Immigration, second-class wages, torture and taboo


The Path Does Not Run Smooth…

Gainesville, Fla.

A Path for Immigrants?” [Feb. 25] rightly states that the proposed immigration bill is paved with “broken glass.” As advocates for migrant farmworkers, my colleagues and I realize that only a percentage of the estimated 11 million undocumented people here will benefit from the reform package and become citizens. The bill is fraught with difficult requirements: the lengthy process from declaration to green card to citizenship can take up to ten years, and the cost—from the initial fine to back taxes to application fees—is very high. Unless these issues are addressed, there will still be millions ripe for INS detention, deportation and exploitation.

Harvest of Hope Foundation

…and the Flow Will Not Be Stanched

Cambridge, Mass.

Great thanks for Gary Younge’s cogently argued “Immigration Is Not a Domestic Problem” [“Beneath the Radar,” Feb. 25]. In the nine countries I have lived and worked in, I have seen, standing outside US consulates in all weather, the lines of hopeful aspirants to American immigration—each person or family holding their precious documents. Many appear day after day in such queues but never achieve the dreamed-of visa. And so I am ambivalent about the flow of illegal immigration, largely across our southern border. But here, too, many are worthy, honest, industrious and often desperate. This flow will continue until the nations from which it originates become more livable for their citizens. In its own crucial self-interest, the United States should encourage the growth of progressive democracies rather than weak, narco-friendly oligarchies or corporate-friendly plutocracies, which provide the illusion of stability while driving their citizens into poverty, fear, and life-threatening border crossings and overcrowded boats. 


Second-Class Wages

Ann Arbor, Mich.

Diminishing Expectations,” Louis Uchitelle’s article on “two-tier” union contracts [Feb. 25], gets it right on all points. Two-tier schemes are part of the downward slide of union wages and benefits, a decline facilitated by a union leadership that lacks vision and acts in collusion with corporate bottom-liners. The UAW’s latest ploy to shore up profits at Chrysler and GM is to approve a “flexible operating pattern,” which forces ten-hour days and does away with overtime pay for Saturday hours. In our factory, one shift requires ten hours beginning at 4 pm Monday and Tuesday, and another ten hours on Friday and Saturday at 5:30 am. With two more similar shifts, the company can schedule 120 hours of production a week without having to pay overtime. This scheme can be implemented only with the approval of the UAW International leadership and is not subject to local negotiation. 


‘Torture and Taboo’

New York City

Thank you for Samuel Moyn’s superbly nuanced review “Torture and Taboo” [Feb. 25]. History, anthropology, psychology and literary skill are all marshaled in a most compelling essay. It convinces me that I need not read all, or even any, of Elaine Scarry to re-evaluate my concerns about torture.



Samuel Moyn writes of the significance of the press exposing the “tiger cages” in which the South Vietnamese kept political prisoners. I think it’s important to note that photographs of the tiger cages were given to the press by Tom Harkin, now a senator, then a congressional aide. Harkin was fired for releasing the photos.


Cambridge, Mass.

Samuel Moyn discusses Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity and finds its final two chapters “extraordinarily flawed.” Since I think that book (those two chapters in particular) an extraordinary achievement, I enter a demurrer. Rorty does not “place torture first among public concerns.” He defines a liberal, following Judith Shklar, as “one who thinks cruelty is the worst thing we can do.” That is not the same thing. Rorty’s main point in these two chapters and throughout the book is that contingency prevails: there is, for good or ill, no human nature and no political or historical inevitability. As he tersely puts it: “Socialization goes all the way down.” Things may not end well for our civilization; indeed, for the foreseeable future, the prospects for solidarity and global justice are pretty dim. This is not to say—Rorty’s whole life argues otherwise—that “idealism in public affairs isn’t possible” or that “our world of hierarchy and suffering just has to be accepted.” Nor does it “belie” Rorty’s frequently expressed social-democratic commitments.

A lesser point: Rorty does not “attack” Raymond Williams; he politely, respectfully takes issue with him about the interpretation of 1984 and the relation of philosophy to politics. There is not a harsh or snide word about Williams in these chapters, or anywhere else in Rorty’s writings, as far as I know. A disagreement is not an attack.


Moyn Replies

New York City

I am grateful to George Scialabba for his many wonderful reviews, including his longtime promotion of Richard Rorty’s work. I admire Rorty too, of course, which is why I called Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity “extraordinary.” But there is no gainsaying that its final two chapters, which are Rorty’s most theoretically rich account of politics, revolve around the example of torture as the epitome of cruelty in action. And he convicted himself of pessimism about available change in the passages I cited: if cruelty is the worst thing one can do, according to Rorty, minimizing cruelty is the best, in the absence of plausible alternatives. As I said in my piece, Rorty tacked toward social democracy, notably in his later book Achieving Our Country, but he never explained how to reconcile that position with the cramped orientation to cruelty he defended in Contingency.

I thank Joan Gregg for taking my point. But I was not arguing against reading Elaine Scarry, or I would not have done so at such length. She is a brilliant critic who deserves our attention precisely because her work stands for our common moral stance in all its grandeur and limitations. 

Finally, I am grateful to Florence Roisman for recalling Senator Harkin’s role. For far more on Americans and human rights after Vietnam, look out for Barbara Keys’s Reclaiming American Virtue (forthcoming from Harvard University Press), a tour de force that covers this and many other crucial episodes.



Laura Flanders, in “Demanding Women” [Feb. 18], said that 55 percent of women (including 96 percent of black women and 67 percent of single women) voted for Barack Obama. She meant women voters.

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