Web Letters | The Nation


Solving The Nation’s Cryptic Crosswords

Regarding 1 across, the chador is not worn in Iraq. It is worn in Iran—chador is a Persian word. Furthermore it is not a head covering, it is a full body covering. Other than that, the clue is perfect.

Bart Laws

Scotland, CT

Dec 30 2013 - 5:37pm

Who Didn’t Kill JFK?

Beverly Gage has done us a service by giving us an overview of the recent Kennedy books. Still, I think she is too casual in dismissing conspiracy theories. She is not alone in this rejection: as she says, they learn it in journalism school.

At a time when NSA has been caught red-handed in a vast conspiracy to spy on Americans, this flip attitude toward conspiracy theorists seems unwarranted. Other documented conspiracies at high levels of government include the Iran/Contra affair, Watergate, Kissinger and the CIA orchestration of the 1973 coup and murder of democratically elected President Salvadore Allende in Chile, and the 1953 CIA coup against the democratically elected Mossadegh in Iran. Less well documented but attested by reputable people is the October Surprise, where, during the Carter administration, George Bush Senior apparently secretly promised arms to Iranian officials if they would not release American hostages until after the election (thus making Carter look incompetent). President Reagan announced the freeing of the hostages at his inaugural address.

I have been watching this idea that “conspiracy theorists are wackos” for years. It is so systematic, I am led to ask, Who benefits from this meme? I say it is those most likely to be engaged in conspiracies: the spy agencies and others in government. Branding any doubters of official pronouncements as conspiracy theorists and wingnuts gives those in power much more control of public discussion.

In Gage’s article, the subtext of her dismissal of conspiracy theories seems to be that since there are so many people and groups put forward as conspirators, then they must all lack credibility. That is not warranted. Instead of lumping them all together as conspiracy theories, it would be more useful to rank them according to evidence and credibility. And my conspiracy theorist mentality leads me to ask, How better to degrade the credibility of any particular theory than to muddy the water by circulating fifty less credible ones? We know from General McCrystal that the Army engages in psy ops all the time. Of course the CIA and other spy agencies do too. “Psy ops” is another name for conspiracy.

Also, just because no particular alternative, that is, “conspiracy” theory has enough evidence does not mean that the Warren Report was correct. Almost everyone agrees that there were serious problems of procedure and content with the Warren report.

And just because an alternative theory isn’t backed by enough evidence doesn’t mean it is wacko. In a courtroom, when a jury finds a person not guilty it doesn’t mean the prosecutor was necessarily wacko: it just means there wasn’t enough evidence. So it should be with alternative, I mean conspiracy theories.

Gage ended her article by quoting Reason magazine, “[Conspiracy theory] says something true about the anxieties and experiences of the people who believe and repeat it, even if it says nothing true about the objects of the theory itself.” This quote turns the focus away from the specific truth or not of particular facts claimed by government officials and diverts it to the supposedly questionable rationality of those questioning government officials. With all the documented conspiracies we know about, conspiracy theorists and the 77 percent of Americans who question the Warren version of the Kennedy assassination deserve better than that. 

Jane McCloskey

Deer Isle, ME

Dec 22 2013 - 3:04pm

Without Respite

“By February 1944, nearly every one of these twentysomethings was in Auschwitz.” The clash between the inane journalistic usage (still!) of the title format of an outdated sitcom and Auschwitz, for God’s sake: I cannot believe this sentence was published.

Jeff Norman

Milwaukee, WI

Dec 20 2013 - 12:01am

On Academic Freedom and the BDS Movement

The same left-wing extremists who want to boycott Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, and a country where every single day Israeli television, radio and internet sites blast their government and call for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have no problem at all with countries such as Russia, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Sudan and many, many more that deny women their civil rights, and their citizens the right to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, freedom of religion and the freedom to criticize their government without being imprisoned or murdered. Israeli academics and their institutions of higher learning are the first people and places where the policies of the Israeli government are questioned on a daily basis.

To single out Israel is clearly an act with anti-Semitic overtones. The leftists who love to condemn Israel sadly remain silent when the dictators in China, Russia, Iran, Syria, Egypt, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Sudan and Zimbabwe silence anyone who disagrees with them. Israel is not without fault, and the occupation of Palestinian land is not benign and it must end with two states living side by side in peace, but boycotting the very people who condemn the treatment of Palestinians is stupid. It’s one thing to boycott the purchase of any goods that come from the occupied territories, but by boycotting Israelis who want an end to the occupation is shortsighted and reeks of anti-Semitism.

Mark Jeffery Koch

Cherry Hill, NJ

Dec 17 2013 - 11:38am


The Activist Witch Hunt raises a point it does not pursue. Isn't the primary point here that no one but the rich can pay for our vaunted legal system? What good is our Constitution and Bill of Rights if no one can afford them? Has anyone compared the incarceration rates of lower-class white cannabis users with the much-quoted incarceration rate of black marijuana users of the same class? A publication as devoted to criticism of public institutions as The Nation should devote some time to this. The only other time I recall this subject coming up was an column by Alexander Cockburn on March 22, 2010.

Gary Anderson

Olympia, WA

Dec 16 2013 - 11:26pm

Israel’s New Racism: The Persecution of African Migrants in the Holy Land

We Non-Zionist moral Jews can tell you without fear that Israel is not a democracy. In a democracy, you do not divide up neighborhoods by religion, nor do you need permission to marry from a group of rabbis. In a democracy, there are no Warsaw Ghetto–type walls separating people by race and religion. In a democracy, you do not allow groups of men to physically and verbally attack women because of religious bigotry and misogyny. In a democracy, you do not build concentration camps to starve the children of your enemies, nor do you demonize them. Israel is as far from a democracy as any fascist state.

Lilly Munster


Dec 13 2013 - 9:56pm

The ‘I Hate Israel’ Handbook

Dear Mr. Alterman: I generally appreciate your columns. But I will echo the complaints of the “most fanatical anti-Zionist extremists,” as you call us. I haven’t read Blumenthal’s book (although I have read his articles) yet, but your article and responses contain enough stand-alone inaccuracies to be addressed without even defending Blumenthal’s book.

1. The textbooks. This is a favorite and tired trope. It has also been disproven in multiple studies, by researchers who actually bothered to translate those textbooks. See Electronic Intifada’s recap. Given that Israel controls basically everything that makes it into the Occupied Territories, including textbooks, it would really be quite difficult to include anti-Israeli propaganda in said texts. But then there’s also the issue that when an occupying army has destroyed your home, arrested your brother and killed your neighbor, you don’t really need a book to incite animosity, do you?

2. You spoke at an ADC conference and are a two-stater. “I have black friends!” The ADC is hardly a radical organization, although it is an Arab one. As for being a two-stater, oy vey. Go visit the West Bank and tell me where, in the 200+ separated enclaves (by the Wall, by checkpoints, by Jews-only bypass roads) you see a Palestinian state potentially existing. Please see B’Tselem’s (an Israeli human rights organization) maps and documentation of freedom of movement and resource allocation in the OPT. Presumably this is also to prevent the universally recognized right to return (in order to maintain Jewish demographic majority, which I would think would strike any American as very suspect, like Texans wanting to keep a white majority).

3. Blumenthal’s book is highlighted on a neo-Nazi website. Just because some wackos agree with some legitimate ideas doesn’t make those ideas wacko. Ron Paul occasionally has the same ideas as me (and I bet as you too); that does not make me a crazy libertarian.

4. Responding to metaphors as though they were supposed to be exact parallels so as to avoid the illustrated point. A pro-con take on birtherism is not meant to be taken literally. A far more accurate comparison would be a pro-con take on apartheid South Africa, which would have no place in a publication such as The Nation. In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death, and the recognition by leaders like Mandela and Archbishop Tutu that the Israeli system is apartheid, it might be time to wake up to the reality, although it is a painful reality for American Jews (I didn’t love going through that process initially either, but lots of Palestinians and allies held my hand).

You occupy an increasingly tenuous position, that of the “liberal Zionist.” It’s a tough fence to sit on, especially given that one’s balance is compromised by the blinders that one must wear to do so. Should you choose to come down from there, please check out an organization to which I belong for more resources, Jewish Voice for Peace. I think you’ll find that us radical extremists are actually pretty well-educated and reasonable, although we do hold the radical position of human rights for all. I think you’ll also find that we are not motivated by hatred of Israel (or of Israelis), although as American Jews we do feel a special responsibility for the actions of the state.

Should you choose to continue to write off the many progressives who would like to correct your misconceptions, well then, my letter just serves to add more weight to that pile.

Abby Okrent

Sacramento, CA

Dec 10 2013 - 1:27pm

Reclaim School Reform

After more than twenty years of privatization and high-stakes standardized tests, there is no evidence that the so-called “reform” agenda has benefitted students—and plenty of evidence of damage to public schools, students, communities and educators. But there is so much money to be made by privatizing schools, operating for-profit charters and selling tests and test-prep materials, we know the billionaires will keep on peddling the same nostrums.

The so-called reformers claim to be civil rights activists. But they are conspicuously absent in the struggles for voting rights, for LGBT youth and for immigrants, because as soon as they admit that conditions outside of the classroom affect students’ success in school, their whole attempt to blame teachers and other school workers is exposed as a gigantic fraud.

Unions remain today, as they have been for over fifty years, the strongest force for justice and the greatest advocate for educational quality.

School reform cannot be done to educators or for educators, only by educators and with educators. Anything less will result in the same old same old.

George Sheridan

Garden Valley, CA

Dec 9 2013 - 7:33pm

Without Respite

In her article about Primo Levi, which is at least in part a review of Berel Lang’s new biography, Vivian Gornick cites Lang’s explanation that the widely held belief that Levi committed suicide is no more than “an inference,” as there were no witnesses—nor any other actual evidence. And yet she begins her essay by asserting his suicide as a fact, and later describes him as having “leaped” to his death. Although her theory of the causes of his death are certainly interesting, it is no less speculative and thus presumptuous than the certainties of those for whom accepting Levi’s suicide would entail the negation of his life’s work and its supposed message of hope. Instead, let us consider the possibility that his writings are profound enough to withstand any particular interpretation of his life’s abrupt end, and indeed that the exquisite humanity evinced by his character and work should allow him the dignity of having had thoughts and motivations that we will never understand, or even know.

H. Gold


Dec 9 2013 - 2:59pm

The Gray Zone

To refute every bit of nonsense in Isaac Chotiner’s piece on John Gray’s Silence of the Animals would require far more time than I am willing to expend, so let me limit myself to the following absurdity:

I suppose the definition of science, which certainly some people do put “faith” in, is debatable, but when an apple falls from a tree, gravity ensures that it hits the ground regardless of whether there is a human who sees it do so. Human beings did not, then, invent gravity, or physics, or biology.

Without human observers. there is no way to be certain that the apple falls. One “knows” that it falls only through faith. Further, gravity is a human concept (and not a universally accepted one*), a description of an event and a hypothetical explanation of it. Moreover, it is pure absurdity to infer from gravity that entire manufactured fields of human learning, such as biology and physics, which are created and expanded by humans alone, must also exist independently of their creators.

As to what Gray values, and what stance he thinks is wisest for humans to take at this stage in their development, Chotiner might find a clue by putting down his copy of Eliot and reaching for a volume of Keats’s letters. I am glad to see that Gray touches a nerve among humanists, and to see how their threatened emotional reactions push them to silly assertions in an attempt to sustain their unsustainable world-view.

Kevin Shelton

New York City

Dec 8 2013 - 12:20pm