Prague Autumn

Paul Wilson’s close-up description of Václav Havel’s immensely productive life in Czechoslovakia (“Notes from the Underground,” Fall 2006) calls to mind both the singular acuteness of Havel’s observations before, during, and after the celebrated Prague Spring of 1968 and his calm, resolute courage in voicing difficult truths in the face of (first) domestic and (later) foreign oppression.

Havel was one of the small minority of non–Communist party members in the 631-member Writers’ Union of Czechoslovakia when the Union launched the June 1967 intellectuals’ revolt, which by the end of the year helped bring down the hard-line dictatorship of Antonin Novotny and usher in a new era in early 1968 under the leadership of Alexander Dubcek.

Havel’s independent mind and intellectual courage came to the fore again as Dubcek’s celebrated “Socialism with a Human Face” was challenged by party conservatives and by the Soviet Union. Havel recognized that advances for freedom were due less to any plan by Dubcek and his fellow progressive Communists than to spontaneity as the population discovered that the lid was (temporarily) off.

At least some of the new party leadership, Havel knew, sympathized with — but at the same time feared — the rising expectations in society. As for himself, writing in April 1968 in the writers’ journal Literární listy, Havel asserted boldly that genuine democracy was inconsistent with a monopoly on power by a party leadership, as demanded by the concept of “leading role of the party.” Democracy required competition for power. Havel said public opinion could exert effective control only through elections. He argued that it was illusory to suppose internal democracy in a ruling (Communist) party was a sufficient guarantee, as even Dubcek — under increasing Soviet pressure — was by May coming to argue. Havel insisted that the right to form a new political movement was indispensable to democracy.

Dubcek’s sincere but unsuccessful attempt to chart a course that would provide minimum satisfaction to Czechs and Slovaks without provoking Soviet military intervention failed in August 1968, when Soviet tanks occupied the country and forced the party and government leadership to acquiesce. Thereafter, the party leadership, dominated increasingly by Gustáv Husák, argued that the country’s only way out was to satisfy Soviet demands for far-reaching changes, including restoration of tight control over freedom of expression. Havel had the judgement to know that this policy would fail, and he had the courage to say so.

I recall him at an American Embassy reception on October 14, 1968, when — speaking calmly, earnestly, and openly — he asserted that the party leadership was doing the country the worst possible disservice by surrendering gradually, without letting the people offer resistance. As I listened to Havel, my admiration for his courage was conflated with fear that he would eventually go to jail. The Soviets, exploiting Husák, slowly won the struggle to dominate the country, just as Havel had foreseen.

Václav Havel defended freedom in bad times and good at great risk to his life and freedom. Small wonder he was a nation’s choice for president after the Velvet Revolution in 1989. How fortunate Columbia is to have him as an artist-in-residence this fall.

Kenneth N. Skoug Jr. ’53CC

Alexandria, VA


Kenneth Skoug Jr. served as first secretary in the American Embassy in Prague from January 1967 until June 1969. He is the author of Czechoslovakia’s Lost Fight for Freedom, 1967–1969: An American Embassy Perspective.

— Ed.

I never had an opportunity to meet Václav Havel, one of the few public figures whom I continue to idolize, and I never met his translator, Paul Wilson. But Wilson’s piece in your Fall 2006 issue moved me mightily. Josef Skvorecky (translated by Wilson) is my favorite contemporary novelist and has been since I fortuitously bought a copy of The Engineer of Human Souls at a library sale some 20 years ago. My collection of his works has grown in the years since, and with it, my admiration for both the author and his translator.

As for Havel, an anecdote: In the summer of 1988 I visited Prague with my wife, Charlotte ’51GSAS, who was attending the 14th International Congress of Biochemistry there. Most of my time was spent searching fruitlessly each day for a copy of The International Herald Tribune, walking around the city and its parks, monasteries, and museums, discovering its many beauties. Buildings were not defaced with graffiti, as were ours in New York at the time, but for the chalked inscription “Havel na Hrad,” that is, “Havel to the Castle,” the seat of the head of state. That became a happy reality in the following year. On our return to Prague for three weeks in 1991, I was able to buy the Herald Tribune whenever I wanted to.

But back in 1988, all the citizens looked gray as they walked to and from the metro or the trams. All the men carried briefcases, which I think held their lunch; the women, even the pretty, young ones, looked depressed. One day, as I was riding the metro, I overheard a brief fragment of conversation between one of those gray men and an English-speaking woman seated next to him. In response to her question, his answer was loud enough for all to hear: “Me Communist? I not Communist. F—k Lenin!” The Velvet Revolution of 1989 came as no surprise to us.

Joseph B. Russell ’49CC, ’52LAW

New York, NY

I was thrilled to see Václav Havel on the cover (“The Citizen Artist,” Fall 2006), and to learn that he would be at the University this fall. But he came close to Columbia once before, involving professors and students. As a young graduate film student at the School of the Arts, I got to work as the talent coordinator when PBS’s Great Performances taped “An American Tribute to Václav Havel” at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in February 1990. The then cochair of the arts school’s film division, Milos Forman, was on the organizing committee.

Imagine working with luminaries like Gregory Peck, Paul Simon, Placido Domingo, Paul Newman, Dizzy Gillespie, James Taylor, and Elie Wiesel (to name but a few), all of whom made tremendous impressions upon me. But nothing was more thrilling than escorting Havel’s wife to the stage to accompany her husband as the crowd stood and cheered. It was a night to understand what the arts and freedom had in common.

Welcome back, President Havel. What took you so long?

Marc Lorber ’04SOA

Sherman Oaks, CA

Graf Jetée

I enjoyed the enlightened article and gorgeous, expressive photos of dancer Alicia Graf (“Pointe Taken,” Fall 2006). What a spacious spirit she possesses. As the great ballerina Suzanne Farrell says, “How you dance is who you are.” I am also delighted to learn that George Steel, executive director of the Miller Theater, is intent on bringing more dance performances to Columbia in coming seasons. Finally, as an adjunct assistant professor at Columbia, may I sing the praises of my colleague, Leslie Woodard, director of undergraduate creative writing, who danced so beautifully for Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theater of Harlem  before becoming a brilliant writer.

Emily Fragos ’96SOA

New York, NY

What the El?

For years, I had wondered about the elevated roadway that zigzags through the Chelsea section of Manhattan. Was it part of the old West Side Highway? A never-completed roadway? Why did it literally run into the sides of buildings?

“Walk the Line” in your Fall 2006 issue finally gave me the answers, and I look forward to walking the line in the near future.

Richard Lowenstein ’60BUS

Westport, CT

In the early 1930s, when I was eight or nine years old, my parents went by steamship to Havana for a winter vacation. The ship sailed from a pier on the West Side of Manhattan. We went by taxi down 10th Avenue, which was then the route of freight trains to the Hudson River piers. The law required that each train be preceded by a man on horseback to clear the path of other traffic. We followed as it made its way slowly down to the pier. Undoubtedly, it was to speed traffic that the High Line was built a few years later.

James Helibrun ’64GSAS

New York, NY


Net Gains

David Craig’s fascinating article (“When the Net Becomes a Wall,” Fall 2006) touches on the importance of free speech on the Internet that the United States government takes very seriously. Promoting these ideas is crucial to the promotion of democracy and economic development. It is for these reasons that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice established the State Department’s Global Internet Freedom Task Force. As we have developed our global Internet freedom strategy, we have held very helpful discussion with, among others, Columbia faculty members Tim Wu and Eli Noam.

The task force is guided by certain core aims: first, maximizing freedom of expression and the free flow of information and ideas on the Internet; second, minimizing the success of repressive regimes in censoring information and silencing legitimate debate; and third, promoting access to information and ideas on the Internet. We consistently urge countries to eliminate restrictions on legitimate debate, and we argue that the free flow of information leads to the promotion of democracy as well as to innovation and economic opportunity, which are critical components of economic development.

While international human-rights instruments allow for the appropriate restriction of speech under certain, particularly narrow circumstances, such as child pornography, we believe that restrictions on expression should not be misused to repress legitimate political discussion, including discussion of government policies and the promotion of human rights and democracy. Restrictions by repressive regimes are often very opaque, not backed by the rule of law, and offer no legal redress for citizens who are unable to challenge these restrictions in court. As Craig correctly points out, fear of reprisal has led many to practice self-censorship on the Internet, with the consequence of further reducing the free flow of information.

Given the transformational power of freedom of expression and the free flow of information for democratization and economic development, it is U.S. policy to press our concerns. We do so both bilaterally and at major multilateral conferences, such as the recent United Nations World Summit on the Information Society, with countries that improperly restrict such freedom over the Internet, and we urge them to live up to the commitments they have made with respect to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Ambassador David A. Gross ’79LAW

U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy

U.S. Department of State

Washington, DC


David J. Craig should remember that state control and big business always exerted considerable control over the Internet with its predecessor, the ARPANET, built in the Cold War to survive a nuclear attack. As detailed in my book Underwriting the Internet: How Technical Advances, Financial Engineering, and Entrepreneurial Genius Are Building the Information Highway (2005), e-commerce start-ups and Internet service providers persuaded Congress to turn the military’s ARPANET over to the public after the Defense Department built its more secure MILNET. The same interests are lobbying Congress and the Federal Communications Commission and using the courts to preserve network neutrality, but in the “last mile” are opposed by telecom and cable firms. Each side can argue its case in the U.S., but expecting Google and Yahoo to contest government regulations abroad, where they have invested, is a losing proposition. The World Trade Organization may be a better venue for advancing America’s open Internet model.

Leslie S. Hiraoka ’69SEAS

Union, NJ


Chances Are It’s Dick Hyman

I enjoyed the article about Dick Hyman immensely (“Shoot the Piano Player,” Fall 2006). I would recommend, if you don’t know it already, the neglected David Goodis pulp novel of the same name.

Here’s a question: With all the records that Hyman recorded for Columbia Records, is he in fact the piano player on the opening bars of Johnny Mathis’s “Misty”?

Jonathan P. Kahn ’78CC

New York, NY

Dick Hyman replies:

I’m not sure about “Misty,” but I am on other Mathis titles: “Chances Are,” “It’s Not for Me to Say,” “A Certain Smile,” and “When Sunny Gets Blue,” and I was also the whistler on “Wonderful, Wonderful!”


Conduct Under Fire

I began reading “A student in full” in your Fall 2006 issue hoping to discover more about the brave General Studies student Garth Stewart, who lost a leg fighting in Iraq. Unfortunately, I discovered more about his personal habits than I cared to know.

While admiring his service to our country, I was put off by the crude words to describe Stewart’s longing for female companionship, as quoted by Matt Mireles in his Spectator story: “Coming home, he was afraid of what girls would think, but thankfully ‘got laid’ the very next weekend.”

Of course, one can’t fault Stewart for wanting to resume dating, but I think your magazine erred in reprinting his vulgar language. A Columbia undergraduate curriculum begins by acquainting freshmen with Plato, von Strassburg, Rousseau, Goethe, Shakespeare, and Stendhal, among others, who wrote brilliantly on the subject of romance.

In light of his Columbia education, it’s sad that “getting laid” is the best Stewart can do. Does anyone want to pick up the premier publication of a top university only to read about the fornications of some unfortunate young man?

Your magazine is one I used to show occasionally to my grandmother. Before coming across this recent drivel, I also considered sharing it with my young daughter. It appears you now need a parental advisory sticker on your cover.

Thomas G. Dineen III ’89CC

Baltimore, MD


As I flipped through the fall issue, I paused at the picture of the columns at Low Library. Many years ago someone remarked to me that once you notice their  white bases, you never again look at Low without seeing that bright white.

Then I read the article and sadly realized that what is base here is not the bright white of the bottom of the columns, but the darkness of this story. It isn’t the vulgarity, since it has always been very cool to push the envelope on what is proper and acceptable to publish, especially in one’s 20s. The base concern, rather, is the claimed pride in having been a part of the death of so many, getting maimed, and then getting sex.

In war, soldiers die and soldiers kill. Usually soldiers feel at least some remorse (as distinguished from guilt) over the loss of life, even where that loss was justifiable and necessary. In this article, there is outright pride for death, followed by sex for self-esteem. I suppose the only bright section here is that this ’09 student still has a chance to grow at Columbia. I believe that the journalism presented as raw language in the article is a red herring. What is disturbing is the apparent ratification of baseness.

Joseph Geller ’77SEAS

Whitesboro, NY


Containment Policies

In his review of Fritz Stern’s Five Germanys I Have Known (“Deutschland After All,” Fall 2006), Norman Birnbaum has added an ill-fitting pendant on “American power” and its containment policy, the Vietnam War, and the Columbia University student protests of the 1960s. It was American power and policy that led to the implosion of the Soviet Union. While the student actions had their enlivening effects on the nation’s ethos (as I have found in recent research), they were also actuated by a retrograde and anarchic spirit rationalizing destruction. What substance have they left behind? Can Birnbaum explain their ideal of participatory democracy? It is hardly fair to charge the University’s administrators with “call[ing] in the police to club” the students, who were trashing the university.

David Felix ’70GSAS

New York, NY


Caning Canaan

“Breaking bread, moving ahead” (Summer 2006) reports on a commendable effort at intercommunal communication. But the last sentence of the report breaks it all apart and puts the effort in reverse: “I hope we’ll work together to create just societies like Medina and Canaan.” Where in Canaan was there one of the “just societies” that Muslim Students Association president Omar Siddiqi seems to pine for alongside Medina? Canaan, of course, was the designation of the pagan-inhabited territory that eventually became the Land of Israel. Is it to this strip of land, which the Roman conquest renamed, that he was referring? Was he afraid of not being politically correct if he had said, perhaps, Palestine or — horrors, and as I suspect — Israel? Until Arab Americans (and all other Arabs) can fully acknowledge Israel, both historical Land of Israel and its continuation to the present State of Israel, there can be no true coming together, no breaking real pita. 

A. M. Goldstein ’61JRN

Haifa, Israel



Your news piece announcing a 14-story interdisciplinary science building (“And in this corner — bio, physics, chemistry, engineering . . . ,” Fall 2006), which will arise at the corner of 120th Street and Broadway and occupy “the last undeveloped plot on the Morningside Heights campus,” is quite incorrect.

Despite the many deviations from the original Columbia architectural master plan, the campus could still accommodate five buildings as they were conceived by McKim, Mead & White. Two of these, placed opposite Hartley and Wallach, would properly complete the College quadrangle. Another building is meant to be situated opposite Furnald, between Lerner and Journalism. Two more buildings could face Lewisohn and Mathematics on their respective lawns, thus completing their quadrangles as well.

Parenthetically, will the upcoming construction destroy the pylon and iron railing on the corner of 120th Street and Broadway? When the Schapiro engineering center was built, yards of these irreplaceable and historic features of the original campus were unconscionably scrapped. Repeating this destruction would be unforgivable.

Thomas Vinciguerra ’85CC, ’86JRN, ’90GSAS

Garden City, NY


Good Reads

Thank you for the wonderful gift of Columbia! It’s a side benefit I did not expect when I joined the Friends of Columbia University Libraries. My association with Columbia spans 40 years, participating in conferences at Arden House, so I have always felt connected. Now, when I receive my issue of Columbia, I jealously read and taste every word. You capture the spirit of Columbia in the diversity of opinion, which I have always thought a particularly strong point.

In September, I visited the Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Butler, where I held in my hands a manuscript from 798 ce by Alcuin, Charlemagne’s advisor. Another incredible Columbia experience!

Peter W. Riola

St. Francis, MN