Letters to the Editor

Our readers respond

Better than Buffett?

I applaud you for providing David Swensen's thoughts("David Swensen's Guide to Sleeping Soundly," March/April), soberly insightful and stunningly clear, as always. But I am dismayed with your cover describing him as "Yale's own Warren Buffett." This was lazy and inaccurate, as well as a thorough cheapening of all that David is. Mr. Buffett has a great multi-decade record but has much to answer for in recent years, not the least of which is the apparent conflict of interest in his 20 percent ownership of the rating-agency Moody's, which in turn provided his Berkshire Hathaway company with AAA ratings (until recently), though the market disagreed.

David, on the other hand, is not only far more of a visionary than Mr. Buffett ever was, but he has employed no part of the questionable tactics of Berkshire Hathaway. And while Mr. Buffett has been laudably low-key with his riches, David has willingly foregone the same in the interests of higher education.

David Swensen is sui generis. The greatest honor you could pay Warren Buffett would be to call him Omaha's David Swen-sen, but it would be inaccurate and far too generous.

Bill Feingold '85
Dobbs Ferry, NY



On writing

Regarding your March/April feature article "First, Use Plain English," I was a terrible writer when I arrived at Yale in 1990. My first Theater Studies 101 paper earned a C-minus (which was generous).

By sophomore year, I had mastered the basics but always felt left behind by my prep-school peers. They said things in class I couldn't follow. Their writing seemed incomprehensible. It turned out that some of it was!

Desperate to do better, I found a copy of William Zinsser's On Writing Well. The point I understood immediately was that "clear writing equaled clear thinking."

In my Constitutional Law class I requested an extension on my final paper. I spent winter break trying to create a paper that was as much like a "Dick and Jane" book as possible, with short clear sentences and A, B, C logic. I wrote with On Writing Wellopen on my desk. I earned my first A-minus in a non-gut class.

What I learned from Zinsser's book has had a profound effect on my life. I did not become an attorney but instead went to work with nonprofit organizations. On Writing Well has influenced every grant request or speech I have written on behalf of many nonprofit organizations over the last 14 years.

I want to thank Zinsser for caring enough to share his passion. I am very grateful.

Sam Ingersoll '94
Media, PA


William Zinsser's article on teaching great and simple writing was terrific. One suggestion. He writes, "I would teach the plain declarative sentence and the active Anglo-Saxon verb. Passive verbs would be discouraged [my italics]." Shouldn't that last be "I would discourage passive verbs"?

Eugene Brice '62PhD
Fort Worth, TX


Mr. Zinsser was pretty good at irony too: "Passive verbs would be discouraged."

Bradfute W. Davenport Jr. '69
Richmond, VA


Apropos William Zinsser's self-praise: the eminent literary theoretician Fredric Jameson once observed that clarity is a device for hurrying readers past their received opinions. Schoolmarmish fulminating against the passive voice and "Latinate nouns" may be suitable to editing a tabloid newspaper with its 3,000-word vocabulary, but not to the formulation of serious thought.

Jeffrey L. Sammons '58, '62PhD
New Haven, CT


The article expresses the wisdom of a consummate writer. A family friend throughout my life and father of my classmate John Zinsser '83, Bill has become a mentor and close personal friend since I started teaching English 26 years ago. He has visited my classes at the Hill School of Middleburg, Virginia, and the University of Virginia, always conveying to students and teachers his passion for honesty, unity, and clarity. On Writing Well, the book based on the class he taught at Yale, has inspired generations of teachers and students with its unpretentious eloquence. He may be known to most through his many books and articles, but in my experience Bill has always been, above all, a magnificent teacher.

Huntington Lyman Jr. '83
Middleburg, VA



The Whiffs 50 years ago

Re: "100 Years—Plus Half An Hour" (Light & Verity, March/April): 50 years ago I and dozens of other law school students stood in the school's courtyard, where we listened to the singing of the Whiffenpoofs and their alumni at the group's 50th anniversary dinner, taking place in the dining room. The magic of their singing indeed cast a spell through the open windows. I seem to remember hearing that Senator Prescott Bush '17 was there and that he may have been one of the original Whiffenpoofs. That concert was less formal than the one on their 100th anniversary but no less enjoyable to their listeners.

Robert S. Price '61LLB
Philadelphia, PA

Prescott Bush '17 was in fact a Whiff, but the group was founded in 1909, several years before he started at Yale.—Eds.



There once was a free lunch

In the March/April You Can Quote Them column on the origin of the phrase "there's no such thing as a free lunch," I was surprised to see that there was no mention of the widespread custom of saloon keepers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to offer a "free lunch" to anyone who purchased a drink. Typically the value of the lunch was in excess of the value of the drink, so the saloon keeper presumably calculated that many of his customers would not stop with one. The "free lunch" was such an important custom (and one railed against by temperance advocates) that today it has its own Wikipedia page.

In Robert Heinlein's science fiction novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, there's an explicit reference to the saloon custom. Heinlein has his character point to a saloon "free lunch" sign and argue that the drinks would cost less if the lunch weren't "free." But Heinlein was wrong about that, as he was about so many other things. A July 11, 1917, New York Times article declared, "Drink Prices Go Up; Abolish Free Lunch . . . President of Retailers Says $25,000 a Day Will Be Saved By Dispensing with Free Food." Still, according to the Wikipedia entry, a Chicago reformer of the 1890s noted that the saloons of that city fed 60,000 people a day, representing a contribution of $18,000 a week in poor relief.

I would guess that Heinlein and those mentioned in the alumni magazine column were quoting a popular expression that predated them all.

Joe Ruby '84JD
Silver Spring, MD

We asked Fred Shapiro to respond. He writes: “Joe Ruby is correct that the expression ‘There’s no such thing as a free lunch’ has its roots in the custom, dating back at least to the mid-1800s, of saloons giving free lunches as an enticement to customers. My focus in the column was on the metaphorical proverb that, in general, ‘you can’t get something for nothing’—there are always hidden costs.”



Racism, and more

Where is Yale psychologist John Dovidio hibernating these days? The very title of your article on Dovidio's work, "Why Racial Prejudice Exists" (Findings, March/April), displays ignorance of the well-documented fact that race is a social construct, a cop-out for simplifying recognition of the abundant varieties of prejudice, ranging from skin color to religion, culture, or whatever gives us satisfaction to look down on others and ignore our subtle acts of discrimination.

Professor Dovidio seems surprised that "while whites and others who are not black believe they're free of prejudice, a substantial portion still harbor unconscious bias." It doesn't take a scientific study to discover that bias infects all of us. The challenge is to recognize this within ourselves and to refuse to participate in the jokes, the conversation, and the rationalizations that spread and support the infection.

Irwin Winsten '45W
Scarsdale, NY



Faith and Tony Blair

So Tony Blair has a goal of injecting religious faith into public policy ("God and Tony Blair," January/February). While I have the greatest respect for the former prime minister, the most disturbing aspect of Mr. Blair's approach is his implied disparagement of the secular conscience. He asks, "What role does faith have in the future? My view is that globalization needs strong values to guide it and make it just."

There has recently been increasing interest in the origin of individual conscience. Columnist David Brooks observed that "people around the world have common moral intuitions." Philosopher Austin Dacey agrees: "All normal people naturally have capacities of reason and empathy. … This is conscience." In observing "the intrinsic moral reasoning capacity our species has always possessed," neurobiologist Michael Gazzaniga found that "there is a brain-based account of moral reasoning." Other neuroscientists are finding similar evidence.

The primarily secular conscience has led to the wide acceptance of such documents as Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution, the Geneva Conventions, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Mr. Blair should acknowledge the primacy of these intrinsic values and encourage their use in leading the full, frequent, and fearless discussions he advocates.

Clement H. Kreider Jr., MD, '53
Wall, NJ


The March/April letter that referred to religion "as a destructive force in history" is as superficial as it is offensive. It certainly wasn't religion that motivated Hitler or Stalin to wreak so much misery and chaos on the world. As for its "silliness," religion has inspired people like Albert Schweitzer, Dag Hammerskjold, and Simone Weil; their lives were based on their faith, which offered not mere personal "uplift" but practical aid and comfort to many. And it was that same faith that inspired composers like Bach and artists like Rouault to produce their creations.

George Bernard Shaw (no friend of religion) once observed that Christianity was a wonderful idea: it would be admirable if people practiced it some day. There are good men and women who choose atheism and evil men and women who spout religion. In short, "blame the singer, not the song." And add a quarter-note of tolerance.

Mildred C. Kuner '47MFA
Ithaca, NY


Your letter writer argued that religion "perpetuate[s] injustice, inequality, and inhumanity." If that were true, then we should have seen an amelioration of these conditions under the atheistic regimes of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. The problem is not religion. It is authoritarianism, which has often found a comfortable home in religious structures, but which would not lack for lodging were religion eradicated from the Earth.

Tim Culvahouse '86MEnvD
Berkeley, CA



Pay cuts, not raises

President Levin (Q&A: Rick Levin, March/April) says salaries for Yale employees will rise only modestly. A 15 percent top-to-bottom cut would be more appropriate. It is time for Yale to look beyond the ivory tower.

With the university's endowment in the dumps, are these raises to be paid by alumni donations? U.S. households lost over $11 trillion last year and more this. Even people like me, who were lucky enough to foresee the real estate collapse and move mostly to cash, are getting but a fraction of the interest on safe cash that was available only a short time ago. Why should it be a priority for us to have Yale's unions boost New Haven's economy?

William E. Krauter '59
Tucson, AZ


Mory's, pro and con

With shock I read of the closing of Mory's (Light & Verity,March/April). This is unthinkable but reality. Hopefully it will reopen better than ever.

My father, Nathaniel Wheeler '14, was one of the people who reopened Mory's in that era. His friend, Ted Blair '24, gave me a membership, along with a $200 credit in 1960, a lot of money in those days. This provided escape from the chipped beef in the dining hall for my roommate and myself.

Come back, Mory's!

Bill (Willie) Wheeler '62
Occidental, CA


It's heartbreaking to read that the closing of Mory's is "leaving the Whiffenpoofs without their standing Monday night gig—and students, faculty, and alumni without a reliable supplier of Old Yale ambience." As a long-time member of Mory's, I certainly regret not being able to drop in for an occasional relaxing lunch with colleagues. But, beyond my inconvenience, I have to wonder about all the loyal employees who lost their jobs.

I'm disappointed, but not surprised, that they receive so little consideration. The implication in your article, and in local newspapers, is that Mory's failed in part because its hard-working employees had the audacity to expect a living wage like the rest of us.

Duane E. Mellor '75MPhil
Madison, CT


For a long time, Mory's has been nothing more than a fetish conjured up for the socially ambitious. Very few things in life are meant to last forever. "Old Yale" died a long time ago. It is time to let poor Mory's rest in peace.

Robert Hinton '93PhD
New York University
New York, NY



A view from Peru

I was reading about Hiram Bingham, Machu Picchu, and the [artifacts] that your university has from my country ("Peru v. Yale, " Light & Verity, January/February). Machu Picchu was rediscovered in 1911. At that time the Peruvian government gave you the things, but it wasn't a gift. I really don't know why an important university wants to steal the patrimony of another country.

If some Peruvian archaeologist discovered the most important place of your Indians, would they take the pieces to Peru "to study it"?

Francisco Sotomayor
Lima, Peru



Economic Rx

I found all five of the essays concerning the economy("What Now?" January/February) interesting and provocative, but only one—"Don't Punish Wall Street," by finance professor William N. Goetzmann '78, '86MPPM, '90PhD—was good for a laugh.

If "Wall Street" is the shorthand term we use for the concatenation of broker-dealers, investment bankers, and others who invented, marketed, and earned commissions from the sale of the time bombs known as securitized mortgages, then why wouldn't Wall Street receive its share of the "punishment" proposed by another of your commentators, William Donaldson '53, for the homeowners and original lenders?

The fact that there were subprime borrowers—Mr. Goetzmann's assigned culprit—did not force the financial industry to embark on a risky course during an era of lax regulation; that was their idea. Right now we are inflicting the cost of fixing this disaster largely on people who had nothing to do with it. That is not right and will only lead to more "risk management failures" in the future.

Richard Hall '71MDiv
Red Bank, NJ



Where are W's fans?

I've read with interest your online compendium of alumni letters about our former president George W. Bush '68. While I'm not surprised by the great majority being negative and mostly destructive, I wonder if the magazine fairly represented the minority view in number and tone.

I'd simply like to go on record in support of GWB and remind your readers and my fellow alumni that, on the two occasions he competed for the highest office in the land, Bush won and has since retired undefeated. Somebody besides me must have liked, supported, and appreciated him and his performance.

A. C. (Tom) Shoop '57
Cincinnati, OH

We have published online almost every letter and comment we've received about President Bush. The only ones we left out did not meet even a minimal standard for public discourse; they were most assuredly not supportive of President Bush.—Eds.



Prop 8: who's being hunted?

The March/April letter in which it is alleged that "witchhunts" are being conducted against Christians and Mormons for supporting Proposition 8 in California merits a response. When religious groups champion constitutional amendments that strip citizens of their legal rights, they should certainly expect some scrutiny and criticism. This hardly qualifies as a witchhunt.

More importantly, the writer's annoyance at this criticism is downright insulting to gay and lesbian citizens. The negative commentary made about conservative Christians and Mormons in the wake of Proposition 8 pales in comparison with the genuine animus that right-wing religious groups have directed toward gay citizens for decades. This animosity has resulted in thousands of gay Americans suffering from workplace discrimination, being ostracized by their families, and even becoming the victims of physical violence—things that I doubt many Christians or Mormons experience because of their religious beliefs.

Michael Ziffra '98
Chicago, IL



Time to change?

Have you ever considered changing the heading of the column "Necrology" in the back of the magazine? It's such a chillingly scientific title for a list of people who meant so much to their families, friends, and classmates. The column's name may be a Yale tradition, but it always gives me a start when I'm reading the Alumni Notes. Seeing all the cheerful mentions of births, job changes, and travel, it's like coming across the heading "Dead." I always cringe when I think of what it must feel like to the people who have suffered these terrible losses to see their beloved mentioned that way.

Elise Broach '85
Easton, CT

The list of alumni deaths appears in copies of the magazine sent to alumni who subscribe (either individually or via class dues) and is also published online. It has been called "Necrology" since 1938, and yes, we periodically debate changing it. So far, tradition has prevailed.—Eds.



Grill the ambassador

With no disrespect to Ambassador Negroponte's distinguished career intended, I note with irony his appointment to Yale ("A Diplomat Turns to Teaching,"Milestones, March/April) for the purpose of "mercilessly grilling" students making presentations in Paul Kennedy's Grand Strategy program. Had such grillings been more common for his colleagues in the Bush administration—Yale alumni included—the need for Professor Kennedy's visionary program would be far less pressing today!

Timothy R. W. Kubik '88
Berthoud, CO


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