Web Letters | The Nation


My Beef With Vegetarianism

It often takes me a while to get caught up on all the book reviews in The Nation, but I try to read them all, because for the most part they are literate and informative. Then there are the ones like Daniel Lazare's anti-vegetarian screed, thinly disguised as a book review. People have already asked here, in several well-written "bletters," why Lazare is so hostile to vegetarians and vegetarianism. I believe that the answer can be found in his last sentence. Lazare is apparently something of a gourmet, and this class of people tends to believe that if something can be eaten, it should be eaten, provided it is prepared by a third-generation chef and served in or with an expensive wine. Still, a little guilt often manages to penetrate the fog of chloresterol and alcohol (which, believe it or not, Mr. Lazare, most vegetarians don't abhor when it isn't made using animal parts) that seems to permeate the epicurean brain. This greatly irritates the gastric hedonists, often to the point of attacking that which makes them feel guilty. Lazare's piece has been largely refuted already, but those who still can't see, for example, that nonexistent beings have nonexistent interests, might want to check out the FAQs, originally written by me for usenet, that can be found on the main page of my website. I doubt that Daniel Lazare will be moved to reconsider his menu-based etehics, but others on the left may find food for thought.

Michael Cerkowski

Mechanicville, NY

Feb 28 2007 - 6:47am

Girls Against Boys?

This article is so right on it's scary. I am definitely one of those girls that went to college to get a BA like it was trade school, because I knew I had to have one to get a job that would pay me enough to live. And yes, I'm sure I have taken out more student loans with less pay out.

My boyfriend and I often discuss our relative positions in the working world. He decided not to go to college because he aspires to be a musician. Meanwhile he is making a yearly salary more than I ever have with no education, being 7 years younger, and with less employment experience as a manager of valet parking at an upscale hotel. I often argue with him that if I had decided to not go to college and try to work a job on the side to fund my artistic aspirations (poetry) that there is no way I would've been able to support myself (I'm still having trouble anyway). There is just no blue-collar sorts of jobs that you can get without any education that will pay women well.

He always responds that there is one female on his work team who was offered the manager position before he arrived but turned it down because she didn't want the increased responsibility. He fails to notice that, one, she is the ONLY female and, two, that she is raising a young child on her own, for which she often has to leave early to pick up from school, which is probably why she chose not to take on the promotion. Not to mention the fact that she would be supervising all males who would probably challenge her authority daily.

Despite all this she could've still taken the promotion, but I doubt she would've been paid as well as he is. My point is that the roadblocks that women have to hurdle are twice as hard without an education (even if they find sustainable employment without a degree) and this is definitely why there is a majority of women over men in college. Unfortunately, when you get out you find out it still doesn't gurantee that you will be paid a fair wage.

Thank you, Katha Pollitt, for this article. As you can tell I enjoyed it immensely and you were one of my favorite authors to read in my women's studies classes at UCLA.

Heather Orr

Tacoma, Washington

Feb 27 2007 - 9:48pm

Remembering Norma Rae

Wonderful article. Wanted to second the recommendation of Matewan and North Country (New Zealander directed). I also would highly recommend Blue Collar with Richard Pryor and Harvey Keitel that also effectively portrayed working class people and dealt with race issues as well. Also, how about The Pursuit of Happiness (Italian director), Real Women Have Curves (albeit more mainstream, we take what we can get in dealing with struggles or poor working people) or The Wire (albeit a TV show, wait for it to come out on DVD if you don't have HBO) These deal with homelessness, working lives, and issues of inner cities?

I was batting around this theory that we do not see these working class-issues-oriented movies being made b/c many of the up-and-coming filmmakers and writers seem to come from privileged backgrounds. Does anyone else notice this in reading the bios of the new filmmakars and many creative artists? Funny you should quote mogul Goldwyn--his grandson, Tony is making movies today and it's not Matewan 2.

I know this will be controversial but I have this theory that maybe many of the well-off artists who have never experienced the real insecurity of unemployment (w/o benefit of a trust fund or parent's resources to back them up), homelessness or a state close to it, not having money for a prescription, etc.; they, as artists, are wary of portraying issues like this b/c they fear doing an dishonest or inauthentic job with it. (Or possibly they have no interest, I was giving the benefit of the doubt.)

Now I believe that some would say that a true artist could transform an emotionally wrenching experience of say, watching parents go through a divorce, and attach that emotion to the insecurity of a man or woman dealing with unemployment. That's true, but I find that most artists out there would just rather portray the experience that is most accessible to them and would just literally portray the parents in divorce (see The Squid and The Whale) rather than thinking about the emotional insecurity of that experience and relating it to something outside their experience. I hope this makes sense.

I do not want anyone to think I am saying that only artists from lower-class backgrounds can do an authentic job of portraying working-class issues. I don't care who does it, as long as it gets done. I'm just offering another perspective that tries to explain why it appears the Norma Rae of 2007 isn't being made. What I am talking about deals with artistic issues, the chances people with access to the opportunity to make films wish to take, and the lack of media and creative access for people from disadvantaged backgrounds. All this being said, this unfortunately assumes that those from working-class backgrounds, once they have access, would have an artistic interest in portraying experiences from their own backgrounds.

Jen Hinton

Chicago, IL

Feb 27 2007 - 6:47pm

Endgame in Korea

Dear Bruce Cumings,

My name is Soohun and I came here from Seoul in 1976.

I first saw your name in Linda Sue Park's When My Name Was Keoko. I was interested in that one because of Yoko Watkins's memoir (fiction, it says, but taught in 6th grade around here as facts). So far from bamboo groves, Beech Tree Books, NY. I wonder if you read it. It turns out she is very likely a daughter of a high official in Unit 731 who was in prison in Siberia for six years, together with Ishi, the commander of 731.

Anyway, a lot of what happens in the story could not have happened and on top of it, it narrates nasty fabricated insults on Korean in general and "Korean communist soldiers" in particular. Which I gather did not exist till later. American bombings in Korean Peninsula? Not in 1945.

I am so glad about this article. You were prophetic about a lot of things dealing with North Korea. I wonder, How was I not informed of this even with my interest in it?

Thank you for writing this. I would hope and wish that American government will not be swayed by only with its own very small-range interests but deal in more substantial American ways.

Mrs. Soohun Cho Song

Dover, MD

Feb 27 2007 - 6:06pm

Liberalism's Lost Libretto

Having seen Tom Stoppard on Charlie Rose and looked forward to seeing or at least reading his Coast of Utopia at some point, I was excited to find Eric Alterman’s review of it. However, as I began to read it my excitement quickly waned off. Perhaps Alterman’s straw-man of Mikhail Bakunin reflects Stoppard’s, I don’t know, but nowhere in Alterman’s piece does he begin to convey any of the contributions he made.

In fact, what Alterman says regarding the play is true of Bakunin, he “resists simple summary.” There can be no doubt that there is plenty of room for criticism of him, and he has been criticized extensively even by those who in some sense follow in his footsteps, but he was not the simple-minded “revolutionary hothead” Alterman makes him out to be. He was the first to translate Hegel into Russian, and in addition to being a prolific author and commanding orator, he was also “physically brave,” as Stoppard admitted in conversation with Charlie Rose. In addition to his disparaging comments, Berlin also said that Bakunin was, “consumed with a genuine hatred of injustice,” and had a, “spell-binding eloquence.” He names Bakunin among the “great democratic revolutionaries” of the time, who, “were admired not only as heroic fighters for freedom, but for their romantic, poetical properties as individuals.” (Karl Marx, 1939)

Bakunin was a seminal figure of the First International, and nineteenth-century socialism in general. Peter Kropotkin wrote very affectionately about him in his book Memoirs of a Revolutionist (1889). His views were greatly influenced by Bakunin and he listed him among “our best contemporary writers” alongside Dostoevsky. Whilst in the Jura Mountains of Switzerland when some of Bakunin’s ideas were being put into practice there he noted his surprise that, “In conversations about anarchism, or about the attitude of the federation, I never heard it said, ‘Bakunin says so,’ or ‘Bakunin thinks so,’ as if it settled the question. His writings and his sayings were not regarded as laws--as is unfortunately often the case in political parties.” Interestingly, Kropotkin also wrote, “I only once heard Bakunin’s name invoked as an authority in itself, and that impressed me so deeply that I even now remember the spot where the conversation took place and all the surroundings. Some young men were indulging in talk that was not very respectful of the other sex, when one of the women who were present put a sudden stop to it by exclaiming: ‘Pity that Michel is not here: he would put you in your place!’”

What comes through to my mind when reading about Bakunin is his undaunted humanity; he emerged battered but unbroken from every storm. Kropotkin describes how he drew on Bakunin’s strength, how in prison his “thoughts fixed especially on Bakunin.” James Guillaume wrote that when Bakunin himself suffered years in harsh conditions chained and secluded, sick and malnourished, though “his body was debilitated, his spirit was indomitable. It was this above all he feared, that prison life would break his spirit; that he would no longer hate injustice and feel in his heart the passion for rebellion that sustained him; that the day would come when he would pardon his tormentors and accept his fate.” (Bakunin on Anarchy, 1971)

Bakunin’s speculations about authoritarian socialism proved regrettably prescient. He warned of a “red bureaucracy,” which would be “all the more dangerous because it appears as a sham expression of the people’s will.” He rejected all authority because he believed that every man has it within himself to be vicious and despotic, if only the situation arises that his power remains unchecked. In the same vein as Lord Acton’s famous phrase that “power corrupts,” Bakunin wrote that, “Even the best of men are rendered corruptible by the temptations of power and the absence of a serious, consistent opposition.” He even said that “If you took the most ardent revolutionary, vested him in absolute power, within a year he would be worse than the Czar himself.”

“We believe power corrupts those who wield it,” said Bakunin, “as much as those who are forced to obey it.” Both the oppressor and the oppressed are degraded and dehumanized. Therefore, I think it would have been much more appropriate for Alterman to use the opportunity of this review not only to remember the ideas of revolutionary socialists long ago, but to question the institutions and relations of production that still exist. Certainly today there are, to quote Chomsky, “forms of authority and oppression that survive from an era when they might have been justified in terms of the need for security or survival or economic development, but that now contribute to--rather than alleviate--material and cultural deficit.” But then, as Chomsky also said, “if it is plausible that ideology will in general serve as a mask for self-interest, then it is a natural presumption that intellectuals, in interpreting history or formulating policy, will tend to adopt an elitist position, condemning popular movements and mass participation in decision-making, and emphasizing rather the necessity for supervision by those who possess the knowledge and understanding that is required (so they claim) to manage society and control social change.” (Chomsky on Anarchism, 2005)

What I found most displeasing in Alterman’s article is his equating Bakunin with those who called for the unprovoked invasion of Iraq. To say that “Bakunin would have led the charge” is nothing short of slander, and he gives us no reason to believe it is true, but merely proclaims it as though it were beyond question. Of course, it is rather a stretch for him to try to tie the war in Iraq in with this play anyway. It would have been a much more organic transition to put into question the very “liberal evolution” (rather than revolution) that he lauds. After all, where has it gotten us? The gap between richest and poorest countries is much wider now than it was in Bakunin’s day. According to the UN, one-fifth of the population of the developed nations consumes more than four-fifths of the world’s resources! At the other end of the spectrum, more than ten million children under five die needlessly every year. The richest 400 people on earth have more money than the bottom 45 percent of the world’s population! It is truly as Peter Unger put it bitterly with his wonderful title, Living High and Letting Die.

It is well and good to have a “consistent commitment to moderation” of temperament, but as Thomas Paine, another great revolutionary, said, “moderation in principle is always a vice.” If like Bakunin we are opposed on principle to the imposition of any “will whatsoever, human or divine, collective or individual,” then we will oppose the wage system, which reduces some to the level of bosses and many more to the level of wage-slaves. If, like Bakunin, we believe that “every command slaps liberty in the face,” we will wish to see the coercive institutions that now dominate our society utterly replaced by ones that are as nonhierarchical as possible. We will want everyone to be free, because privileging some disadvantages others, and like violence authority hardens the heart and weakens the mind of everyone involved. Just as our sensitivity to cruelty and injustice in other forms has been made more acute, we may come to say of the wage-earners of our time what the Russian poet Nekrásov said of the serfs of his:

“It is bitter, the bread that has been made by slaves.”

Matthew Provonsha

Toledo, Ohio

Feb 27 2007 - 12:24pm

White History 101

Mr Younge wants to distinguish "history" from "mythology." But the traces of myth can be found throughout his text.

Younge is correct that a historical understanding requires an understanding of complexity and contradiction. Yes, the Europeans who settled in the Americas brought both constitutional democracy and the mass murder of natives. Yes, white history in America ought to include not only Abe LIncoln but also Mr. Blake and the accusers of Emmett Till.

And (this is the part Mr. Younge leaves aside) African history ought to deal with both the suffering of the Middle Passage and the participation of Africans in the slave trade of their own people.

And black history in America ought to include not only Martin LUther King Jr. but also AL Sharpton and Tawana Brawley and everyone involved in the Duke lacrosse 'rape' scandal.

If, that is, it's really history we want, and not just a new mythology.

Alexander Riley

Lewisburg, PA

Feb 27 2007 - 2:18am

Remembering Norma Rae

While reading this article, I was looking for a mention of the John Sayles film Matewan, made in 1987.

It's another movie about unions that might fit in this discussion. The ending is more downbeat than that of Norma Rae, but it is a positive portrayal also rooted in history.

Bert Stevens

Kanawha, Iowa

Feb 26 2007 - 11:01pm

Sect Symbols

An excellent article.

Kudos to someone who does not hold back to be incorrectly politically correct.

Thumbs up.

Ali Darwish

Beirut, Quebec, Canada

Feb 26 2007 - 9:49pm

How to Fix Our Democracy

I do not understand why we are still operating under the assumption that a Constitutional Crisis has not already occurred.

The Bush administration has won the first battle. This October Bush signed into law his right to arrest and imprison any person on the face of this earth he chooses. He also signed into law the power for him alone to declare martial law. These powers are completely inconsistent with a democracy.

This is a stunning development. Not just because he used surreptitious means to get these laws passed, but also because his administration felt the need for these powers.

Does anyone think that a person who could willfully cause the death of 600,000 Iraqis would not use these powers? Does anyone think that someone who can contemplate the use of nuclear weapons, thereby immediately killing a hundred thousand Iranians and over the next 20 years hundreds of thousands of people all over the globe from radiation poisoning, would hesitate to use martial law to hold on to power?

If this administration is not swiftly removed from power then we will no longer have any pretence of a democracy. This is why Vladimir Putin said, “And of course this is extremely dangerous. It results in the fact that no one feels safe. I want to emphasis this--no one feels safe! Because no one can feel that international law is like a stone wall that will protect them.”

Mr. Putin knows he now has to negotiate, not with the once was democracy of the United States, but the military dictatorship of Mr. Bush.

I firmly believe that there is not a member in either branch of Congress who is not fully aware of our present situation. They are the people who passed these laws in September. They did not think that these powers were in the bills when they voted for them. We know this now because they are trying to repeal these laws. The anti martial law bill has been endorsed by all 50 governors. Does any one think that Bush will sign these new laws? I don’t see him saying, “OOPS, my bad.”

We need a massive effort to let our Congress people know that we are aware of this situation, and that they need to come back to our districts and explain it to everyone. They need to shut the government down until they have sufficient voter backing to do the IMPEACHMENT. Eventually this is all about whether or not each member of Congress wants to give a very dire message to his or her constituents.

And we have to be directly in their faces until they do so.

Dan Monte

Dan Monte

Santa Rosa, California

Feb 26 2007 - 5:18pm

How to Fix Our Democracy

Congress will do nothing to stop the Bush regime from completing the transformation of America into a fascist dictatorship, not without serious, direct pressure on key members.

Here are the websites for Nancy Pelosi, Jack Murtha and other Congressional Democrats in positions to end the war in Iraq and hold Bush and Cheney accountable for their multitude of crimes.






Pelosi, obviously, tops the list because she is the Speaker of the House of Representatives. She gets to decide what legislation comes up for debate by the full chamber, and what languishes on the legislative table gathering dust.

John Conyers is Chair of the Judiciary Committee (where the process of impeachment must begin). David Obey of Wisconsin heads up the Appropriations Committee, and Jack Murtha leads the subcommittee on appropriations for the Iraq war. Finally, Ike Skelton of Missouri heads the House Armed Services Committee. These five are the ones to keep on your list, who are in the House of Representatives.




Robert Byrd of Virginia runs the Senate Appropriations Committee, Ted Kennedy is chairman of the Armed Services committee, and Patrick Leahy of Vermont heads Judiciary. Byrd and Kennedy especially are in positions to block legislation from coming up that does not bring an end to the war in Iraq and which does not prevent a war with Iran. Leahy is in a position to block Bush's judicial nominees.

So there you have it, just eight members of Congress to hold accountable. This is what you can do to make sure they do their jobs: threaten to get a recall election if they refuse to end the war in Iraq, and refuse to allow Bush and Cheney to be impeached. Organize people who live in their states and districts who are pissed off at their failure to do their jobs. Obtain petitions for the task, and then write a POLITE letter and follow-up e-mail urging them to use their power to start the ball rolling. Here are eight talking points from which to choose.

1. Democrats have control of the committees, and can use their power to prevent funding for the Iraq war and operations against Iran from getting through.

2. Republicans had no problem abusing their power to shut Democrats out of the legislative process, and Democrats are under no obligation to play nice now that they are in charge.

3. Democrats can take the high road by engaging in true compromise; if Republicans will lend their support to Democratic legislation and resolutions, then their legislation will at the very least get a debate. There is no need to promise that GOP legislation will pass, that would just be stupid. But if Democrats are smart, they will learn--quickly--to flex their newly strengthened muscles.

4. If Democrats are serious about ending the war in Iraq and preventing war with Iran, they must pass binding resolutions, or else block legislation continuing Bush's military appropriations. People are dying, and time is running out.

5. Impeachment must be put back on the table, and the Articles of Impeachment introduced against both George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

6. Gerald Ford failed to hold Richard Nixon accountable for his crimes, and as a result lost his bid for election in his own right. Similarly, if Democrats fail to remove Bush and Cheney voters will remove them from power in 2008.

7. When Republicans impeached Bill Clinton, not only did they retain control of Congress in the next election cycle they went on to successfully steal the presidency.

8. Recall petitions are being prepared in the event Democrats in a position to end the war and hold Bush and Cheney accountable refuse to do so within ninety days.

You don't have to use all of the above talking points; use two or three to make your case, and put them in your own words. Make sure you get voters who live in these Democrats' states and districts to organize. (The reason it's important to get the people who live in the states and districts of the above-mentioned Democrats to do this, obviously, is that it is their states and districts whose representatives and senators require public pressure.) Send written letters and e-mails, and make telephone calls. Do this, and do not let up.

Above all, be firm but polite; nothing causes someone to hold to his position out of pure, stubborn pride than having someone talk trash to him. Start drives to obtain these petitions and gather signatures, and then have them ready to file. You may have to raise money to pay a filing fee, and obviously candidates willing to impeach and tie the purse strings shut must be available.

Finally, be realistic in your thinking. Any effort to recall the representatives and senators mentioned above is probably not going to succeed. If such efforts do succeed, great--but do not expect that they will. What is important, at this stage, is not success but the media attention derived from large, organized efforts to recall politicians who refuse to carry out their Constitutional duties. If we can pull this off, we may be able to light the fire under Congressional Democrats.

Lives are at stake, and so is the future of our country. For what good is having a representative form of government, if that government does not obey the wishes of the public it is supposed to represent? And what good are the Democrats, if after being elected to power they fail to do what the public wants them to do?

Michael Kwiatkowski

Cleveland, Ohio

Feb 26 2007 - 4:14pm