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Obama and the Columbia Style

I was already a fan of Barack Obama ’83CC, cheering for him throughout his presidential campaign. When I learned that he was a Columbia grad, that fact explained everything. Forget Harvard, that sometimes-overrated institution. It was Columbia that helped make him who he is.

As a Canadian who came to Columbia in 1961 for graduate studies and earned a PhD in 1966, I came to realize that Columbia offered a perspective unmatched anywhere else: a global view of the human condition. Canadian institutions at that time were elitist, full of well-heeled and spoiled children of the Canadian establishment. As a child of the working class, I was made to feel this. But when I arrived at Columbia, it was a different story.

Columbia, to me, was a truly democratic institution. My professors were concerned more with what was in one’s mind than what was in one’s wallet or family background. This democratizing, universalistic perspective I experienced at Columbia is very much Obama’s perspective. He rejects the view that classes or races or nationalities or whatever should be divisive. His is a Columbia University perspective, fostering the equality and the worth of all people, rich or poor, one race or another, one nationality or another. Obama is Columbia’s dream come true.

Joan M. Vastokas ’66GSAS
Professor Emerita, Trent University
Peterborough, Ontario

. . . and the Paranoid Style

Paul Hond’s article “Politics for Grown-Ups” (Winter 2008–09) offers an unusual “non-bias” that was pleasant to read. When discussing paranoia, Hond cites examples from both the political Left and Right. He points out the ridiculous assertion that somehow, Obama should be tied to Muslim terrorists, and also points out the equally silly assertion that Bush was the mastermind of 9/11. Of course, any reasonable person understands that both are good examples of haywire thinking; yet, in most publications, the paranoia is illustrated as coming from one side of the political aisle, or the other.

Historian Robert Dallek ’64GSAS is quoted as pointing out that Sarah Palin and John McCain asserted, “Obama’s not a real American.” This is worthy of note, as well, because neither Palin nor McCain said or implied anything of the kind. By extremists, yes, but linking McCain and Palin to the extremists is no more than simply telling a lie about a fallen foe. Perhaps telling little lies is part of being, in fact, paranoid.

Jim Isbell
Anaheim, CA

As a former student of Richard Hofstadter ’42GSAS, and one who has analyzed the formulation and (mis)interpretation of “the paranoid style” (see my Search for the American Right Wing, Princeton, 1992), I read Paul Hond’s essay, “Politics for Grown-Ups,” with great interest. I was, however, puzzled. Anyone stopping at the end of the fifth paragraph of the article, after the quotations from various Republican spokesmen during the 2008 campaign, would be convinced that Hofstadter’s concept was as valid as ever. But then the article casts doubt upon it, not so much through contrary evidence as through the opinions of various historians. It is to their opinions that I address my comments.

Columbia provost and professor Alan Brinkley doubts the centrality of the paranoid style in American politics, noting that “it’s a style that people adopt, usually in times of stress.” To which one might reply, “When has American history not been stressful?” The main point, however, is that Hofstadter himself was never clear as to how central the paranoid style actually was, variously referring to it as “an old and recurrent mode of expression in our public life” and as “the preferred style of minority movements.” It was not he, but one of his severest critics, [UC Berkeley professor] Michael Rogin, who wrote that, unlike Hofstadter, “I see a countersubversive tradition that exists at the core of American politics, not its periphery.”

The issue of centrality can be reframed by looking at the social sources of the paranoid style. Eric Foner ’63CC, ’69GSAS and biographer David Brown are correct to observe that Hofstadter’s use of the concept had something to do with his suspicion of mass movements. But the very first extended example in his essay, the hysteria of Congregationalist clergymen in the 1790s over a supposed conspiracy of the Illuminati, points in a very different direction: the paranoid style as the response of threatened elites or (at least) of locally dominant groups. Their regional base does not necessarily make these people marginal, nor does their isolation within the nation as a whole make them uninfluential.

Finally, I would very much like to believe, with Robert Dallek, that Obama’s election has muted, if not ended, the paranoid style in American politics. But the fate of the last Democratic occupant of the White House gives one pause. Bill Clinton, after all, was the first Democrat since Roosevelt to win two terms and, as Sean Wilentz never fails to point out, had average higher poll ratings than Ronald Reagan. Yet he was impeached, and his presidency was nearly destroyed, by an intense minority almost wholly encapsulated by conspiracy theorists. Had Hofstadter lived, he would have had great fun parsing Tom DeLay’s statement that Clinton was impeached because he had “the wrong worldview.” A “marginal spokesman,” no. An exponent of “the paranoid style,” yes.

William B. Hixson Jr. ’69GSAS
East Lansing, MI

Paul Hond writes of “right-wing groups that saw America imperiled by illegal immigrants and Islamic fundamentalists.” Has he forgotten that some of the fanatics of September 11 were in the U.S. illegally? Was it not paranoid to accuse people of being racists when they spoke of “illegal aliens” instead of “the undocumented,” a euphemism that in itself betokened social paranoia?

Pierre L. Ullman ’56GSAS
Milwaukee, WI

In the midst of our euphoria over the election of Barack Obama, whom Paul Hond sees as “a consensus president” and whom Robert Dallek thinks will “try to create a government of national unity,” we need to pause and consider the price of consensus. To win broad bipartisan support for his economic recovery plan and other policies, will Obama allow members of the Bush administration, including the former president and former vice president, to escape investigation for violating federal law by authorizing torture and warrantless wiretapping?

The Obama justice department should immediately open an investigation into any laws that may have been broken and, if warranted, criminal prosecutions should be pursued wherever the law and evidence lead.

Under the Constitution, Obama is duty bound to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed” and to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.” As a signatory to the Convention against Torture, the U.S. is obligated to prosecute the use and authorization of torture, which was admitted in January by Susan Crawford, the Bush administration official in charge of the Guantánamo tribunals. Obama will be guilty of a cover-up, as an accomplice after the fact, if he does not immediately launch full and fair criminal investigations.

National unity will be illusory unless we unite behind the rule of law and our shared Constitution.

Stephen F. Rohde ’69LAW
Los Angeles, CA

The writer is a past president of the ACLU of Southern California.

Richard Hofstadter not only wrote about the paranoia in American politics, he also exhibited its symptoms in the aftermath of the 1968 student demonstrations.

Fearful of disruptions, the University held graduation ceremonies in the prisonlike fortress of Saint John the Divine, where Hofstadter gave the Commencement Address. Seats emptied as a number of graduates filed out to participate in countercultural exercises in the plaza around Alma Mater, where graduation traditionally was held. The media made much of the rabble-rousers who were out to destroy the University, which may have helped Richard Nixon become president.

Nixon accelerated the descent into the quagmire of the Vietnam War, despite the warnings by former U.S. and Columbia president Dwight David Eisenhower of the pernicious effects of the growing military-industrial complex. These effects also were addressed by Columbia professor of industrial engineering Seymour Melman ’49GSAS in his book Our Depleted Society, which was written as a counterweight to John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society.

Their forebodings are now upon us, and the nation is engaged in not one, but two wars, and mired in the worst recession since the Great Depression. Financial firms — too big to fail — have imploded, abetted by the lax oversight of regulatory agencies that were goaded into believing that government was the problem by presidents Reagan and George W. Bush. A more circumspect Columbia sought to heal the partisan divide within the University community and between the University and Harlem.

Imagine how Barack Obama or any new student would have felt upon seeing the gym in Morningside Park with two entrances: one for Harlem and the other for the University. Equally destructive would have been Obama’s taking to heart Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” and injecting divisive issues into the 2008 campaign.
To Obama’s credit, the paranoia was set aside and the nation elected its first African American president, even as the University negotiates with community leaders to expand into Harlem.

Leslie S. Hiraoka ’69SEAS
Union, NJ

Paul Hond is one-sided. Barack Obama appointed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. This paranoid Democrat said in 1998 that there was a “vast right-wing conspiracy” to oust her husband, who had lied under oath.

Roman Kernitsky ’62CC
Colts Neck, NJ

The Business of B-School

Frederic Mishkin might consider including in his forthcoming book the cautionary tale of the woman who opens a can of rank, inedible tuna. She complains to the market manager, who refers her to the warehouse man, who refers her to the distributor, who refers her to the wholesaler, who refers her to the cannery owner, who tells her that she should have been advised that the can’s contents were strictly for buying and selling, not for eating.

Aaron Cohn ’49GSAPP
Los Angeles, CA

“Crash Course” by Daniel Sorid ’99CC (Winter 2008–09) is just another reminder, albeit late in coming, of the late professor Charles W. Bastable’s great line that he repeated as a mantra in his sempiternally challenging accounting courses at Uris Hall: “Does the result make sense?” Don’t just churn numbers and arrive at a conclusion. Look at the conclusion, in light of the problem, and ask whether it is even reasonable. 

Wall Street, together with its observers and regulators, consciously failed to do this for many years. Instead, it plowed relentlessly ahead for ever greater returns when the underlying basics indicated that the macro and micro environments did not justify such returns. Greed and a lack of self-discipline and responsibility contributed hugely. Our B-schools need to retool to change business ethics from a mere introductory course in idealistic capitalism into a major and ongoing component of their mission statements and raisons d’être. Otherwise, they have no greater purpose than to serve as a platform for repetition of the same disastrous mind-set and behavior. Business schools need to be training grounds for leaders, not just starting lines for the amassing of wealth in organizations of like-minded persons at the expense of what truly makes sense in an integrated economic environment. 

Professor Bastable ’39BUS, ’52GSAS would have taken the so-called predictive financial models, then looked at the economic world we are, and are becoming, and asked the same question: “Does this really make sense?” The challenge now is to go beyond number crunching for the attainment of short-term returns, unless we simply haven’t the courage and foresight to lead.

Todd L. Platek ’79BUS
Berkeley Heights, NJ

Check That, Mate

I enjoyed Paul Hond’s College Walk article, “States of Mate,” on chess master Justin Sarkar ’05CC (Winter 2008–09). I learned some things about him that I hadn’t known.

However, Hond made a significant error when he stated that a chess rating of 2200 is the threshold for international master. It is not. It is the threshold for master. The threshold for IM is 2400.

Bob Avery ’69CC
Toledo, OH

Avery is past president of the Columbia Chess Club and was a team member of the Columbia chess team from 1965 to 1969.

Old Comrades

Gene Sosin’s paean to our Columbia College days was a joy to read. I am the Charlie he mentions, and Eddie was the late Ed Weinberg. All three of us, as members of the last class to be graduated before our country’s entry into WWII, had pretty good Army (Ed), Navy (Gene), and Air Force (me) careers before making our way into the world. We were fraternity brothers and have remained lifelong close friends.

Charles Plotz ’41CC, ’51PS

Brooklyn Heights, NY

A few weeks ago, my wife, Madeleine G. Kalb ’59SIPA, ’71GSAS, excitedly told me that my old friend Gene Sosin had an article in the winter issue of Columbia magazine. “Moscow and the Hudson,” it was called, a beautifully written piece of nostalgia about the old Soviet Union, as observed and experienced by a skilled Russia expert. I hadn’t been in touch with Gene for years, so was pleased to reconnect via the magazine.

I cannot recall exactly where or when we met, but it was long ago and it was Russia that pulled us together. Gene was a budding scholar and I a budding foreign correspondent based in Moscow. I read Gene’s analyses of Russia, he listened to my broadcasts. We have budded further since those early days, both of us attracted to Russian politics, diplomacy, and culture. I learned from Gene decades ago, and I do now.

Marvin Kalb
Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at
Harvard University
Cambridge, MA

Marvin Kalb worked as a diplomatic correspondent for 30 years at CBS News and NBC News. He was also the moderator of Meet the Press.

Heated Arguments

To connect two issues of Columbia: The hysteria of the global-warming crowd is a prime example of the paranoid style in America. Does it go back to the Puritans’ division of elect and preterit, one correct and divinely sanctioned, the other wrong, unknowing, and possibly diabolical?

Along the same lines, there seems to be a major split between alumni readers and the magazine’s writers.

Peter Cortland ’60GSAS
Wallingford, CT

I was surprised to read letters in the Winter 2008–09 issue scoffing at global warming. There is a strong case that global warming is real, and that much of it is man-made. This is not dependent on the validity of computer models. Yes, it’s true that in the past, climate change has been natural, but modern global warming has an important human component. The greenhouse effect is a large effect, and the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels enhances that greenhouse effect. Debates among scientists primarily are about how much global warming we can expect, not whether or not it is happening at all. For details, see a recent essay of mine, “The Scientific Case for Modern Anthropogenic Global Warming,” which can be found at

John W. Farley ’77GSAS
Professor of Physics
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Las Vegas, NV

David Craig (“The Deep Sleep,” Fall 2008) is alarmed that Americans aren’t sufficiently panic-stricken over the menace of global warming. This is so, he argues, in large measure because nefarious fossil fuel corporations underwrite politicians and “scientists” to cast doubt on the true climate findings promulgated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

There’s another explanation. Lots of people are waking up to understanding that the media-hyped menace of anthropogenic global warming is a scam, dishonestly peddled by environmental groups, UN political hacks, and liberal politicians lusting for unimaginably broad international controls over energy consumption, and thus the world’s economy.

There is no detectable human-produced greenhouse gas emission effect that adversely affects the planet’s climate. You don’t believe that? Ask the global-warming disaster crowd to produce hard science to disprove that null hypothesis. Note: Arbitrary computer simulations are not hard science, especially when they fail to reproduce the known climate record.

John McClaughry ’60SEAS
Kirby, VT

As the eldest staffer at the Environmental Protection Agency, I was struck by the self-blinding of certain respondents on global warming in your letters section. These thermo-deniers have set sail on high seas of ignorance, where they risk drowning in dispositive data.

Don Bronkema ’57GSAS, ’57SIPA
Washington, DC

Congratulations! It was a delight to find a publication that provides a counterpoint to the current global-warming frenzy. There is evidence from around the world documenting a 1500-year climate cycle in Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1,500 Years by S. Fred Singer and Dennis T. Avery. The evidence presented by thousands of eminent scientists from many countries and reputable organizations (including the late Gerard Bond and others of Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory) demonstrates that the last cooling cycle ended in about 1850, and the earth has been warming since then, but on a more normal basis. The cycle of about 1500 years has been documented with a great deal of care, including with ice cores from deep holes in Greenland showing climate history for 250,000 years. The authors also present serious questions as to the validity of the “hockey stick” warming trends provided as the basis of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports. I have seen little publicity or discussion of this book, and want to recommend it to those interested in a more reasoned approach to the subject.

Chris Seelbach ’67BUS
Short Hills, NJ

Ramona “Rusty” Lotti, wife of the late Columbia geologist Gerard Bond and a curator of ocean sediment samples at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, responds: “My husband was very concerned about man-made global warming, and his research on variations in solar activity only increased his concerns. He found that changes in solar activity could not possibly explain the global warming that has been recorded in recent decades.”

Norbert Bernstein ’53LS immediately leaps off the cliff without even a running start.

“Global warming has its deniers just as the Holocaust has its deniers.” What a put-down to the millions killed in the rampage so well documented by so many witnesses in Nazilandia! Can any comparison be drawn between “global warming” and the Holocaust? Objective evidence for the Holocaust has been massive. Where is any for human activity causing global warming? Is Al Gore concealing it all, or has he not yet invented it?

As Bernstein was clearing the cliff’s edge he was heard to mutter, “The solution lies in more widespread education.” Could he have had in mind even more of the pragmatic relativism made famous by John Dewey at the sister school across 120th Street? Does he see salvation in the same propositions that have brought confused, uncritical thinking to the nation’s classrooms? These propositions and presuppositions are still defended in academia, and apparently, by Bernstein himself.

Halfway down the cliff before crashing, Bernstein offers the next preposterous notion: turn the entire education industry into a vehicle of social engineering, with a government curriculum taught “in all schools, colleges, and universities.” And then he mandates that students be required to discuss their lessons “about global warming with their parents,” that “motor vehicles rest one day per week,” and “homeowners plant trees.”

Bernstein is about to strike his head on the rocks below when the need to create and oversee this huge endeavor intrudes upon our thinking. After all, there has to be somebody to collect the accusations by students against their parents and their vehicles and their lawns. If Bernstein intended to volunteer to become such a commissar, it has been lost in the rumbling noise of rocks dislodged below. The roar sounded just like the collapse of the USSR.

Ken Williamson ’54CC, ’55SEAS
Hauppauge, NY

The article on global warming is condescending, narrow-minded, and incorrectly presumes most Americans are stupid dupes.

Childish thinking of the kind displayed by Mr. Craig discredits by association the intelligence level of Columbia University faculty, students, and alumni. I am ashamed and astonished that my alumni magazine thinks so little of its readership.

Peter Spiller ’68SIPA
St. Augustine, FL

I pointed out, in a response to a story in the Summer 2008 issue about James Hansen and global warming, that population growth is a major threat. It is interesting that people switch to global warming and away from population as part of the problem.

Frederick C. Sage ’51PH
Boulder, CO

Honoring Their Sacrifice

I am happy to have played a part in bringing the War Memorial to Columbia (News, Winter 2008–09). James J. Lennon ’43CC originated the idea and formed a committee to determine what the memorial should consist of and to gather the names of the dead. Unfortunately, Mr. Lennon passed away, and the project stalled.

Some time later, I told the Columbia Alliance for ROTC about the project. The Alliance thought it was an excellent idea and went to work on it immediately, with great success.

Frederick C. Stark Jr. ’51CC
Toms River, NJ


Columbia magazine welcomes your letters to the editor. We may edit letters for style, length, clarity, and factual accuracy. Please include your full name, Columbia affiliation (if you have one), and an e-mail address or a telephone number. Send your letters to: Letters to the Editor, Columbia Magazine, 475 Riverside Drive, MC 7721, New York, NY 10115. You can also send a fax to 212-851-4160 or an e-mail to

Key to Abbreviations: Each of the following school affiliation abbreviations refers to the respective school's current name; for example, GSAS — for Graduate School of Arts and Sciences — is used for alumni of the Graduate Faculties, which became GSAS in 1979. The only code not associated with a particular school is HON, which designates that person the recipient of an honorary degree from the University.


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