New York City

Sinan Antoon’s attack on Kanan Makiya, “Dissident or Apologist?” [Feb. 3], is scurrilous; its publication reflects badly on The Nation‘s judgment. Makiya’s hope that American intervention will establish democracy in Iraq is, in my view, quixotic. But one has only to read his books to understand that what drives this hope is not support for George W. Bush’s imperial ambitions but desperation at the condition of Iraqis and conviction that a successful internal revolt is not possible. And one has only to read his devastating critique of Arab intellectuals’ apologias for nationalism, Islamism and authoritarian regimes to understand why he is not particularly popular among his fellow exiles. The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, whose leader, Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim, Antoon quotes approvingly, is based in and supported by Iran. Evidently Antoon thinks it’s progressive to be a fundamentalist, so long as you’re against a US war. Unwittingly, he makes Makiya’s point.




Ellen Willis is convinced that most, if not all, Arab intellectuals are apologists for Islamism, nationalism and authoritarianism. In fact, many of those exiled intellectuals who find Makiya’s uncritical embrace of American imperialism problematic courageously critiqued political Islam, nationalism and authoritarianism before Makiya decided to make a career out of it.

One wonders why Makiya’s compassion is on hold when it comes to the draconian UN/US sanctions exploited by Saddam. One million Iraqis have perished, and he has yet to call for an end to the genocide. I quoted al-Hakim to show that, unlike Makiya, not all Iraqis are fantasizing about a US occupation. I do not approve or disapprove of Teheran as a location for al-Hakim’s headquarters. Not all Iraqi dissidents could make it to the United States in the late 1970s. Finally, a number of opposition factions who’d be categorized by Willis as “fundamentalist” are supported by the United States and are for the war. I guess being pro-war makes the fundamentalists progressive as well!



Paducah, Ky.

Illinois Governor Ryan’s historic pardons may not exonerate him in other areas of his gubernatorial term, but they certainly identify him as a surprisingly courageous prophet and man of compassionate justice.

Bruce Shapiro [“Ryan’s Courage,” Feb. 3] is correct to say that the governor’s courage forever changes death penalty politics, not only in Illinois but in the nation. If the governor of Illinois can be courageous first, then what is to keep other governors from following? Ryan’s benchmark decisions and actions against the death penalty may well be seen in the not too distant future as the straw that broke the camel’s back, as Americans in increasing numbers prefer alternatives to the death penalty. Can politicians, even other compassionate conservatives, be far behind?



New York City

“Axis of Incoherence” [Jan. 27] is the best account I have seen of how the Korean crisis developed. But where did you get the cockamamie idea that the solution lies in “stronger nonproliferation agreements”? As Jonathan Schell has made perfectly clear to Nation readers, nonproliferation is a snare and a delusion and a prescription for keeping the rest of the world permanently at the mercy of the nuclear-armed powers, led by the United States. On May 20, 2000, at the conclusion of the quinquennial review of the NPT, those powers agreed to “an unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals.” Now we have a different President, who believes we must not leave the worst weapons in the hands of the worst countries, while we increasingly rattle our nukes–responsibly, of course.

PETER WEISS, president
Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy


Caracas, Venezuela

Steve Ellner’s “Venezuela on the Brink” [Jan. 13/20] is full of misrepresentations of the opposition, while presenting a rosy picture of Hugo Chávez and his government. He has obviously not been marching in the massive protests calling for “Elections Now!,” because he mistakenly says that baseball hero Andres Galarraga’s plea for peace “reflects the conviction among the nation’s 50 percent who are neither pro-government nor pro-opposition that Venezuela is on the brink of civil war.” In cities like Caracas people are marching as well as banging on pots and pans daily in numbers approaching a million and a half. Where is Ellner getting a 50 percent who are disinterested? To be in some sort of middle is no longer possible.

Ellner does not mention the sort of things the president and his ministers are doing to buy support, particularly among the military. The government has been paying money to those who join Bolivarian circles–often jobless people from the poorer areas. Military officers, in some cases with shady credentials, are suddenly promoted–rumors abound about the money and loans they are receiving. Let’s be clear about what has alienated the middle class: not Chávez’s “rhetoric favoring the poor over the ‘privileged.'” We, the middle class, the “privileged,” are alienated by the amazing inefficiencies of a government riddled with corruption, a corruption that ironically Chávez criticized vociferously before he was elected. In 1998 many supported him or at least gave him the benefit of the doubt. But he grew bold, with public accusations against those who questioned anything he did or said. Day after day we have had to endure rhetoric imbued with insults and violence pushing for social polarization.

Ellner portrays the opposition as privileged people who oppose a leader truly working for needed economic and social reforms. The opposition is not against reform in general but outrageous specific land reforms and the way they were passed. Chávez’s achievements in four years are minuscule even in the eyes of many who initially supported him. And there is consensus among Venezuelans that economic and social reforms are urgent.

Ellner also makes the opposition seem unreasonable in their demand for “Elections Now!” One only need examine what Chávez has been doing this past year to feel skepticism about his really going through a recall election in August.



Caracas, Venezuela

I fully disagree with Patricia Márquez (who contributed a chapter to the book I co-edited, Venezuelan Politics in the Chávez Era) that adherence to a critical position toward both Chávez and the nation’s opposition “is no longer possible” in Venezuela. To the contrary, a large part of the population objects to Chávez’s failure to move against corruption but certainly does not support an opposition that decrees the suspension of the Christmas holidays and for two months cuts off the nation’s economic lifeline, boasts of its capacity to shut down schools and banks, and forces people to wait in endless lines for gasoline.

Márquez implies that those in the middle class who march against the Chávez government represent the thinking of the nation’s majority, whereas the poor, who form the backbone of Chávez’s movement, are being bribed into joining his organizations. In my co-edited book, Márquez offers a more convincing explanation for the attitudes of the poor–namely, two decades of steady economic deterioration prior to Chávez’s election. As a result, 57 percent of Venezuelans lack formal employment, and few of these people participate in the opposition’s marches, which invariably take off from the affluent eastern sector of Caracas.

While Márquez is correct in pointing to the importance of the issue of corruption, she fails to recognize that as long as the media fuse news and propaganda on a regular basis, it is impossible to determine the extent of the corruption.

Márquez defends the work stoppage by explaining the grievances of the middle class, but the fact is that the key actors in this strike are the business organization Fedecámaras and the media. I have asked scores of Venezuelans how long the strike would have lasted without the support of Fedecámaras and the media, and no one has claimed more than one day.

I agree with Márquez that Chávez’s economic program, passed in late 2001, was not open to national debate (an error the government paid for). But Fedecámaras is not attempting to oust Chávez because of lack of public debate (when has it expressed such concern in the past?) but because of the content of his program, which includes agrarian reform and state control of oil operations and the social security system.

Finally, Márquez expresses skepticism regarding Chávez’s willingness to submit himself to a recall referendum in August, as the Constitution permits. If Chávez, after committing himself to such a referendum numerous times, were to back out, he would lose most of his support both at home and abroad. Thus I repeat the question raised in my article: Why not wait six months?



Sherborn, Mass.; Bronx, NY

We applaud Katherine Eban’s excellent article, “Waiting for Bioterror: Is Our Public Health System Ready?” [Dec. 9] We have three comments: First, Eban’s article graphically describes the inadequacies of our current public health and medical care systems. We believe that the diversion of human and financial resources from essential health programs and services to terrorism preparedness is creating greater threats to our safety and security than the specter of terrorism. Five people died of anthrax in 2001; more than 400,000 died of tobacco-related disease, more than 100,000 of alcohol-related disease, approximately 30,000 from firearm injuries and many thousands from AIDS and other infectious diseases.

Second, critical to public health is primary prevention. Primary prevention of terrorism involves the control of weapons of potential terrorist use and addressing the underlying causes of terrorism. Weapons of mass destruction must be better controlled, by such means as strengthening the biological and chemical weapons conventions and controlling access to fissile and other radioactive materials. But so must access to small arms and ingredients for explosive and incendiary weapons, which account for the vast majority of terrorist acts.

Finally, assuring the conditions in which people can be healthy–the goal of public health–also depends on maintaining and protecting civil liberties and human rights. The violations of civil liberties and human rights since 9/11 threaten individual and community health. As editors of the recently published book Terrorism and Public Health, we believe that, given the challenges posed by terrorism and many other problems that threaten the public’s health and safety, there needs to be a balanced approach to strengthening systems and protecting people.

Montefiore Medical Center, Department of Epidemiology & Social Medicine

Baton Rouge, La.

Great article! My wife, a public health physician, and I have been working on public health problems for more than twenty years. Eban addresses the core problem–since Americans stopped being afraid of communicable diseases in the 1960s, there has been no political support for public health. Even HIV did not generate support, because it was treated as a personal health problem, not a public health problem, and the funding went into healthcare.

While some good will come of bioterrorism funding, little of it addresses the problems Eban identifies. The most important problem is lack of a proper career track for high-level public health professionals. If you do your job as a health director, you offend local government at some point, and you get fired. Many career public health physicians eventually leave because of the insecurity and financial and personal disruption of constant career changes. This problem will not be addressed by bioterrorism funds.

Program in Law, Science, and Public Health, Louisiana State University


Washington, DC

Liza Featherstone’s excellent article on Wal-Mart’s attitude toward women [“Wal-Mart Values,” Dec. 16] overlooked an important indicator of the retail chain’s attitude: Wal-Mart’s refusal to fill prescriptions for emergency contraceptives (ECs). For the past three years we have been holding press conferences around the country at Wal-Mart stores, calling on them to change their policy. They claim that it is an economic decision because demand is so low. They then concede that ECs are the only prescriptions that they do not fill. (Slavery and child labor are also economic decisions.) Women who work for Wal-Mart aren’t the only victims of the company’s sex discrimination; women who shop there are too.

Population Connection

Azle, Tex.

Wal-Mart may be a model of business success, but its ruthless business practices long ago turned me off. It goes where it is not wanted and temporarily undercuts prices to force more ethical companies out of business. It purchases from sweatshops and is fanatically anti-union and sexist. Some of its managers have been charged with forcing employees to continue working after they clock out and threatening to fire them if they refuse. When I heard that John Walton was supporting the private-school voucher movement in Texas, I decided that there was no way I, as a teacher, could support this corporation. K-mart and Target are my discount stores of choice.


New Lebanon, NY

Several years ago, I took a family shopping at Wal-Mart. The Rotarian Club I belonged to was providing holiday shopping money for families too poor to purchase gifts for their children. While shopping, the mother of the family told me that she worked at that same Wal-Mart. How sad and ironic!



Lakewood, Calif.

In response to the editors’ “Ode to Bud”: [“Letters,” Jan. 13/20]:

“Who in the hell is Ogden Nash?”
Those words, dear editor, are brash
Even when said, as they were, in jest.
Og was merely, nearly, the best
Social bard of modern times,
With his eye for folly; his fractured rhymes.
Here’s just one gem: “The Bronx? No, thonx!”
(And to hell with political correctness wonx.)
Now Calvin Trillin relays the flame.
He’s a deadline poet with dead-on aim.
(And a cast-iron stomach, in another venue.
Have you read his latest takeout menu?)
In pages deadly serious
We need Bud’s wit to cheerius.
So here’s a grateful thanks a million
For Ogvin Nash and Calden Trillion.