Starheim: Shedding Light on the Dark

by Rianna P. Starheim | 11/12/14 8:10pm

In its most recent issue, the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine published a letter in which John Barchilon ’60 wrote: “The College accepts too many politically combustible women and minorities who fail to grasp that they were admitted to an elite traditional institution older than the United States. Instead of saying, ‘Thank you,’ they try to change the majority of Dartmouth students and traditions in ways that attract an endless stream of politically incorrect wisecracks.”

In a reactionary petition, Kaili Lambe ’09 and more than 400 signatories condemn the magazine for publishing this letter. While I am sympathetic to Lambe’s revulsion, I take issue with her petition and the support it has received. The letter was not printed as an endorsement of Barchilon’s views, but rather because it incites dialogue. Lambe’s petition argues that DAM is “turning back the clock by publishing a racist and sexist admonishment.” She calls for an apology from the magazine, saying editors “should have better judgment than to publish racist and sexist letters that are intended to offend.”

I have interned at DAM for several years, and have been impressed by the magazine’s integrity. Good journalism is about raising eyebrows and shedding light on cobwebbed corners, about asking the tough questions and printing the answers — even when they’re sexist, racist, homophobic or otherwise embarrassing and unpretty.

DAM has a history of sparking debate. The most recent example that comes to mind is a letter by Richard Owen ’93, who in the Nov/Dec 2013 issue berated the magazine for its “promotion of homosexual lifestyle and choice” in articles featuring gay alumni. “I am fully aware that a portion of the United States has accepted nontraditional lifestyles and values,” Owen wrote. “However, as a Christian with a traditional family, I feel it is neither appropriate nor in the interest of our alma mater for the alumni magazine to get involved in this controversial debate.”

Letters to the editor such as these fairly raise the question: is publishing these opinions the ethical thing to do?

Ascertaining the answer requires diving further back than 2013. DAM’s editorial freedom was first brought into question in 1982, when then-College President David McLaughlin dismissed the magazine’s editor, Dennis Dinan ’61, as “part of an effort to project more good news in articles written about Dartmouth College,” according to the New York Times. Dinan’s dismissal brought up the question: was this magazine an open forum, or a propaganda vehicle of the administration?

The magazine’s charter, signed by the trustees in 1983, codified the answer by setting out the purpose of the magazine: to “provide editorial content that relates to the shared and diverse experiences of Dartmouth alumni.” DAM is one of the few alumni publications in the country editorially independent of its college. If DAM censored divisive content, it would forsake its integrity and do the alumni body a disservice. The magazine should make its readership uncomfortable sometimes. This is something we should take immense pride in, not attack.

My favorite place to study is in front of the panel of Orozco’s mural that depicts a skeleton birthing a fetus, symbolizing stillborn knowledge. The world beyond the ivory tower burns red, but scholars stand oblivious, captivated by these stillborn ideas. This panel thrills me. It makes me proud to be part of Dartmouth to have this harrowing condemnation of academia within the heart of our library.

I see DAM as a similar venue of healthy criticism. Letters like Barchilon’s don’t make me proud, but DAM’s decision to print them does. What Lambe and her signatories may fail to understand when they call for the magazine to “move the conversation forward, not backward” is that the magazine is moving the conversation forward in bringing Dartmouth’s darker sides to light. The letter’s reprehensible content is the problem, not the magazine’s decision to run it. Lambe misguides her petition — in demonizing the magazine and its decision to share alumni opinion, her petition perpetuates the close-mindedness she seeks to attack.

But this is just the take of one politically combustible Dartmouth woman.

Rianna P. Starheim '14is a guest columnist.

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