To Our Letter Writers

We welcome letters. To ensure that the opinions of our writers receive a generous forum, we usually edit letters only for style and length. We request that writers try to keep their missives to approximately four hundred words or fewer.

Please address letters to the editor to Bates Magazine, Office of College Relations, 141 Nichols Street, Lewiston, ME 04240, or e-mail magazine@bates.edu.

Editor’s Note

Curiosity got the best of us. With tobacco companies reeling from state lawsuits and federal inquiries (the latest unsurprising news is that R.J. Reynolds apparently targeted its Joe Camel ad campaign at children), and given that cigarette smoking is so contrary to the prototypical image of the New England small-college student, we just had to ask a few Bates students why they smoke.Staff writer Marc Glass ’88, who wrote this issue’s story on smoking, found that some students take up the habit as part of their own personal reinvention during college. Other smokers cite reasons that would warm the heart of any tobacco company ad agency: it’s social, it reduces stress, and it sets one apart from the mainstream.

Glass can vividly recall his first encounter with an older kid who smoked. He was eight years old and living in the boonies of North Chesterville, Maine. A pastime among the neighborhood kids was fishing Wilson Stream for suckers, the only species to thrive in the foamy stream, which had been poisoned by discharge from a nearby tannery. “Our faulty logic was that if we cleared out the suckers, the trout might return,” Glass said. On a good day, he would not only land a lot of suckers but also avoid the wrath of Stebby, the vicious, hard-fisted thirteen-year-old who was self-destructive on two counts: “He smoked cigarettes and he ate suckers from Wilson Stream.”

Like many, Glass grew up with the notion that only a certain type of person smoked (a message antismoking forces have relentlessly reinforced: remember the ironic “Smoking Is Glamorous” posters from school days?). So when Bates students are seen enjoying a Camel on the Quad, one can’t help but be startled by the ironic juxtaposition of images, messages, and expectations.

Phyllis Graber Jensen’s feature on Associate Professor of Russian Dennis Browne helps smash the traditional notion of what it means to be a professor (hint: it’s not someone at a lectern delivering a perfectly timed lesson). Eclectic in his interests but focused in his devotion to his discipline, Browne is the very model of a modern professor.

Junior Alana Watkins contributed to a look at students from two fall semester courses (one in geology, the other in environmental studies) who together learned to love a bog. In the process, they helped the city of Lewiston find a way to avoid putting a new road through the valuable inner-city wetland.

H. Jay Burns
Managing Editor

Righting a Lopsided Argument

I feel compelled to register the significant level of concern I felt over Michael Laurence’s essay, “Death Be Not Proud” (summer 1997). There is an obligation to balance his one-sided assessment of the death penalty and what can be construed as the magazine’s implicit endorsement of these views.I, too, come from a Jewish family, from a family whose ranks were decimated by an evil regime bent on extinguishing an entire people from the earth. Reading Mr. Laurence’s veiled attempt to link the self-imposed consequences of cold-blooded killers to the plight of the slaughtered and innocent victims of the Holocaust was deeply troubling. This shameful ploy is an insult to the victims by associating their names with the scum Mr. Laurence has every right in the world to defend. Additionally, I do not see any similarity between the hateful Nazi regime and the United States government that helped end their attempt at world domination.

Throughout Mr. Laurence’s piece we are offered his insight into the “distortions of the legal system,” interpretations of capital punishment as “killing,” and the long, agonizing journey that leads to the execution of Mr. Laurence’s client, Robert Harris. Apart from perfunctory references to a horrific crime, we are left with the impression that Mr. Harris is as much a victim as anyone. Mr. Laurence is loyal to his client by presenting all the typical excuses for his criminal behavior, but fails to detail that behavior. What would I like to do here is something that is rarely, if ever, done in typically lopsided anti-capital punishment arguments: represent the victims.

In 1978 Robert Alton Harris abducted two teenagers from a San Diego fast food restaurant and shot them down for absolutely no reason. Through his own admission, he taunted them before they died, laughed after shooting each of them in the head, and calmly sat down beside the bodies and finished the lunch he had stolen from the victims before ending their lives.

Whether Robert Harris had a terrible upbringing or not, did too many drugs, hung out with the wrong crowd, was messed up on Twinkies, or whether other excuses were offered is, I feel, irrelevant. He snuffed out two young, vital lives that no excuse in the world can restore. Why should extenuating circumstances be argued in cold-blooded cases of murder such as this? Does any extenuating circumstance make these two boys less dead? Charles Manson, too, had a pretty rough upbringing. Does that somehow negate the
carnage he inspired? What happened to the concept of responsibility for one’s actions? Even the term “not guilty by reason of insanity” is legalistic insult to a murder victim. What about guilty by reason of insanity?

Mr. Laurence should also be cautious of overstepping his professional capabilities and personal experiences by claiming to speak for the families of his client’s victims. “Capital punishment is not a panacea for the loss of a loved one,” he asserts, and “it is a lie” that execution will offer closure. He is, unfortunately, unqualified to speak for these people and, moreover, clearly uninformed. The families of the two young boys all requested to be present at Robert Harris’s execution “to see justice done after fourteen years.” Linda Herring Baker, whose brother was slain by Harris,
expressed the following after witnessing the execution: “He didn’t want to give us the satisfaction of watching him die in pain, so he just sat there and died. He struggled a bit, but not enough for me unfortunately: I would have liked to see him struggle more for what
he did.”

Another point to which I must object is the assertion that the death penalty is not a deterrent. Make no mistake that it certainly is a deterrent. Robert Alton Harris will never again cut short the life of another young person or ruin the remaining years of countless family and friends. We are all safer with this type of person off the planet. I have never bought the argument that the death penalty should be measured by its ability to deter others from committing similar crimes. (How could that truly be measured, anyway?) People still run red lights even though our society penalizes such behavior. Does this mean fines do not work and they should be abolished?

Further, to assert that life in prison is an
acceptable alternative to capital punishment challenges reality. We would all like to take comfort in the naive belief that once a convicted murder goes off to prison he is subject to a harsh daily routine on the rock pile, making little ones out of big ones. However, the term “life in prison” is either wishful thinking, a sadly apt description, or simply an additional mockery toward a murder victim’s family and the departed’s memory. Thanks to the advent of minimum security, work release, parole hearing for “lifers,” commutations, and “good behavior” credits and the like, “life in prison” is all but a hollow and impotent threat to the many who eventually walk free from their life sentences.

I could certainly go on here, but I will not. There are many more points that I object to in Mr. Laurence’s article. However, my objective is not to “gang up” on him. His motives seem pure and his work honest. But there are people out there with much less virtuous intent who are a blight on society for the fear, destruction, and devastation they wrought on people’s lives. They abrogate their rights of protection by a society whose very protection they threaten. The stilled voices of their victims must never be forgotten in our zeal to apply fairness where fairness does not exist.

Martin E. Levenson ’81

Danvers, Massachusetts

She Knew Him Back When

I was thrilled to see the cover story on Corey Harris ’91 in the summer issue. A couple of months ago, while poking around a bookstore in Middlebury, Vermont, I came face to face with a publicity poster announcing Corey’s latest release on Alligator Records. Imagine my shock — having known Corey reasonably well while we were at Bates, but not knowing that he had hit the big time — at seeing his face staring down from the wall of this tiny New England bookstore. I purchased the new CD (two thumbs up!), and asked the store manager if I could have the poster as an insert into the ol’ Bates scrapbook. She looked at me kind of funny, but nevertheless granted my request.In the article, Corey talked about his participation in Buddy Butler’s play Song of the Lusitania Bogey. I was a cast member and can attest to the power of Corey’s musical contribution, as part of a talented ensemble of musicians, to the production. I don’t presume to have “an ear” for music, but he certainly seemed then to possess a gift for music.

It’s a pleasure to hear how that gift has matured, and know that it is being rewarded on a larger scale. Oh, and by the way…great article!

Larissa K. Vigue ’92

via e-mail

Radcliffe’s Riposte

In a letter published in the spring 1997 Bates Magazine, I wrote that some of us were asking why politically conservative alumni should contribute money to Bates, and said I was “waiting to hear a good answer.” Well, I got pointed answers right and left, but not the “good” one I was waiting for.A fellow conservative, Gary C. Coorsen ’78, said we shouldn’t contribute, and didn’t even want to say he went to Bates. Richard W. Dearborn ’41 suggested I take my “mean-spirited” views and values elsewhere, and, already a very generous contributor, offered to make up the paltry amounts I might deny the Annual Fund.

Virtually every American college campus is the battleground of a war raging in academia. Not since scholasticism throttled academic freedom in the Middle Ages have the basic premises of liberal education been under such attack as they are today by the zealots of “political correctness” and multiculturalism. Jonathan Yardley (a political liberal), in The Washington Post Book World of September 28, 1997 (“When Politics Goes to College”), reviewed Literature Lost, Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities, by John M. Ellis (Yale University Press). Yardley criticizes Ellis for occasional use of invective, but says readers should not be distracted from Ellis’s “acute analysis of `a startling decline in the
intellectual quality of work in the humanities and a descent to intellectual triviality and
irreverence that amounts to a betrayal of the university as an institution,'” and adds: “This, as Ellis correctly argues, should be of the utmost concern to every informed citizen of any political or ideological persuasion.”

It is fair to say that what is happening to the humanities is occurring even more so in the
social sciences. To a great extent, the political and social radicals of the 1960s have captured academia and turned all intellectual inquiry into issues of race, gender, class, in which there are groups of victims and victimizers, chief among the latter being white males and Western civilization itself. But people are fighting back, conspicuously including traditional political liberals, many of whom have joined the National Association of Scholars, formed to defend academic freedom and free speech, basic requirements of a liberal education.

Obviously, Bates is not immune to these problems (e.g., political diversity is not much in evidence on the faculty or among outside speakers or honorees). But I would say to Gary Coorsen that we don’t win battles by quitting the field, so I intend to stay engaged with my alma mater both as a contributor and a critic. Bates in many respects is a splendid college, and I am proud to be an alumnus. To Richard Dearborn, I would respond that writing a check — even a large one — is the easiest thing alumni can do, and while he might replace my checks, I doubt he could replace my enthusiasm for programs such as debating and the Museum of Art. And he might even share my concerns if he understood them. We do agree that Bates Magazine is “lively and interesting.”

Charles W. Radcliffe ’50

Annapolis, Maryland

Approval = Censorship?

That Alice Esty ’25 retained the rights of “approval” to Poulenc, et al., in her commissions (“The Joy of Reenactment,” summer 1997) is the act of a philistine denying artistic expression and should be viewed as censorship. We may wish to experience these works in their unapproved form.Also, the profile writer uses the term “libretti” when she surely means song text.

I suggest the donor may also wish to seek out the poems of James Whitcomb Riley or the contemporary Donald Hall for such pleasures as she ascribes to Eliot.

Being the parent of a recent graduate has many advantages not limited to getting your excellent periodical. This is a good read.

Arnold Falleder P’97

New York, New York

The writer suggests poet Donald Hall…in fact, Hall’s “The Poem” was incorporated into Ex Libris,an original musical work by
Professor of Music William Matthews, which was presented at a campus celebration — attended by Mrs. Esty and many other friends — recognizing his appointment as the Alice Swanson Esty ’25 Professor of Music. The piece was sung by baritone Peter Allen ’66 with Bates artist-in-residence Frank Glazer on piano. — Editor

Stu Who?

The past four years of Bates Magazine has offered an unusually large volume of pictures of Stuart Abelson ’97. Stuart walking, Stuart talking, pondering, skiing, graduating. Exactly who is this Stuart Abelson?I would gently remind College Relations that other students manage to pull off success stories now and then. Your campus is teeming with driven, dedicated people — let’s see a few more of them.

Patti Daniels ’97

Waitsfield, Vermont