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Cavanagh's 'Puerility' Based on Flawed Logic

Letters to the Editors

By Marc J. Ambinder

To the editors:

As a student, I enjoyed Professor of Psychology Patrick Cavanagh’s clarity, sensibility and evenhandness as my psychology professor. Reading The Crimson last week, I was astonished that his two paragraph letter could contain so many logical guffaws, so much moral obtuseness and a visible and stunning reluctance to engage the debate on terms fitting a respected professor (Letter, “‘Ayatollah’ Summers’ Remarks Show Bigotry,” Nov. 14).

Just to scratch the surface, Cavanagh calls the poet’s cancellation an example of Summers’ bigotry. But Lawrence Buell, the chair of the English Department, says the decision was mostly his own. Is Cavanagh accusing Buell—equally tenured—of somehow being more receptive to whatever evil vapors he believes Summers expels? Is Cavanagh questioning Buell’s judgment? If Summers’ “bigotry is showing” by opposing a poet who appears to sanction homicide, then what does that presume about Cavanagh’s position?

And Cavanagh, who has a knack for describing the mechanics of perception, apparently perceives Summers as barbarous, murderous dictator, an “Ayatollah.” Apparently, there is a clause in Cavanagh’s contract that allows him to resort to easy dehumanization when he can’t or won’t marshal an argument. In my view, Cavanagh’s letter demonstrates that he feels raw from being unfairly labeled an anti-Semite and a moral relativist.

Who wouldn’t? But those emotions force him into accepting every ludicrous proposition propounded by opponents of Summers’ position, and into a crouch, where every action of considered judgment is viewed through the lens of his petulancy.

Consider Cavanagh’s bewildering syllogism: Summers doesn’t like Tom Paulin. Paulin supports Palestinian causes. Therefore, Summers doesn’t like, as a friend put it, “anyone who supports Palestinian causes.” I don’t believe that Cavanagh supports killing Brooklyn Jews, but if we buy his faulty logic, he has to.

Cavanagh does himself, his reputation and his cause a profound disservice when he strings out a letter based on a fetid, flight or fight response. There are plenty of folks who support Palestinian rights and think poet Paulin is a nincompoop.

In the climate of “bigotry” Cavanagh so deplores, the last thing anyone needs is a gust of puerility.

Marc J. Ambinder ’01

Washington, D.C.

Nov. 14, 2002

The writer was associate managing editor of The Crimson in 2000.

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