EDWARD SAID

Long Island City, NY

Your editorial about Edward Said, and JoAnn Wypijewski’s wonderful remembrance of the great engagé thinker [“Edward Said,” “Mementos,” Oct. 20], brought to mind my own encounters over the years with his inspiring, independent radicalism of thought and practice. The first was an interview with him in 1981 for an alternative weekly. He had recently published Covering Islam, his critique of the monolithic and distorted image of Islamic societies perpetuated by Western mass media and how this coverage dovetails with US policy. During our conversation, he denounced the Ayatollah Khomeini as a “fanatic” and condemned the seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran while also deploring the skewed media coverage that denied Americans the means to comprehend the context and history of Iranian outrage against the United States. At a time when much of the (Marxist) left embraced the latter stance, Said’s position demonstrated a characteristic independence of thought and what Wypijewski calls his “allergy to power.”

A year later, at a Manhattan teach-in against Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, after a Workers World Party representative urged activists not to criticize Arab regimes because they were “victims of US imperialism,” an obviously irritated Said took to the podium to denounce those Arab regimes for failing to do much more than issue rhetorical hot air in defense of the Palestinians.

And, two years ago at a New York conference of the Italian American Writers Association, where he was a keynote speaker, Said made a startling comparison between stereotypical representations of Italians as Mafia gangsters and pervasive images of Palestinians as terrorists. Our challenge as Italian-American writers, he said, was not only to protest inaccurate representations but to think critically about our history and culture, and create compelling new narratives to replace “reductive and stereotypical” images of ourselves as sons and daughters of Vito Corleone.

I’ve tried to meet Said’s challenge in my own writing about ethnicity, including the book I am currently working on. I had hoped to send him a copy, and it saddens me that I’ll never know whether he thought I succeeded in deconstructing both the “Mafia myth” and the conservative politics behind much Italian-American antidefamation advocacy. But the immeasurably greater loss, of course, is that of his critical voice on Israel, Palestine and Western relations with the Arab and Islamic worlds, which we need now more than ever.

GEORGE DE STEFANO


ALONG CAME A GREIDER…

Oakland, Calif.

When I want to feel bad, I read The Nation. How frustrating, therefore, to read that great article by William Greider about using capitalism for the people [“The Soul of Capitalism,” Sept. 29]. Proxies for the masses. In the 1950s Saul Alinsky participated in my workshops at the University of Chicago on community organizing. We discussed proxies. Ten years later he won a round at Eastman Kodak by gathering proxies. He intended to expand to other corporations but died too soon. I am sending Greider’s upbeat article to some school and state employees’ pension funds.

MORRIS HAIMOWITZ


Medford, Mass.

Please spare us apologies for capitalism like William Greider’s. In the words of James Galbraith (who reviewed The Soul of Capitalism for the Washington Post), the abuses and injustices of capitalism are structural and inherent, and remedies “go beyond self-organization, charity and the capacities of the market.” In the era of neoimperialism it would be better to return to the analysis formulated by Marx.

CARL MARTIN


New York City

Bill Greider is always pertinent and pungent on the economy, but his suggestion that stockholding liberals can steer capitalism in progressive directions is uncharacteristically naïve. Nearly forty years ago John Kenneth Galbraith pointed out that unions and worker pension funds exercised a potential majority control over the stock market and that if they only made their investments with a social prudence, capitalism and justice would be made consonant. Liberals have been rehearsing this wishful thinking ever since. There are plenty of (tiny) social investment portfolios around to prove it. But then as now the real soul of capitalism is profit: hence the market’s entrepreneurship and productivity, hence its inequalities and injustice. Socially prudent investors want the same thing socially imprudent investors want–a return on their capital–and almost always act accordingly. We need the dirty dollars to do the good deeds, they reason, and so, like Shaw’s Major Barbara, they rationalize acting the way capitalism says they should. In short, when we invest, most of us put profit before principle. Capitalism being all about the body, this is about as much soul as it can muster.

BENJAMIN R. BARBER


Austin, Tex.

As the executive director of the Economic Justice Foundation, I found William Greider’s article timely and topical, although perhaps a better title would have been “Organizing the Money.”

Several years ago, our organization, with the help of the graduate school of business at St. Edward’s University here in Austin, embarked on an ambitious plan to organize the money in our community. Good idea, a local pastor told us, but small communities like my church have no money. We pointed out to Father Bob that even his small, rural, working-class church community had some real dollars at its disposal–the money simply wasn’t organized. While the average household income for the 300 families in his church was only about $30,000, that still added up to $9 million in yearly cash flow. And while the average price of their homes was only $50,000, they had close to $15 million in assets.

Our goal is to improve capitalism through direct intervention using the financial tools of capitalism. We began the process of organizing a community development bank, which will look no different from any other bank–the same checking accounts, savings accounts, credit cards and car loans. But our depositors’ money will be used for economic development projects in our community–affordable housing, small-business development, commercial revitalization. The new rallying cry should be: “Don’t mourn, organize the money.”

THOMAS WAKELY


GREIDER REPLIES

Washington, DC

These letters accurately reflect the deep, debilitating division among those who think of themselves as progressive: pessimism vs. optimism. I respectfully suggest many left-liberals of a certain age do not recognize how grim they sound, especially to young people. Everything is hopeless but sure to get worse. Everything has been tried, nothing succeeded. The only thing to do is await the resurrection of Marx or at least Keynes. The optimists, like Thomas Wakely of Austin, are incautiously hopeful. They see opportunities to change things and are acting as though it’s possible. “Organize the money”–that’s the road to power. Start small, think big. People are more powerful than they imagine. This conflict is less about ideology than personal perspective. One group looks backward with a sigh. The other looks forward with excitement. I stand with the optimists. Which group would you have in power?

WILLIAM GREIDER


DECLINE & FALL BY OFFSHORING

San Dimas, Calif.

As an engineer I’ve witnessed the offshoring of high-tech and even defense-related technology to Asia through corporate decisions that are unchecked and in fact even encouraged and authorized at the highest levels of our government [William Greider, “The WTO Heads Nowhere,” Sept. 22]. When engineering and scientific jobs (unlike professions such as law, politics or journalism) are lost, the knowledge they require is also quickly lost, because technology work involves specialized mental activity focused on specialized information. The technology and manufacturing base is like an ecosystem–it is a highly interconnected web of specialized capabilities. When part of it is lost, the system collapses, like a tropical rainforest that decays rapidly into desert after losing a certain number of trees. When technical jobs are offshored, the technical capability of the country is irreversibly reduced. Offshoring exacerbates the poor and shrinking job market for engineers and scientists, which discourages young people from choosing technical careers and so diminishes the nation’s future technical capability. Top people in industry are concerned about the low enrollment of Americans in engineering schools–witness Andy Grove of Intel on Charlie Rose complaining that only 5 percent of US college students are enrolled in engineering and science, while in China and India this rate is about 40 percent. The result, he believes, is that China could dominate high technology within ten to fifteen years.

The claim that China is an underdeveloped country and so deserves special treatment on trade is disingenuous. China may have an underdeveloped economy relative to the United States, but it is not disadvantaged. It has a huge, rapidly growing and highly skilled technical work force that needs only to acquire and then build upon the proprietary knowledge that has been painstakingly developed through generations of industrial experience in the “advanced” countries–knowledge it is rapidly acquiring through technology-transfer agreements and offshoring from those countries (in complicity with unchecked corporate-profit maximization abetted by currency manipulation, government subsidies, worker repression and desperate poverty) and through piracy.

Given the perishability and interconnectedness of technical capability and the pace of offshoring, we have reached a critical point beyond which our technical edge over Asia will be lost permanently, with obvious dire consequences for our standard of living and national security. The need to address this situation is primary and immediate, whereas all the talk about agreements (pro, con, how or what, etc.) is secondary. We’ve got to put a brake on offshoring immediately, regardless of trade agreements, or we’ll be finished as a country.

WILLIAM C. GILWOOD


GREIDER REPLIES

Washington, DC

I agree completely with William Gilwood’s grim analysis. We are approaching a terrible endgame in US-style globalization. I wish the Democratic Party could find the courage to share this with the people.

WILLIAM GREIDER