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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Spring 2005 > Letters

Letters

A life interrupted

I would like to congratulate writer Charlene Dy ’03 and editor Mark Cherrington for the fine work they did on the story behind our book, Smart Alliance. The complexity of the unusual story about the environmental and social reform of Chiquita Brands—a notorious corporate sinner for a century—was handled deftly, and the book’s authors handled humorously and gently. As the article noted, my wife and co-author, Patricia Scharlin, was crucial as an editor, but even more crucial as an organizer and researcher. Her experience in international politics was essential in getting the nuances about the United Nations and world trade right. One minor point needs to be clarified, though. You list me as being a graduate of the Class of 1957. In the normal order of events that would have been correct, but I served in the U.S. Navy for three years (a hitch referred to by sailors as the “kiddy cruise”—if you join before you are 17, you can be discharged at your 21st birthday). I was bouncing around on a minesweeper off the coast of California in 1956 when I learned I had been accepted at Amherst. So, in fact, I am of the Class of 1960. I would not want my ’60 colleagues to feel I abandoned them, and I sincerely hope that the earnest fundraisers from ’57 take note.

I would also like to congratulate the editor and his team for putting together a top-notch magazine. I now read each issue with particular interest and pleasure, not just the Class Notes. Keep up the good work.

—J. Gary Taylor ’60

New York, N.Y.

Ethnicity and the American creed

I am very pleased that President Marx aspires to be more than Amherst’s fundraiser; so many university presidents seem to have become little more. As evidenced by both his Commencement and Convocation addresses, he sees it as part of his job to be an intellectual leader of the Amherst community. I salute him.

President Marx is certainly right when he says in his Convocation address [in the fall 2004 issue of Amherst] that the American creed—equal rights and equal opportunity for all—is the glue that holds this nation together. Without these ideals there would not be much of a nation. The creed is necessary, but not sufficient, for a full life. Ethnicity provides the spice for a vibrant life. It tells us who we are, where we came from, where we belong. It also tells us that all people are not the same.            

Ethnicity is often associated with language, religion, geographical location and race, among many factors and features. I suggest, however, that the most important characteristic that distinguishes one ethnic group from another is group history. Ethnic history determines who your heroes and villains are, what is funny and what is not, what songs you sing, what occupations are most honored, what holidays and rituals are to be observed, what are appropriate roles for men and women, and many other features of all societies. Quite properly, the creed has little to offer on these issues. Ethnic differences are not easily transcended because they depend on history. The histories of different groups are incommensurate, and no intellectual fiat or divine intervention is going to transform them into identical experience.

I fail to find sufficient recognition of this idea in President Marx’s essay. The ethos and mores of many ethnicities are in direct conflict with the creed. Our schools must be much more assertive in promoting the creed and confounding its opponents. This is a sophisticated business requiring a scalpel, not a sledgehammer, and the danger of promoting such education in the U.S., which has a fondness for sledgehammers, is manifest. Perhaps, after a century of globalization, all the people of the world will share enough of the same history that our present-day ethnic differences will attenuate and be less of a problem. Be assured it is history (events) that will determine the outcome, not some god, or some so-called “great awakening.”      

—Dwight Hills Damon ’53
Storrs, Conn.

Ducks, Nazis and fair play

Let me get this straight: In 1977, the American Civil Liberties Union considered free speech more important than the sensibilities of the townspeople of Skokie, Ill. They defended the American Nazi Party’s right to march, in spite of the fact that Skokie was home not only to Jews generally, but also to actual Holocaust survivors. (The selection of Skokie by the Nazis was not accidental.)

At the Fairest College, a number of students and teachers, plus one alumnus, protested a U.S. Supreme Court justice’s right to speak because he went duck hunting with the vice president. 

—Michael Randall ’62
Miami Beach, Fla.

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