DEFERENCE WHERE IT’S DUE
Santa Monica, Calif.
So Ari Berman thinks, “The rap on Baucus is that he has always valued his own re-election above all else” [“K Street’s Favorite Democrat,” March 19]. That is the rap on politicians, all politicians. Trying to make it a rap on an individual politician is one of the willful distortions Berman uses to try to make Max Baucus look like a bad senator. Another is calling it “remarkable” that chairman Baucus shows “deference” to the senior Republican during Finance Committee hearings. In our interview for this article, I told Ari that every Finance chair has always shown deference to the senior member of the minority party during hearings.
Nation readers should not be surprised to learn that Democratic senators from Montana do not vote like Democratic senators from Massachusetts. Montana would not have two Democratic senators now if Max Baucus had not spent decades teaching Montana voters that they did not have to be afraid of sending Democrats to Washington. And if Montana didn’t have two Democratic senators today, then Berman would be watching Republican chairman Grassley being deferential to Senator Baucus in Finance Committee hearings.
Lawrence O’Donnell Jr.
DEPARTMENT OF INJUSTICE
Alexander Cockburn, in “The Persecution of Sami Al-Arian” [March 19], is correct that “across the globe, Al-Arian’s case has aroused much outrage.” In February I was in Oslo, where a documentary about the trial and its effect on the Al-Arian family opened in theaters. Norwegians are hot under the collar about America’s treatment of Dr. Al-Arian and can’t believe the degree to which Americans have allowed their government to erode civil liberties. The film was screened in Parliament, hosted by two MPs, who said of Dr. Al-Arian’s treatment, “We don’t like to see people have their human rights treated this way.”
Amnesty International Norway hosted the Al-Arian family at the Nobel Peace Center, where Gerald Folkvord said Amnesty believes the United States has subjected Al-Arian to “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. This very much looked like just a means of punishing him for his attitudes” as an activist for the Palestinian people. In a February letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Susan Lee of Amnesty International wrote that the way the US government is treating Dr. Al-Arian “is in breach of the USA’s obligations under international standards and treaties” and that his conditions “appear to be unacceptably harsh and punitive.”
Cockburn mentions Assistant US Attorney Gordon Kromberg’s racist statements about Dr. Al-Arian. In her letter to Gonzales, Lee says that Kromberg’s anti-Islamic sentiment “raises further concern as to whether the proceedings are being taken to punish [Al-Arian] for his political profile rather than for legitimate purposes.” A disturbing pattern of bias against Muslims and disdain for accepted legal principles by Kromberg is detailed in an article in the current issue of Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (wrmea.com).
It is time that Attorney General Gonzales keeps his word by allowing Dr. Al-Arian to be released and deported as per the plea agreement.
THE DAYS OF NORMA RAE
Highland Heights, Ky.
As a writer who has two books in print discussing more than 500 films about labor, class and related topics, such as globalization, I read Robert Nathan and Jo-Ann Mort’s “Remembering Norma Rae” [March 12] with great interest but with some trepidation, especially since the article is mainly about Hollywood films. Not all of the films I cite pack the punch of Norma Rae or Bread and Roses, but quite a few deliver the goods, including those that dramatize labor worldwide. High on my must-see list are the following, a number of which are documentaries or foreign films: And the Earth Did Not Swallow Him, The Burning Season, Boys From the Blackstuff, The City, Darwin’s Nightmare, Dirt, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, The Killing Floor, Mardi Gras: Made in China, Mojados, El Norte, Picture Bride, Silkwood, The Take, Workingman’s Death. They make the global workforce visible and are by filmmakers who are also in the social change business.
I was looking for a mention of the 1987 John Sayles film Matewan. It’s another movie about unions that might fit into this discussion. The ending is more downbeat than that of Norma Rae, but it is a positive portrayal also rooted in history.
La Crosse, Wis.
“Remembering Norma Rae” omits cinema’s greatest film about organized labor, On the Waterfront, directed by Elia Kazan. Kazan had starred, with Lee J. Cobb, in Clifford Odets’s 1935 play Waiting for Lefty, for which Odets was redbaited. Though performed regularly, the play has defied even today’s crop of independent filmmakers, like John Sayles. It would be a project worthy of Nick Kazan or Sayles to make a film of this wondrous play.
Could Fast Food Nation be considered a movie that looks into the status of workers and how corporations function? Of course, it wasn’t Norma Rae, but it was great to hear applause after the movie ended.
As a former union organizer, I look for positive representations of working-class people, and their struggles, on television. And while this is rare, there is currently a fantastic show about the glory of a hard day’s work, Dirty Jobs. While I have never seen a union aspect of the working men and women portrayed on the show, the reality is bold-faced and beautiful. We now live in a society where we consider being a mid-management paper-pusher more integral to the world and more dignified than the work done by those folks who actually impact the world around them. And that’s what Dirty Jobs is all about. The show’s tag line says it all: “I explore the country looking for people who aren’t afraid to get dirty–hard-working men and women who earn an honest living doing the kinds of jobs that make civilized life possible for the rest of us.”
Plant City, Fla.
As a nonunion type and staunch critic of unions in general and union corruption and union violence specifically, I nonetheless truly enjoyed Norma Rae, and can’t pass it up whenever it appears while I’m channel-surfing. The movie captures the essence of what unions once were and ought to be.
New York City
Thanks to Robert Nathan and Jo-Ann Mort for reminding us of Norma Rae, a treasure in the small archive of Hollywood movies about labor and labor struggles. Given the decline in labor’s power and influence, it’s not likely we’ll see a renaissance of films in this genre anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean the working class is invisible in contemporary films. In recent years we’ve seen a number of films that portray the working class: 8 Mile, Million Dollar Baby, Friday Night Lights, Monster, North Country and Brokeback Mountain.
Such films show the working-class experience, but the results are mixed. Of those mentioned, only 8 Mile, set in a depressed section of Detroit, is organized around the culture and racial mix of a poor working-class neighborhood. North Country is the only one that talks union and focuses on workplace struggle, confronting sexual harassment and drawing our attention to the relationship between gender and class.
American films about working-class people are not always acknowledged, or understood, as films about working-class life. Thus, Friday Night Lights becomes a sports film; its compelling portrait of a small Texas town devastated by economic decline is only the background. And Brokeback Mountain is a “universal love story”–but its specific social context is defined by rural poverty and dead-end jobs.
In some films, depictions of working-class life are stereotypical or distorted. Take Million Dollar Baby: The central character is straight out of the trailer park, and its working-class family the essence of venality and corruption. By contrast, Monster integrates issues of gender, sexuality and class with personal psychology–a nuanced, sympathetic picture of its central characters in a recognizable working-class milieu.
Many in the white middle-class cling to the myth of a classless society, or one with porous class boundaries. In this vision the working class has little to offer. In fact, prejudice against it runs deep, fueled by racism and paranoia about immigration. Movies about the working class reflect our national confusion. But at least we have some films that value working-class people and their daily struggles. We need more of them.
Center for Worker Education
MEAT ONCE A WEEK?
Like Theresa M. Welford [“Letters,” March 26] I was displeased by Daniel Lazare’s review of The Bloodless Revolution [Feb. 5]. Frances Moore Lappé published Diet for a Small Planet in 1971. The moral and environmental reasons for Americans to abstain from diets oversaturated with meat have not changed since then. Production of meat at the levels Americans demand depletes grain, water and topsoil. Factory farming of meat results in soil and water (and eventually humans and flora and fauna) being poisoned by pesticides and animal waste. Mass production of meat, and its place in the fast-food industry, contributes to unequal distribution of wealth and resources and the physical and financial exploitation of people here and around the world. Factory-farming methods result in animal lives and deaths that reflect the depravity of this whole greedy operation.
I suggest two recent books: Deborah Cramer’s Great Waters, with a chapter on the death of the Gulf of Mexico due to pesticides from Midwestern farms, and Matthew Scully’s Dominion, with its account of a tour of a hog farm.
In 2007 I should not have to give the reasons why, by abstaining from meat, I am eating with the health and well-being of the planet and its people in mind. Those who do not should have to give their reasons.
Sydney Landon Plum