INDEX FOR OUR TIMES
John S. Friedman’s “The Iraq Index” [Dec. 19] used research on military recruitment done by the National Priorities Project, but cited the Washington Post (which ran a lengthy front-page article based on our study) as the source. We invite Nation readers to our website and online database (nationalpriorities.org), where they can look up numbers on military recruits by their ZIP code, county, school or state and find out related demographic information.
ANITA DANCS, research director
National Priorities Project
FIDDLING ON THE ROOF?
Morris Plains, NJ
Where does Daniel Lazare get the idea that Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye “despises the United States” [“The Chosen People,” Dec. 19]? If it is from Yuri Slezkine’s book The Jewish Century, both of them are wrong. Tevye prefers to immigrate to Palestine rather than to the United States, but his plans are canceled because of the death of his son-in-law. Sholem Aleichem certainly did not despise the United States. He lived his last years here, and his last book, Motl the Cantor’s Son, expresses great affection for America.
New York City
If Bennett Muraskin would take another look at the Tevye tales, he’d find that the references to the United States are uniformly negative. In one story Efrayim the matchmaker complains of winding up “with a gangster for a son-in-law. He beat my daughter black and blue and ran away with all her money to America.” In another, Tevye is outraged when his own son-in-law, a crooked government contractor, tries to ship him off to the New World. But then the contractor goes bankrupt and, taking Tevye’s daughter, has to flee instead. As Tevye tells it, “he had to run for dear life from his creditors…and light out for never-never land–I mean for America, where else do all the hard-luck cases go? And don’t think they had it easy there, either. They ran out of what little money was left, and when the larder was empty they had to go to work–and I do mean work, the worst sort of slave labor, just like we Jews did in Egypt, both him and her! Lately, she writes, things are looking up, thank God; they’re both making socks in a sweatshop and doing well; which means in America that they’re breaking their backs to keep the wolf from the door.”
This is America as a place for gangsters, chiselers and super-exploited workers. Hardly the Promised Land, I’d say, despite Fiddler on the Roof‘s depiction of Tevye as a kind of Jewish Pilgrim. Instead of saying Tevye despised America, perhaps we can compromise and say that his attitude was one of pronounced dislike.
New Paltz, NY
In his engaging review of three books about the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fight [“The Ring Cycle,” Dec. 5], Gerald Early makes an oft-cited claim that Louis was the “first major crossover sports hero in America.” However, in 1901 a 22-year-old black American bicycle racer, Marshall “Major” Taylor, became a domestic and international superstar when he went to Europe and dominated the best bicycle racers in the world. Taylor came at a time when bicycle racing was more popular than baseball, boxing or horse racing. He is one of the first black athletes to write, in 1928, his autobiography, The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World: The Story of a Colored Boy’s Indomitable Courage and Success Against Great Odds.
AH YEZ, I REMEMBAIR EET WELL
As one who grew up in the cités (Bondy, smack in the middle of the 93) from which sprang the recent riots in France, I wish to correct Doug Ireland’s assertion in “Why Is France Burning?” [Nov. 28] that the cités were “specifically built for [immigrant workers] and deliberately placed out of sight.” The cités were built to house the very French working-class familles nombreuses of the post-World War II baby boom. And they were placed where there was room for them, mostly in the truck garden periphery of big cities, close to industrial jobs. As to the “sinister” atmosphere of some of them, it owed more to the patronizing egomania of Modernist architects–disciples of Le Corbusier to a man–than to failures of upkeep. In fact, every time I revisit my old haunts, I’m struck by their spruceness compared with US housing projects: the fresh paint, the landscaped grounds, the public swimming pools, the médiathèques.
It is not the ugliness of their environment or the lack of “social programs” that alienates these young men. It is a mixture of racism/classism (although classism by itself used to do just as neat a job), acculturation, normal youth malaise, the underestimated influence of American hip-hop, identification with oppressed Palestinians, resentment over the (still denied) brutality of the French colonial past, etc. But mostly it’s the economy. As the so-called industrialized countries have been busy outsourcing industry, then service, for the past thirty years, they have left behind a growing class of people for whom there are no respectable jobs. Today the “visible minorities,” tomorrow you and me.
New York City
Dominique Pfaff is, I’m afraid, simply wrong on the facts. While there was some housing built for white working-class baby boomers in the late 1940s and early ’50s, most of it was in or close to the urban centers–unlike the cités of which I wrote, which were built in the 1950s and ’60s to replace the horrifying bidonvilles, or shantytowns, in which the primarily North African workers were forced to live, both by racism (which prevented their renting decent housing) and by poverty (they could rarely afford it even when landlords would rent to them). The quality of life in those human garbage dumps has been bitterly and eloquently portrayed in the novels of Azuz Begag, the sociologist who grew up in one of them near Marseilles.
The colonial Algerian war, whose violence had come home to continental France, was another reason to keep these workers penned up away from the center cities before Algeria’s independence. There are some 270 such deliberately ghettoized cités throughout France, built shoddily on the cheap by private contractors–like the largest of them, the giant influence-buying Bouygues–who bought this lucrative government work with secret, black-bag campaign contributions that financed all the major parties, left and right (a sordid history that dominated newspaper headlines throughout the 1990s, when these institutionalized corruption ripoffs finally became public and indictments fell like rain). No wonder these ghettos became so rapidly dilapidated, unrepairable and uninhabitable that the first razings of them began in the late 1970s (even then, many of their replacements weren’t much better–for the same reasons).
The policy to hide the darker-skinned workers by warehousing them in those repulsive high-rise towers away from the white urban agglomerations was so obviously racist that it was described as “urban apartheid” by the architect and urbanist Roland Castro–a leader of the May ’68 student rebellion who later became President François Mitterrand’s urban adviser–in his 1994 book Civilisation urbaine ou barbarie, which contains a detailed account of their construction.
Pfaff’s idyllic portrait of these ghettos is as hallucinatory as her suggestion that “American hip-hop” was a factor in the ghetto youths’ rebellion (France has had its own highly sophisticated and popular rappers for nearly two decades, and–as the daily Libération recalled recently in an article on them–had policy-makers listened more than a decade ago to the predictions and cries of distress in their lyrics, they would have seen the rebellion coming). I have reported from those cités, and bloody few of them have the manicured amenities Pfaff imagines. Finally, her assertion that the rebellion was due “mostly” to the economy ignores the degree to which people of color are almost entirely excluded from the French economy. It’s called racism, Dominique, and is recognized by most serious French commentators as the primary cause of the rebellion.
By the way, it’s worth noting that since my article appeared, an official report by the Renseignements Generaux (France’s domestic intelligence police) declared there was not a shred of evidence that the vandalizing ghetto rebellions were organized or even aided by either Islamic fundamentalists or organized criminal gangs, as Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy (and some American conservatives) had suggested. No, they were a spontaneous combustion, and their principal kerosene was the poisonous and soul-destroying racial discrimination and exclusion that pervades French society from top to bottom.
GBS & RFK
The quotation Ann Maguire thinks she has borrowed from Robert Kennedy [“Letters,” Dec. 26]–“Some men see things as they are and ask why. I dream things that never were and ask why not”–actually originated with sometime Nation contributor George Bernard Shaw. In Act I of Back to Methuselah, the Serpent says, “You see things; and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why not?'”