Letters for the week of May 26-June 1, 2004

Falun Gong is peaceful and its practitioners would not kill. Partisans from every side of the birth-order debate weight in.

“Falun on its Face,” Theater, 4/28

Thanks for Being Open-Minded
Your article left me with a bittersweet feeling. I am a Falun Gong practitioner (a Westerner) and I have a Ph.D in theater. Since I live in Chicago, I have not seen and will not see the play, and was hopeful when I first heard about it. Then I felt dismayed to learn that the play gives a negative (unintentionally, I believe) impression of Falun Gong.

Your article made clear just how negative that impression was/is. But I am grateful to you for giving your readers the clear understanding that this play may not depict Falun Gong accurately.

Initially, I had had a positive impression of the play from what I read. I had thought it might have been written by a Falun Gong practitioner or a sympathizer whose heart was open to the plight of hundreds of thousands suffering torture in China for upholding goodness. Then I saw a promotional blurb about the show and it indicated that the heroine committed self-immolation at the end.

I was appalled, because NO Falun Gong practitioner would ever kill themselves — killing, including suicide, is not a part of the creed of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance, nor is violence of any kind. Tapes of the self-immolation that occurred in Tiananmen Square have been thoroughly analyzed and I believe some agency in the UN has concluded that that terrible act was contrived by the Chinese authorities.

The depiction of a practitioner making this choice gives a very wrong impression of Falun Gong and broadcasts it to the world. Such a scene plays right into the hands of those who wish to discredit Falun Gong. Part of the case against Falun Gong in China is that we are overzealous kooks. And such a rash act, taken for no clear reason, substantiates that idea. Nor are we glassy-eyed meditators who go into some esoteric state when we meditate. We always strive to know exactly what we are doing because we hold ourselves responsible for all that we do (or at least we try to).

Giving the wrong impression to people is usually not very important in this world, but in this case, when innocent lives are at stake, I’m afraid that it is. There has just been so much misinformation about Falun Gong that I hate to see it further maligned by the art which I hold in such high esteem.

So I am grateful that your article suggests there may be a discrepancy between the playwright’s views of Falun Gong and in reality. Thank you for your discernment.
Sharon Kilarski, Ph.D, Chicago

“Frank’s War,” Feature, 4/28

Why Sulloway had every right to be perturbed
Regarding your article “Frank’s War,” which described an exchange between Frederic Townsend and Frank Sulloway regarding the latter’s birth order research: I was a colleague of Sulloway through much of this exchange. Frank Sulloway is not an angry man, as the article suggests. Perturbed? Yes. But angry is a mischaracterization.

To understand Sulloway’s frame of mind, I invite readers to conduct a thought experiment: Suppose Sulloway had taken a semester of freshman accounting in college and became interested in trading commodities. Suppose further that he became imperfectly acquainted with Mr. Townsend’s transactions as a commodities trader, and decided that these transactions were unethical and perhaps even illegal. Suppose then that, drawing on what he learned in freshmen accounting, Mr. Sulloway devoted untold hours to accusing Mr. Townsend of unethical trading activities in forums that Mr. Townsend’s colleagues frequented. Finally, suppose that Mr. Townsend had to devote the better part of a year attempting to prove his innocence, while Mr. Sulloway sought to contact media outlets, including Mr. Townsend’s hometown newspaper, to promote his intemperate and irresponsible accusations.

I wonder how cheery Mr. Townsend would be in such circumstances. Then again, why bother with such a thought experiment? In the above suppositions, switch “Townsend” and “Sulloway,” and change “accounting” to “psychology” and “trading commodities” to “birth order” and, unfortunately, we have what really happened. We might also change “Mr. Townsend’s hometown newspaper” to “the East Bay Express.”
Mike Shanahan, Chapel Hill, NC

Gasping for breath
Susan Goldsmith’s account of scholar Frank Sulloway’s relentless ad hominem assaults on his critics, his argumentation, his withholding of data, his seemingly nonreplicable statistical methods, and his use of legal intimidation leaves me gasping for breath.

I’d normally be tempted to say I smell a rat, but the little legal adviser who lives inside me counsels otherwise!
Randy McCosker, Kensington

A scholarly world devoid of insights
What is most striking in the story of Frank Sulloway’s travails is not the tenacity of Frederic Townsend, but the amount of scholarly energy invested in so trivial an idea in the first place. The notion that birth order might have some significant determinant effect on social revolutions and thus the course of history is one that would be credible only to a scholarly community driven to desperation by its own theoretical impoverishment. While statistical analysis might similarly find some correlation between height, hair color, and so on, and historical events, the question a truly inquiring mind would ask would be, “So what?”

The article gives the impression of a scholarly world devoid of deep ideas and subject to the whims and pressures of fads and egos. Perhaps this is the state of affairs of social theory in the wake of the post-structuralist demolition of what was termed “metanarratives” or “grand theory,” i.e. the attempt to explain human affairs in a comprehensive and deep way. Are these scholars now reduced to wandering about in the rubble, searching for superficial ideas to argue about?

While we may not agree with any of the great social theorists of the last few centuries, we might at least ponder whether the social theorizing sponsored by academia is reaching the required depths and heights necessary to an understanding of human events, past, present, and in a potential future. As we look at the world today in terms of the determinants of social revolution, birth order may be the very last thing we need to think about.
Carl Shames, Kensington

Your packaging was unfair
Though the author is fairly balanced in her reporting, I find the three pullquotes in large bold print sensationalizing, biased, and misleading. This is unfortunate for several reasons.

First, a number of Express readers in a hurry will use those captions for a takeaway message and not read the more nuanced account. Second, quite ironically, Judith Harris’ caption suffers the very same problem that caused this dispute over editorial practice in the first place: being an unsubstantiated, potentially defamatory declaration by a partisan with an axe to grind. Third, Gary Johnson’s quote is misleading to the uninformed reader who might presume an academic journal editor to be “above” the fray. This is particularly regrettable since four other editors, many colleagues, and, more recently, an independent science reporter investigating the entire affair, have all concluded that Johnson’s irregular and questionable editorial practices were the crux of the problem.
Lynn Gale, Ph.D, Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford

First-Born revenge?
If you were a laterborn, repressed by the non-nurturing first-born, you will love Sulloway’s theory. It makes sense to me. I would bet Townsend is a first-born — do you EVER say? I bet he is reacting defensively against this theory as a first-born. First-borns inevitably react thus. The debate is so emotional because it arouses primal feelings. You should have surveyed who was first-born and not among the defenders and the attackers. (Who cares if Sulloway and Townsend are distant cousins?) You lost the main focus, which is the theory that sibling rivalry does have a very profound effect on those who enter the family dynamic later.

Thyme S. Siegel, Santa Rosa

Both Frank Sulloway and Fred Townsend are laterborns. Judith Harris and Gary Johnson are firstborns.

We exercised poor judgment in our item about the “Best Place to Take Visitors” in the May 5 Best of the East Bay issue. While we stand by our endorsement of the breathtaking views found by day at Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery, we should have displayed better sense than to urge readers to break into the facility at night. After-hours visits are a violation of cemetery rules and regulations, as is lying atop the graves of others. We apologize for this lapse in taste.

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