OH CHADS, POOR CHADS...
I share William Greider's glee about the election stalemate ["Stupefied Democracy," Dec. 4] and the opportunity it provides for the voting public to discover the underpinnings and inadequate mechanisms of the electoral process. However, there is a disturbing tendency in this article and most other observations of the state of US "democracy" to refer to some earlier time (usually unspecified, as in Greider's piece) when the situation was better or even pure and perfect. In using terms like our current "decayed democracy" and a "shriveled meaning of citizenship," Greider falls into the old trap of what I call the "origin myth" of US democracy. I think it is an important issue because we really must look to ideas that will lead us to constructing democracy, rather than reviving a mythical democracy.
Your postelection editorial "Indecision 2000" [Nov. 27] asserted, "Union families were more than one-fourth of the popular vote and voted nearly 2 to 1 for Gore; African-Americans came out in large numbers and voted 10 to 1 for Gore; pro-choice women helped give Gore an 11-point lead among female voters. These numbers make it hard to take Nader's suggestion that it was his presence in the race...that will make Democrats take progressives in their own party more seriously." It's not clear why these numbers alone would get Democrats to take progressives more seriously--since the numbers were virtually the same in 1996. That year, union families provided almost one-fourth of all voters and chose Clinton over Dole by an even bigger margin than they chose Gore over Bush. And Clinton had a wider gender gap over Dole, a 16-point lead with female voters.
You went on to say: "The strength of the base vote now makes it harder for the DLC to persuade nervous Democrats that rebuilding the party requires further moves to the right." Since the base vote today is similar to that in 1996, some new vehicle of power and persuasion is needed to move the Democrats in a progressive direction. Otherwise, we'll keep watching a rerun every four years in which liberal leaders and journals mobilize their constituencies with increasing frenzy on behalf of decreasingly appetizing DLC candidates from Clinton to Gore to Lieberman. If Nader has the wrong approach, your editorial is fuzzy about who has the right one.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
I as well as some fellow Metro high school students registered 200 new voters, then called them up on Election Day and reminded them to vote for a new leader for this nation. Because we did this, our teacher let us dye his hair bright pink. But this election has disappointed me. I propose instant runoff voting [Robert Richie and Steven Hill, "If Politics Got Real...," Oct. 16] so this kind of thing doesn't happen again.
As long as we do not have proportional representation and a complete ban on private financing of political campaigns, our elections will not be representative of anyone but the business class. The will of the people should not be usurped. Changing those two aspects of the electoral process is where our time, money and energy should be spent--not in worrying about which member of the ruling class wins a meaningless election.
The following is a reply to Norman Finkelstein's letter in last week's issue. --The Editors
New York City
Norman Finkelstein calls my work on the Swiss bank Holocaust case an exercise in blackmail. But the $1.25 billion Swiss bank settlement on behalf of Holocaust victims cannot possibly be characterized as blackmail unless that term is distorted to include any payment made by a defendant who is afraid to go to trial. Did the lawyers put pressure on the Swiss banks? You bet we did. We threatened them with justice.
Finkelstein's principal claim is that I misstated the documentary record when I charged that Swiss banks systematically destroyed records of Holocaust deposits. Let's look at the document Finkelstein cites--the report of the Volcker committee, which conducted an intensive audit of the banks. The Volcker report finds that records for 2.8 million accounts opened during the Holocaust era had been completely destroyed by the Swiss banks (Volcker report, para. 20). The Volcker report calls the destruction of those records an "unfillable gap." Moreover, the Volcker report finds that almost all of the transaction records for the remaining 4.1 million accounts were also destroyed, leaving a record of an account's opening and closing, but no information about the account's size, or whether it had been plundered (Volcker report, para. 21). I call that a pretty good job of systematically destroying records, especially since, in the absence of records, the banks get to keep the money because Switzerland has no escheat law. It is true that under Swiss law, the banks were required to keep records for only ten years. But, having accepted deposits from Holocaust victims, and knowing that most Jewish depositors had failed to survive the Nazis, how can anyone defend the Swiss banks' widespread destruction of the records needed to trace the true ownership of the Holocaust funds?
Despite the immense hurdles created by the destruction of records, the Volcker report identified 46,000 Swiss bank accounts with a "probable or possible" connection with Holocaust victims. The names of 26,000 of the accounts are about to be published, and the federal court has set aside $800 million to pay the owners of those funds. Neve Gordon, in his review of Finkelstein's book, suggests that the sum is exaggerated, but his figures dovetail closely with mine. The $800 million for bank deposits includes an interest/inflation factor of 10 that the Volcker committee found was necessary to permit payment of current value. Everyone, including Raul Hilberg, agrees that Jewish deposits into Swiss banks on the eve of the Holocaust were at least $80 million. Surely, the Swiss banks should not have the use of that money for sixty years without paying interest to the accounts' true owners. $800 million is, therefore, a very conservative estimate of what the banks really owe.
Finally, in a characteristically venomous charge, Finkelstein accuses me of "making a mockery of Jewish suffering during World War II," because I have estimated that 1 million victims of the Holocaust are still alive. In order to reach such a figure, Finkelstein argues that I must be diluting what it meant to suffer during the Holocaust. But, as usual, Finkelstein's obsession with criticizing anyone who acts on behalf of Holocaust survivors blinds him to the facts. My figure of 1 million victims was intended to include all surviving victims, not merely Jewish survivors. The German foundation Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future estimates that more than 1 million former slave and forced laborers are still alive and qualify for compensation. The fact is that the Holocaust did not affect only Jews. The Swiss settlement includes Sinti-Roma, Jehovah's Witnesses, the disabled and gays. The German foundation will distribute most of the slave/forced labor funds to non-Jews. About 130,000 Jewish survivors and about 900,000 non-Jewish victims are still alive. Norman Finkelstein accuses me of being a "main party" to seeking compensation for them. Thank you, Norman. I could not be prouder.
HE FELL ON HIS ASP
New York City
In his brilliant review of the work of Damien Hirst ["Art," Nov. 20], Arthur Danto offers up a useful if inadvertent example of the difficulty both sides continue to have in talking across the fence that separates Science from Art. He wonders at the connection made by Hirst in the title of a painting between a small molecule--argininosuccinic acid--and the bite of the asp. Danto's explanation builds up to a notion of painting as a form of pharmacology. Perhaps. But there is a simpler link between the asp and argininosuccinic acid, a link that goes deeper than the toxicity of the former or the pharmacology of the latter. ASP is the standard abbreviation for the common amino acid aspartic acid, also called aspartate. So the reason Hirst had for linking the title of his work to this snake may have been a simple pun.
But perhaps he had more in mind. When an excess of the four-carbon amino acid ASP must be gotten rid of--after one eats a fleshy meal, for instance--it is dropped into a set of enzymatic reactions called the urea cycle. There, the ASP is grabbed by the enzyme argininosuccinate synthetase and hooked onto the five-carbon amino-acid derivative citrulline to form Hirst's compound, argininosuccinate. This is then broken down into a set of compounds including urea and citrulline, which closes the cycle that dumps urea into urine. So beyond the pun, we have been given the notion of pissing as an antidote to poisoning. Not quite pharmacology, but clearly Hirst knows his biochemistry!
US HEALTHCARE--HOW NOT TO DO IT
According to Trudy Lieberman ["Unhealthy Politics," Nov. 6], the uninsured in the United States wait four months for an MRI. In Canada, the (universally) insured routinely wait six months for an MRI. Women with proven breast cancer have treatment delayed for months, unless they are lucky enough to live in a province where they are transferred to a US center. (In Ontario, they go to Buffalo.) And Canadians are not guaranteed stabilization in emergency rooms even if acutely ill--certainly there are no laws to that effect. Nonetheless, our universal healthcare system has overwhelming support from the Canadian public and virtually no one looks to the US system as a model.
REPORTS OF ITS DEATH EXAGGERATED
New York City
I am glad Stuart Klawans recognizes the extraordinary gifts of Anna Deavere Smith, but he writes a premature obituary for the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue that she founded at Harvard in 1998 ["Films," Oct. 16]. I had the good fortune of participating in and seeing several institute events. It did set up innovative connections among artists and between artists and audiences. Because of this accomplishment, and others, I hope the institute will keep on in some form. Whatever this might be, the institute has established a model that can and surely will be adopted elsewhere.
CATHARINE R. STIMPSON
COULD THEY GO 9 ROUNDS?
It's a damn shame we can't lock Lynne Cheney [Jon Wiener, "'Hard to Muzzle': The Return of Lynne Cheney," Oct. 2] in a room with Diane Ravitch [Peter Schrag, "The Education of Diane Ravitch," Oct. 2] and make them discuss Ravitch's comment that "it is a fundamental truth that children need well-educated teachers who are eclectic in their methods and willing to use different strategies, depending on what works best for which children."
Of course, it's entirely possible that Ravitch would wind up providing Cheney more historically acontextual and one-sided ammunition for her "liberals have destroyed our schools" jihad. Never mind that smaller classes are better learning environments (and, barring a mass infusion of nuns, will necessarily cost more money), that the vast majority of teachers are underpaid, that no immigration crackdown can make the nation's children all learn English this year, and that parents who are both undereducated and overworked understandably have trouble participating in their children's education.
THERE GOES THE NEIGHBORHOOD
Bravo! to Patricia Williams's June 19 "Mad Professor" column, titled "Little House in the 'Hood," about what's happening in Harlem. While Harlem is certainly special because of its rich history, I fear that the same thing is happening all over the country as whites, with a growing appreciation for the beautiful woodwork and craftsmanship with which many older houses in the near-downtown areas were constructed, are buying them at very low cost. Once these neighborhoods "come back," the housing costs increase to the extent that long-term residents, especially the elderly, can no longer afford to live where they have lived most of their lives. Property values rise, which is good, but the other side of the coin is that some people get taxed out of their homes.
I was raised in, and have always lived in, integrated neighborhoods where everyone genuinely got along and looked out for and enjoyed being with one another. While I certainly would not want to see segregation rear its ugly head again, I do think that something gets lost from the fabric of a community when it's "taken over" and commercialized to the extent that it is no longer recognizable. My parents too, though living in integrated neighborhoods when they moved north, speak longingly of the time when blacks had their own businesses in their own communities. There was the neighborhood movie theater, dry cleaner, corner grocer and pharmacy complete with soda shop, and the like. We can all live, work and play together, but why do the character, the flavor and the fabric of communities that make them special have to be sacrificed in the process? Unfortunately there are some blacks who only see "green" when it comes to development, and I say they do so to their own (and the communities that they're supposed to serve) harm.
As a real estate professional interested in housing and social issues, I would like to engage in dialogue with others who share my thoughts and passions on this matter. Any takers? (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CYNTHIA D. JONES
READ HIS LIPS
Christopher Hitchens's October 9 "Minority Report," "Why Dubya Can't Read," cleared up a mystery for me. I've been deeply puzzled by Dubya's claim to be a leader. I now realize that Dubya was trying to tell us that he's a dealer.