova, on the other hand, has given himself to helping in a big way. He had every reason to expect an affluent and cushy early retirement, but turned away from that to do good. His example has spoken eloquently to many of his contemporaries. That so many young people have responded to him and to the programs he started floods my heart with joy. There is far more to be done, but every once in a while we can sit back for a moment and rejoice in a rich and productive model of selfless devotion.

Mario A. DiCesare ’60GSAS
Asheville, NC

Book Room

Columbia Magazine’s book reviews are always particularly enlightening, because reviewers are allowed considerably more space than in other publications, thereby enabling them to provide greater background details while espousing their opinions. David Pryce-Jones’s review of Jonathan Schneer’s book The Balfour Declaration (“The Secretary’s Letter,” Spring 2011) is such an example of a history lesson wrapped up in a book review. It brought to mind a humorous anecdote related to what Pryce-Jones properly describes as a “long-drawn mess,” the after-effects of which still appear on the front pages of ourdaily newspapers.

Lord Herbert Samuel, the first high commissioner of the British Mandate, arrived in 1920 to take over the previously Ottoman territory of Palestine. When General Sir Louis Bois, head of the occupying British military administration, demanded a receipt for the transfer that read, “One Palestine, complete,” Samuel signed but added the common commercial escape clause “E&OE” (errors and omissions excepted).

Michael D. Spett ’56CC, ’60BUS
Jupiter, FL

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In his fine review, David Pryce-Jones begins by quoting from Arthur Balfour’s November 1917 letter to Lord Rothschild that the British government “view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” and then states, “An important qualification added that nothing was to be done to prejudice the rights of the Arabs.” This summary of the qualification is misleading.

The actual qualification reads, “It being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.” It is clear from these words that not all the rights of the Arabs were protected from possible “prejudice.” While civil and religious rights were to be protected, political rights in Palestine are not included. This was deliberate. It was to be a national home for the Jewish people, who were allowed to have political supremacy. In saving space, the editors missed a point of considerable importance to the legitimate claims of the Jewish people to settlement in the land of Western Palestine. (Jordan, being part of the British Mandate until 1946, is Eastern Palestine and the Palestinian Arab state.) All the language of the Balfour Declaration quoted above was adopted word for word in the preamble of the mandate itself.

Edward M. Siegel ’55CC ’57GSAS ’60LAW
New York, NY

Rocky Roads

Robert Dallek’s The Lost Peace (“Roads Not Taken,” Spring 2011) may suffer from the same misreading of history that it purports to expose. Dallek believes the creation of a “Jewish state in Europe” might have been preferable to the Jews’ reclamation of their ancient homeland in Israel. Really? Are we to believe that the thousand-year-old tradition of European anti-Semitism would have thus magically disappeared? That an arbitrarily created Jewish nation in “the Rhineland” would not have created additional discord and hostility toward the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust?

Let’s get real. The landmass of today’s State of Israel in the context of the Muslim world is equivalent to the size of a matchbook sitting on a conference table. Instead of using the game of “what if” to fantasize about a Jewish-free Middle East, let us ask ourselves: What if the Arabs had joined Israel in accepting the original UN Partition Plan of 1947 — which would have created a Palestinian state — instead of rejecting the plan and declaring war on Israel at its inception?

Charles Markowitz ’82CC
Lakewood, NJ

The Recording Angel

Thank you for the review of Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World (“The World in a Jug,” Spring 2011). I’d never heard of Lomax until my music humanities class, but he instantly became one of my heroes. Perhaps this was because I grew up in the rural South and, though I fell in love with New York, I was overjoyed that someone had captured the music that was part of my roots. This book is now on my must-read list.

Bill Hudgins ’72CC
Gallatin, TN

Hitting the Sauce

I read the Spring issue with interest and had to make a couple of comments about Stacey Kors’s “BookTalk” interview with John Mariani, the author of How Italian Food Conquered the World (“Venni, vidi, ora mangiate!”).

I am a New Yorker who has lived in Italy off and on since 1986. I now serve the parish of Fornelli in the province of Isernia and live in a rural village in the hills, where I work 700 square meters of hillside turf. I am in the middle of doing an Italian translation of a screenplay written in English for a never-completed film project on the six men hanged in a reprisal by the Nazis in Fornelli in 1943, so I had to ask around about agricultural customs and food supplies during the war to correct some of the gaffes in the screenplay. This led me to dig around in the history of Italian agriculture, cuisine, and the history of immigration.

Regarding Mariani’s claim about the unavailability of olive oil: My uncle Paul Pellino used to import olive oil from Italy by ship in the 1950s for his store in the Bronx, so if you wanted it, you could definitely find it. You did not need DHL or FedEx. Maybe for truffles, mozzarelladi bufala, and porcini . . . not for olive oil.

As for the use of the tomato: The tomato comes from Latin America and was thought to be either an aphrodisiac or poisonous until the 1820s. So there was no tomato sauce anywhere until some time after that. You can check in on Neapolitan cuisine by going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and examining the magnificent presepio figures in their collection: The ones from the 1700s do not have tomato sauce on the spaghetti; the ones from the middle of the 1800s do.

As for Mariani’s claim that what is going on today in Italy is not as innovative as the hybridizations he prefers in New York and San Francisco, well, de gustibus . . . However, during my recent trip south of the Molise, I was impressed with the results obtained in the agriturismo sector, in which traditional and regional styles of food preparation are being brought to new levels of perfection and interest.

Frankly, the real significance of Italian cuisine is its traditional and regional character, and not its supposed “conquest” of the world. The Italian cuisine that Mariani admires may only be the latest incarnation of the Italian American family restaurants that fed dockworkers and garment workers in New York, fishermen and lumberjacks in Northern California, and politicians and business tycoons in Chicago and San Francisco in the late 1800s. It is good to know, in any case, that the culinary vocabulary of Italy has entered the restaurant vocabulary of those who can still afford to travel the world. But do come to the Mezzogiorno and discover a different kind of innovation, something more satisfying in the eating and in the reminiscing.

Francis Tiso ’89GSAS
Isernia, Italy

Rethinkin’ Lincoln

If the Obama-bashing letters (“Letters,” Spring 2011) commenting on the Lincoln Mitchell article (“A Midterm Examination,” Winter 2010–11) are representative of more than a Tea Party–sized fringe, then I am ashamed of my fellow alumni.

While it is possible to dispute the details of Obama’s economic strategy, his general approach is classically Keynesian and has been strictly mainstream since the 1930s (and I do hold a degree in economics). Even if Tea Party folks are primarily interested in fiscal issues, as Gordon White writes, that does not mitigate the gross errors in their economic analysis or their downright lunacy in other areas — especially in respect to “birther” theory.

David M. Hoffman ’61LAW
Summit, NJ

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The torrents of criticism against Lincoln Mitchell in your Spring letters section should not go unanswered.

The thrust of readers’ complaints was that Mitchell’s piece on the midterm elections was partisan, that it reflected a one-sidedly liberal or Democratic perspective. Those complaints, I think, reflect the common assumption that fair-minded writing about our partisan politics needs to be “balanced,” that observations about the deceptions and inanities of one side need to be matched by equally weighty negatives about the other. Unfortunately, the obligation for balance runs into problems when the objective reality is highly unbalanced.

Take Obamacare. A health-care plan seriously portrayed by many Republicans as a dangerous assault on American liberty is in fact no more “radical” than a plan proposed by Republican president Richard Nixon more than 35 years ago, and strikingly similar to one signed into law only a few years ago by Republican governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. It is more conservative than systems that have been accepted by the great majority of European conservatives for many decades.

Contrast that with Representative Paul Ryan’s road map, later incorporated in his budget proposal. Ryan’s plan — almost universally embraced by his party after the elections — is only ostensibly about deficit reduction. (No genuine deficit-reduction plan could propose further major tax cuts while ignoring the military budget.) In fact, Ryan uses the long-term deficit problem as a pretext for an ideologically driven program that would undo much of 20th-century public policy. Its objective is the construction of a free-market utopia that has never existed anywhere in the world.

One reader reproaches Mitchell for pointing to “extreme and sometimes downright wacky” rhetoric of Republican politicians. But this is a party whose partisans believe in a great deal of patent nonsense. For example: that President Obama was not born in this country and/or is a Muslim; that tax cuts actually increase government revenues; that global warming is a myth. In one poll, a majority of Republicans either believed that Obama was actually “on the side of the terrorists” or weren’t sure. It is hardly surprising that these kinds of views are reflected in the posturing of the party’s leaders. Mitchell could have been more politic and pretended otherwise. He chose instead to be unbalanced, and accurate.

Anthony F. Greco ’67CC, ’76GSAS, ’82BUS
New York, NY

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As a liberal, I’m amused at the way Lincoln Mitchell’s article brought out the swarms of 18th-century minds. Obama made mistakes, but not the ones he is so resoundingly accused of.

Obama’s first mistake was his decision to try to be bipartisan. That led to several unnecessary compromises with Republicans, which led to some less-than-adequate legislation, including a badly flawed health-care law — better than what preceded it, but still badly flawed.

Second was his failure to bring the Afghanistan and Iraq wars to an end. Those continuations of the disastrous policies of George W. Bush have milked the treasury of untold billions of dollars, all off-budget, doing more damage to our financial situation than any tax efforts or other spending decisions.

The thing that worries me most about a country that is in the worst shape that I have ever seen it is in the evident underlying racism of much of the anti-Obama opinion.

Edwin M. Good ’58GSAS
Eugene, OR

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