HOISTING A FEW WITH STUDS

Chicago

I was fascinated by the letters between Christopher Hitchens and Katha Pollitt [“Exchange,” Dec. 16]. There was a throwaway reference in Hitchens’s piece that caught my attention. It was a reference to Gore Vidal, at whom he threw a rabbit punch, among others. I was suddenly reminded of a moment in the late, late, late of the evening when Hitch and I got smashed. It was just a couple of years ago.

He was in Chicago in re his excellent Kissinger book. During those blurry moments at my house, and very delightful they were, he confided that in some quarters he was regarded as the successor to Gore Vidal as America’s pre-eminent man of letters. I’ve a hunch that Vidal may have a comment on that, especially now.

My point is a simple one: vanity. It’s probably the least of our seven deadly sins; all of us have a touch of it, more or less. In some cases, more than less. Saddam Hussein is not the subject of this note; nor the nature of our approach toward the mass murderer. Chris has his opinion; The Nation‘s editors have theirs. It is the manner in which he has behaved toward those who differ with him: his ad hominem assaults on their intelligence and integrity. It is his vulgarity of language, so unlike the guy I knew, that knocked me for a loop.

I have always admired Hitchens’s insights, elegance of style and sharpness of wit. I still do. But the turn he has taken–the sharp one–is more in the direction of Becky than of Orwell. I’m afraid that his psyche is now more possessed of vanity than by fairness.

I am somewhat embarrassed in revealing a conversation that took place under the influence of booze. It is something of a foul blow. Yet I am merely pointing out that below-the-belt punching is a game that two can play. It’s a nasty game, kid.

STUDS TERKEL

PS: Chris, I miss your stuff in The Nation very much. It discombobulates me that your stalwart Orwellian self has become aligned with the wanton boy swatting flies. Remember the line from King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods;/They kill us for their sport.” That a wanton boy, at this moment in history, is the most powerful man in the world is an absurd fact. It’s a scenario that can have been written only by that master of outrageous humor W.C. Fields. It grieves me that one as gifted as you has chosen to play second banana to the wanton boy in a burlesque skit that’s not very funny. Come back, Chris; the martini is waiting. On second thought, I withdraw the invitation. Difficulties might ensue. We’d reflect, of course, on the wanton boy’s appointment of Kissinger as truth-seeker. But as we mellowed with a drink or two, we’d probably reminisce about our dear old friend Jessica Mitford and what she’d make of things today; and of you. Five gets you ten she’d have said, “Christopher Hitchens, poor boy, since his conversion, has been transmogrified from a witty observer of the human comedy into a bloody bore, seated at the far-right end of the bar.” As you may surmise, Kiddo, it would wind up as a somewhat less than pleasant visit. I’d find the memory of Mitford much better company than the presence of Hitchens. Thus, at this moment, I’m drinking alone, hoisting one to Jessica (Decca, as we called her) and her dreams; and mine; and young Christopher’s.

S.T.


SLENDER THREADS

Austin, Tex.

How did John Nichols [“And Now the Good News,” Dec. 2] overlook perhaps the biggest upset since the US ice hockey team knocked off the Soviets in the 1980 Olympics? A sports analogy is appropriate: Steve Largent, NFL Hall of Fame receiver, ultra-right-wing Congressman and fundamentalist pretty boy, was a shoo-in for the Oklahoma governorship, until he narrowly lost to Democrat Brad Henry. No one–not even his own party–believed Henry, a state senator from Shawnee, could pull it off.

Largent, labeled by People magazine as one of America’s “most beautiful” citizens, had everything a Republican could want: petroleum and tobacco industry money, support from W. and a direct line to God (he claimed the Lord told him to run for governor). Henry may not be the progressive dream candidate, but he has strong support from rural farmers, teachers and organized labor.

RUSSELL COBB


Providence, RI

Here in Providence, 22-year-old David Segal was elected to the City Council and became the first Green elected in the history of the state. Segal, a substitute math teacher and freelance journalist, ran a campaign focused on a living wage, tenants’ rights, affordable housing and reforming city government. As the only non-Democrat on the fifteen-member council, David will enter office as the council minority leader in January.

PETER IAN ASEN


Manchester, Me.

The good news for Maine is the victorious campaigns for two Congressmen, both Democrats, who voted no to the resolution giving George W. Bush the power to declare war unilaterally on Iraq. Tom Allen, the incumbent in the 1st District, won re-election, returning him to Congress, a strong voice of reason from Maine. And Congressman John Baldacci, a man willing to take a courageous stand during his campaign, won the governorship. Governor Baldacci’s seat in Congress will be filled by another Democrat, Mike Michaud, who won a close race against his White House-endorsed opponent.

CAROL BREWSTER


North Waldoboro, Me.

In Maine, the organization behind the successful Congressional campaign of Mike Michaud–a lifelong union member–is credited with bringing enough workers to the polls to have a positive coattails effect on other tight state races. Michaud, a millworker who made an issue of unfair trade practices, corporate responsibility, prescription drug and health reform in a rural, economically distressed district sprawling between Quebec, New Brunswick and the Bay of Fundy, could be instrumental in re-engaging union membership to not just represent labor’s interests but to insure that such representation is made by workers themselves.

BO YERXA


‘CONDOM ROULETTE’?

Washington, DC

I’ve been searching our archives, but I’ve been unable to find any evidence that the Family Research Council has ever claimed “that the virus that causes AIDS routinely passes through condoms,” as Debbie Nathan implied in “The Right Way to Have Sex” [Nov. 18].

Condoms, however, will never be 100 percent effective in preventing transmission of HIV–not because they are permeable but because they can slip or break and are often used inconsistently or incorrectly. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that even with perfect use every time, condoms reduce the risk of HIV transmission by only 85 percent.

Nathan laments the idea that “American kids grow up believing that medical science says intercourse is deadly.” Yet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics show that up to two-thirds of the 275,000 Americans known to have died of AIDS since 1993 may have been exposed to the disease through sexual contact.

Let’s assume that none of those people used condoms. Let’s then assume (very generously) that 85 percent of those cases could have been prevented by using condoms. That would still leave more than 25,000 dead of AIDS in nine years as a direct result of sexual activity. Meanwhile, NIH reports, “There was no evidence that condom use reduced the risk” of infection with the sexually transmitted Human papillomavirus. HPV has been linked (by The New England Journal of Medicine) to more than 90 percent of all invasive cervical cancers, and the CDC estimates that cervical cancer kills more than 4,000 American women each year.

In other words, medical science does indeed say that sex–outside of a mutually faithful and monogamous relationship with one lifetime partner–is far too often deadly. We do our youth a grave disservice (no pun intended) if we say otherwise.

PETER SPRIGG
Family Research Council


NATHAN REPLIES

New York City

If Peter Sprigg had simply examined the endnotes in Talk About Sex, the book I reviewed, he would have found a citation for FRC’s unscientific implication that HIV routinely passes through condoms. The item, “Condom Roulette” is an issue of In Focus, FRC’s newsletter. Talk About Sex author Janice Irvine sent me a copy. So much for the R in Family Research Council. Is the group really so sloppy it doesn’t know its own material?

Or is it doing here what it and other anti-sex ed groups are notorious for–making deliberately false and incendiary suggestions simply to garner a soapbox for further misleading claims? Irvine’s book describes this practice in detail, and Sprigg’s pseudodiscussion about the National Institutes of Health fits the bill.

He says NIH reports that condoms reduce HIV transmission by only 85 percent. The implication is that if you use a condom while having sex with an HIV-infected person, you’ve got a 15 percent chance of getting infected. In fact, the NIH study dealt only with couples in long-term relationships who knew that one partner had HIV. Even so, they continued to have intercourse regularly over long periods. Among the couples who never used condoms, an average of about seven partners in 100 got infected after a year of having intercourse regularly. Of those who used condoms all the time, about one in 100 got infected after a year. Divide seven into one and you get about 15 percent. The NIH study suggests that even if you use condoms, you run a 1-in-100 risk of contracting HIV if you have intercourse regularly for a year with someone who’s infected.

In the real world of teen sexual encounters, some people have HIV, but most don’t–and few relationships last as long as a year. Under these circumstances, risk of infection while using a condom is much lower than in the situation the NIH study describes. Adolescents need to know the medical establishment’s consensus that condoms are highly effective against HIV transmission, just as they need to know the relative health advantages of abstinence.

Is sex ever risk free–for anyone? Of course not. What in life is? More Americans, including teenagers, are killed every year in automobiles than by AIDS. But we don’t withhold information about car safety. We have drivers’-ed classes in high school and teach the use of seatbelts. And what about FRC’s much-touted “monogamous marriage”? How many people contract HIV from sex with a spouse–one who doesn’t philander, but who shoots drugs with dirty needles? Then there are the 500 women who die in this country annually from complications of childbirth: a grim statistic that has not decreased for years. FRC has nothing to say about this fatal result of heterosexual, often conjugal sex. (Nor does it talk about the estimated 5,000 American women, many of them married, who died every year from abortions before Roe v. Wade.)

True, condoms don’t prevent genital warts. But a vaccine has just been developed that provides immunity against the virus that causes them. Great news for women. And bad news for scaremongers like FRC.

DEBBIE NATHAN