Tuesday, August 23, 2005

A rabbi, an Indian, and a scientist walk into a blog

It’s common form in the letters-to-the-editor section to include only the name of the letter writer and the city or township from which the missive originated. Occasionally, today for example, additional information will appear under the name. I’m sure there are some standards at work as to why some are allowed to expatiate atop their professional title or associations, while others are only allowed to speak out as ordinary citizens. What's not certain is if qualifying people in this manner always has the desired effect.

The practice can be useful to the reader. Today, Barry Marks responded to a political cartoon that had suggested that the removal of Jews from Gaza was simply a matter of returning to the Palestinians what was stolen from them decades before. The message of the cartoon was rather misleading and not fair in its reading of history. Perhaps its creator was more interested in letting go with a politically-targeted zinger than attempting to convey the complexities of Israel-Palestinian relations, which would take at least a three panel dissertation.

Whatever the case, Marks was able to offer a rebuttal and his words were given weight by his identification as a rabbi. You would expect that a rabbi would have a thorough knowledge of Israel’s history, although you can’t assume that an editorial cartoonist can’t be equally studied in this area. Still, the letter does seem to carry with it some authority, some of which would be absent if the reader didn’t know the writer’s vocation.

On the other hand, there may be those who read the letter with some interest only to dismiss it as Zionist propaganda when they saw that it was written by a holy man.

Another letter today addressed the mascot kerfuffle still brewing over in Champaign, this one taking an anti-chief stance. Although it seemed a bit much to me to suggest that the NCAA’s decision to ban Indian mascots from tournament play is Nobel Peace Prize-worthy and symbolic in ending a 500-year-old war with Native Americans, Mr. Steven J. Kaufman is certainly entitled to his opinion.

But there at the end of the letter, pompously propping up his name, was listed his position as professor in the Department of Cell and Structural Biology at the university. The letter was no longer one man’s opinion, but rather a lecture from an intellectual superior. Or at least that was my impression.

I’ll grant that the opinions of employees, alums, and students of the U of I are more consequential than that of the average guy hoisting a beer at Sammy’s during March Madness, but beyond their association with the school, what difference does it make where on the institutional totem pole (hostile metaphor) they sit.

If Kaufman were writing about stem cells, his position in the biology department would be meaningful, similar to an oncologist or president of the Lung Association writing in about the dangers of smoking. But the Chief Illiniwek issue is a social and cultural concern, biology doesn’t come into play here. My impression upon reading his letter was that it was being suggested that the opinions of a man of science trump those of mere mortals. Who does this Kaufman think he his?

Actually, not who I assumed.

A little research on him reveals that he has been involved in the chuck-the-chief movement for some time. His interest in the matter arose from experiences with Native American students and his knowledge of issues surrounding the case are the result of his active involvement. It isn’t his ability to master the intricacies of cellular biology that inform his opinion, but his dedicated work towards righting a perceived wrong.

In this case, including his title with his letter was a distraction. Simply identifying him as a professor would have been fine, but throw in all of that stuff about science and guys like me start getting defensive.

I still think that Kaufman’s letter was hyperbolic, although his basic position is certainly defensible. I also hold to my prediction that Illiniwek will soon be gone, although the Illini will remain. My chief concern now is finding a suitable title for myself so that visitors here can be hoodwinked into thinking that I know about what I blog.


Kira Zalan said...

from Kira Zalan

If Abbas is planning a swift round up of all known terrorists, he is likely to lose all credibility with the Palestinians. This is because Abbas has been visibly aligning himself with the popular martyr theory. Last week, banners waved across Gaza proclaiming that “The blood of martyrs has led to liberation.” Then, Abbas attended Friday prayers at Caliph Mosque, where the imam announced, “Allah knows that when we offer up our children, it is much better than choosing the road of humiliation and negotiation.” Additionally, the PA’s official radio station - Ramallah Voice of Palestine - continues to broadcast messages that Israelis “want neither a solution nor peace.” These statements are synonymous with those of Hamas, and the Palestinians are listening.

Jim said...

Dan, since your focus is blogging on the media, might I suggest:

Doctor of Mediocrity?

Feel free to consider yourself the recipient of an honorary Ph.D. from AbeLog University.