Thanks for including “The Off-Brand Conservative” article (Fall 2009)—very sensitive and well-thought writing. I think publishing that article, with its “minority opinion,” shows courage and true diversity of thought at Amherst.
Thanks for publishing Susannah Black ’99’s “The Off-Brand Conservative.” She tells so much truth with such grace. I envy her roommates, cats and professors. But I fear the imago Dei in which we are formed has shattered forever.
First of all, I’m not even sure what is meant by “meritocracy” in the moral sphere. But if it means that we find our moral grounding in those spiritual beliefs in which we find the merit of social justice, humanity and ethical behavior, then I am a happy meritocrat. I have spent much of my life battling the chauvinism that invades this country in the guise of Christianity and find in this treatise not a little of the entitlement and complacency that comes from a privileged, Christian upbringing. I am glad for Ms. Black that she found her God, but I will not have her God superimposed on my belief system.
War’s enduring questions
I always enjoy reading the magazine, but never more than this fall’s issue. The cover article (“Our Fellows Deserve to Be Heard”) about Martin Vogel’s lonely quest to find peace over his brother’s murder raises enduring questions about war. The article also provided a window into family experiences that shaped friends Paul Vogel ’80 and Debbie Vogel ’82. I did not know.
Closeted at Amherst
My classmate Tom Fels’ article, “War Correspondents,” in the fall 2009 Amherst came as a shock. As gratifying as it was to read his remembrance of Marshall Bloom ’66, the total omission of Marshall’s homosexuality as a contributing factor to his suicide in November 1969 brought me back to the four years at Amherst I spent agonizing over my sexual identity, and the fellow gay men I knew at Amherst who also hid their secret.
Like Marshall, I was a civil rights and SDS activist. I flew South with Rev. Lewis Mudge in the summer of ’65, spending most of my time in North Carolina as a civil rights worker with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Upon hearing a speech by Bayard Rustin, I was instantly converted to pacifism. Had I only known that Rustin, who was the architect of Martin Luther King’s famed March on Washington, was a gay man who struggled for years with homophobic attacks, I might not have spent the next four years hiding a major part of my humanity.
Once I read Allen Young’s article, “Marshall Bloom: Gay Brother” in the summer 1973 issue of Fag Rag, I realized that Marshall was one of three gay men I knew at Amherst who have died. Another was my dorm-mate, Albert Simpson, who killed himself shortly after entertaining his other roomies with an inebriated, naked strip tease behind the drapes of our dorm’s living room. The third was my fellow frat member, poet Mark Gibbons, whose sexual orientation I knew intimately. I’m sure there were more.
In the almost 400 pages of Tom’s book, Farm Friends, homosexuality is mentioned exactly once, as something a very troubled Marshall explored along with farm life, nudity, and drugs. Yet those of us who, like Marshall, were political activists who hid in the closet in the ‘60s, know that it is impossible to separate personal problems from external and internalized homophobia.
Tom mentions that “one factor, almost certainly” that brought about Marshall’s suicide was “a recent call from his draft board.” If Marshall had arrived for his physical as I did, with a letter from a psychiatrist that alluded to his “sexual identity crisis,” and spoken the truth about his life, he also might have encountered an army psychiatrist who set him free. Instead, I would suggest that he succumbed to the homophobia that virtually every gay man of that period carried within, and allowed the split within him to irrevocably split him to pieces. It is hardly a coincidence that Marshall killed himself just a few months after word of the Stonewall Rebellion spread around the world, and lesbians and gays were demanding their rights with unprecedented boldness.
Is it truly impossible for a straight man, even one with Tom’s brilliance and integrity, to understand what it’s like for a closeted gay man to fight for everyone’s freedom and liberation except his own? For all his good intentions, Tom has committed a disservice to those of us who carried our deep, dark secret through Lord Jeffrey’s hallowed halls. When one of my roommates once declared, “God help the man at Amherst who is homosexual,” little did he know that his other roommates, as well as Marshall Bloom, editor of the Amherst Student, were. Living with the crime that did not dare speak its name too often proved unbearable during and after our years at all-male Amherst.
Not a harangue
Jeff Cartwright-Smith ’71 confuses a litany of facts with a harangue in his letter “Going Negative” (Fall 2009). Facts can be uncomfortable.
For starters, we hope he attends Reunion in 2010 for the panel on combat vets who returned (or came) to Amherst to finish (or start) their education. He’ll meet veterans from [the classes of] 1945, 1960, 1970 and 2012. He can talk to a combat vet (who earned a Purple Heart but never fired a shot) from his sister class of 1970 who remembers arriving on campus from service in Vietnam and being called a “baby killer.”
Thanks to a 9-0 Supreme Court decision he’ll instead find an Amherst campus where military recruiters are free to speak and recruit for the first time in decades, and where Amherst alumni in military uniform can now speak at campus forums after a drought that lasted for decades until 2005.
Amherst has done its part among this nation’s elite to relegate the idea of military service, along with those who choose that path, to a lesser status deserving of scorn or, worse, active avoidance. This is not fancy or invention, it is plain fact and living history. And so it hurts? It ought to.
Thus, when there’s a break from that history, we celebrate. And we’d ask everyone to consider the import of a combat veteran joining our ranks as a full-fledged student supported by a $1-million-plus Amherst alumni scholarship fund. With the possibility of a few more combat vets on the way, a trickle of graduates now joining the Armed Forces, and some young alumni veterans like Matt Flavin ’02 taking prominent roles in Obama’s administration, this is nothing short of astonishing.
Rye Brook, N.Y.
New York City
I endorse strongly Professor Sinos’ plaidoyer for Greek (and Latin) at Amherst (My Life, Fall 2009). As a former German major, retired from business and now a senior (citizen) in my third year of adding less Greek to my little Latin, I can testify to the great personal pleasure which offsets the unavoidable tedium of language learning. But Professor Sinos sells her subject short. Of course the literature of Classical Greece will always be of central importance, but Greek also “gives access” to so much more. An immense literature has been preserved in post-Classical, Koine Greek which is easily accessible to all trained in Classical Greek (or vice versa). Much of this is Christian, including the text of the New Testament. But not all.
For example, the earliest extant text of the complete Jewish scriptures is in Greek, the Septuagint. And then there’s the literature of the eastern Roman, Byzantine empire.
Anyone interested in the early history of not only Europe but many nearby civilizations will find something here. Only Latin and Chinese offer comparable scope of subject matter, time and place. If, as I believe, a vital purpose of the liberal arts is to expand our imaginative horizons, then languages, both “dead” and “living,” have an essential part in Amherst’s mission.
More on Zeke
Sarah Auerbach 96’s cover story in the Summer 2009 issue, on Dr. Zeke Emanuel ’79, provides an enjoyable read for his fellow “pre-med” classmates who, from afar, recognized his passion and talent in multiple disciplines. His contribution to bioethics and the Medical Directive are commendable.
It would have been insightful, however, to hear Dr. Emanuel’s view on tort reform, bringing the perspective of a physician working in an administration with lukewarm interest for such change. I left wondering about the “ethics” of ignoring medical malpractice reform in our new health care policy.
A teacher most of all
I was pleased to see notice taken of the retirement of Mathematics Professor Norton Starr (College Row, Summer 2009) but I can’t help feeling that insufficient attention was paid to his greatest contribution to Amherst: teaching. I don’t recall anyone spending more time preparing lecture notes, grading homework and exams or personally tutoring students. I waited until fall of senior year to declare my math major, and without Professor Starr’s encouragement, mentoring, one-on-one teaching over Interterm and bending of normal protocol for majors, I would not have completed it as I did.
Professor Starr, with his trademark “hoo-boy” and “any port in a storm” exclamations in the face of tricky problems, made you feel that you were not alone in your struggles, and that the real joy and triumph of math was in taking on such challenges. Two other treasured memories further personify him for me:
Back in the era of slate blackboards and colored chalk, Professor Starr pushed the medium’s capabilities. Once, having covered all available panels with so many colored overlays that even a vigorous erasing left a thick coating of light gray, he switched gracefully to black chalk and continued with an extended proof “in negative” without missing a beat.
Much later, I returned to campus after many years and with embarrassment confided to Professor Starr that I had not made much professionally of my Amherst honors and education. He would have none of it, insisting to the contrary that a conscientious life of raising a family and assisting in the local community could be just as fitting and honorable a return on an academic investment.
It is people like Professor Starr who made Amherst the special place it was. I fervently hope they still do.
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