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  • An Acquired Taste
  • Psychology at Harvard
  • Faulkner
  • Stem-winder

    An Acquired Taste

    "An Acquired Taste" (July Atlantic) is informative, but James Fallows fails to identify the enabler: the American public.

    For instance, during the recent Democratic primaries Bill Bradley proposed universal health care. At first Al Gore responded, responsibly, that a program that covered 100 percent of the public might be too expensive and in any event could not pass. As an old liberal (the first presidential candidate I voted for was Adlai Stevenson, and the most recent was Ralph Nader), I leaned forward in my seat, eager to hear the battle joined. For here was a debate at the heart of liberal politics: whether to insist on what's right immediately or to take what you can get now and move for the rest later.

    But alas, Gore's reasonable analysis was over the heads of Forrest Gump America, and polls showed Bradley pulling ahead, threatening to build unstoppable momentum. Within days Gore stood the debate on its head, accusing Bradley not of trying to provide too comprehensive a plan but, instead, of proposing to deprive poor people of their Medicaid and replace it with an inadequate voucher. Bradley, an honest man, did not know how to respond to such gibberish, and in the polls the American public rewarded Gore's duplicity and made a Bradley victory impossible.

    Gore has become an unprincipled campaigner. In the America we live in, his only other choice was to practice his concession speech.

    Alfred G. Fortunato

    Although I enjoyed every single word of James Fallows's cover article, I felt only despair at his conclusion. As a committed Democrat, I admire Gore's discipline, and I acknowledge his personal transformation from seminary student to political gladiator. But I am more interested in health care than in Gore's affinity for the jugular. Fallows's account of the Gore-Bradley debate sickened me. I voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 because of his inclusive, compassionate, and just health-care plan. The Agenda, by Bob Woodward, recounts the demise of the Clintons' plan. Fallows's article consigns Bradley's health-care initiative to a parallel place in policy hell. But from my perspective, Bradley's plan was better: more inclusive, more compassionate, more just. Gore discredited that plan; he engaged in premeditated misrepresentation of Bradley's initiative. Gore won the debate at the Apollo Theater hands down, but I lost. And the Americans who might have benefited from Bradley's cerebral compassion also lost. Presidential politics has felt like a lose-lose game to me lately, and Fallows's article helped me understand why I feel that way.

    Fallows's article did not dispel my fear that a candidate who will lie about his opponent's health-care policy cares very little about the details of health care.

    Melissa Scully

    If the purpose of debates is to find the truth and point to solutions, James Fallows is right. If debate, per Plato, is "the art of guiding the soul through reasoning not only in the tribunals and in the popular assemblies but also in the conversations," Fallows is right. But in fact the purpose of political debates is to win at any cost -- by intimidating adversaries or by lying.

    Fallows expects debaters to treat their adversaries with respect; according to Dr. Johnson, "to treat your adversary with respect is to give him an advantage to which he is not entitled." Political debates deal with politics, which is to say a world of opposing interests; and to ask for honesty or virtue in this world is asking too much. This means not that lies and misinformation should prevail but that when opposing interests are at stake, gentleness of behavior or virtue, unfortunately, is beside the point.

    Angelo A. De Gennaro

    James Fallows concluded with the statement "Having studied Al Gore's record in some detail, I now respect his capacities more and like him less." But in the article Fallows did not discuss Al Gore's record on the issues facing the nation. Like too many voters, he seemed to consider Gore's debating style more important than his stand on women's rights, use of the budget surplus, the quality and availability of services to the working poor, the use of federal funds to improve education and housing, the environment, health, and wars in Third World countries, and so on.

    John R. Moot

    Editors' Note

    We received nearly a hundred letters objecting to the cover art for the July issue, which depicted Vice President Al Gore with an "attack-dog" snarl. A typical response is this one, from Sandra Kroll, of Highland Park, Illinois: "Sirs, I am shocked, disgusted, and dismayed as I look at the cover [art] of our current Vice President. What is the point?" J. U. Synnott, of Ponce de Leon, Florida, wrote, "You are as brutal as you accuse Al Gore of being." Gordon D. Mock, of Macomb, Illinois, wrote, "Both your cover and the article go beyond caricature to viciousness."

    We regret that Roberto Parada's cover painting of Vice President Gore offended some readers. The American tradition of political caricature is a robust one, and its mainstream is broad. Pungency, directness, and overstatement have been the hallmarks of this most ungentle art since the days of Thomas Nast.

    Psychology at Harvard

    Alston Chase's essay in the June Atlantic, "Harvard and the Making of the Unabomber," argues that one factor contributing to the unique actions of Theodore Kaczynski was his participation in a psychological study at Harvard University conducted by Professor Henry Murray. The logic of the argument and the suggestion that Murray knowingly subjected Harvard students to a stress that predisposed Kaczynski to his later criminal actions represent two serious flaws in the article.

    Chase argues that a mock interrogation by a law student paid to be an examiner in the study had a permanent effect on Kaczynski's personality. There is no empirical or theoretical basis for assuming that such a time-limited experience, independent of the person's biology and personal history, would lead to asocial behavior in most of the adults exposed to such a set of events. Thousands of college students participate, voluntarily, in laboratory investigations of psychological stress each year, and there is no sound evidence suggesting that these young adults have been psychologically harmed by this experience. The stress accompanying four years of final examinations is far more severe than any that could have resulted from a procedure that Murray implemented. We estimate that about 40 million college students have had final examinations since 1958, and none, to our knowledge, has sent bombs in the mail.

    Moreover, Kaczynski was a volunteer, and all volunteers for psychological studies understand that the laboratory is not real life and know that they are free to drop out of the study at any time. No Harvard student would have been academically penalized if he or she simply stopped coming to the sessions. Kaczynski's continued participation implies that the experience was not intolerable.

    Chase acknowledges that Kaczynski's personality in 1958 was within normal limits, and Kaczynski wrote in 1958 that the Harvard experience was "something that I had been needing all along without knowing it, namely, hard work requiring self-discipline and strenuous exercise of my abilities." Thus the hypothesis that participation in Murray's study was a major influence on Kaczynski's later behavior strains the most credulous mind.

    The second flawed premise is the implication that Murray did not understand the psychological consequences of being a subject in his research. Murray was one of the leading scientists studying personality and stress in the post-World War II era, and it is unreasonable to assume that he did not understand the ways in which participation in his research might affect college students. Each of the undersigned, who knew Henry Murray at different times in his creative career, attests to his humanity, kindness, and commitment to enhancing the human spirit.

    Any human being can be judged only by his or her intentions at the time of action, not by unpredictable consequences decades later. Otherwise, the scientists who invented the contraceptive pill should share some of the blame for the worrisome increase in adolescent sexuality. Chase's sensationalist essay errs in impugning Murray's motivations. And through serious distortion of the causal sequences that contribute to a life course, it adds to the growing cynicism over the many honest attempts by scientists in various disciplines to illuminate the complexity of human nature.

    Howard Gardner, Robert R. Holt, Jerome Kagan, Gardner Lindzey, Henry Riecken, Neil Smelser, Morris I. Stein

    Regarding whether the Murray experiment could have "predisposed" Ted Kaczynski to commit his crimes: I made clear that the experiment was one of a number of factors that may have affected Kaczynski's development. Yet I also cited reasons (expert opinion, facts from Kaczynski's personal history, and Sally Johnson's report) why the Murray experiment may have harmed him. And although Gardner et al. are correct in noting that little scientific data exists to support such a causal link, there is anecdotal evidence for it and little data refuting it. Typically, researchers just grade themselves, evaluating the long-term effects of their own experiments, which is hardly an objective methodology. Little sound research has been done on this question, perhaps because, as one expert explained to me, the research community "is afraid what it might find out" -- namely, that experimentation occasionally does harm.

    Regarding whether the experiment was immoral and Murray should be blamed for his conduct: I never suggested that Murray sought to hurt anyone, and I made clear that his experiment didn't violate the procedural standards prevailing at the time. I suggested that he was well intentioned. But ethical is as ethical does, and because it induced stress in people by deceitful means, the experiment was, I believe, wrong. It's no excuse to say that Kaczynski could have quit the experiment, because Murray intentionally gave his subjects no advance warning of the unpleasantness to come. Nor is it an excuse to suggest that subjects know "the laboratory is not real life." Although today's more sophisticated students might make this distinction, in the 1950s most of us still naively believed that professors told the truth, in and out of the laboratory.

    Finally, it is curious that Gardner et al., along with other psychologists who have written me about this matter, defend the morality of the Murray experiment even though it would clearly violate several provisions of the American Psychological Association's current ethical guidelines -- including the requirements that researchers not deceive study participants and that they fully inform volunteers about "significant aspects" of the experiment beforehand. I hope the reluctance to criticize these transgressions doesn't imply general indifference on the part of the research community toward its own ethical standards.

    Faulkner

    Larry Levinger's article "The Prophet Faulkner" (June Atlantic) unfairly suggests that Faulkner was a Hollywood naif when he "once asked Clark Gable what he did for a living."

    In context Faulkner's question is much more telling: Gable asked who Faulkner thought were our best living writers. Faulkner replied, "Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, Thomas Mann, John Dos Passos, and myself." An amused Gable then asked Faulkner if he wrote fiction. "Yes, Mr. Gable," Faulkner retorted. "What do you do?"

    Brian Smith

    I was quite taken by Larry Levinger's portrait of William Faulkner. The sentence about Faulkner's receiving a D in English especially resonated in my memory. Ten to one his instructor at "Old Miss" was Thomas Mayo, whose great-books course I took at Texas A&M in 1947. Tommy, a former Rhodes scholar and a native Mississippian, once told me that his most frustrating experience was trying to teach a young Faulkner the imperatives of English syntax at Old Miss. He considered Faulkner his most complete teaching failure.

    James T. Bonnen

    As a linguist of the Choctaw language, I was intrigued by the name Yoknapatawpha, William Faulkner's fictional county in Mississippi. Mississippi is, of course, the homeland of the Choctaws, and Faulkner's baroque spelling notwithstanding, the name certainly sounds Choctaw. Faulkner himself said that the name means "water runs slow through flat land," which implies an obscure but authoritative native source.

    Breaking down the word into meaningful parts that preserve the sound, I come up with yakni patafa, "ploughed or tilled land" -- rather sparer than Faulkner's image, but if we indulge ourselves in a bit of semantic enrichment, we can deduce that ploughed land is most likely flat, and there's bound to be a water source nearby, moving slowly on account of the land's being flat and suitable for ploughing.

    Whether or not Faulknerian scholars find this of any use, I have to say that now that I have translated this name into Choctaw, I can finally pronounce it.

    Marcia Haag

    The Oxonian John Black, then the board chairman of what was once Faulkner's grandfather's bank, First National, had this to say when I asked him about the origin of Yoknapatawpha: "I heard my daddy tell this story. In the 1920s, while William Faulkner was working at the bank, he recorded checks by hand. He got the checks he recorded from the Yocona -- we say it 'Yatnee' -- River area. They were taxations for flood-control projects. The Yocona runs five miles south of Oxford, and at that time there was a Yoknapatawpha drainage district on the Yocona. I believe that's where he got the name -- off a check."

    Given what I know of William Faulkner, I wouldn't be surprised. And it's not a big jump from the Yatnee River to Yat-nuh-pa-tah-fah, the way native Oxonians pronounce Yoknapatawpha.

    Stem-winder

    J. E. Lighter ("Word Improvisation," June Atlantic) completely missed the meaning of "a stem-winding speech." A "stem-winder" has always meant a slow, boring speech, or class, or ball game to me and my acquaintances. As people check their watches to see how long this event has been going on, they wind their watch stems to see if their watches have stopped.

    James A. Eslinger

    The minority view on "stem-winder" is duly noted -- but right after the President's address to the Democratic National Convention, in August, Bob Schieffer, of CBS, said, "This was another Bill Clinton stem-winder, and this crowd really loved it." It was a rouser, not a drowser.


    The Atlantic Monthly; October 2000; Letters - 00.10; Volume 286, No. 4; page 8-11.

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