"Poetry is Dangerous" (spring 2012) was the first thing I read when I received the Oberlin Alumni Magazine, and I was bowled over by the elegance of the writing, the horrifying details of Kazim Ali's experience, and the clear and absolutely on-the-mark conclusion.
Folksinger and self-styled "hobo philosopher" U. Utah Phillips once said there should be a 12-step group for humans, and the introduction each person should give is this: "Hello, my name is X, and I am a human; therefore, I am violent." It is easy to distance ourselves from the violence that Ali so exquisitely names in the heart of the ROTC representative who called the police at the sight of a college professor putting manuscripts out for recycling.
But the reality is we all contain that potential. The potential for violence in us is perhaps the reason we have not been able to break the spell of this ugly decade of so-called homeland security, with its disregard for civil rights and disrespect for the basic tenets of a civilized society. It is almost certainly the reason that other countries end up with more explicit and visible dictatorships for governments.
Thank you for an article that shines light on the basis for the disturbing post-9/11 chapter in the history of our nation as well as the cracks in our humanity that the homeland security myth has opened. And thank you for an article that shows the power of a beautifully written and analyzed experience to move us beyond those divisions.
Nan Wishner '79
Ali reports that he left a heavy box near the center of campus and drove away, and a young man in the ROTC building where Ali left the box alerted the police. Ali complains the police were alerted because of his dark skin. Wait a second—might an ROTC building in a public place be a terrorist target? Ali asserts that because of his recycling, the bomb squad came, the state police came, buildings were evacuated, classes were cancelled, and campus was closed. Kudos to the young man for alerting the police, regardless of anyone's skin color.
Everything Ali did was suspicious, but even then, had he simply left the box open so anyone could see it contained nothing dangerous, no threat would have been perceived and the responses that so offended him would not have occurred. The inane thinking of this article and its inclusion in the alumni magazine do not present a favorable image of Oberlin.
Dave Clemens '68
Lakewood Ranch, Fla.
In 1965, Arlo Guthrie visited Stockbridge, Mass. A "longhair," he ran into an incident with the police and was cited for "litterin'." The resultant song, Alice's Restaurant, became a piece of cultural history. Alas, we have learned nothing, and so history repeats itself.
Ali's theatre of the absurd moment with xenophobic authority reminds us that there is no safety in hate. Like the grim reaper, it will claim us all sooner or later. Speaking as an immigrant, if the U.S. is the "home of the brave," show me. Our daily task is to stand up and look hate and all its trappings in the eye. Courage is our only hope.
Bali Szabo '66
ROTC is taking it on the chin in the spring issue, what with Ali’s account of the reprehensible racist paranoia of an ROTC student that subjected him to unjustified suspect, humiliation, and institutional prejudice, and Alex Citron’s letter objecting in principle to ROTC on Oberlin’s campus.
As a former ROTC cadet and a proud and committed graduate of Oberlin, I believe it would be a very good thing for our nation’s military services to be regularly supplied with young officers who have been inculcated with the values that Oberlin College has fostered for so many years.
David W. Cole, ‘61
I am certain I am not the only woman who read Kazim Ali's line, "My body exists politically in a way I cannot prevent" with experiential resonance. A woman's presence may not bring out the bomb squad, but we always generate some reaction simply by being there. For example: a construction worker screams "Smile!" at me as I go, weeping, to church to pray the hour after my grandfather dies; as I walk down Beacon Street in Boston a man stuck in traffic hollers comments on my figure; my course evaluations said the way I "dress is shockingly unprofessional" because I do not wear business suits, and I was fired from that job, no reason given, having exceeded all other requirements. Welcome to our world of prejudice!
Ann Morrison Spinney ’84
Thanks for the terrific vision in redesigning the Oberlin Alumni Magazine. It's a sight to behold. Superb design, with articles that are stimulating ("Rethinking Teaching") and whimsical ("Art We [Heart]").
Thad Nodine '79
Santa Cruz, Calif.
Congratulations on your new look and contents of the winter 2011-2012 magazine. The layout drew me in, and the article on learning strategies at the college inspired me as a teacher myself in an inner-city community college. The methods work here, too, among my students, many of whom are first in their families to enter college. Having a great teacher helps, too. Though I was among the last graduating class at the once Graduate School of Theology there, I took courses at the college as well, and remember many as great teachers and learners.
I read with great interest the tribute to Jim White, the former financial aid director at Oberlin. I recall him with great fondness and thanks. I was a financial aid student, and each semester I found myself in his office explaining why my summer jobs left me several hundred dollars short of my tuition bill. I don't recall his response, but he was always kind and thoughtful. He was never condescending, and very fair with regard to Oberlin's ability to help me work out my financial aid package.
Progress at Oberlin, and in the world at large, is measured not in what we say, but in the ways in which we do. Jim White did. I appreciated his help. I am sorry I did not have the chance to tell him that in person. I am glad that someone had the good sense to let others know of his deep commitment to fairness in education. He made a true, positive contribution to the world. I, and many other Oberlin graduates, are grateful to him.
James McBride '79
New York, N.Y.
In connection with a research effort, I seek information from former members of the Oberlin College Choir who participated in the March 21, 1963, Finney Chapel performance of Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, conducted by the composer. The research focus is a soprano passage in the third movement, but I would be grateful for information from any participant. Please contact me via firstname.lastname@example.org or at 860-436-4678. Thank you!
Susan P. Kalman
As Oberlin alums of 1939, a time when the Peace Society flourished on campus, we advocate Oberlin’s adoption of an ROTC program. If, as we strongly believe, the U.S. military should be controlled by the civilian population, then all citizens need to know more about the military.
Although we would yield to none in our ignorance as Oberlin students of the military, we have come to know more by study and by experience. Our introduction came through involvement in World War II, through two years of teaching American military personnel in a program of the University of Maryland enabling enlisted women and men to work toward college degrees during their service, and through writing a book based on interviews with more than three hundred women officers and enlisted women. Learning thus about their identities and motivations transformed our images of them.
Of course introducing an ROTC program on campus will not give the student body an intimate knowledge of the military and its people. But it’s an important first step. As for the argument that Oberlin students have not attained the “quality of mind” to decide whether to join ROTC, ninety-plus years have shown us that young people often know more than we do about what’s good for them.
Carl J. Schneider ’39
Dorothy Schneider ’39
Kennett Square, Pa.
I am an ROTC graduate of the program begun at Oberlin in 1952. At that time, I made a mistake. The best mistake I ever made in my life. That mistake rewarded me with a life-defining period of my life. A most rewarding experience of terms of enjoyment, patriotism, financially rewarding, travel and being with professionals for many years.
The mistake was being in the wrong line registering for courses, in the era way before computerized on-line registration. I looked up and saw "ROTC" and asked what it was. Ultimately, I said, "What the heck," and registered. I was a sophomore and ROTC was a four-year course, but I completed it in three. On June 13, 1955, I was one of seven who walked across the stage to have two-time presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson pin on my gold second lieutenant bars.
After completing several flight schools and winter survival school walking across the Sierra Nevada in January, I was assigned to a Strategic Air Command base, which had B-47 bombers. Those days were very stressful as we were prepared each day to launch a mission to deliver a nuclear weapon on the USSR, but only if they attacked us first. Knowing what our response would be, they never did.
In retrospect, ROTC did more to prepare me for a long, satisfying career than did my undergraduate work at Oberlin. I served with pride, with great stress during those cold war days that featured bomb shelters, selecting radiation resistant foods, and radiation free safe locations, now long forgotten. I was part of a deterrent force that kept the USSR at bay during the cold war. Remember Nikita Kruschev at the U.N. Security Council; "We will bury you." They didn’t, due to our efforts. After active duty I served 20 more years flying transport planes to Asia, Europe and countless islands enjoying meeting local citizens and eating local food. In effect, I had two careers simultaneouly; my civilian job and my military career. And in the end, I had a lucrative retirement pay and benefits and a sense of pride in what I had accomplished.
Louis J. Malucci ’55
Lt. Col., USAF, Ret
While I don’t have strong feelings about ROTC on campus, Gina Perez’s “No” arguments strike me as misguided and misleading.
Re: letting young people “commit themselves to lengthy military service before they have had the opportunity to . . . develop their own opinions, values, and beliefs”: The Army ROTC commitment is four years of fulltime military service after graduation. How many students pay off their student loans in just four years? Perhaps it’s immoral to let students commit themselves to burdensome debt before they’re matured enough to make a decision that will affect them for decades—or at any rate not to offer the option of an alternative, shorter-term way to cover their costs.
Re: “military values such as obedience to an authoritarian chain of command”: Military training includes the distinction between lawful and unlawful orders; one must not obey an order to commit a crime. Making informed judgments about when to obey—a professor, an employer, or a police officer, for example—is part of life. The stricter military setting is not for everyone, but few of us enjoy total freedom from a chain of command.
If these are the main arguments against ROTC at Oberlin, I’d have to be in favor. For students of limited means, it is a way to make college affordable. For students not in ROTC, its presence on campus may help them to develop informed opinions, values, and beliefs instead of relying on stereotypes of something they’ve never encountered.
Sarah Gibbard Cook ’66
I read with amazement the announcement of the Oberlin Project’s grandiose goal of eliminating “carbon emissions” in the fall 2011 issue. I initially forebore from writing, falsely assuming that some knowledgeable alumni with scientific expertise would respond to debunk this latest display of appalling ignorance.
Sadly, none did. Surely this signifies the end of any illusion that Oberlin College represents intellectual accomplishment.
Some basic facts:
Douglas Freeman ’71
The photograph of the bed made of halved eggshells created by artist Alison Karasyk '12 on the back cover of last issue recalled for Trisha Harvey Stevenson '85 a poem she wrote that addressed the unintentional sacrifice made for her comfort. Stevenson, a writer in Virginia, has Multiple Sclerosis, which, among other things, affects her ability to sleep.
I am floating on the feathers of a thousand baby geese.
Tiny geese, who spent four weeks
on the dark side of the moon's curve,
then cracked through pale green shells
to be boiled, skinned, and plucked
and then die, naked, for my comfort.
Where are their beaks?
Pecking in my flesh.
Where are their claws?
Crawling on my skin.
Where are their eyes?
Staring from the corners,
a thousand black holes.
I am adrift on a sea of down
drifting to fractured rest on the fractured comfort
of those who will never wake again.
Little babies, I think, little babies, I thank you,
as I sink into the soft, soft layers of
Trisha Harvey Stevenson '85
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