ELECTIONS? HOW QUAINT

It’s an unhappy commentary on our times that we got a flurry of mail from agitated readers who took Stephen Gillers’s satiric “Bush Postpones 2008 Election” [Aug. 14/21] as gospel. Despite a “2008” dateline and other cues, permanent GOP government didn’t seem all that farfetched to many. –The Editors


Front Royal, Va.

Dear Lord, if you are there, please don’t let Stephen Gillers’s article be real. Please let it be facetious. Don’t let the 2008 dateline be a misprint. This story is so believable, including the reactions of Lieberman and Clinton, it could be so. Let it not be! Amen!

GAIL CRIGER


West Carrollton, Ohio

You may want to save Stephen Gillers’s article for reprint. Given the current Administration, you may only have to change a few quotes when the story becomes reality in the next couple of years.

CURT WOODIE


Scottsdale, Ariz.

Let me offer an alternate nightmare scenario: A die-hard group of Bush neocons contend that since W’s first term was determined by Supreme Court appointment and not election results, he has served only one elected term. Ergo, he is technically eligible to seek re-election for a second term. Naturally the Supreme Court will uphold this contention 5 to 4.

BOB AMENTO


Vicksburg, Mich.

I will regret having to chide Stephen Gillers, but a 2008 search of Lexis-Nexis will find a more complete Bush quote on the flexibility of the Constitution: Adopting the cloak of the civil right’s movement, the President further commented that “it’s a fundamental American right to reinvent the Constitution–like that black preacher guy in the ’60’s on votin'; a thing that Jimbo [Baker] and me unreinvented [sic] in Florida in 2000. Why, I wasn’t even President at the time. Just a governor like Jeb. And remember how me and my good Texas friend Dick Cheney fixed it to call him a Wyomingite–a little reterpretation [sic] of a constitutional requirement for the Prez and Vice Prez to be different states. Everyone does it. ”

MARC ELLIOTT


CRACKPOT REALISM INDEED

New York City

Bravo to Alexander Cockburn for his August 14/21 “Beat the Devil” column! The first three paragraphs alone are worth the price of my subscription (“conditions in the outside world bounce off the impenetrable dome of imbecility sheltering America’s political leadership”). It was so hysterically funny, I laughed so hard, until I woke up and realized oh shit, it’s not a satire, it’s not a dream and it’s not a comedy. It’s reality. Then I got so depressed I needed to get therapy. Thanks a lot, Mr. Cockburn. I’ll be sending you a bill.

TSUH YANG CHEN


ALL OUR BEAUTIFUL CHILDREN

Columbia, Md.

Kim Hillstrom’s response to the “War Is Personal–III” photo essay truly pained my heart [“Letters,” July 31/Aug. 7]. Do these people (Bush, Cheney & Co.) understand what they have done and what we and the world will be living with for decades to come? I pray for this woman’s beautiful child and, for that matter, all the beautiful children caught up on both sides of this madness.

BASIL O. GORDON


HARLEM RENAISSANCE MYSTERY GAL

New York City

Sad to say, it has taken sixty years of life and the failure of my own literary ambitions to read of the life of Nella Larsen and see through the words into the pain, dignity, tenacity and courage of such a person [Darryl Pinckney, “Shadows,” July 17/24]. I hope someone finds her building on the Lower East Side and erects a plaque, if only for the one child who may see it, learn about Larsen and change the world.

DANIEL FOLEY


MUSLIM WOMEN ON ISLAM REFORM

Bloomington, Ind.

As a Muslim woman living and writing in the West, I was quite frustrated at the arguments presented by Laila Lalami in “The Missionary Position” [June 19]. Admittedly, the works of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji, with their caustic rhetoric and brash denigration of Muslims, are of questionable value if their purpose is to encourage reform within the Islamic world. And Lalami is right to point out that Muslim women have become a cause célèbre for powerful interests that seek to exploit their plight in order to justify wars as “humanitarian” interventions.

However, Lalami never acknowledges the fundamental difference between her understanding of the relationship between doctrine and practice and that of the authors. Both Hirsi Ali and Manji believe that Islam and the actions of Muslims are inextricably intertwined, and that the power of Islam as a religious doctrine must be held partly accountable for the ills faced by women in Muslim society. In contrast, Lalami wants to draw a line in the sand between Islam and the acts of Muslims who, she suggests, have adopted a narrow or fundamentalist reading of the Koran.

True enough, there is a distinction between doctrine and practice in any religion. But this distinction does not absolve Muslims from taking responsibility for the impact that gender oppression, indiscriminate violence against civilians and other actions carried out in the name of Islam have had on the religion’s identity. In dismissing Hirsi Ali’s and Manji’s critiques because they refuse to endorse this distinction, Lalami unwittingly plays into the hands of the very fundamentalists she claims to abhor. Her insistence on holding the West accountable, while legitimate, comes dangerously close to the kind of Islamist rhetoric that finds it easy to blame the West while at the same time denying the need for any reform within Islam.

While I agree with Lalami that Hirsi Ali and Manji fail to recognize the distinction between Islamic doctrine and practice (and reveal an inadequate understanding of the doctrine, to boot), I wonder whether she recognizes the consequences of her argument. If Western critiques of Islam are inescapably tainted by imperialism and orientalism (is this true of Western feminists who oppose American intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan?), and the critique of Muslim women such as Hirsi Ali and Manji is deemed worthless for its conflation of Islam and Muslims, who has the right to criticize the religion? Is it only the writers she cites in her article? My question to Ms. Lalami is whether it isn’t precisely these claustrophobic and crippling limits on critique that are ultimately most detrimental to both Islam and Muslims?

RAFIA ZAKARIA


LALAMI REPLIES

Portland, Ore.

Everyone has a right to criticize Islam, or indeed any other set of beliefs, whether religious or otherwise. My article was not about who has a right to criticize but rather about the intellectual import of such criticism. In my judgment, Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s The Caged Virgin and Irshad Manji’s The Trouble With Islam Today are unfortunately rife with oversimplifications and inaccuracies, and display a lack of understanding of even basic tenets of the religion.

I cited other authors and scholars because I was refuting the argument put forth in both books that there is no criticism of Islam by Muslims. I did not endorse these scholars’ work, and I certainly did not suggest that they have more, or less, right to criticize than either Hirsi Ali or Manji. Similarly, I never said or implied that Western critiques of Islam are “inescapably tainted by imperialism and orientalism.” Instead, my comments were aimed at polemical books, regardless of authorship, that do not advance our understanding of the subject.

The contention that taking Hirsi Ali and Manji to task for their inability to differentiate between doctrine and practice somehow results in “playing into the hands of the fundamentalists” strikes me as reductionist. A distinction between doctrine and practice is precisely what Islamist parties refuse to do. They insist on a rigid interpretation of sacred texts and want to apply the letter of the law exactly as it was written 1,400 years ago–which has resulted in unmitigated disaster wherever it has been applied. By drawing the distinction between doctrine and practice, and indeed by widening it to include a modern understanding of human rights, one hopes to open the dialogue that is so sorely missing from discussions of “Islam.”

LAILA LALAMI


JUST WHO IS BARACK OBAMA?

Comanche, Iowa

David Sirota’s June 26 “Mr. Obama Goes to Washington” hit me like a bolt of lightning. I can see Illinois from where I sit, and I’ve been paying attention to Barack Obama since his election to the Senate. I was heartened by his speech at the Democratic National Convention. I expected big things. But I find I don’t know the man. Obama leaves many of us wondering who he is. His responses were disappointing in some cases and downright alarming in others. It’s obvious from this interview that we should not expect to see much activism from him. What does that leave? More of the inertia we’ve lived with for years.

RANDI GIFFORD


Hastings-on-Hudson, NY

When Barack Obama was asked by David Sirota for an illustration of credible reform “within the system,” Obama selected healthcare, but then shifted to unemployment, asking what would happen to the millions of insurance paper-pushers whose job it is to prevent easy access to healthcare. Good thing Obama wasn’t in the Senate in 1902 when the Oldsmobile threatened the livelihood of buggy-whip makers everywhere, or we’d still be shoveling manure off the streets of Manhattan. The purpose of healthcare is not to employ workers–whether physicians, support staff or insurance subordinates–but to ease suffering. Healthcare for all will be less profitable for the real beneficiaries of the healthcare industry: insurers, Pharma and the American Hospital Association. If this isn’t DLC drift, what is it?

LIN OSBORN, director
Health Plan Navigator


Louisville, Ky.

Senator Barack Obama expresses concern that a national healthcare system would cause job loss in the for-profit health insurance industry. I suggest he look carefully at HR 676, the Conyers bill. Provisions for job transfer and retraining are spelled out. As more than 45 million of the now uninsured and underinsured gain full coverage, healthcare workers will be in great demand. Surely Obama is not worried about the highly paid CEOs and lobbyists who work for a healthcare industry that holds us all in bondage.

HARRIETTE SEILER


Crystal Lake, Ill.

There is no perfect candidate. But what I witnessed at a town hall meeting with my senator, Barack Obama, in my white, mostly conservative county (represented by Phil Crane for hundreds of years, if that will give you a clue) was something to behold. The college gym was packed to the rafters with young and old, students, grannies, men in business suits, soccer moms and all absolutely starry-eyed and enraptured by Obama. He has an easy manner. He is witty, charming and intelligent. The audience asked tough questions and got smart answers. They laughed at his jokes and stood and cheered as if he were a rock star. This is charisma like I have never witnessed. I think it would be a huge mistake to dismiss this liberal Democrat with the rare quality of connecting to the heart and soul of the voting public.

VICKI DOW


Washington, DC

It doesn’t matter how much charisma or intelligence or promise any legislative minority freshman has; s/he’s still a freshman in the minority. To earn the respect and trust needed to exert principled influence on policy-making over the long run, a freshman simply must show some deference to veteran colleagues and avoid the temptation to grandstand.

Case in point: Sheila Jackson Lee, a Houston African-American, was one of only thirteen Democratic freshmen elected to the House in 1994, the year Newt Gingrich engineered the end of her party’s nearly four-decade control of that body. Lee, a graduate of Yale Law School who won the seat of the late House giant Barbara Jordan, was seen as a rising star, like Barack Obama. But the voluble Lee sought the media spotlight for every left-wing cause. As her communications director at the time, I failed to dissuade her from this imprudent approach. Lee developed a reputation as an egomaniacal prima donna and has since squandered much of her credibility with the media and colleagues. And though she could remain in Congress for decades–indefinitely winning re-election in her gerrymandered district–no one in Washington expects her ever to exert serious influence on policy-making.

Obama’s been in office only twenty months. If Sirota and other impatient progressives want to see him go down in history as an effective leader, they should climb off his back and be thankful he understands that real progress takes time.

DARREN MCKINNEY


Lafayette, La.

Barack Obama is wise in being careful. He has to walk through a pit of vipers without getting bit so badly his career dies in its youth.

BRENT FAUL


HEROIC LIBRARIANS

Jacksonville, Fla.

Thank you for the editorial on librarians and the American Library Association protecting our liberties [“American Patriots,” July 17/24]. To continue this fight for intellectual freedom, my brother, ALA associate executive director Gerald Hodges, who passed away in January, left part of his estate to the ALA. Librarians and library associations worldwide have contributed to this cause. Nation readers who wish to donate can write checks to the American Library Association and send them to the Gerald Hodges Memorial Fund, ALA, 50 E. Huron St., Chicago, IL 60611.

LAURA J. HODGES


FOR THE RECORD (AND THE RECIPE)

Corby Kummer, who translated Carlo Petrini’s contribution to the forum in last week’s special food issue, is the author of The Pleasures of Slow Food: Celebrating Authentic Traditions, Flavors and Recipes (Chronicle), for which Petrini wrote the introduction. In Habiba Alcindor’s “Black Farms, Black Markets,” Heckscher playground is in Bushwick, Brooklyn.