Letters From the July 3-10, 2017, Issue

Letters From the July 3-10, 2017, Issue

Letters From the July 3-10, 2017, Issue

A struggle preserved in sepia… Debt and taxes—and family… Harshing the Dems’ Mello… Puzzled no more… Low notes… Web-only: Exchange between the Wildlife Conservation Society and Greg Grandin.


A Struggle Preserved in Sepia

The unidentified woman with six children greeting Margaret Sanger and Ethel Byrne in the iconic 1917 photograph accompanying Anna North’s thoughtful, informative review of Sex and the Constitution [May 22/29] is our grandmother, Rose Heiman Halpern (1881–1976), and the children at her side and in her arms are our parents.

Halpern had been a patient at the Brownsville birth-control clinic managed by Byrne, and a “community organizer” who distributed leaflets under doors and stopped women pushing baby carriages to discuss the clinic’s services. The New York Times reporter at Byrne’s criminal trial informed its readers that, while there were prominent women attending, “There was also a poorly clad woman with six children ranging in age from sixteen months to ten years, who said she was Mrs. Rose Halpern of 375 Bradford Street, Brooklyn, and that she had come as a ‘demonstration’ of the need of information on birth-control among the poor. Her husband was a garment worker and made only 17 dollars a week.”

That 1917 trial, memorialized in this photo, marked the beginning of the long relationship between Sanger and Halpern. Its high point came in Halpern’s 1934 testimony before a US Senate subcommittee considering the repeal of post-office regulations prohibiting the sending of birth-control information through the mail. Sanger often called upon Halpern to be the voice of working-class women, and this hearing was no exception. Halpern concluded her testimony with the words: “The doctors are afraid of your laws. But you gentlemen can change the laws. In the name of mothers, in the name of children, do something.” As she walked back to her seat, she was greeted by applause that made her blush, the Chicago Tribune reported the next day.

Halpern had emigrated from the vibrant Jewish community of Vilna, Lithuania, in 1904. Married a year later, she and her husband William were active members of the American Socialist Party. Her lifetime commitment to the birth-control movement and its modern incarnation in Planned Parenthood was rooted in the belief that unplanned pregnancy was a threat to women’s health. She believed that concerted political activity was the only way to establish and defend women’s reproductive rights. She personifies precisely the strategy that Geoffrey R. Stone in Sex and the Constitution and North in her review find essential to the preservation of reproductive rights, which were so hard won and are now in danger of being lost.

Victor Garlin
berkeley, calif.

Diana Gould
pacific palisades, calif.

Emily Gould
montpelier, vt.

Carl Halpern
alameda, calif.

Lucy Johns
san francisco

Ellen Kauffman

Debt and Taxes—and Family

In the May 22/29 issue of The Nation, there is an article on Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) called “Debt Is Not the End.” Atossa Araxia Abrahamian writes, “The various strains of thought that make up MMT have their roots in Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes, along with more contemporary thinkers like Hyman Minsky and Abba Lerner.” She quotes the economist Stephanie Kelton: “We’ve rediscovered old ideas.”

I am delighted that my uncle Abba Lerner continues to be recognized for his ideas and contributions to macroeconomics nearly 35 years after his death and nearly 75 years after his classic work was published. If he is a “contemporary thinker,” does that mean he was way ahead of his time, or are current economists a bit slow?

Nat Lerner
hemet, calif.

Harshing the Dems’ Mello

If Heath Mello is against abortion out of religious conviction, that is his right, so long as he does not force his opinion on anyone else. But the Democratic Party must be pro-choice. It must support the opening 10 words of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion….” Forced religion is the worst tyranny!

Is the Democratic Party all too willing to throw reproductive rights “under the bus,” as Katha Pollitt asks [“Under the Bus?,” May 22/29]? Our party must demand that woman drive the bus and steer it! As for abortion and all health care, we must insist that all women make their own decisions, asking anyone they choose for help—physicians, pastors, friends. We must advocate the same about LGBTQ rights: freedom and no tyranny.

Rev. John F. Yeaman
austin, tex.

Puzzled No More

The puzzles from Joshua Kosman and Henri Picciotto are not only lots of fun, but they’re also useful. Thanks to No. 3431 from the May 8/15 issue, I can now remember how to spell “subpoena.” Thanks!
Frances Johnson
mountain view, calif.

Low Notes

In Michelle Dean’s elegantly condescending review of Gay Talese’s work and life, as well as his recent book, The Voyeur’s Motel, she claims he regards himself as “a bit of a weirdo” (not his self-description but her demeaning interpretation) and compares a recent collection of his articles, High Notes, to “a closet full of his nicest suits” [“The Serendipiter’s Journey,” April 3]. She writes with satiric glee of his bespoke suits, which she says he’s “attributed to being a tailor’s son,” as if there were some deeper, darker reason.

Dean’s real complaint is in “the thorny moral ambiguities of not only his own subjects but his own writing,” and she laments that “he is not a thinker, really.” Wouldn’t adding his own moralizing and “thinking” compound what Dean complains is “too much presence in his own prose”? Unlike Dean, Talese is neither a moralist nor a philosopher. He’s a reporter.

Full disclosure: I wrote for Esquire, The Atlantic, and The Nation during that same era, and I am also guilty of attempting to omit morality and philosophy from journalism.

Her “creeping sense” that Talese was writing about himself when he wrote of Joe DiMaggio as “just another man waiting for the end” is really creepy. Dean’s sexism in her swipe at “male writers” who expressed interest in the proposed book about Talese’s marriage (were no female writers interested?) is not nearly so blatant as her ageism. I am the same age as Talese, and I am happy to report that I am no more “waiting for the end” than he is; a book I co-edited and wrote an introductory essay for, The Complete Short Stories of Kurt Vonnegut, will be published in September, and I am writing a memoir of my Cuban-American goddaughter, which I intend to complete before I start “waiting for the end.”

Dan Wakefield

EXCHANGE: Green Isn’t Black and White

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has been inaccurately represented in The Nation’s article “A Brutal Expulsion in Guatemala Shows How Neoliberalism Gets Greenwashed,” published on June 8, 2017. The article includes a number of factual errors.

As an institution, WCS takes human rights very seriously and is a founding member of the Conservation Initiative for Human Rights—a consortium of international conservation NGOs that seek to improve the practice of conservation by promoting the integration of human rights in conservation policy and practice. We are committed to seeking positive links between conservation and the rights of people to secure their livelihoods, enjoy healthy and productive environments, and live with dignity.

In Guatemala, WCS has worked in the Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR) since 1992. During the past 25 years, we have supported communities in obtaining legal rights to their forests, strengthening community forest and wildlife management, and in social development and education—most notably in the community forest concessions of the Reserve’s Multiple Use Zone and in Eastern Laguna del Tigre National Park.

WCS has been monitoring wildlife and the unique wetland-forest habitats of Eastern Laguna del Tigre ecosystem since 2002. Over the last decade, the advancing fronts of colonization within Laguna del Tigre have extended into the very areas that WCS and other partners have been conserving, studying, and protecting for 15 years.

Following are some salient points that were misrepresented in the article:

§ WCS does not administer Laguna del Tigre National Park and has no contracts with the Guatemalan government to administer it, or any other national parks in Guatemala. We support Guatemala’s National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP) by monitoring and managing threatened wildlife species and through collaborations in patrolling and the detection of threats across the Laguna del Tigre ecosystem. These collaborations have been essential in protecting the innovative and economically productive model of community-based forest concessions within the immediately adjacent Multiple Use Zone of the Maya Biosphere Reserve.

§ WCS’s focus in the Laguna del Tigre area and across the MBR has for years been protecting the reserve from large-scale land conversion and illegal usurpations by powerful actors and organized crime syndicates. Our focus on addressing these actors is precisely because we recognize that they, not the landless poor, impart the greatest ecological and social impact across Laguna del Tigre and the broader Maya Biosphere Reserve.

§ WCS does not use USAID or any other US government resources to support the evictions of communities from the MBR. WCS personnel provide technical support to CONAP for environmental threats monitoring and protected areas management.

§ WCS is not “distrusted by peasant organizations.” In fact, WCS partners closely with several grassroots and second-level community organizations, and is the sole nongovernmental institution officially working with CONAP under the aegis of a conservation agreement with a community established in Laguna del Tigre, the village of Paso Caballos. Through this agreement, initiated in 2010, we successfully support improved engagement and dialogue between the village leaders, CONAP, and other governmental entities, reduce the threat of fire and illegal colonization of Laguna del Tigre National Park, ensure community tenure within the land boundary recognized by CONAP, and invest in locally prioritized social projects including improved education and health services.

WCS has publicly advocated for, and continues to believe that the only viable approach for the long-term stabilization of the Laguna del Tigre ecosystem consists of a social and environmental equilibrium that recognizes the standing of the truly needy within the park. We also urge the government of Guatemala to continue its efforts to reduce the influence of illegal large-scale landholders and organized-crime networks, and to engage in dialogue with legitimate actors in order identify viable solutions to the conflict in Laguna del Tigre.

We respectfully request that The Nation correct these inaccuracies, by posting our response in full, and communicate with the author and associated individuals so as not to perpetuate this misinformation.

Julie L. Kunen, PhD
Vice President, Americas
Wildlife Conservation Society

Bronx, NY

Greg Grandin Replies

The letter from the Wildlife Conservation Society objecting to my post on the expulsion of families from Laguna Larga insists that the society is “committed to seeking positive links between conservation and the rights of people to secure their livelihoods, enjoy healthy and productive environments and live with dignity.” Sounds good. But to date—13 days after that expulsion—to my knowledge the WCS has not issued a statement condemning the Guatemalan military for its actions. Civil and religious organizations in Mexico and Guatemala have condemned the eviction in clear, strong terms. But I cannot find a word on the WCS webpage or in the press. One wonders if the explanation for this silence is simple: Is it because WCS considers itself a partner to the Guatemalan military, which executed the eviction?

This past April, Vice ran what was meant to be a fawning portrait of WCS’s Guatemala program director, Roan McNab, which was in fact quite damning: “This cooperation between WCS workers and the Guatemalan armed forces protecting them in the field, one guard suggested, was like ‘if Greenpeace worked with the US Marines.’” That cooperation was unrelated to the Laguna Larga expulsion, but, as anyone with any experience in Guatemala knows, sectors of the country’s security forces—including the military and police—are deeply involved in all the main drivers of deforestation: drugs, illegal logging, people smuggling, and so on. So it would make sense for the WCS to remain silent in the face of the brutal Laguna Larga dispossession: To criticize it would be to criticize its important ally in the Petén.

I did not, as the letter suggests, write that the WCS uses USAID funding “to support evictions.” Here’s what I wrote: “the Parque Nacional Laguna del Tigre management is indirectly influenced by USAID, via funding of the nongovernmental organization Sociedad para la Conservación de la Vida Silvestre.” The WCS does in fact receive USAID funding, as this article at Plaza Pública, also critical of the WCS, reports.

The WCS objects to the verb “administer,” saying it does “not administer Laguna del Tigre National Park and has no contracts with the Guatemalan government to administer it, or any other national parks in Guatemala.” But the WCS does in fact work closely with the Guatemalan government under financial agreements, which can be found here and here. The WCS exercises a significant amount of power over the besieged communities, derived from its close alliance with the Guatemalan military. Again, this from the laudatory Vice profile: “And through it all, McNab ran back and forth, talking to the many fractious actors—police, judiciary, army, park guards, communities—and building coalitions for missions to take back territory. ‘Roan is very politically powerful,’ [Petén resident Erwin] Macz said. ‘When he shows up at a meeting, he doesn’t just propose an idea or suggest a way to stop an advance. He has a project, he has the funds, and he’s already talked to the people you’re going to need to execute it.’” Power, money, men with guns, and ideas: Sounds like an organization that bears some responsibility for what occurs within its zone of operation.

And yes, the WCS and McNab are deeply distrusted by the besieged communities. Two press releases, here and here, for example, suggest that they are seen by those communities as among the most visible and active agents of a predatory state. One writes: “the communities denounce the continued repression by the Guatemalan state through its security forces: the National Civil Police, the army, DIPRONA and the National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP). Many are cases of human rights violations…” After describing one incursion by security forces, that comunicado states that the security forces said they were “in the area to protect and support Roan Balas McNab.” The community in question, La Mestiza, went as far as saying that McNab “claims to be the owner of the protected area…” It should be noted that La Mestiza, reported on in the Plaza Pública article, is scheduled for eviction on June 21.

There are, no doubt, two sides to every story. And the WCS has, at various points, rightfully acknowledged that organized crime, moneyed interests, and oil drilling are more of a problem than landless campesinos (even if it avoids acknowledging the role of its security force allies in those activities). But, rather than writing a letter to The Nation, the best way for the WCS to get on the right side of the story would be to issue a press release that (1) denounces the military’s eviction of the families from Laguna Larga; (2) calls on the government to immediately allow them to return to their homes; and (3) demands that no further evictions of established communities (especially of La Mestiza on June 21) take place. The WCS is indeed a renowned environmental organization. Its word has weight.

Greg Grandin
New York City

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