Doonesbury in the Desert: The Censored Strips/Shoot-out on the Phi-Math Frontier/Last, Best Hope | Media | Chicago Reader

Doonesbury in the Desert: The Censored Strips/Shoot-out on the Phi-Math Frontier/Last, Best Hope 

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Doonesbury in the Desert: The Censored Strips

The Tribune substituted old Doonesbury strips for the ones Garry Trudeau had written for this past Tuesday and Wednesday. Here are the ones the paper killed. Trudeau's mistake, in editor Jack Fuller's eyes, was to presume that January 15 and 16 would pass without war in the Persian Gulf. "An opinion columnist, say, you wouldn't allow him to write a week in advance that XYZ will happen today," comics editor John Lux explained to us. "So I think you have to have the same journalistic standards on a comic strip like Doonesbury. Dagwood you'd never have this problem."

Lux said the Tribune would resume printing new Doonesburys on Thursday, even though Trudeau's next strips showed B.D. and Ray still jawing peaceably in the same foxhole. But Lux said these strips aren't explicit about whether or not war's broken out. In the first two--"it's really obvious."

Once Fuller had ruled, Lux called Universal Press Syndicate. He asked Trudeau's editor, Lee Salem, if Trudeau had drawn any alternative strips. He hadn't. Said Lux, "Salem said Trudeau had used the best sources in the Pentagon, and there'd be no backups."

Salem (like Fuller) was out of town when we made our calls. But Salem's secretary said Tuesday that as far as she knew, the Tribune was the only paper in the country to yank these Doonesburys. Trudeau works about two weeks in advance. "Last year," said Lux, "he almost really got in trouble when he was taking the Chinese student revolution extremely lightly. He realized almost too late he shouldn't have been making fun of them, and he pulled a week's worth of strips and substituted more serious ones.

"So he's not always right."

Shoot-out on the Phi-Math Frontier

The frontier where philosophy meets mathematics was homesteaded by G. Frege, Bertrand Russell, and Alfred North Whitehead. As Russell put it in 1901, "Thus mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true." We choose to read this as Russell's attempt to domesticate mathematics, by presenting it as no different from philosophy and similar to such familiar pastimes as predicting the future and planning for war.

As with any border area, the phi-math frontier is visited by occasional bursts of gunfire. The most recent volley resounded just days ago in the corridors of the School of the Art Institute. High drama frequently plays itself out in these quarters, sending trustees ducking for cover as paladins from City Hall gallop in to restore dignity and order.

The latest brawl is a dispute over the nature of pure reason (which may shed light on why this time the City Council has kept its distance). We hold in our hands an open letter dated last December 15 from instructor Dennis Couzin to the faculty of the liberal arts department.

At issue is LIB 310, "Introduction to Symbolic Logic," about which Couzin's letter said: "The department goes beyond mindlessness to tail-thumping idiocy when it can't see what's a science and what isn't and consistently misclassifies a certain philosophy course as a science/math course."

Couzin's edifying letter went on, "There's a legendary fuzzy boundary, including parts of logic, between philosophy and mathematics. Having worked in both fields I assured the department that our logic course lies nowhere near that boundary; it's philosophy . . .

"The Liberal Arts Department cheats the students and the accreditors with their perverse misclassification. It also makes the science teacher striving for high standards here look ridiculous."

Couzin had in mind a science teacher such as himself. In his ten years at the SAIC, he's taught Projective Geometry, Set Theory, Topology, Optics, and Color Science. "About this last course," he wrote, "I was especially careful to make it a science course, since the subject branches into psychology and philosophy and art theory as well. . . . Students bring a rule and calculator to the final exam."

Couzin's striving for high standards has not gone unnoticed. Just last April, the Science Faculty Review Committee reported itself "impressed with the thought which clearly goes into Dennis' course development." The report went on: "[However] the Committee . . . is concerned that Dennis may present an appearance of certainty, perhaps dogmatism, which renders him relatively unapproachable from the point of view of students already anxious about science and math. In [our] interview, Dennis presented his opinions in exactly the same tone he used to present the science upon which his courses are based."

The committee recommended finding someone new to teach Couzin's courses. If Couzin wished, he could be among those interviewed. The report was sent to Couzin, and he drew the obvious conclusion. "I think that letter was a de facto 'you're fired' letter," he says. "You should read my letter as an eight-months-later answer."

Couzin signed off in high style. "While science completes its most glorious century," his letter to the faculty concluded, "this paltry liberal arts department assures that here in the Champlain Building on Wabash Avenue in Chicago, science will be weak and nameless and a butt. I am ashamed of my membership in this department, and hereby resign from it."

He continues to teach a course in the filmmaking department, which his wife chairs.

When Couzin's letter came our way, we thought we had tumbled onto a major academic debate. Not so, for it has not been joined. No matter how raucously he empties his six-shooter inside the saloon, it seems the boys in the back room refuse to look up.

For example, we spoke with faculty member John Stopford, who has taught philosophy at Harvard and in Hamburg, Germany, and recently presided over Introduction to Symbolic Logic.

We put it to him. Philosophy or mathematics?

"It's difficult to say that there's a categorically right answer to the question you're posing. There really is absolutely no dogmatic feeling about this issue among anybody I've discussed it with."

Except Dennis Couzin, we inserted.

"Anybody I know in philosophy, at any rate, would not take an open-and-shut view. One can raise the question whether this kind of either/or dichotomization is really necessary."

Stopford had no interest in discussing Couzin, even though he'd been on the review committee. Neither of the two most recent chairmen of the liberal arts department would comment. Couzin wasn't surprised to hear this.

"They didn't even answer me," said Couzin about his letter. "They never do. I haven't heard a peep from them in nine years.

"I really resigned because they don't know how to quibble."

Last, Best Hope

McDougall called. He'd listened to the debate for two days and a night and decided there might be a few congressmen after all who were more than pure and simple gasbags. But it was watching TV Saturday night, after the vote, when he really felt the Persian Gulf in the pit of his stomach.

"They looked so young!" he said. "I mean really young. Compliant. A sea of innocence. And did you see how they laughed!"

We had. Bob Hope told a joke about Jerry Ford and the GIs laughed. And he told a joke about Phyllis Diller, and the guffawing rolled across the sands.

"I bet half of them never even heard of Phyllis Diller!" McDougall exclaimed.

It was an easy audience, we agreed.

"Half of them probably didn't know who Bob Hope was, either," McDougall went on. "But a general got up and explained that Bob Hope was a great man who'd come to tell them jokes at Christmas. So of course they trusted him. If Bob Hope believed a Phyllis Diller joke was funny, that was good enough for the troops."

Even if it was really a terrible joke, we said.

"They're running on faith," said McDougall. "I haven't laughed at Bob Hope since 1963 and I didn't laugh this time either, but I couldn't tear my eyes off the screen. There's something I want to know. If America's really behind its boys 100 percent, couldn't he have come up with someone a little more current than Marie Osmond and the Pointer Sisters?"

The troops loved them, we said.

"The troops love whatever they get," said McDougall. "What do they know? Congress tells the president to send the troops to war and the troops think that's the country showing support. The troops want to think America's right behind them--just over the last dune, so to speak. When the shooting starts, that's when they find out the rest of us are 6,000 miles away."

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