Woods Hole, Mass.
Katha Pollitt is my favorite Nation columnist, but guess what, Katha, you've got my objections to cloning embryo stem cells all wrong ["Subject to Debate," July 23/30].
Maybe now that it's public knowledge that researchers have been buying women's eggs so they can make human embryos for research, you may be getting the point. But if not, let me explain. Human eggs don't grow on trees. They are embedded deep inside women's bodies; not easy to get at, like sperm. To collect more than one at a time means you first have to give women hormones to shut their ovaries down. You then have to hyperstimulate their ovaries with hormones of another sort so that many more than the customary single monthly follicle and its egg mature. At the right time, you then puncture each follicle and suck out its egg. Sound good for women? Steptoe and Edwards, the scientific "fathers" of Louise Brown, didn't give her mother hormones because they feared it wasn't safe. They waited patiently for a follicle to mature and then collected the egg that eventually became Louise. But the fertility industry doesn't have time for such niceties. Now it's hormones and mass production.
The concerns Pollitt imputes to me are not what worries me. I worry about what this new "need" for human embryos will do to women. And do you know what? We may never know the answer, because in countries with proper healthcare systems where proper health records are kept, people are not permitted to buy and sell body parts. "The enemy isn't the research," Pollitt writes, "it's capitalism." Wrong again: The enemy is research under capitalism.
Professor emeritus of biology Harvard University
Board member, Council for Responsible Genetics (www.gene-watch.org)
It's unfortunate that the usually perceptive Katha Pollitt completely misses the point about human cloning in her column on this subject. Kids produced by in vitro fertilization are one thing: They are made from the standard starting materials--an egg and a sperm. The donor of either may request anonymity, but the resulting infant is guaranteed to be a full-fledged member of the human species, biologically speaking (as well as socially and legally, although these connections are rapidly being eroded in the current environment--see Lori Andrews, The Clone Age, Henry Holt, 1999).
A clone is quite a different animal, however. It is constructed of parts of cells (an egg missing its nucleus; the nucleus of an adult cell) that never meet in the course of reproduction. Evolution has never had to deal with, and arrive at correctives for, the errors introduced into the developmental process resulting from this atypical combination of cell parts. No wonder virtually all attempts at animal cloning have led to fetal deaths, multiple birth defects or severe health problems later in the lives of even the most sound-looking clones. This is not a set of problems that can be worked out in mice before confidently being attempted in humans; it is probably too complex to be fully controlled, and in any case, each species presents unique complications.
A Massachusetts company, Advanced Cell Technologies, has announced that it is now producing clonal human embryos as a first step in producing donor-matched therapeutic stem cells. And now biotechnology industry representatives have begun to make common cause with some of their anti-choice beneficiaries in Congress in trying to define such embryos as "not true human embryos" in order to thwart laws against their production and manipulation. Indeed, if Pollitt's blasé attitude toward the production of full-term human clones becomes prevalent, we can look forward to the day when the not-quite-natural, not-quite-artificial products of human cloning experiments (disconnected, as they would be, from any social network other than that defined by ownership rights) are also redefined as "not true humans." This would open the way to their finding use as sources of transplantable organs,experimental laboratory models or perhaps, for the most presentable examples, wounded hero status in the march of reproductive technology. Would Pollitt flip off concerns about "threats to 'human individuality and dignity'" in this not very distant brave new world?
STUART A. NEWMAN
Professor of cell biology,
New York Medical College
Board member, Council for Responsible Genetics (www.gene-watch.org)
On the question of human cloning, Katha Pollitt's usually reliable political insight has failed her. She dismisses the pro-choice statement calling for bans on human cloning--signed to date by more than a hundred women's health and reproductive rights leaders--on the grounds that the pending Congressional bills to prohibit cloning are the "brainchildren of anti-choice Republican yahoos."
But that's precisely the point: Human cloning and genetic manipulation are feminist-liberal-progressive-radical issues. We leave them to the anti-choice crowd at our considerable peril.
The recent deluge of news about stem cells has generated a great deal of confusion about cloning. Two clarifications are key: First, opposition to cloning can and does co-exist with support for research on embryonic stem cells, using embryos from in vitro fertilization procedures. Stem cell research and embryo cloning intersect, but they are technically distinguishable--and vastly different politically.
Second, looking at human cloning through the lens of abortion politics blurs and distorts its meaning. The prospect of cloned or genetically "enhanced" children is ominous because it could so easily trigger an unprecedented kind of eugenics, one implemented not by state coercion but by upscale marketing campaigns for designer babies.
Pollitt thinks this scenario unlikely. I invite her to reconsider. The marginal figures she mentions--the Raelians and the cowboy fertility doctor Panos Zavos--are not the only champions of human cloning, and they are far from the most dangerous.
Already biotech companies are jockeying for patents on procedures to clone and manipulate human embryos. And for several years now, a disturbing number of influential scientists, biotech entrepreneurs, bioethicists and others have been actively promoting human cloning and genetic redesign. Some are open about their ambition to set humanity on a eugenic path and to "seize control of human evolution."
One example among many is Princeton University molecular biologist Lee Silver. In multiple appearances on national television and in the newsweeklies, Silver has plugged the "inevitable" emergence of a genetic caste system in which the "GenRich" rule and the "Naturals" work as "low-paid service providers." Like others of his persuasion, he seems quite ready to abandon any pretense of commitment to equality--or even to a common humanity.
Pollitt is right to caution against accepting wildly overblown claims about the power of genes to determine everything from sexual orientation to homelessness. But it would be foolish to overlook the rapidly expanding powers of genetic manipulation, or to dismiss the possibility that the advocates of a "posthuman" future will achieve enough mastery over the human genome to wreak enormous damage--biologically, culturally and politically.
Free-market eugenics is not science fiction or far off. It is an active political agenda that must be urgently opposed.
Exploratory Initiative on the New Human Genetic Technologies
New York City
"It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's...Superclone?"--my column on cloning--was probably the most unpopular "Subject to Debate" ever. Clearly this is a vexed subject, with many aspects, some of which are noted in the letters above.
The hormone-stimulated ripening and extraction of eggs, which Ruth Hubbard vividly describes, are, as she notes, the basis of much assisted reproduction, including now-routine procedures like in vitro fertilization with one's own eggs. Indeed, many college newspapers advertise for egg donors, and many students are willing to go through the extraction process and to take on its risks in return for substantial fees. Cloning would expand this market--how much, we don't know--but the market already flourishes.
While I, too, am troubled by so many women undergoing procedures whose long-term safety is still unknown--I mentioned this in my column as a fair objection to cloning--the fact is that every day all sorts of people take risks for money, or knowledge, or pleasure, or survival. What makes eggs so sacred? And would Hubbard approve of cloning embryos if the eggs were obtained in the "patient," old-fashioned way?
Stuart Newman and Marcy Darnovsky raise "brave new world" scenarios that to me do indeed sound farfetched and wild, and not even all bad--why would it be bad to "design" healthy babies, cloned or not? In any case, cloning seems like an odd place to begin worrying about a society divided into classes destined from birth for different levels of health, wealth and personal development: We live in that society now!
IF I HAD A HAMMER...
I agree with Katrina vanden Heuvel on the
necessity of building a better infrastructure to combat the
right-wing corporate giant ["Building to Win," July 9]. The right has
the money and the media. The progressives have the brains and the
moral highroad. Let's keep to the latter while concentrating on how
best to position the former. Newt Gingrich used computer technology
to fire his misguided agenda. Progressives need to capture the
Internet as the means to train, inform, meet and proselytize (The
website Common Dreams is a good start). Technology can go far beyond
a simple reprinting of well-written articles. I suggest that the web
be our printing press as well as our town meeting hall to take back
our party, the Democratic Party, and to then move the rest of the
country back from the fringe of fascism.
New York City
infrastructure is essential. But until we regain command over the
buzzwords, conservatives hold the advantage. After a relentless
barrage of invective by conservatives and sixties radicals, "liberal"
became a term of opprobrium. "Marketplace" must be shown to be a
myth; "privatize," a synonym for corrupt favoritism; "missile defense
initiative," a form of corporate welfare; "interests" returned to its
original meaning, corporate oligopoly; "tax reduction," a transfer of
wealth from those who have little to those who have much;
"globalization," a search for the most repressive dictatorships that
deliver the lowest wages and costs. Government and labor must be what
they were in the past, the only counterweights to supranational
Katrina vanden Heuvel
perpetuates a common misunderstanding when she states, "The 1997
Supreme Court decision against the New Party...has chained us
constitutionally to the existing duopoly." Not so. Nothing in the
Constitution "chains" us to the two-party system. Only federal law
does. A statute passed by Congress forces states to gerrymander their
territories into single-member districts. This law entrenches duopoly
politics, because a one-winner election turns third parties into
spoilers and encourages voters to hold their noses and vote for one
of only two candidates. Thus, states are prevented from using
proportional representation (PR), which the Constitution would allow.
By using larger, multimember districts and preference or party-list
voting, PR would give third and fourth parties a chance. A bill in
Congress, HR 1189, the Voters' Choice Act, would eliminate the
single-seat requirement, allowing states to experiment with PR. The
duopoly can be broken without having to face the Supreme Court or
amend the Constitution. It's a legislative issue, like other election
reforms, and progressives should be leading the way.
New York City
I'm sorry if my
shorthand summary of our present predicament was confusing. It is
quite true, of course, that the Constitution does not mandate a
two-party system. Indeed, it says nothing at all about parties. Our
duopoly is a creation of statutory law and administration rule, and
in principle we could change it by the same means. The age-old
problem, however, is that the very duopoly the law protects also runs
our government and has never shown the slightest interest in
increasing competition. So those who wish to reform the system are
forced to use citizen initiative or the courts.
Supreme Court's decision in Timmons v. Twin Cities Area New
Party did was in effect to preclude the second line of attack.
Steered by the same Gang of Five that later gave us Bush v.
Gore, it held that the current major parties werefree to
construct electoral rules for the exclusive purpose of limiting
competition to themselves. Just how profound a departure from past
law this was is important to see. Before Timmons the Court
often recognized the endurance of our two-party system and even the
possible virtues of the duopoly over other electoral systems. But
what it had never done was misread the Constitution to favor
party duopoly, and it had always treated any effort by the two major
parties to reproduce themselves indefinitely as the duopoly--by
erecting artificial barriers to new party entry and effective
competition--with something approaching contempt. The Court said in
Timmons that existing parties had a legitimate interest in
doing just that. Moreover, it declared itself prepared to uphold this
interest regardless of a showing, as was made and accepted in the
case, that doing so hurt our electoral system's representativeness
with no gain in any other electoral value--accountability or
stability, for instance--traditionally recognized by the Court. After
Timmons, I see no constitutional argument that might
successfully be made against the rules upholding our duopoly. That's
what I meant by saying the decision "chained us constitutionally."
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL
I know a place
where the Navy can shift its bombing operations that will make
everybody happy--Martha's Vineyard [Angelo Falcón, "Liberating
Vieques," July 9]! Like Vieques, the Vineyard is a charming island
with easy access to sea and land. With more than three times
Vieques's paltry fifty-one square miles, it should afford the Navy a
much wider range of out-of-the-way targets. And since the peak season
runs only about three months, there'll be ample opportunity to
squeeze in the 180 days a year of bombing the Navy says it needs to
maintain readiness. Since the Navy claims these operations have no
significant impact on public health, safety, economy, ecology or
quality of life, I don't foresee a problem.
YOU CAN TAKE THIS VOTE & SHOVE
As one of those
blue-collar white folks examined in Andrew Levison's review of why
most supported Bush in the last election, I'd like to point out that
most of us didn't support anybody--refusing to take what time off we
have to vote for one elitist son of a politician over another. Just
whose version of NAFTA were we supposed to endorse? As best as I can
tell, a lot of scholarship went into explaining the obvious ["Who
Lost the Working Class?" May 14].
Working white folk have
been abandoned for decades by the Democrats and corporate labor, a
feeling native workers "of color" are beginning to experience. Racial
divisions were exploited by conservatives for profit and liberals for
posture. And while we knocked heads over jobs and wages, the libs and
cons retired to their clubs under the awning of loyal
Levison continues the obvious fallacy that
unions represent the majority of workers and their interests. After
they purged action-oriented activists a couple of generations ago,
their flaccid advocacies have served only to diminish their own
numbers, bolstered today only by a willingness to adopt scabs once
workers have lost their jobs. The new predominant service industries
require servility over skill. Americans suck as servants. Immigrant
labor, so unsurly and so adored by progressives, met no opposition
from the liberal side until it impacted jobs of college graduates in
the high-tech industries. Republicans don't have the working-class
vote any more than the Democrats have our interest at heart. It don't
take four years in the Ivy League for most of us to recognize the two
empty husks in the American shell game.
I recognized the
values Andrew Levison enumerates as "working class," and his
description of the 1950s, from my own experience as the daughter of
an East Texas railroad engineer and labor organizer. We used to iron
my father's striped work overalls, so he left the house each day
starched and clean and returned greasy. But in the 1950s he started
wearing a suit to work and would change into his overalls at the rail
yard. Even as a child, I sensed the shame that had replaced his
"Who Lost the Working Class?" fails to mention
two singular men who also toiled in Andrew Levison's vineyard. Where
is Will Gavin (whose prophetic 1975 sleeper, Street Corner
Conservative, argued that the "Right" kind of Republican could
take all the marbles in places like the People's Republic of Queens)?
And what about the late Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Tom
Fox (who in 1976 coined the phrase "Reagan Democrats")? I gave Fox my
own Rx for the GOP: Let Jerry Ford spend more time with Joe Garagiola
(and less with Henry Kissinger) and he wins. But they didn't. So he
NOEL E. PARMENTEL JR.
NOT BY SEX ED
Santa Cruz, Calif.
disputes myths of abstinence-only education only to uphold the myth
that better sex education would eliminate the difference between high
US and low European teen pregnancy rates ["Sex, Lies and Politics,"
May 7]. In fact, the biggest reason for the difference is poverty. In
more affluent communities where US teenagers have poverty rates as
low as those of European youth (around 5 percent), US teen pregnancy
rates are as low as Europe's; in America's impoverished inner cities
and rural areas, teen pregnancy rates are 20 times higher. Black and
Hispanic adolescents suffer poverty levels triple those of white
youths, and the Centers for Disease Control's latest report shows
that black and Hispanic adolescents have pregnancy rates three times
higher than whites'.
Comprehensive evaluations of American
teen pregnancy prevention do not show that sex and abstinence
education reduce pregnancy rates but that poverty exerts powerful
effects. The best evidence indicates that sex education and
contraception provision help to deter pregnancy only when accompanied
by social and economic reforms that provide expanded opportunities
for poorer populations. By drastically overstating the effectiveness
of programmatic interventions, sex education advocates interfere with
the crucial need to redress America's grotesque socioeconomic
inequalities and youth poverty levels.
COLD WAR CITATION REVISIONISM
New York City
In my July 16 essay, "Cold War Ghosts," I should have cited either
Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes's Venona or Allen
Weinstein's Perjury rather than The Haunted Wood (by
Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev) for the argument that since the
person code-named ALES returned from the Yalta Conference via Moscow,
and Alger Hiss did the same on a plane carrying three others, none of
them spy material, ALES was probably Hiss.
Helaine S. Klasky, Nina Stachenfeld, Eric Alterman, Carol P. Christ, Kim Phillips-Fein
THE HUDSON, THE MOON, THE JEJUNE
Eric Alterman's July 2 "Full-Court Press" insinuates that the Hudson
Institute "sent [scholar Evan Gahr] packing" because Gahr called Paul
Weyrich an anti-Semite. This charge has no merit and presents a false
impression of the institute. Alterman made no effort to contact us
before writing his piece. Had he done so, he would have learned that
Gahr's firing was an internal matter, unrelated to any ideas Gahr
For forty years, Hudson Institute has been a research
organization that encourages debate among peers, affording scholars
considerable latitude to express their ideas. Our researchers
regularly voice opinions more controversial than Gahr's comments
about Weyrich. Gen. William Odom (ret.), director of security studies
at Hudson, was in fact quoted in the June 18 Nation, arguing
for the dissolution of the CIA. Evidence for Hudson's eclecticism can
be found in the fact that our scholars are Democrats and Republicans,
liberals, moderates and conservatives. Moreover, in the past few
months alone, two prominent contributors to The Nation--David
Corn and Rick Perlman--have spoken at institute-sponsored
Vice president and director
apparently thinks lying is a form of mooning. In his case it's also
compulsive, relentless and boring. For the record, I am obviously not
a "staunch defender of the anti-Semites' right to blood-libel Jews,"
as he hilariously proposes; nor did I "expunge" or remove a single
word, sentence, paragraph--let alone an entire article--by the
equally addlebrained Evan Gahr from my website. Nation readers
interested in the facts--Gahr's original article and Weyrich's, my
commentaries on Gahr and Weyrich, Gahr's infantile complaints,
Crouch's column, my answer and an account of the slanders against
Laszlo Pastor by the Soviet occupiers of Communist Hungary, which
Alterman and Conason eagerly spread--can find them with ease on my
"censorious" website (www.frontpagemagazine.com). Such a waste of
valuable Nation space that could have been put to better use
defending the oppressed.
New York City
Weinstein says that I
"insinuate" anti-Semitism on the part of the Hudson Institute. That's
silly. I "insinuate" only cowardice. His defense, meanwhile, in
making reference to Nation contributors sounds a great deal
like the "some of my best friends..." line. When using it, however,
he would be wise to get the names of his friends right. It is
"Perlstein," not "Perlman." I hate to stereotype, but I hear Jews can
be quite touchy about that kind of thing.
As for David Horowitz,
well, I don't write about David Horowitz unless I'm getting paid for
GALE BREWER'S RUN
New York City
Doug Ireland writes an article ["Those Big Town
Blues," June 4] and a letter ["Exchange," July 2] asserting his
positions on city politics and the Working Families Party and manages
to make such an incorrect statement about one of the candidates that
one wonders what else he has wrong. Ireland dismisses Gale Brewer's
increasingly successful run for the City Council by describing her as
"a longtime patronage employee of the Manhattan Borough President's
Office." For the record, Brewer never worked for the Borough
President's Office. She came onto my Council staff when I was first
elected, in 1978, with no party or patronage ties of any kind. She
established a record in that office of being available to
constituents, solving problems of every type, attending to the needs
of people who had never called a legislative office in their lives
and training at least thirty student interns every year for eleven
years. She won us the Daily News designation of Most
Accessible Council Office. It is a great tribute to Gale that the
contacts she made in the district in the 1980s are standing her in
great stead in this campaign. Mayor Dinkins hired Gale to do the
city's federal relations and to increase government accessibility.
She also worked for Public Advocate Mark Green and for a private
contractor increasing services to public housing residents in Queens.
Quite a record, none of it in the Borough President's Office and all
of it on her own merits. No wonder the Working Families Party, trying
to change politics in New York, picked her as a candidate.
Manhattan Borough President
Former City Council member
My only point about Gale Brewer was that she
could hardly be included on a list of "nontraditional" candidates,
because she had spent quite a few years as a political appointee on
the public payroll--which Messinger's letter confirms.
GLOWING IN THE DARK IN CAROLINA
Thanks for David Potorti's excellent article on the
nuclear waste battle in North Carolina ["Nuclear Danger Zone, NC,"
July 2]. Most media have ignored the key facts of Carolina Power and
Light's creation of the nation's largest storage site for "spent"
nuclear fuel--the $7 billion corporation has worked hard to mute
criticism. And the potential for horrific fires from high-density
waste pools at nuclear plants across America has been left out of the
nuclear revival debate.
Loss of cooling pool water at most plants
could result in a fire that would spread across the entire pool (in
CP&L's case, four pools). Since most pools have been tightly
packed with thousands of assemblies (compared to hundreds in a
reactor core), such a fire could exceed the Chernobyl
The dirty secret is that an NRC security assessment
program concludes that US plants are highly vulnerable to terrorist
attack. Even after being allowed to bolster security in advance of
scheduled drills, at nearly half the plants mock intruders not only
got inside but also were able to simulate meltdown of the reactor
core. Now the industry is furiously working to abolish the NRC
You'd think Democratic rising star and "populist"
Senator John Edwards would be standing up to CP&L and the NRC on
this hometown debacle, especially with the NRC under investigation
for colluding with CP&L. The only logical reason for his silence
is the nuclear industry's prominence in funding presidential
Executive director, NC WARN
(NC Waste Awareness & Reduction Network)
POLL OF THE PEOPLE REVEALS...
Alexander Cockburn quoted the journal Dissent in his June 18
"Beat the Devil" and called it "an obscure journal," then later adds
this footnote: "The Nation's editor, Katrina vanden Heuvel,
wishes it to be on record that she takes exception to the description
of Dissent as 'obscure.' I suggest a poll of the American
Saved by the hip editor. I suggest that a poll of the
American people would consider The Nation obscure. But a poll
of Nation readers would not consider Dissent
Even before I
saw the footnote, I'd reached for my pen: Dissent is hardly
"obscure," and a less-than-majority poll vote won't establish that it
EVELYN A. MAUSS
is clearly targeted to the academy and to a broader "intelligentsia,"
and in this regard is not at all "obscure." All academic journals are
obscure to the general population, so a poll of "the American people"
would prove little. Journals tailored to a specific subdisciplinary
group, such as Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography (now
in its thirty-third volume), are even more "obscure" to the public,
but even this example is one of the leading sources of citations in
its field. Dissent might even be called popular when judged
within its context.
RAYMOND P. BARUFFALO
I am not particularly erudite but I did subscribe to
Dissent for a year. I must have picked it up at a bookstore;
as I recall it had an article by Dr. Gerda Lerner, whose books I had
read. I found it to be, well, challenging--but obscure? If a
lab technician in Rochester has read it, it's not
GE... BRINGS PCBs TO LIFE
Richard Pollak did a fine job of
summarizing the sad saga of GE, PCBs and the Hudson River ["Is GE
Mightier Than the Hudson?" May 28]. Unfortunately, there's another
GE-type destruction in the making. People who value the historic and
natural beauty of the Hudson Valley do not want to read "Is PG&E
Mightier Than the Hudson?" years down the road. Largely because of a
faulty and undemocratic state permit process, Athens Generating (a
subsidiary of PG&E), a 1080-megawatt, gas-fired electric power
plant, was recently given final approval by the Army Corps of
Engineers. New York State's sham of an energy deregulation process,
including corporate "gifts," behind-the-scenes political maneuvering,
community profiling, disregard of environmental policies and public
sentiment, amounts to an unholy alliance between a huge corporation
and a state bureaucracy. The press, the politicians, even
environmental groups have been silenced or have treated the project
as a done deal. This story, and its ramifications for the whole
Hudson River Valley, needs to be brought to light and now.
Have we learned nothing from the GE story?
STOPP (Stand Together
Oppose Power Plant)
East Nassau, N.Y.
result of your exposé, I decided to sell all my shares in GE.
Thanks for helping me to make my decision.
Any day now the Bush Administration will begin sending out its
much-touted tax rebate. How should progressives who believe this
rebate is wrong both as a matter of principle and policy respond to
this "windfall"? Spend it on themselves? Send it back to the
government? We'd like to propose another possibility: Use it against
Bush and his right-wing compatriots by sending it to The
Nation. Use the master's tools to dismantle the master's house!
We plan to send a portion of our rebate to The Nation and the
rest to progressive PACs that will have the greatest impact during
the next election cycle. When other media are complicit in this
Administration's mis-exercise of power, The Nation continues
to speak truth to power. You are a national treasure!
PETE BROSIUS and ELLEN WALKER
We knew that Danny Kohl's "GM Foods--Another View" [April 16], on genetically modified organism (GMO) technology used in food production, would provoke controversy, and we weren't disappointed. Below are edited versions of some of the letters that flooded in.
East Ryegate, Vt.
GMO technology epitomizes the contempt for life that is the basis of science and capitalism. Asian children do not need bioengineered "golden rice" to meet their vitamin A requirement. As the World Bank has acknowledged, eating leafy greens daily does the job, cheaply and efficiently, as Asian families have done for millennia. So why the vitamin A deficiency crisis? It was the Green Revolution, which came from the United States in the sixties, that destroyed families' access to a diversity of field greens. Its "miracle" monocultures displaced cultivated greens from grain fields, while its herbicides killed off the wild greens ("weeds") traditionally harvested along with crops.
Vitamin A deficiency, the most easily and cheaply remedied of the deficiency diseases, signals environmental degradation and poverty. GMOs will remedy neither. Food-based education projects, however, are already helping 3 million people in India combat vitamin A deficiency through home gardening and also by increasing diversity in their diets, to combat the malnutrition of which vitamin A is symptomatic. But few are willing to acknowledge the role of science and technology in degrading the environment and impoverishing the multitudes.
We in the First World face a moral challenge, which is to acknowledge that in our contempt for life, in our claim to be "conquering nature," we are destroying humanity and nature, in effect cutting off the branch on which we sit.
Danny Kohl's suggestion that genetically altered "golden" rice is the answer for the condition of 2 million children at risk of vitamin A deficiency-induced blindness reveals a tremendous naïveté. Vitamin A deficiency is a symptom, a warning sign of broader dietary inadequacies associated with poverty and with agricultural change from diverse cropping systems to rice monoculture. People do not have vitamin A deficiency because rice contains too little vitamin A but because their diet has been reduced to rice and almost nothing else. A magic-bullet solution that puts beta carotene into rice--with potential health and ecological hazards--while leaving poverty, poor diets and extensive monoculture intact, is unlikely to make any durable contribution to well-being.
Kohl argues that the development of golden rice was "supported entirely by the public sector and philanthropic funds." He fails to mention that all rights have been granted to corporate giant Astra Zeneca, which plans to market it in industrialized countries as a "nutraceutical" (food containing a pharmaceutical agent), while making it available free of extra charges above normal improved-seed costs to those poor farmers in the Third World who can demonstrate that their annual rice sales are below a magic threshold ($5,000 was suggested). Should the farmers bring their tax returns to the seed shop? Most peasant farmers have never paid taxes and probably don't have an identity card or proper title to their land. Nor do they usually buy expensive seeds, preferring to save their own for the next planting. And who would administer this anyway? Get serious.
PETER M. ROSSET
Food First/Institute for Food
and Development Policy
Danny Kohl's call to separate ideology from science or empiricism isn't possible--or desirable. All science occurs in a context; no empiricism is free from ideology. Biotechnology is no more value-free than nuclear power or automobile technology. Starvation is a social disease--caused mainly by poverty, poor food distribution and the conversion of farmland to other purposes. The pursuit of technofixes for hunger, even by well-intentioned scientists, as Kohl proposes, will lead us right back to the golden rice and Starlink messes we have now. The plight of the planet's 800 million starving people can't be addressed by science, absent the real world of political context. Did we learn nothing from the mistakes of the Green Revolution?
Kohl accuses critics of "indiscriminately rejecting GMO technologies," when that rejection is in fact frequently careful, responsible and science-based. The ceaseless promotion of a science that is not ready for prime time deserves more, not less criticism. While Dr. Kohl might well long for a pure examination of this infant science without messy ideological debates, it just can't be done.
Council for Responsible Genetics
When African delegates to a United Nations conference saw images of starving African children used in Monsanto ads claiming that genetic engineering is critical to feeding the poor, they wrote in response, "We...strongly object that images of the poor and hungry from our countries are being used by giant multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe, environment friendly, nor economically beneficial to us.... We do not believe that such companies or gene technologies will help our farmers to produce the food that is needed in the 21st century. On the contrary, we think it will destroy the diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems that our farmers have developed for millennia and that it will thus undermine our capacity to feed ourselves."
Danny Kohl says yellow rice comes from a team of scientists whose sole intent is to bring it freely to the poor. In fact, the lead scientist on this team is a former Novartis researcher who currently holds an interest in dozens of Novartis plant patents. Although the rice was developed with public money, Novartis (through Syngenta, a company it formed in alliance with another gene giant, Zeneca) holds the rights to sell the rice, and a company spokesperson told the Financial Times, "We see it doing particularly well in Japan." The Rural Advancement Foundation International, which works with small farmers worldwide, rightly exposed this ripoff as "millions of dollars of public funding [being] surrendered to a multinational corporation."
Scientists have found yellow rice an unlikely solution to the problem it pretends to address. Dr. Marion Nestle has written in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, "Food-based approaches to improving vitamin A status seem especially desirable. The addition of one or two nutrients to an existing food does not constitute a food-based approach."
The real problem the industry seeks to address is not malnutrition but public opinion. The propaganda value of yellow rice has been immeasurable, as industry has shamelessly used it in an attempt to quell growing US distrust of its experimental foods. Faced with a PR meltdown, the biotech/chemical industry is desperately plying the same message it promoted when its pesticides were first exposed as threats to the environment and our health. When Rachel Carson's Silent Spring brought the dangers of DDT to a national audience, the chemical industry responded with a PR blitz centered around its claim that poor people would starve without pesticides. Monsanto, one of the leading chemical polluters of the past century and infamous for its cover-ups (see www.chemicalindustryarchives.org/dirtysecrets/anniston/1.asp) today is the leading force behind the genetic engineering of our food. While proponents of this experiment distract us with unsubstantiated arguments about future wonders, Americans are unwittingly eating Monsanto's genetically engineered products in thousands of foods from our supermarket shelves. Like Monsanto's chemicals, none of these altered foods have been the subject of long-term study for their effects on the environment or our health.
Like other apologists for this industry, Kohl argues that economic and political solutions to problems of hunger "will not happen soon," implying that it is faster, easier and safer to alter millions of years of evolutionary ecology than to address the man-made inequalities that have been perpetrated over the past few decades.
Yellow rice has been in development for nearly ten years and is still several years away from even small field trials. After more years of research and millions of dollars, what will these researchers achieve? They hope the rice will have beta carotene that humans can assimilate, in quantities that matter, without side effects that harm the environment or human health. Meanwhile, every year and dollar spent on this rice is a year and dollar not spent on projects that truly address sustainable solutions to poverty and hunger.
Greenpeace Genetic Engineering Campaign
The fundamental point upon which the GMO debate pivots is the matter of public trust--trust of government, researchers and corporations that they will be cautious not reckless, generous not greedy, humble not arrogant. While there may be a few geneticists scattered throughout the world working toward knowledge and technology "free of costs and restrictions on property rights," they will unfortunately always be in the overwhelming minority. Moreover, the knowledge created even by well-intentioned geneticists can turn on its creators and those it is designed to benefit. And we cannot put the GMO genie back in the bottle once we have released it. The promise of GMO technology today reminds one of the promise of nuclear power a half-century ago. Better our efforts were devoted to fighting the underlying causes of poverty and malnutrition.
DAREL E. PAUL
Professor Kohl is right about one thing: Corporate control over agriculture and over scientific research agendas is perhaps the most important issue underlying the debates over genetically engineered food. But having acknowledged this, he proceeds to outline a research agenda tailor-made to benefit his corporate benefactors.
Certainly there is a great deal of scientific knowledge to be brought to bear on the problems of hunger and malnutrition. But why is the question always "How can we address these problems through genetic engineering?" and almost never "What is the most appropriate course of scientific research to address human needs?"
A February 3 article in the British magazine New Scientist offered a very different approach to using science to aid the world's poor. Using an impressive array of very low-tech interventions--trap crops for common pests, polycultures replacing monocultures, changing planting times and patterns, etc.--farmers in Africa have been increasing yields by up to 100 percent. That's a huge advance beyond the marginal-yield advantages that Monsanto and the other biotech companies brag about incessantly.
The biotech industry supported the development of "golden" vitamin A rice to the tune of $100 million. Even if the beta carotene content could someday be increased fivefold, as Kohl suggests, it will still take 3 or 4 pounds of rice a day to satisfy a person's nutritional requirements, and that is only if other nutrients are in proper balance. There's much more beta carotene in traditional crops, from leafy green vegetables to squashes, melons and mangoes. The key is helping people regain the ability to feed themselves, exactly what the companies that have brought us genetic engineering are most threatened by. In emergencies, vitamin A supplements are available for just a few pennies.
Biotechnology does offer one clear advantage--to corporations--over more traditional low-tech solutions: the ability to "invent" new varieties of plants and animals that companies like Monsanto can patent and claim proprietary rights over. While the results of more traditional agricultural research often remain in the public domain--where they properly belong--genetically engineered varieties are subject to the most stringent "intellectual property" rules of the WTO. Farmers all over North America are finding this out the hard way, as they face severe legal penalties even when their crops are contaminated with Monsanto's proprietary genes due to cross-pollination.
For twenty-five years, the narrow agenda of genetic engineering has dominated scientific discussions in the public and private domains, corrupting scientific discourse while enriching those researchers who are most willing to feed at the corporate trough. It's time for a more honest discussion of how science can best benefit human health and well-being.
Biotechnology Project Director
Institute for Social Ecology
Danny Kohl argues that judgments on biotechnology should be based on facts rather than supposition. As a family farmer, I couldn't agree more. But is industry willing to make its GMO research available to farmers and consumers? No. Much like Big Tobacco, it spends millions on PR campaigns and resists all efforts to involve the government in the research, testing and regulation of GMOs.
For family farmers the promise of GMOs stands in stark contrast to the reality. For three decades US farmers have been told that if we are to survive we must (1) produce for the global marketplace, (2) reduce costs and (3) become more efficient. How does this play out with respect to GMOs?
Numerous countries in Europe and Asia have banned the use of GMOs because of consumer concerns, which in effect have closed markets to US farmers using GMO seeds. In fact, many European and Asian countries have begun to market GMO-free products and are paying farmers premiums for crops grown with conventional seeds.
Crops grown with GMO seeds are far more expensive to produce. In 1999 a GMO soybean system cost farmers about 50 percent more than comparable conventional seed and weed management systems. A recent Nebraska study found that GMO soybean yields were 11 percent lower than their conventional seed counterparts and concluded that genetic engineering, not farming practices, was responsible. Similar studies have shown 12 percent and 20 percent yield reductions in GMO cotton and canola, respectively. For the farmer, GMOs mean fewer markets, higher costs and reduced performance. For more information call toll-free (877) 968-FARM (3276).
Missouri Rural Crisis Center
Earthcraft Farm, Bringhurst, Indiana
Danny Kohl shares the hubris of his corporate master Monsanto that we can tamper with life at the basic level of the creation of novel species, and we can understand and control the consequences. What scientists today get corporate funding to keep track of the world's biodiversity with a view to its preservation? The life-and-death sciences have no concern about biodiversity, except to exploit little pieces of it and to turn them into commodities for profit.
And what about human societies in the next year, or next ten years? What is the impact on poor farmers and on native and indigenous people? Maybe they want to preserve and grow natural and traditional varieties of crops, free from genetic pollution. Maybe they have too much reverence for nature to fathom the arrogance of redesigning life. Maybe they just need land to grow food on so that they can feed themselves. But these political solutions "will not happen soon," thinks Kohl, and so he recommends an interim technofix, just like all the other technofixes, the ones that destroyed much of the resource base of viable communal agriculture.
We have an organic vegetable farm, and we sometimes use Bt, a natural biopesticide. Bt is now genetically engineered into many food plants so that they express toxin in every cell, all the time (in its engineered form, Bt does not quickly biodegrade, as it does in natural form). Since there are Bt crops in our area, we expect Bt-tolerant insects to develop and render Bt ineffective, thus making it more difficult to grow food organically. Corporate scientists have predicted this outcome for years. Corporations figure they can sell more toxic pesticides, and scientists count on working on the next technofix.
Monsanto recently won a lawsuit against a Canadian farmer who had Monsanto's GE canola growing in his field without having purchased its proprietary technology. Pollen drift from nearby GE fields ruined his crop and his livelihood. The international repercussions from this and similar outrages are just beginning.
JIM ROSE and SIGNE WALLER
Since a point-by-point response isn't possible in this limited space, I'll try to respond to some themes. For a point-by-point response, visit www.biology.wustl.edu/faculty/kohl.html, then click on the link, GM Food The Nation/April 21, 2001.
Clearly, there is more than one reasonable opinion about the potential for golden rice to make a significant contribution to improving vitamin A nutrition. Some of the reasons the jury is still out were included in my article.
Brian Tokar is correct that for people with no other source of vitamin A, satisfying the Recommended Daily Allowance would require consumption of impossible amounts of rice. (Benefits to vision occur far short of RDA, by the way.) But benefits are not "all or none." Peter Rosset of Food First is, of course, correct. Golden rice is not the solution. The empirical question is whether it can make a significant contribution to improving public health. While many find vitamin A supplements an attractive alternative, it is not inexpensive. In 1994 the World Bank estimated the cost to be 50 cents per person per year (two doses, including administration costs). South Asia might have 1.25 billion people. If only 1 of every 12.5 people (children and adult women) requires supplements, that's $50 million per year.
But the golden rice project is important beyond its possible contribution to alleviating suffering. It suggests one model for allowing scientists to escape the iron grip of profit potential that determines which crops and diseases are addressed. And escaping industry's demand for profit is the task I consider to be the most important. In the case of golden rice, public sector (Swiss and EU science agencies) and philanthropic (Rockefeller Foundation) funds allowed scientists to pursue a product that did not have sufficient profit potential to interest a biotech multinational.
It is true, as Charles Margulis and Rosset say, that a multinational was granted the rights to market golden rice in the developed world in exchange for work done on obtaining waivers of the seventy intellectual property rights agreements that otherwise would have restricted free distribution of seed. I'm comfortable with this trade-off, since it will allow seeds to be distributed without royalties in the Third World. This collaboration with industry after the hard, basic science has been done does not change the fact that there was not enough profit potential to induce any corporation to attempt to develop the product from scratch. Other aspects of the venture worth emulating are the role assigned to public agencies, like the Indo-Swiss Collaboration in Biotechnology, and the commitment to cross the trait into local varieties, among others.
If, as Margulis writes, in the past the lead scientist (I assume he means Ingo Potrykus) held patents along with a multinational, then I'm surprised Margulis doesn't welcome Potrykus into the light of public interest from the darkness of corporate co-patent-holder. Or does Margulis consider Potrykus to be beyond redemption? I could not agree more with Margulis's assessment that the biotech industry has shamelessly tried to turn golden rice into the poster child for the industry, especially since, contrary to the claim of Tokar, no industry money was spent to support its development. But I am puzzled by the apparent conviction that the golden rice project is somehow compromised by the industry offensive. Surely, we should denounce industry's shameless attempt, but why should their unprincipled effort to co-opt this publicly financed effort reflect badly on the product?
The product should be evaluated for what it is. Many predict it will fall far short of making a contribution to improved public health. If it turns out that way, so be it. But the logic of "my enemies' friends are my enemies" leads to strange places. One small indication that the biotech industry has succeeded in focusing attention on golden rice is that none of the letter writers mentioned my claim that science might contribute to improving cassava.
I admit to also being puzzled by the "either/or" paradigm presented in comments by Beth Champagne, Tokar, Rossett and Darel Paul. I think it's great that 3 million people in India are improving their lives with home gardens, even if (and I do not mean this sarcastically) that is only about 0.25 percent of the people at risk for vitamin A deficiency. I think we should vigorously support any strategy with promise for improving life for poor people, even if it is only an incremental improvement, recognizing that for the most part such projects do not compete for the same funds, such as money made available for science from the European Biotech Program. I absolutely agree that vitamin A deficiency, like hunger, is the result of poverty. GM foods will not cure poverty. The empirical question is whether they can make any contribution to human welfare without major changes in the social structure.
Clearly, Martin Teitel is correct that "all science occurs in a context." There can be no better example than the influence corporations have on the science agenda. What I had in mind when I mentioned "empirical, not ideological" questions were questions like those I asked in my essay; e.g., would golden rice be accepted by consumers, would the yield be less than the parental varieties into which it was crossed, etc. An extreme example of an ideological stance is the statement by Champagne that "contempt for life...is at the basis of science and capitalism." If this leads Champagne to reject all products of science, then we simply disagree. I, for one, am glad that my grandchildren have been immunized against disease, even if some corporation made a profit from it. (Immunization raises issues of benefit/cost ratio, but that's another story.) I'm glad that biotechnology techniques have resulted in bacteria that produce adequate insulin with consistent properties, a far better medicine than that isolated from pig and cow pancreas.
In my editorial, I called for increasing the stringency of the regulatory environment, including requiring multinationals to do the hard scientific work of making it virtually impossible for engineered genes to escape from the GM crop, a problem raised by Jim Rose and Signe Waller's letter. I did realize that this put at risk my status as a "hero of Monsanto," which a number of letter writers assigned to me. So it goes.
'YO MAMA' IS A BIGOT
New York City
Arthur C. Danto contends that Renee Cox's Yo Mama's Last Supper is not anti-Catholic and deserves First Amendment protection ["In the Bosom of Jesus," May 28]. He should listen to the artist's own words and then reread the First Amendment. Renee Cox, debating me on CNN and other media outlets, made it clear that her art is designed to attack the Catholic Church. Her claims ranged from "the Catholic Church is all about money...about big business" to "40 percent of the slaveowners in the South were Catholic." As far as the First Amendment is concerned, she has a constitutional right to show her bigoted work. What she doesn't have is a right to the public purse. If taxpayers' money can't be used to further one's religion, how can it logically be permitted to be used to denigrate it?
Director of Communications
New York City
My article on Renee Cox's Yo Mama's Last Supper concerned a photograph, rendered controversial by some ill-considered remarks by Mayor Giuliani to the effect that it was indecent and anti-Catholic. The burden of my analysis was that it is neither. Scully's letter is not about that picture, but about some ill-considered remarks the artist is alleged to have made on CNN. They have no bearing on the work or on First Amendment policies.
Scully's letter reminds me of nothing so much as the transcript of the trial in which the painter Paolo Veronese was brought up before the Tribunal of the Holy Inquisition in Venice in 1573 for having depicted Mary Magdalene in what is described there as "The Last Supper, which Jesus Christ took with his disciples in the house of Simon." The inquisitors wished to know whether Veronese felt that it was "fitting at the Last Supper of the Lord to paint buffoons, drunkards, Germans, dwarfs and similar vulgarities." Veronese said, "I paint pictures as I see fit and as well as my talent permits"--and he cited the precedent of Michelangelo, who painted "Our Lord, Jesus Christ, His Mother, St. John, St. Peter, and the Heavenly Host. They are all represented in the nude--even the Virgin Mary--and with little reverence."
The Holy Tribunal was an anticipatory version of the Decency Panel under Giuliani's counterreformation in New York. There was, of course, no First Amendment at the time. My own view is that a fair amount of tax money in Veronese's Venice went into the suppression of images; it instead goes into supporting their exhibition in New York today, for the larger intellectual benefit of our society, whatever the collateral opinions of the artists who make them.
One incidental issue puzzles me. In view of profound biblical paintings by such Protestant artists as Rembrandt, by what right do critics like Giuliani or Scully infer that images treating biblical incidents in ways they find displeasing are anti-Catholic rather than simply anti-Christian? It was the strategy of the Counter-Reformation to use images to strengthen faith. It was one strategy of early Protestantism to destroy images, based perhaps on the same psychology. By Rembrandt's time it was recognized that the church ought not to exercise a monopoly on religious representations. The taxpayers' money supports institutions that house painting after painting intended in their time to further the artists' religion, whether Catholic or Protestant. Where did Scully get the idea that this is contrary to the spirit of the First Amendment?
ARTHUR C. DANTO
Art Winslow is absolutely correct in his analysis of today's art environment ["The Wind She Blows," June 11]. If we continue losing independent art spaces we'll end up with mediocre art, and artists and intellectuals will be outcasts. But all is not gloomy! Here in San Antonio last May 15 the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center won an important legal battle. Federal Judge Orlando Garcia courageously ruled that our mayor and city council violated the US Constitution and Texas's Open Meeting Act when they conspired to defund the center's art projects. Read the ruling at www.nysd.uscourts.gov/courtweb/pdf/D05TXWC/01-05845.PDF.
ANTONIO C. CABRAL
THE MISSING LINK
New York City
Thanks to everyone who wrote in to recommend more "sites for sore eyes" ["Full-Court Press," June 4], as well as those of you who added to the count of obscene and abusive letters in support of Ralph Nader. Of the many recommendations I received, I am happy to add those below to the list of intelligent and occasionally funny places to go on the web for political good sense and, in the case of Consortium News, investigative reporting. Happy surfing.
SINS OF THE FATHER
Dusko Doder is right to correct the Greek Press Office's extremely partial account of Greece's relations with Macedonia ["Letters," June 4]. But he is wrong to blame Foreign Minister George Papandreou for the sins of his father, Andreas. Papandreou the younger has made serious efforts to move Greek foreign policy beyond the paranoid nationalism fostered by Papandreou senior. With Prime Minister Costas Simitis, he helped to broker the peaceful removal of Slobodan Milosevic despite the Serbian dictator's considerable popular support in Greece. Simitis and Papandreou have also been constructively involved in efforts to resolve the current crisis in Macedonia--it is, after all, in their interest to do so. The cause of peace in the Balkans is best served by giving credit where credit is due.
For the record, the Greek government never quite claimed, as Doder says, that "Macedonia has been a part of Greece for 3,200 years." At the peak of nationalist hysteria in the 1990s, posters of archeological artifacts from Greek Macedonia with the legend "Macedonia: Three thousand years of Greek history" were displayed for the benefit of foreign visitors. There were also posters proclaiming "Macedonia was Greece ever," obviously Englished by some subversive mole.
THE CRIMSON & THE BLACK
Why are people surprised that Harvard is not acting in a socially just fashion [Benjamin L. McKean, "Harvard's Shame," May 21]? After all, the Harvard Corporation (which just inducted its first minority member and until a few years ago was an all-men's club) to its lasting shame never divested from South Africa (although it later gave Nelson Mandela an honorary degree). And when we alumni/ae successfully elected four petition candidates to the Board of Overseers on a prodivestment platform, the big U responded by changing the rules to make it far more difficult to elect someone not on the official slate.
It took a student strike back in 1969-70 to get the university to establish an African-American studies program. And, as the recent New York Times story on NYU's belated award to those protesting the collegiate sports world's "gentlemen's agreement" pointed out, Harvard, too, in the 1940s honored an opposing team's request not to field a black player. There's much more.
We can hope that Harvard will do the decent thing by way of a living wage for its employees, but I wouldn't count on it.
Poverty & Race Research Action Council
CAN WE AFFORD DAYCARE?
It seems I'm a rare bird indeed: a feminist who doesn't think that daycare is necessarily a fabulous thing, particularly for kids under 2 ["Subject to Debate," May 14]. Katha Pollitt is correct, as usual, that the National Institute for Child Health and Development's recent study purporting to link immersion in daycare with aggressive behavior probably can't infer causality but will be used to hurt moms who want to work outside the home. But political agendas aside, let's face it: It's widely considered better, developmentally speaking, for children up to 2 (the age when they really have something to gain from socializing with their peers) to interact one on one with their caregiver.
In my house, the care of my infant daughter is split; my husband and I both have part-time jobs (mine offers benefits). For children's sake, I'd like the childcare debate to include a discussion of how to give more part-time workers access to health insurance and how to convince conservatives and progressives alike that except for breastfeeding, dads can do everything for children that moms can.
Thanks to Katha Pollitt for succinctly pointing out why research into the effects of daycare is misdirected. The investigations should rather focus on the pay rates for daycare workers and the difficulty all but the very rich have in finding daycare or preschools that come close to the care provided in France and other enlightened countries. I have been a teacher's aide in a school where a high percentage of the kids qualified for free lunch, and I've also worked in a suburban school. You can guess which kids showed the most hyperactivity and aggression. (It wasn't the ones who had been going to the best preschools.) Searching for preschools for my own two children, I realized that my whole salary wouldn't cover the cost of the schools that met my standards. The bottom line is money--for parents, for state-run daycare with well-paid, qualified teachers, for family leave.
WHY, IT'S A SILVER BULLET...
Way out here in the Arizona desert, this cowgirl had been waiting for someone to ride to her rescue. Wasn't too long ago the guys in the white hats looked to win the shootout at the OK Corral. Then they were ambushed. Ever since, daily scans of the horizon turned up nothing but coyotes.
Then out of nowhere, in a cloud of dust, rides the Lone Ranger: Senator Jim Jeffords! God bless you, sir. May you ride tall in the saddle and turn the right-wing stampede before it carries all of us over the cliff.
New York City
Doug Ireland's offhand comments about the Working Families Party's role in the upcoming municipal elections in New York City were inaccurate and hurtful ["Those Big Town Blues," June 4]. He wrote that the WFP "could have played a role in recruiting Council candidates" but did not because the progressive unions took no initiatives and ACORN was distracted by its fight against the Edison Corporation.
Speaking for two affiliates of the WFP--ACORN and SEIU/1199--I say that this is dead wrong. We have been involved in a marvelous WFP-initiated process that has included scores of neighborhood and borough meetings, a remarkable series of interviews with more than 100 potential candidates, worksite presentations on the issues by WFP workplace captains, the ongoing recruitment of neighborhood captains and much more. We had more than 1,000 people at a WFP mayoral forum and have won concrete commitments on our living-wage bill from candidates across the city. Until the WFP, there was no group trying to pull together a community-labor-religious coalition to move ideas, people, money and energy in contests from Nassau County to Niagara Falls.
The WFP slate for this year's city elections will have more union members, community activists and progressives than any slate in memory. We hope Nation readers will vote for, work for and send money to all the WFP-endorsed candidates for primaries and the general election.
SEIU State Council, WFP
New York City
As first-time candidates for public office, we want to say that the Working Families Party and its affiliates have been absolutely essential to our being taken seriously. The WFP endorsement opens doors, and its activists do real work on campaigns. The WFP is the only party that asks tough questions on issues.
The three districts we are running in--Far Rockaway and East Elmhurst in Queens, and Flatbush in Brooklyn--are not known for producing progressive leaders on the City Council. If that changes this year, and if instead there is an ACORN member (Sanders), an ex-cop turned NYCLU board member (Monserrate) or a human rights activist (Vernet) elected--it will be due in part to the persistence and support of the Working Families Party.
JAMES SANDERS JR.
31st council district candidate
21st council district candidate
45th council district candidate
Last fall The Nation ran a piece by Micah Sifry that began: "Today, for the first time in years, the political center of gravity in New York State is shifting." He went on to argue that some substantial portion of this welcome development was due to a hard-working, well-run, complex formation called the Working Families Party.
We're not perfect, but I cannot accept Doug Ireland's characterization of the party as "little more than a liberal adjunct of the Democratic Party." The challenge for a fusion party in our winner-take-all system--a challenge Sifry captured in his piece last fall but that eluded Ireland entirely--is how to be both independent and relevant. It's easy to be independent and irrelevant, but that's not our game.
The Nation tries to walk that same line and no doubt appreciates how difficult it can be. On balance, the WFP has done solid work building chapters, recruiting candidates, running issue campaigns, winning elections, training staff and so on. None of it is glamorous, but it's the very heart of what's needed to build power.
Executive director, WFP
New York City
Doug Ireland argues that the combination of term limits and the new campaign finance program has not, with a few exceptions, generated a "bumper crop of exciting, nontraditional candidacies" for this year's City Council elections. But take a closer look, and you'll find that in district after district, throughout the five boroughs, the field of candidates is crowded with "exciting, nontraditional" contenders--candidates who, were it not for the 4-to-1 matching program, would not be able to run competitively.
The three races identified by Ireland--Arthur Cheliotes, Steve Banks and Ydanis Rodriguez--are only the tip of the iceberg. All around town, activists who have worked in the movement and earned their stripes are running, and running to win--executive director of New York State's largest tenants' rights organization, Joe Heaphy; founder of St. John's University's first gay student organization, Jimmy Van Bramer; founder of the Latino Officers' Association, Hiram Monserrate; former chair of the New York State Women's Political Caucus, Gale Brewer; founder of the community development credit union Neighborhood Trust FCU, Mark Levine; immigrants and immigrants' rights activists like Kwong Hui, Morshed Alam and Margaret Chin; civil rights activists like Charles Barron and Rocky Chin; public interest attorneys like Brad Hoylman; ACORN leader James Sanders Jr.; the lead plaintiff on the historic Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, Robert Jackson; and the list goes on--they are all a part of the progressive movement, and they are all running. And to Citizen Action of New York, they are all proof that campaign finance reform is working in New York City.
Want further proof that the 4-to-1 matching program is working? Ask these "exciting, nontraditional" candidates where their contributions are coming from. The candidates, who have traditionally been left out of our electoral process because of a lack of personal wealth or access to people with money, are raising their campaign funds from people just like themselves.
You can see the strength of these grassroots campaigns as the many "exciting, nontraditional" candidates and legions of their volunteers are descending upon the streets of the city to collect signatures to get on the ballot. The grassroots movement is not absent in New York City, and after this historic election cycle, it will be even stronger.
MICHELE J. MAGLIONE
Citizen Action of New York City
New York City
I did not have space to list every nontraditional Council candidate, so I picked three with an even chance of winning. But Michele Maglione's list is somewhat deceptive. For example, Margaret Chin, Rocky Chin and Brad Hoylman are all running against one another in the same district. Gale Brewer, whatever her other qualities, has been a longtime patronage employee of the Manhattan Borough President's office--a very traditional path to elective office (and Ronnie Eldridge, the term-limited sterling progressive whose seat Brewer is seeking, has yet to make an endorsement in the race, a clear indication of her unhappiness with all three contestants). One is left with only ten districts in which the kind of candidate I described is present--of a total of fifty seats (I wouldn't call that a bumper crop). Only half of those on Maglione's list have a real chance of winning; it is possible that next year's Council will have a bloc of independent/progressive members no larger--perhaps even smaller--than the old one.
I have great respect for Dan Cantor's talents, energy and integrity, and Bertha Lewis has been an admirable leader of ACORN. As to the WFP, I broke the story of its creation in a lengthy, enthusiastic Village Voice article before its official public founding. At WFP events I was approached by a number of people, mostly young, who said they'd been inspired by my article to get active in the new party. I think that gives me some standing for the mild reproofs to the WFP in these pages.
Brother Cantor quotes my friend and sometime co-author Micah Sifry and suggests I walk The Nation's "line." Well, I've always had trouble following anyone else's "line"--I prefer to think for myself. But Sifry's article also said: "How not to be a mere adjunct of the Democratic Party...is a complicated problem that is rooted in the forces that birthed the WFP, and it is not an issue that is about to go away. Certainly the party's early and enthusiastic endorsement of Hillary Clinton in the Senate race puts the matter front and center. What kind of progressive third party gets into bed with a First Lady who once said, 'There is no left in the Clinton White House'?"
Consider the following: The WFP, to its credit, conducted a vigorous campaign for the primary item on its state legislative agenda, an increase in the minimum wage; the party held a press conference that starred Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver standing in front of a huge WFP banner. But just weeks before, Silver, at the behest of the hotel and restaurant lobbies, personally rammed through an amendment exempting more than 100,000 of New York's poorest-paid workers--those dependent on tips for a living--from the minimum wage law (a deal documented by Andy Hsiao in the Voice), with nary a peep of public protest from the WFP. Surely all those waitresses and waiters are members of "working families." Should Silver, therefore, be held out by the party as a progressive icon for stiffing them?
This year the WFP endorsed Bill Thompson for comptroller. Thompson got his job as president of the Board of Education in a deal with Rudy Giuliani that included opposing the multicultural Rainbow Curriculum and shredding meaningful safe-sex education. Since our city's school population is overwhelmingly kids of color, and with the front pages just having bannered the latest reminders of an appalling AIDS epidemic among black youth that's been known for some time, it is clear that Thompson--who is African-American--sold out his own community's kids for political advancement. Some kids of "working families" thus deprived of lifesaving information will die as a result. Stomach-turning? The WFP didn't think so. Human Rights Watch just came out with a 207-page report, Hatred in the Hallways, a study of school homophobia in seven states--including New York--where levels of violence and discrimination against gay kids are so great they cannot learn, a situation that the Rainbow Curriculum was designed to counter by teaching tolerance. Thompson won't get my vote.
Finally, my article clearly acknowledged that the WFP was one of two "significant" sources of support for progressive candidates. But the 100-plus interviews Lewis and Gaspard mention were of already-existing candidates, not WFP-generated ones. Right now the WFP is a ballot line, not a full-fledged political party, and it is dominated by the labor leaders who pay the bills, not a broad "community-labor-religious coalition." I hope one day it becomes large and diverse enough to act with more independence, and to rethink its criteria for endorsements. Until then, I stand by my assessment.
New York City
Win McCormack's sophisticated examination of conservative tactics in the last election was fascinating ["Deconstructing the Election," March 26]. Such sophistication is not necessary to an understanding of conservative intellectual resilience in defending the interests of the dominant economic powers. 'Twas ever thus. There is only one consistency in conservative analysis of the role of government: It is to follow its historical role of protecting the dominant interests and transferring wealth from those who have little to those who have much.
I'm glad the web-based version of your magazine is free. Otherwise I'd be forced to ask for a refund, not to mention punitive damages for the waste of my time (and, undoubtedly, a number of brain cells) caused by reading this article. I'll spare you my opinions and critique. Let's just paraphrase Foucault and say that this is the kind of writing that gives bullshit a bad name.
I am sympathetic with Win McCormack's applying poststructural analysis to the presidential election, but he makes a glaring mistake. The quote he attributes to Michel Foucault, that Derrida is "the kind of philosopher who gives bullshit a bad name," was in fact uttered by UC Berkeley professor John Searle, who made the statement in a 1983 article in the New York Times Book Review.
New Haven, Conn.
I hope I may be pardoned if I quibble, in prepostmodern fashion, over a minor point. I have it on good authority that the wonderful remark on Derrida being the sort of philosopher "who gives bullshit a bad name" comes not from Foucault but from Richard Rorty. But, of course, if the interpretation and recounting of all "texts" really is indeterminate, it perhaps doesn't matter all that much anyway.
JOSHUA L. CHERNISS
The "bullshit" quote is postmodernly elusive. Richard Rorty is fairly certain he never said it. John Searle admits to using it but not to originating it. In his article, McCormack relied on the rarely correct Dinesh D'Souza, who attributed it to Foucault. Scholars pronounce it "un-Foucauldian."
St. Peter, Minn.
I enjoyed Win McCormack's review of the Florida debacle and appreciate seeing the crisscrossing issues brought together in one place. But I was annoyed by his harping on "irony" and hints that Baker & Co. were secret advocates of the "postmodernism" Lynne Cheney castigates. Two errors: 1. Foucault's rejection of objective neutrality is premised on the principle that there's no such thing as objectivity independent of somebody's constructive work--nothing counts as "neutrality" in that sense; rising above subjectivity is an essential impossibility, not one based on human fallibility. This isn't at all the same as James Baker's claim that people are fallible and cannot arrive at objective truth, which nevertheless exists and is better approximated by nonpartisan machines than biased people.
2. There's nothing ironic about Republicans behaving the way they say they don't. It's a nifty example of Foucault's power theory, but you'd hardly expect Lynne Cheney to embrace Foucault. Not unless you find it "ironic" that capitalists are still behaving the way Marx said they do even as they pronounce Marxism dead and discredited. That's what Marx said they'd do. Lynne Cheney writes in a way Foucault anticipates even as she attempts to discredit him. Nothing ironic there.
RICHARD A. HILBERT
Win McCormack's article reminded me of Nixon winning elections by calling his opponents communists and later saying he knew they weren't communists but he had to win. As someone who was at the Inauguration protests in Washington and in several other protests, I was especially interested in the parts about the paid Republican protesters in Florida. I encountered Republican protesters here at the governor's mansion during the election fiasco--nasty, horrible, meanspirited people. When we protested the presence of the Fortune 500 group and Vicente Fox at U Texas, we were held back by a horrifying force of police in riot gear. Our protest community is notoriously peaceful, but no one was protecting us. The police got to try out their new toys--like rubber bullets--against some college students at Mardi Gras, causing several injuries and terrifying us all. Despite strong objections at a city council meeting, the police got a large raise, a toothless oversight committee, no civilian review and were sent on a junket to Seattle to learn crowd control! If we protesters had tried anything nearly as threatening as what Republicans staged in Florida, the police would have caused a bloodbath, and the media would have blamed us.
Win McCormack effectively conveys the tendentiousness, hypocrisy and even demagogy that characterized the Republicans' strategy in Florida. But I take exception to his claim that we require Foucault's concept of "a battle among discourses" to properly understand this historical event. Tendentiousness, hypocrisy and demagogy have characterized political rhetoric since well before the birth of poststructuralist philosophy. They have been analyzed with great acuity by, among others, Machiavelli, who advocated deploying them prudently, and Jürgen Habermas, whose ethics of discourse repudiates them.
McCormack wrongly invokes the term "discourse" to describe the position of one party in a two-party or multiparty controversy. Discourses for Foucault are analogous to what we might call the "paradigm" (Foucault would say "discipline") within which a controversy occurs. A Foucauldian approach to the Florida deadlock, therefore, would involve studying the underlying social, political, economic and cultural relations of power that determined which truth claims were accepted as valid.
It is true, as McCormack notes, that a subjectivist or relativist epistemology underlies this approach to the study of the relationship between power and ideas. But the fact that James Baker raised the problem of "individual subjectivity" on the canvassing boards in no way confirms Foucault's theory of power, as McCormack claims. To assert that election officials may be subjective is a far cry from demonstrating the validity of the proposition that everything is subjective. At most, McCormack may be able to claim that widespread acceptance of Baker's argument would demonstrate that some number of people have embraced a Foucauldian theory of power. This, of course, would no more confirm the theory than does Baker's charge of bias on Florida's canvassing boards.
Ultimately, we do not require Foucauldian concepts to understand what happened in Florida. George Bush personified hypocrisy by contesting the constitutionality of a voting procedure he signed into law in Texas; the US Supreme Court's justification for stopping the manual recount was manifestly tendentious; and Baker's claim that a prolonged electoral struggle would undermine US international standing was demagogic. Foucault can help us understand how networks of power determine whether these discursive acts come to be accepted or rejected. But to understand the corruption that pervaded GOP strategy in Florida, we need only to have been paying attention.
McCormack turns out to be prophetic of future postmodernisms by the more right-wing elements of the Establishment. Writing for an undivided Supreme Court, Justice Clarence Thomas informs us, "It is clear from the text of the [Controlled Substances] act that Congress has made a determination that marijuana has no medical benefits worthy of an exception"--a nice reminder that "power is knowledge."
The idea of different lenses through which history can be viewed and refracted (and twisted) was satirized by E.M. Forster in his seminal (hell, downright ovular) 1909 dystopian satire "The Machine Stops"; and the malleability of the past and the social construction of knowledge and the universe would be no news to George Orwell's O'Brien in 1984 or to the Stalinists, Nazis and other totalitarians he represents. No one knew that power is knowledge better than the authoritarians and totalitarians of the first half of the twentieth century, and later.
What's postmodern now is the degree to which "the best lack all conviction": the degree to which twenty-first-century intellectuals lack the ontological and epistemological foundations from which to argue that Congress might just, concerning medical marijuana at least, be in error, cruel and--in a nontheoretical formulation--full of shit.
RICHARD D. ERLICH
D'outre-Tombe [Beyond the Grave], France
Imagine my post-mortem shock at seeing my name on the cover of The Nation, somehow linked with the slogan "History Is Entirely Subjective." Am I not among those who pointed out in the 1960s that "Man" is a recent invention, and one fast approaching its end? If you want a slogan from my work, how about this one, spoken by an anonymous voice at the end of The Archaeology of Knowledge: "Discourse is not life; its time is not your time. In it, you will not be reconciled to death; you may have killed God beneath the weight of all that you have said. But don't imagine that, with all that you are saying, you will make a man that will live longer than he." "Entirely subjective" indeed!
I am gratified by the voluminous amount of mail that arrived in reaction to my article. I will respond to only one point, as I think that will enable me to expand and clarify my central thesis.
It may be true, as Jason Neidleman contends, that ultimately we do not need to deploy a Foucauldian intellectual apparatus to grasp the basic structure of what happened in Florida. However, I was more concerned with Republican or conservative intellectual superstructure. Conservatives have for some time now been claiming that their movement possesses a moral and intellectual integrity superior to that of their political and ideological adversaries and have repeatedly cited the widespread embrace of "decadent" postmodern (by which they mean poststructuralist) theories in liberal academia as partial evidence of that. Convincing the public of this putative superiority is much of what they have in mind when they speak of fighting, and winning, the "cultural wars" and is the very goal of tracts like Lynne Cheney's Speaking the Truth and Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education. In that context, the fact that their behavior in Florida, from the rough-and-tumble street level all the way up to the hushed, august chambers of the Supreme Court, reveals them, on their own chosen terms of discourse, to be intellectually and morally inconsistent and bankrupt seems more than noteworthy and was, ultimately, my real point.