A Syrian Quagmire?

Ojai, Calif.

Thanks and praises for “In Dubious Battle” [May 27], your concise summary of the Syrian situation and the pitfalls and implications of military involvement. The warmongers never seem to learn from history. As you state, the only sensible approach is to provide humanitarian aid for the growing refugee problem and use this cooperation to avoid a broader conflict.


New York City

Having spent 2004–06 in Syria, I am disheartened by the blind rush to oust Bashar al-Assad. I remain in contact with many Syrians who would prefer not to have a new government forced on them at the end of a gun by the outside world. I witnessed the aftermath of US intervention in Iraq, where I was filming in 2011, and am terrified of the specter of intervention in Syria. These days, Iraq is a wasteland. Every Iraqi I met said that as much as they despised Saddam Hussein, they wished he was still in power.

Assad is not nearly as bad as Saddam. I had access to film him and the first lady several times. Assad has more in common with Obama’s cool demeanor than the bizarre excesses of dictators like Saddam, Qaddafi and Ben Ali. Diplomacy is free; military actions transfer billions of tax dollars to Halliburton et al. Diplomacy does not risk civilian lives; military intervention guarantees death and destruction.


Cheap Clothing = Death


After reading several paragraphs of “The Price,” JoAnn Wypijewski’s May 27 “Carnal Knowledge” column, I heard a thin, high-pitched sound, and only as I clutched my eyes (dislodging my glasses) to stem my tears did I realize that the sound came from me. When I first encountered the photo she mentions of the two dead Bangladeshi workers in an embrace, I was so stunned I couldn’t feel anything. As the days unveiled the particulars and the magnitude of the catastrophe, I continued to shake my head, as we do, at the senselessness of it all. I want to thank Ms. Wypijewski for giving me back myself, my humanity and my resolve to make a difference, by reaching into my soul with her words.


Thoreau: a Walker as Well as a Talker

Sarasota, Fla.

Re Wen Stephenson’s “Thoreau’s Radical Moment—and Ours” [May 27]: Henry David Thoreau is characterized primarily in terms of his essay “Civil Disobedience.” Let’s not forget another side of him also pertinent to Keystone XL and fossil fuel use: Thoreau walked. In the first chapter of Walden, he describes the economics of walking to Fitchburg as opposed to taking the then-new railroad. Waking early, he noted, he could make the journey in a single day. Or he could invest half a day riding the train and another full day earning the fare.

Let’s apply that logic to twenty-first-century America. Must we drive so much? Thoreau already had the right answer. As one who in my fifty-one years has never driven, I find it possible, though sometimes inconvenient, to get from Concord to Fitchburg, or wherever, with minimal fossil fuel use. Far more radical than a single act of civil disobedience is the habit of leaving the car in the driveway.


Cambridge, Mass.

Wen Stephenson struggled mightily to adapt Thoreau’s thoughts to our own troubled times. He need not have bothered, however, because the Massachusetts school system has made that unnecessary. I have been teaching for fifteen years at a university just ten miles from Walden Pond, and not a single one of my overwhelmingly middle-class white freshmen, born and raised in Massachusetts, has heard of Thoreau. Problem solved!


Trains, Buses, Bikes, Cars, Feet…

Los Angeles

If Eric Mann, author of “The Fight for the Soul of Los Angeles” [May 27], were to observe LA’s rail system in action, he would see that it is used, often heavily, by people of all colors. There is a simple reason: rail is frequently the most efficient and effective transit option, and that is true even in sprawling LA.

That is why LA County voters supported Proposition J by a wide majority. The measure failed, barely, because of the two-thirds majority required for funding increases. Sure, 80 percent of transit users (including me) are more likely to ride the bus. But that may be because there are roughly 200 bus lines compared with five rail lines.

Building a workable transportation system will require an intelligent mix of rail, buses, bikes and, yes, cars and trucks. The fundamental obstacle is not that supporters of rail are racist but that our society invests only a fraction of what is needed in infrastructure, including transportation. That’s what we should work together to solve.


Pasadena, Calif.

Despite being a regular train rider in Los Angeles, I am a longtime supporter of the Bus Riders Union because I know it is in the best interest of the city as a whole and poor people in particular. I fully support the transit demands of the BRU, but I want to stress the significance of this struggle as part of a larger fight against neoliberalism, which is played out most acutely on the scale of the urban metropolis. Obama’s refusal to enforce anti-discrimination laws is not just about reproducing an unfair transit system; it ultimately serves to gut the tools and structures that people have spent decades fighting for to protect themselves from the tyranny of racial capitalism. His actions go a long way toward enhancing the power of neoliberal urban regimes that have consistently shown their ability and willingness to displace economic crises onto the most vulnerable among us. We can see this in transportation, education, pollution, housing and so on. The BRU’s campaign is aptly named: this is about the soul of our cities—and the political culture of elites and the working class.


The Nation as ‘Security Threat’

Ionia, Mich.

The Ionia Correctional Facility mailroom rejected my May 20 issue of The Nation because it deemed the lead editorial, “Despair at Guantánamo,” describing the hunger strikes there, to be a security threat. I filed a complaint, and the hearing officer determined that it was not a threat. They returned my magazine. Thank you for the work you do.