Eye of the Storm

It is not hard to take some satisfaction in the wake of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s campus visit (Fall 2007). It was, as you write, a big day for free speech at Columbia, and many of us were pleased to have our perceptions confirmed: In his contemptible response to a question regarding Iran’s execution of homosexuals, Ahmadinejad proved again that he is a fool and a brutal thug.

But before we engage in self-congratulation, we should ask: What if Ahmadinejad had shown himself more adroit at playing his audience, or better at providing intellectual cover over his extreme views? After all, the Iranian leader actually received applause before his overtly antigay remarks. One might question how here, in New York, some might find common ground with Ahmadinejad — an inveterate Holocaust denier whose fanatical regime is guilty of atrocities against women, Jews, religious minorities, and political activists.

It is beyond disgust that members of the University community would show support for even a single word spoken by Ahmadinejad. That some in fact did — whatever the subject or context — suggests strongly that “the greatest danger” is not, as Lee Bollinger contends, that Columbia will weaken its role as a forum of controversial ideas. Rather, it is that by providing a stage and a microphone, the University can become a tool by which the greatest evil is legitimized.
Howard H. Wiesenfeld ’87LAW
New York, NY

You had a lot to cover in your interview with President Bollinger. A question of eternal significance came up toward the end. Bollinger suggests that people obsessed with the “enormous attractiveness of financial rewards” are not likely to look for fulfillment and happiness in a medieval poem. He takes massive economic inequality as a given rather than demand an education that shows that money is not life’s report card and political democracy is not possible without economic democracy.

Plato’s Republic confronted this issue. If private property is not to be abolished, we must at least prevent extremes of wealth and poverty. A stable society depends on citizens who put the common good ahead of selfish interests.

The U.S. is now polarized between an economic oligarchy and masses of people who work two minimum-wage jobs to shelter and feed their children. Money buys elections, legislation, and successful litigation. A real education must confront problems like this. We must not just settle for the feckless hope that a billionaire might read a poem for pleasure rather than for moral guidance. Columbia must provide public intellectuals who are willing to cope with this.
Bernard Lammers ’67GSAS
St. Lawrence University
Canton, NY

I have been a recipient of your magazine for years. I started leafing through the Fall edition with no intention of reading it cover to cover, but after the first article I finished the rest of the issue. Let me congratulate you. Everything in the magazine is well written, interesting, and a pleasure to read.

The interviewer did a particularly good job with the Lee Bollinger piece. In reply to the first question, Bollinger says at the end of his answer, “Before the forum, we publicly stated that I would make an opening statement and would be very sharp [my emphasis] and that questions would be asked.”

A speaker of Bollinger’s experience knows that “very sharp” is a deceptive characterization of his deliberately critical introduction of Ahmadinejad.
J. Pierre Kolisch ’39CC
Portland, OR

President Bollinger’s remarks at the appearance of President Ahmadinejad are an embarrassment to the University. The elementary principles of freedom of speech require that a speaker be permitted to state his views without prior labeling. Bollinger’s so-called framing not only prejudiced the speaker’s presentation, but also insulted the audience by implicitly questioning its ability to judge the speaker’s case. Even more fundamentally, the insistence upon making an advance judgment of a presentation carries with it an implication that statements of speakers whose appearances are not “framed” are approved by the University.
W. L. Williamson ’49GSAS
Madison, WI

I was very proud to be an alumna of Columbia University this September. President Bollinger’s decision to invite the president of Iran to an open forum demonstrated how fragile and critically important freedom of speech, thought, expression, and the press are.

I fully understand why many within the University community opposed this event, but it is Ahmadinejad who has a problem with freedom and democracy, not we. People like Ahmadinejad must not be allowed to operate from within the shadows. The light of day, the light of democracy, must be beamed squarely upon them. Bollinger’s opening remarks were dead-on and justified. Invited guest or not, the president of Iran has not earned a pass. The more he spoke, wagging his fingers at the audience, the more ridiculous — but not benign — he became. To deny the existence of homosexuality in Iran, for example, was chilling indeed; one wonders how many gays have been imprisoned or executed there.

The contrast between Bollinger and Ahmadinejad was the difference between an educated, thinking individual and a psychopath.
Helene (Lefkowitz) Harrison ’89SOA
Victoria, BC, Canada

In defending his decision to permit Ahmadinejad to speak at Columbia, Lee Bollinger compares the University with 60 Minutes, the National Press Club, and the Council on Foreign Relations. But none of those is an academic institution.

I have no idea if Ahmadinejad did indeed stimulate young minds and advance dialogue, but the idea that the University values all dialogue and invites all comers is simply nonsense, given Columbia’s mistreatment of the Minutemen speaker last year. Columbia obviously favors academic inquiry on the left, and seems to consider right-wing views to express the closing of the American mind.
Martin Heilweil ’66CC
New York, NY

Thank you for interviewing Lee Bollinger about his decision to welcome President Ahmadinejad to Columbia and then introduce him in such an inflammatory way. While I commend Bollinger for having the courage to host such a controversial person, I was humiliated as an alumnus that he would choose to deride a foreign head of state on such a public stage. I do not agree with Ahmadinejad’s ideas, but I wonder why Bollinger would give others an additional reason to think Americans disrespectful. At an internationally renowned, Ivy League university, why are we not trying to build alliances and break down the world’s opinion of Americans as arrogant bullies instead of publicly embarrassing foreign leaders?

I was dissatisfied with Bollinger’s explanation in the interview of why he decided to chastise his guest, especially before the man had a chance to speak. I have traveled extensively in the Middle East and such a publicly choreographed, disrespectful introduction would never be tolerated. The humiliation of Ahmadinejad reminded me of those American teen movies where the popular kids invite the unpopular kid to a party and then make fun of him. This only seems to galvanize support for the unpopular kid, doesn’t it? To taunt the bull is a bad idea…especially if the bull ever gets loose.
A. Martin Clark Jr. ’00PS
Glendale, AZ

I’m no apologist for the views of the president of Iran, but I found the rant by the president of Columbia to be boorish and a transparent effort to fend off critics of the University. Everyone with whom I have spoken shares this view, but this was not reflected in your article. Since when is it appropriate to allow someone to speak and then insult him before he says a word? Shameful.
Michael Russell ’65GSAS
Washington, DC

Exposing the Shooter

Congratulations and thanks for the article about Al Mercado, the “one-shot” photographer (Fall 2007). This story exemplifies the resilience and creativity of a man who lost so much and literally rose from the ashes to make a new beginning. The shots are indeed gems. They are right up there with those made by such giants as Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï, and Kertész. It is also heartwarming to know that the oneshot guy is finally getting the exposure and recognition he so richly deserves.
Agnes Frank ’64LS
New York, NY

Reason Is Relative

The fundamental and unquestioned assumption of William Keylor’s article on Jacques Barzun (“Simple and Direct,” Fall 2007) is that the 1968 Columbia “unrest” was a negative event instigated by people “swept up in the twin passions of the moment — abhorrence of racism at home and of the war in Southeast Asia,” and that Barzun was one of the few Columbia faculty members to offer an “alternative model” of “rationality.”

What was irrational in those times was not the intensity of the Columbia uprising but that, more than 30 years after the Nuremberg Laws, racism was so strong (and to some extent, still institutionalized) in the leading country of the free world. The fact that passionate reactions to that racism did not occur earlier is much more absurd than the explosive character of the protests.

There may have been naïveté and confusion in the students’ ideas, but seeing the 1968 events solely from this perspective would be as simplistic as the often-heard labeling of Barzun as a committed reactionary.
Nikolaos Diamantis ’97GSAS
Nottingham, UK

Better Late

Browsing through the Summer 2007 issue, I was amused to read about Dr. Max Horlick ’54GSAS and how he was awarded his doctorate for a thesis he submitted 50 years earlier (“A Degree of Patience,” in the News section).

It thus occurred to me to let you know that in 1983 I submitted a dissertation, “Plant hormones, thyroid hormones and autoimmunity in thyroid disease,” to the University of Bombay for the doctorate. It was evaluated 24 years later!

Apparently my thesis was dumped along with a large number of books in the new annex built by the university and forgotten. Finally, in 2005, a vice-chancellor became aware of the situation, felt that justice was long overdue, and had the thesis fished out of the annex and assessed. The referees found my data still viable and awarded me my doctorate in April 2006.

After hearing from the University of Bombay that I finally had my PhD, I was thinking about writing to the Guinness Book of World Records. Then I received my copy of Columbia magazine (I earned my MA in botany from Columbia in 1956) and saw that Dr. Horlick obviously beat me.
Vas V. Row ’56GSAS
Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada

Wild Pitch

Oliver Sacks’s article “A Pitch Perfect Match” (Fall 2007) is a typical example of how a Western cultural framework can impede the advance of science.

Musical pitch is an analogue phenomenon. Pitch does not change in a discrete manner, but in fact varies continuously with frequency. As such, Sacks’s description of current attempts to measure or comprehend absolute pitch are inherently flawed because “discrete” analysis techniques are being applied to a naturally “continuous” phenomenon. If researchers looked beyond a Western cultural framework, they would discover that the highly sophisticated Eastern Indian classical music systems (both the Carnatic and Hindustani forms) provide a much more fertile ground for exploring absolute pitch. A key structural element of Carnatic music is the microtone (known as the ghamaka), which is the continuous pitch variation between two notes in a given musical scale (raga). In Indian classical music, the microtonal trajectory is completely well specified. In fact, a five-year-old child who begins the study of Carnatic music cannot progress beyond a few lessons until she can mimic precisely the microtonal variations demonstrated by the teacher.

How is this relevant to absolute pitch? First, the microtonal variations in Indian music are so subtle that they defy the coarse classification utilized in the Western system. Therefore, a study of Indian musicians or music could give insight into the degree to which humans have absolute pitch (a suitable nomenclature, of which many exist, would need to be utilized). Second, Indian music is played to a given tonic and corresponding perfect fifth (on a dronelike instrument known as the thambura). The frequency of the tonic almost always changes from performer to performer even for the same musical piece. Hence, Carnatic music would be an ideal means to report and test the varying listening perceptions (as discussed on page 39) of individuals with absolute pitch.

Yehudi Menuhin, the great 20th-century violin virtuoso, often commented how the West had to make dire compromises in the creation of the tempered scale to support the development of harmony. That compromise was “the loss of the perfect fifth.” In the West we have already lost the perfect fifth; let’s not lose the rest of the notes in the scale with a biased and flawed framework.
Unni Narayanan ’93GSAS
San Jose, CA

The discussion of absolute pitch by Oliver Sacks intrigued me very much.

As one who has spent a good part of his career studying the production and perception of the tones of tone languages, I am often asked whether a foreigner must be musically gifted to learn such a language. The answer is clearly no. Indeed, even among native speakers of such a language (Mandarin Chinese, Vietnamese, or Thai, for example) it is easy to find people who sing badly and have no other discernible musical talent; yet they have no trouble at all producing and perceiving tones. The tones are not points or glides on an absolute musical scale. Rather, they are heard as pitch sensations with a rate of vibration of the vocal folds (“cords”), thus fundamental frequency (F0), as their major physical correlate. These F0 states or contours are relative in height within the vocal range of the speaker. That is, the child learning to talk in such a community does not have an absolute standard of pitch contours as a model. Rather, he or she, with a very small larynx and thus a high-pitched vocal range, must respond to the tones of adult caregivers as well as those of older children. The child must learn to normalize across these stimuli that vary greatly in absolute ranges of F0 but are nevertheless very much the same in contour shape and relative position within the voice range of each speaker.
Arthur S. Abramson ’60GSAS
Mansfield, CT

One Man’s Fascist…

I don’t know where Michael L. Shepherd gets the idea that France is being “politicocolonized by Islamic Fascism” (Letters to the Editor, Fall 2007), but I’ve been living in France since 2002, and I can tell him that his assertion is, well, complètement folle.

The vast majority of the French are as committed to freedom and democracy as the vast majority of Americans are, and are about as likely to succumb to “Islamic Fascism” (whatever the term really means) as we Americans are. If I were Shepherd, I’d worry instead about the rise of Christian fundamentalism in our own country. Now there’s a real, as opposed to imaginary, threat to our polity.
Stan Augarten ’77GSAS
Paris, France

I don’t really care which term is used to label Islamic jihadists, but I found surprisingly weak Robert O. Paxton’s statement that they don’t qualify as fascists because “they are not reacting against a failed democratic experiment” and “they are not coming to the rescue of any one particular nation state.” Even the Nazis, our quintessential fascists, claimed to be rescuing not just the nation state of Germany, but all the German Volk, wherever they happened to live (Austria, Sudetenland, Poland).

As for not reacting to a democratic experiment, doesn’t it make more sense to describe a political movement by its ideology and actions rather than by the regime that happens to precede it? If we eliminate these two questionable requirements, Paxton’s own definition of fascism seems to apply perfectly to Islamic jihadists.
Peter C. Moss ’63GSAS
Cos Cob, CT

Aren’t They the Competition?

Was it just me or did anyone else notice the advertisement for Brown University’s master of public health program on page 52 of the Fall issue of Columbia? That would be ironic, considering Columbia has its own world-class Mailman School of Public Health.
Andrew J. Chen ’98MSPH, ’02BUS
Old Bridge, NJ

We would be just as happy to run an ad from Mailman, which is indeed an excellent school.
— Ed.


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.


Barnard College
Graduate School of Business
Columbia College
College of Dental Medicine
School of General Studies
Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation
Graduate School of Journalism
Jewish Theological Seminary
King's College
School of Law
School of Library Service
School of Nursing
School of Optometry
Programs in Occupational Therapy
Mailman School of Public Health
School of Pharmaceutical Sciences
College of Physicians and Surgeons
School of Continuing Education
The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science
School of International and Public Affairs
School of the Arts
School of Social Work
Teachers College
Union Theological Seminary