Web Letters | The Nation


Mad Mel and the Maya

I am a graduate of New York University, with a major in History and a minor in Anthropology. This does not in any way make me an expert in either field, but I will say that I have studied with some of the most radical professors in both, and went to see Gibson's film "Apocalypto" fully anticipating to be embarassed or disgusted by his lack of historical knowledge and either overt or latent racism.

I came out of the movie, however, with a completely different opinion than that of the author of this article. One of the most popular and frustrating trends among American films when it comes to depicting indigenous peoples of North and South America is blatant Exoticism--making the "native" seem either savage and unhuman or other-worldly and hyper-spiritual, with a culture and self-awareness that is completely different than ours.

Gibson's movie not only strays from making the Mayan another exotic Other in the history books; rather, he does the complete opposite, and makes a main character in Rudy Youngblood's Jaguar Paw that is utterly relatable, sympathetic, and admirable (but not in that tragic "noble savage" way). Even the elite Mayan classes who are responsible for the bloody sacrifices in the film are not portrayed as evil--they are politicians who seek to quiet an increasingly unhappy public, women who sit by in silence, and children who have been raised in luxury at the expense of others. Ultimately, Gibson does not portray the Mayan civilization as either backward or superior; instead, he draws political and cultural parallels between today and "back then" that do not remove the Mayan from modern criticism (which historically, is problematic at best, but certainly not racist). In fact, it is by treating the Mayans as cultural equals not beyond or above interpretation and criticism that Gibson gives the Mayan civilization more respect than any other movie portraying ancient peoples that I have seen.

Did Gibson screw up some facts? Yes. (Though less than people like to assert--see the National Geographic article entitled "Apocalypto Tortures the Facts", in which the reader discovers through close reading that in fact, he wasn't that far off most of the time). Did he bypass actual Mayan people for actors that fit the "Native American-looking" stereotype? Yes, though he didn't go and cast a Hollywood star by any means. (Youngblood was a virtual unknown--a risk from the start--and from watching this film, has incredible talent not easily found in any actor). Did he make some classic "white man tells Indian story to say something about white culture" mistakes? Absolutely. (Clearly he has some feelings about the alleged moral decay of American culture and the Iraq War). But overall, he made an engrossing (while violent) film that followed the harrowing tale of an individual and the larger fall of a civilization that for once, did not reek of exotic "Otherness" and distance from its subject.

The problem of overgeneralizing cultures, races, neighborhoods, wars, etc. is a trend of not just Hollywood, but journalism as well. The author seems too quick to judge (prejudge?) Gibson and his criticisms of racism are transparent at best.


New York, New York

Apr 18 2007 - 4:53pm

Israel's Strategic Threat

An excellent article. It brings again to my attention the subversive and dangerous character of any true democracy. You can see how a majority can be threatened by democracy, just as much as minorities can be threatened by democracies. This leads us to the question, 'Why Democracy'? Why this historic love-affair with such a bizzare form of rule and order?

The answer has to be the Jewish state's close relationship with America. If Israel had a better relationship with other countries, Asian nations for example, they may well have been more enthusiastic about more useful forms of government, e.g. military dictatorships.

Clearly what we are finding is the relationship between democracy and anti-Semitism. What we must learn to do is call a spade a spade, and democratic principles are inherently anti-Semitic. It is time to move on.

Mordechai Benjamin Israel-Cohen

Washington, DC, USA

Apr 18 2007 - 2:10pm

Israel's Strategic Threat

Don't just give one-sided arguments over Israel. You are forgetting the Palestinian terrorism, let alone the presence of Iran's nuclear ambitions to "wipe Israel off the map in one firestorm." Those who oppose Israel making one-sided arguments, looking at the glass as half-empty, can be just as bad as Hitler and the president of Iran. I've been to Israel twice already before on BirthRight and a social justice mission for volunteering in the community, and Israel is overall a very secure and safe state.

Their security is much more orderly than that of the US, apparently. Given the unpreparedness of the shooting spree at the VA Tech campus comes to show how much more prepared Israel would have been like they were when that suicide bomber attacked Hebrew University. Furthermore, hate is empowered through learning. There are children being brought up as terrorist, both Palestinian and afar training with guns in retaliation against the west and Israel. Israel is one of the few successful democracies in the Middle East, not just a "Jewish democracy," since Palestinians have their elections to elect their leaders, either Fatah, Hamas, etc.

Israel has done its best and is fully committed to the peace process with the Palestinians; unfortunately, there hasn't been a good and compatible peace agreement between the two. For more information, the Anti-Defamation League's website has a vast amount of resources on the case for Israel and how others can cooperate. There are far worser places than how Israel is claimed to be, such as Darfur, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. Unfortunately, a big problem that goes around in this confusing and conflicting world is intolerance and miscommunication.

So, don't blame Israel as the root of the world's problems, even though it is easy to generalize when certain apprehensions and situations occur. All in all, while the West and Israel desire to prosper in freedom, the Arab world's threats of terrorism will only inflame conflict and fear, and won't merit any peace or prosperity. Therefore, Israel is not an apartheid, as Jimmy Carter claims it to be, because there needs to be a better choice of words than that of wha occurred in South Africa. A two-state solution between Israel and Palestine would be ideal as long as there is a reasonable and compatible peace agreement. Israel has done its part to secure for peace, so now Palestine should do the same to take responsibility for their actions as well.

Nick Rosen

Great Falls, VA

Apr 18 2007 - 9:52am

Israel's Strategic Threat

A terrific article providing background on the charges again Bishara. Congratulations to Gordon & the Nation for publishing the first subtantive article in the western media on the horrible charges.

However, Gordon doesn't note that the independent Palestinian news agency Maan reports that the 2 charges are receiving $5 million from Syria via an E. Jerusalem moneychanger; and communications w. Hezbollah during the Lebanon war. I'm not saying these are credible charges if this is indeed what he is charged with. I'm merely saying that this is what one media report says.

I've covered this story for the past week at my blog:http://www.richardsilverstein.com/tikun_olam/index.php?s=azmi+bishara

One should also note the horrid gag order preventing the Israeli media fr. fully reporting this story. Which is another reason it is so important for the western media to put pressure on the Shin Bet to come clean with the charges & conduct this investigation in the full light of day.

Richard Silverstein

Seattle, WA

Apr 17 2007 - 11:05pm

Hiss in History

Victor Navasky Responds to Mark Kramer's Bletter, "The Hiss Case and General Volkogonov: A Comment on Victor Navasky's Article"

Thanks to Mark Kramer for reminding us what Volkogonov told Serge Schemann and for adding what he told Kramer himself.

Now let me remind you of what Volkogonov told John Lowenthal before he talked with Schemann/Kramer and add what he told Loewenthal after he talked with Schemann/Kramer:

On 14 October 1992, he wrote Lowenthal in response to his and Alger Hiss's request:"...On the basis of a very careful analysis of all the informatfion available, I can inform you that Alger Hiss was never an agent of the intelligence services of the Soviet Union...Not a single document, and a great amount of materials has been studied, substantiates the allegation that Mr. A. Hiss collaborated with the intelligence services of the Soviet Union. Probably, such old allegations are based on a misunderstanding or incorrect misinformation. I believe that public opinion should have long since cleared Mister Hiss of the old suspicions, which are completely groundless."

After various people including Romerstein, Schemann, and Kramer met with Volkogonov Lowenthal reinterviewed him in Washington and a transcript of that reinterivew may be found on the Hiss website (at http://homepages.nyu.edu/th15/ volk2.html)

John Lowenthal: General, which archives did you examine in the Alger Hiss case?

Dmitry A. Volkogonov: When I was approached about the Alger Hiss case, I tried to examine all the archives of the Foreign Intelligence Department. This department used to be part of the KGB. I was interested in the '30s and '40s, and with the kind permission of the Chief of Russian Intelligence, Mr. Primakov [Yevgeny Primakov was subsequently Prime Minister of Russia], I had been able to examine a large number of materials on intelligence services in the '30s and '40s. I've had the assistance of some of the staff of the Foreign Intelligence archive. And as a result of this work, I have been able to determine that Alger Hiss, according to those documents, had never been listed as a paid or recruited agent of the Soviet ¨Union....

JL: Did you examine also the military intelligence GRU files?

V: Yes, we also asked to examine the military intelligence files and there, too, no traces of Alger Hiss have been found. Sometimes I'm told that I could look through not all of them, and naturally I can't say that I've seen all existing documents, but the intelligence documents pertaining to agents, personnel matters I did see...

JL: In your opinion, if Alger Hiss had been a spy, would you have found some documents saying that?

V: Positively, if he was a spy then I believe positively I would have found a reflection in various files. I know this from numerous documents and on many spies, many agents, I have been able to see documents.

JL...How do we know nothing was destroyed or removed on Alger Hiss?

V: ...naturally I can not give a one hundred percent guarantee that something wasn't destroyed, but as far as I know...these documents were not touched.

Now of course I do not and did not cite Volkogonov to prove anything one way or the other about Alger Hiss's guilt or innocence, merely to set the record straight on what he did and didn't say. And for what it's worth, Major General Julius N. Kobyakov, who did some of the research on behalf of Volkonov, subsequently said publicly that if and when the GRU files are opened, it turns out that Alger Hiss was a spy he would "take a bite of my hat."

Victor Navasky

Victor Navasky


Apr 17 2007 - 2:01pm

Hiss in History

The Hiss Case and General Volkogonov: A Comment on Victor Navasky's Article

In his latest article about the Alger Hiss case, "Hiss in History" (Apr. 30), Victor Navasky refers to General Dmitrii Volkogonov, a long- time Soviet military-political officer and military historian, who became a senior military adviser to Russian president Boris Yeltsin in the early 1990s. Specifically, Navasky writes that:

"in 1992, the Russian historian general Dmitry A. Volkogonov, after ordering a search of a full range of official Russian government repositories with information about Soviet intelligence operations, including KGB files and military intelligence - or GRU files - told Hiss attorney John Lowenthal and the world, in a videotaped interview that Hiss had not been a spy. . . . Volkogonov subsequently conceded under questioning by Herb Romerstein, formerly a staff consultant to the House Committee on Unamerican Activites, that he could not say with absolute certainty that some files had not been destroyed or that his search had been 100% exhaustive."

The phrasing Navasky uses here implies that Volkogonov's retraction was merely a technicality (i.e., that Volkogonov was unable to "say with absolute certainty that some files had not been destroyed or that his search had been 100% exhaustive") and that the only time the general made such a retraction was during questioning by Herbert Romerstein, whose credibility Navasky obviously doubts.

Fortunately, we have good records of precisely what General Volkogonov said when making his retraction. I have no idea what Volkogonov said to Herbert Romerstein, but I do know what the general said to Serge Schmemann, who was then bureau chief in Moscow for The New York Times, and what Volkogonov said to me. Presumably, Navasky, too, knows what Volkogonov said to Schmemann because it appeared in a news article in The New York Times on 17 December 1992. In that article, titled "Russian General Retreats on Hiss," Schmemann cites Volkogonov at length. If we look at what the general actually, it does not bear out what Navasky implies.

In the interview with Schmemann, Volkogonov said that his initial statement about Hiss in October 1992 had been badly misconstrued: "I was not properly understood. The Ministry of Defense also has an intelligence service, which is totally different, and many documents have been destroyed. I looked only through what the K.G.B. had. All I said was that I saw no evidence."

Volkogonov went on to explain that his motive in making the statement on behalf of Hiss was "primarily humanitarian," to help out an elderly man under pressure from the man's lawyer, John Lowenthal, who came to Moscow to receive the general's written statement. Volkogonov emphasized that he was disconcerted by Lowenthal's insistence on receiving a blanket exoneration of Hiss: "Hiss wrote that he was 88 and would like to die peacefully, that he wanted to prove that he was never a paid, contracted spy. What I saw gives no basis to claim a full clarification. There's no guarantee that it was not destroyed, that it was not in other channels. This was only my personal opinion as a historian. I never met [Hiss], and honestly I was a bit taken aback. His attorney, Lowenthal, pushed me hard to say things of which I was not fully convinced."

In January 1993, a few weeks after The New York Times article appeared, I had dinner with Schmemann in Moscow. A week after that, I met with General Volkogonov for around two hours, a conversation that I recorded. Although I spoke with Volkogonov mostly about things unrelated to the Hiss case (especially about some photocopied documents he had given me), I asked him about Hiss toward the end of our discussion. Volkogonov not only reaffirmed everything he had told Schmemann, but was even firmer in saying that he felt he had been "deceived" by Lowenthal. Volkogonov added: "I am not a specialist on the Hiss case," and "I thought I was just doing a favor for a dying man." Volkogonov confirmed that he had "not seen anything from the GRU archive" and that without going through the files there, there was "no basis for saying anything that would shed greater light on the question of Hiss."

All of this raises serious questions about Navasky's claim that Volkogonov had gone through "a full range of official Russian government repositories with information about Soviet intelligence operations, including KGB files and military intelligence - or GRU files." The reality is that at no point did Volkogonov say that he had gone through any GRU files. On the contrary, he explicitly said several times that he had *not* gone through GRU files. Even his search of KGB/NKVD files was cursory, as he himself later acknowledged. Numerous KGB/NKVD documents that have emerged in subsequent years, including the March 1945 memorandum from Anatoly Gorsky that plays a central role in the paper by Kai Bird and Svetlana Chervonnaya (which Navasky praises), contain extensive references to Hiss either by name or through the codename Ales, which seems to fit only Hiss.

Debate about Hiss is bound to continue, but it is time to drop any further reference to Volkogonov's initial statement in October 1992 as somehow a vindication of Hiss. Volkogonov himself firmly disavowed the statement, and evidence that has emerged in subsequent years amply supports his disavowal. I agree with Navasky that "ultimately truth is what history is and ought to be about," and that is why we should stick to what Volkogonov actually said.


Mark Kramer is Director of Cold War Studies at Harvard University and a Senior Fellow at Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

Mark Kramer

Cambridge, MA

Apr 17 2007 - 1:53pm

The New Suburban Poverty

This is a stunningly well-researched, on target article about the income chasm between the uber classes and the working poor. I congratulate you and the author on articulating insights and accurate analyses...I worked for 32 years in New York State, 24 of those years in New York City's most beseiged and left behind neighborhoods. I worked through the caldron of the Bronx Burnings, and the crack fueled HIV/AIDS epidemics in the foster care and juvenile jstice systems...since 1999 I have lived and worked in human services in York,Pennsylvania; the exurban and rural areas of the Hudson Valley in upstate New York and the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts; Gallup, New Mexico, rural West Virginia,and on The Zuni Indian Reservation In New Mexico.

I hope that your article has opened minds and hearts. I hope that opened hearts and minds and community action in place of the "affluenza hustle" will result in a new social paradigm; one that encoulturates the value of ALL our denizens rather than their objectification, marginalization, alienation and despair.

Aminah Yaquin Carroll

Gallipolis Ferry, West Virginia

Apr 17 2007 - 8:47am

The New SDS

Care to give us any reason why you do not "pin any hope on this generation of kids (at least those with anarcho-leftist leanings)"?

AJ Johnson

Arawak City, Ohio

Apr 17 2007 - 1:04am

The Establishment Rethinks Globalization

Greider overlooks a critical issue in the globalization debate: the externalization of costs. Multinationals have become experts in passing their costs on to others while reaping the profits. One huge externality is pollution. When you move a process from the moderately-regulated USA to, say, China, you lose any effective regulation of pollutants along the way. This represents a huge cost savings for many products, but these costs don't disappear, they are simply borne by others. In this case, it is principally the Chinese people, but also increasingly Americans, as China's polluted air arrives on the West Coast.

It is time to internalize as many externalities as possible. Once this is done, production costs are more balanced and the environment is better protected.

J.H. Crawford

Boiceville, NY

Apr 16 2007 - 7:34pm

Exploiting Imus

Do I think that Don Imus should have been fired? As a journalist, I have to say no, because if his own special brand of speech isn't protected by the First Amendment, mine isn't either.

However, no one is mandated to finance your fruitstand in the Marketplace of Ideas. The folks that called Imus' sponsors and told them that they had to make a choice between their business and sponsoring Imus in the Morning were exercising their free speech as well. They won.

Let's keep it real. Imus got away with a lot. He got away with hiring a producer to do nigger jokes. He got away with referring to Gwen Ifill as "the cleaning lady" when she wouldn't go on his show. He got away with racial, sexist, and homophobic slurs every day.

But when you pick on kids, and to me anyone who is less than four years away from their high school graduation is still a kid, you're not supposed to get away with that, and he didn't. When he called the Rutgers Womens Basketball team "nappy headed hos", he basically signed his retirement papers.

Do we need to address some of the more coarser elements in African American culture? Yep. And most of the folks that called for Imus' head the loudest said that as well.

But whether or not Snoop Dogg 'loves them hoes' wasn't the issue last week. Don Imus calling a group of college students "nappy headed hos" was. Let's not cloud that arguement, shall we?

Denise Clay

Philadelphia, Pa., United States

Apr 16 2007 - 1:58pm