Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Summers, Koch, and Galileo

Expression of Unpopular Views Hurt Summers, Koch, and Galileo

By Henry J. Stern
November 25, 2008

Public attention is still focused on Chicago, where President-elect Obama has just appointed his economic team. Its strongest member is Larry Summers, a highly regarded economist and former president of Harvard University, who was driven from that job because the professors there did not find him politically correct or personally malleable. Irving Howe called academics “guerillas with tenure,” and most professors, particularly in the liberal arts, consider themselves progressives, proudly and clearly supporting the left side of the culture wars.

Summers’ first error, in May 2002, was to oppose divestment of the Harvard endowment from companies dealing with Israel. In that year, his first as president of the nation’s oldest (1636) and richest ($36B) university, he expressed his concern about rising anti-Semitism and increasing pressure to boycott Israeli scholars, universities and businesses. The Association of University Teachers in Britain called for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions in 2005.

The fur really flew in January 2005, when Summers, at a forum on the issue, suggested that scientists should study whether "the innate biological differences between women and men" were in any way partially responsible for the dearth of female professors in mathematics, the sciences and engineering.

One woman professor from MIT told the Boston Globe that she had to leave the lecture because, if she didn’t, she would have “either blacked out or thrown up.” Hardly an academic response, the comment set the tone for a barrage of criticism which led to a vote of no confidence by a small majority of the faculty. The vote was 218-185 with 18 abstentions. A strong faculty often prefers a weak president, a situation seen in some synagogues vis a vis the board of directors and the rabbi.

In 2007, Summers recalled: “I think the magnitude of the reaction I got was not something I fully anticipated. I had the reaction that, if people had felt so inhibited from speaking on these issues that they praised my courage, that there must be a larger problem around these issues on university campuses than I had previously supposed.”

In situations like this, reasonable people not involved with the case are inclined to believe that even if the speaker believed that his words were true, and in fact they were true, he showed bad judgment in expressing them publicly, and therefore deserves criticism.

That is the attitude expressed in “a plague on both your houses.” The issue erupted in New York City in 1988, when, speaking about the Democratic presidential primary, in which then-Mayor Koch supported Al Gore, the Mayor said: “Jews supportive of Israel would have to be crazy to vote for Jesse Jackson.” Jackson has consistently opposed United States foreign policy in the Middle East, and recently said on television that Obama’s election should bring a sharp change in American behavior there. Obama then firmly denied that Jackson spoke for him on issues of foreign policy, and his comment was echoed by Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. of Illinois. The elder Jackson’s pejorative remark in 1984 that New York City was “Hymietown”, did not help garner support among Jews, though some voted for him.

Koch was denounced for his statement, both by the usual suspects, his long-time enemies and by people who believed that, even if the statement were true, mentioning it was nonetheless harmful to black-Jewish relations. They felt it was inappropriate to suggest that New Yorkers should cast votes on the basis of support for Israel, or to allude to black anti-semitism, such as expressed by Louis Farrakhan.

At any rate, it is likely that Summers’ controversial background is a reason that Obama appointed him director of the National Economic Council, a position that does not require Senate confirmation. Despite his unpopularity among radical academics, Summers is considered supremely qualified for the job. Two of his uncles have received the Nobel Prize in economics. That does not guarantee the competence of their nephew, but it is not a bad sign. President Clinton showed confidence in Summers by appointing him Secretary of the Treasure, a position that was first held by Alexander Hamilton in George Washington’s cabinet.

We agree with Obama’s decision to avoid an unnecessary and unproductive political gauntlet. Who needs lengthy hearings, at which some senators will insist that Summers recant his views, a demand that was made of Galileo (1564-1642) when he was tried in a court in Rome in 1633?

Galileo had concluded, on the basis of observations made with his early telescope, that Copernicus was right and that the planet earth did revolve around the sun (the heliocentric theory). A panel of cardinals had been assembled, and they supported the geocentric theory (the sun revolves around the earth) on the basis of the words of the Old Testament in Psalm 104:5: “The Lord set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.”

Threatened with being burned at the stake, he told his inquisitors that the earth stood still. There is a legend, unsupported by evidence, that Galileo muttered, under his breath, “E pur si muove” (in English, “and yet it moves”). Even having recanted, he was put under house arrest for the remainder of his life.

New York State: Fictions About the Budget

“Oh, what tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!”
- Sir Walter Scott, 1808

There is a column on state affairs on p29 of today’s Daily News, which we want to call to your attention. It is written by Bill Hammond, and headlined THE 5 BIG, BAD BUDGET LIES.

The lede two grafs: “In response to the most serious budget crisis of our time, Albany pols are spewing more than the usual amount of hot air. Here is a guide to the worst distortions, fibs, and outright lies we are likely to hear in the weeks and months ahead.”

Link here to read the lies, followed by Hammond’s comments on each.

No comments:

Post a Comment