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If we must deal with authoritarian regimes, let’s characterize them correctly
Here’s what readers are saying in Saturday’s letters to the editor
A Russian Communist party supporter carries a portrait of former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin ahead of other demonstrators during a rally marking the Defenders of the Fatherland Day in Moscow.
A Russian Communist party supporter carries a portrait of former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin ahead of other demonstrators during a rally marking the Defenders of the Fatherland Day in Moscow. [ ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO | AP ]
Published Feb. 28, 2020
Updated Feb. 28, 2020

Call authoritarians what they are

The 2020 campaign

Michael Bloomberg said that Chinese leader Xi Jinping is “not a dictator” in part because he serves “at the behest of the Politburo” and was responsive to his constituency. Bernie Sanders lauded Cuba’s mass literacy campaign and said that we must recognize when authoritarian regimes “do something good.” As a historian of the Stalin era, I found these statements deeply troubling and misinformed.

There were men in Joseph Stalin’s Politburo who shared the Soviet leader’s view that internal enemies would function as a fifth column in the event of war with Nazi Germany so they had to be “liquidated.” Although more than 780,000 people were executed during the Great Purges in 1936-1938, Stalin cared about public opinion. His secret police routinely produced reports on “the mood of the people” and he at times responded to them. A leader does not have to demonstrate responsiveness in order to avoid being a dictator. After all, some democratic leaders are at times unresponsive to their people, too.

The history of the 20th century reveals that dictators cannot simply rely on force and coercion to maintain their power. They must generate some degree of social support, whether people are co-opted, bought, or genuinely persuaded to follow them. Like Cuba, the Soviet Union was successful in spreading mass literacy. But it also controlled what its citizens could read and write, and arrested artists, intellectuals and ordinary people for expression deemed “anti-Soviet.” What matters is not doing “some good things” or being “responsive.” What matters is the system that leaders preside over. If there is a police state, there is dictatorship. The social outcomes a dictatorship produces, whether mass literacy or universal health care, cannot be called good if they are accompanied by political repression.

While it’s true that the United States must deal with authoritarian regimes, but we must first understand them and characterize them appropriately.

Golfo Alexopoulos, St. Petersburg

The writer is director of the University of South Florida’s Institute on Russia and the author of “Illness and Inhumanity in Stalin’s Gulag.”

Give thanks to teachers

Public education

David Martinez-Cooley is welcomed on Jan. 30, 2020, by students and colleagues at Leila Davis Elementary in Clearwater after being named Pinellas County's Teacher of the Year in a ceremony at Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg.
David Martinez-Cooley is welcomed on Jan. 30, 2020, by students and colleagues at Leila Davis Elementary in Clearwater after being named Pinellas County's Teacher of the Year in a ceremony at Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg. [ Pinellas Education Foundation ]

This is Public Schools Week, a time to reflect upon the wonderful educators who work in our Florida public schools. When I look back, I especially remember my second-grade teacher who instilled the love of learning in me. Because of her, I became a lifelong reader and have always enjoyed history. Because of her, I decided to become an educator and enjoyed many years in the classroom. I hope I was able to create the same enthusiasm in my students as my teacher did in me. During Public Schools Week, we need to honor those educators who work so hard for our children. We need to show them our support and we need to encourage our legislators to make sure that the state budget fully funds our schools. Contact your legislator now and remind them that we are funding the future when we fund our public schools. And remember to thank teachers not only during this week, but also throughout the year.

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Marilyn Warner, Clearwater

Private searches are best

College searches need sunshine | Editorial, Feb. 27

New Eckerd College President Dr. Damian J. Fernandez gets a hug from Suzan Harrison, Vice President Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty after Fernandez was introduced to the faculty and staff at the school.
New Eckerd College President Dr. Damian J. Fernandez gets a hug from Suzan Harrison, Vice President Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty after Fernandez was introduced to the faculty and staff at the school. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]

As someone who has served in multiple presidential searches for both public and private institutions, including two college president searches, I cannot agree with this editorial’s opening statement: “There still is absolutely no justification for sending a search process that needs more openness even further underground.” I understand your well-intentioned position. However, there is at least one important reason why in the beginning the search needs to be confidential.

Candidates interested in a new position, but currently are employed, don’t want the whole world to know they are considering leaving their present position. In that moment, you risk having lost some of the most worthy prospects for your search. Additionally, any good search firm is expected to identify and reach out to candidates who are a good fit, but are not actually even considering a new job at the time. In both cases, these are often the best candidates to match the institution’s search profile.

The editorial takes issue with Sen. Manny Diaz’s valid expression of this point, pejoratively calling it “old argument.” It is “old,” and for good reason. The editorial says there is no evidence to support that claim. Among professional search people, there is universal agreement that a lack of confidentiality will harm the success of any search. In Eckerd College’s recent presidential search, there were 41 sitting presidents and nearly as many provosts and chancellors who submitted applications in that confidential search. That unprecedented list of applicants is the concrete evidence you seek.

There are proven ways to provide protection and still have the things mentioned in the editorial. One common example: Provide details about diversity in the pool, but preserve confidentiality until the final short list. The ultimate goal should be the knowledge the right person has been selected.

Bud Risser, St. Petersburg

Wash your hands properly

U.S. ‘ready’ for virus | Feb. 27

Now that most of us recognize that the coronavirus could become a threat in the United States, wouldn’t more information on prevention be a good idea? How about the details of how to wash our hands or to use hand sanitizer correctly? Let’s also remind people not to touch their faces after they’ve touched anything outside their homes. And for us social huggers and kissers? Maybe we could be a little less friendly for a while.

Donna Woolums, St. Petersburg

Cough into your elbow

I’m not a health care worker. But I see people coughing into their hands and then extending their hands for a handshake, who is going to decline shaking hands with them? Not only that, but they touch hand rails on stairways, door knobs, market baskets and countless other items that we all touch. The solution is to cough into your elbow. They teach children in school to cough into their elbows, and it becomes second nature for them. It’s not that hard. It is the polite thing to do.

Jan Davisson, St. Petersburg