Letters From the October 16/23, 2023, Issue

Letters From the October 16/23, 2023, Issue

Letters From the October 16/23, 2023, Issue

Island records… The West Wing… Corrections… Class grievances (web only)… 


Island Records

Gene Seymour’s review of Saxophone Colossus, Aidan Levy’s new biography of Sonny Rollins, concludes with what is best in jazz writing: the larger picture and how jazz fits into it [“What Jazz Is,” August 7/14].

I’ve followed Rollins’s career for at least 60 years, but Seymour filled in a lot of the gaps and came up with some surprises for me. The biggest was that Rollins’s parents were both from the “American” Virgin Islands (by which he means the US Virgin Islands, since the British Virgin Islands are also in America).

I, too, am a Virgin Islander. I arrived in St. Thomas in 1979 and not long after made my way into the Music Man, Bill LaMotta’s store in Charlotte Amalie. There, I learned that the greatest song attributed to Rollins was actually written by LaMotta, which he called “Fire Down Dey” (with “dey” meaning somewhere on a woman’s anatomy, oh my). I initially didn’t believe this, but it was confirmed by the Virgin Islands musicologist Leo Moron, who used to play it regularly on his local radio show. This doesn’t take anything away from Rollins except credit for writing that jazz classic, “St. Thomas.”

Gary Schlueter
richmond, ind.

The West Wing

In their editorial on Cornel West’s presidential candidacy, D.D. Guttenplan and Bhaskar Sunkara dismiss his choice to accept the Green Party’s nomination and suggest that his greatest contribution would be to enter the Democratic primaries [“Is Cornel West Serious?,” July 24/31]. Take it from me as a veteran of the 2020 Democratic Party caucuses in Iowa: Any serious challenger to the Democratic National Committee will get the same underhanded kneecapping that Bernie Sanders got here. Neither West nor any other person who’s serious about leading a sea change in US foreign and domestic policy is going to prompt the kind of changes we need by running in primaries conducted by the corporate-owned two-party political system. As “marginal” as it may seem now, I urge The Nation to support West’s Green Party candidacy and do all it can to help him win. Young people and working people will have a candidate they can get out and vote for. The US and the world need that kind of ballot-box revolution to pull us back from the brink of the nuclear, climate-, and biosphere-destroying calamities that confront us.
Patrick Bosold
fairfield, iowa


A Black Hole,” by Jorge Cotte [August 21/28], referred to Leslie Groves as a lieutenant general when he recruited J. Robert Oppenheimer for the Manhattan Project. While Groves was later promoted to that rank, he was a brigadier general when he oversaw the Manhattan Project.

The Takeover,” by Sasha Abramsky [June 12/19], inaccurately stated that MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell attended a Shasta County board meeting in person. Rather, an e-mail Lindell had sent was read out by a board member at the meeting.

Class Grievances

​​Chris Lehmann is correct that Republicans used Ohian Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher (aka “Joe the Plumber”) as an everyman fig leaf to cover up their allegiance to economic elites [“Joe the Plumber and His Afterlives,” online, August 29]. But, as is so often the case, liberal commentators like Lehmann begin and end their analysis with barely concealed contempt for working people who fail to fall in line for Democrats.

Lehmann implies that Wurzelbacher was not “authentically” working class because he was a plumber’s assistant, not a licensed plumber, and was anti-union. The average wage for an apprentice plumber in Ohio is $42,000; compare that to the state’s per capita personal income of $58,000. And, regrettably, plenty of working people are anti-union. Their conservatism does not strip them of working-class authenticity. The research Lehmann himself cites shows that white working-class support for Republican candidates has been rising since 1992 and peaked in 2016. In a state like Ohio that has lost more than a quarter million manufacturing jobs due to NAFTA, it is little wonder that blue-collar workers lost faith in Democrats.

If Democrats want to win back working-class voters of all races, they’d be well-advised to stop gatekeeping who is and isn’t a bona fide working American, stop telling them they have only themselves to blame for their financial precarity, and start listening to their grievances and responding with something more appealing than scorn. Democrats lost the majority of these voters and, if they don’t figure out why—and course correct accordingly—we can look forward to more Joe the Plumbers sending more Democratic campaigns down the drain.

Erica Etelson
Cofounder and board member,
Rural Urban Bridge Initiative
ukiah, cal.

Lehmann Replies

Erica Etelson certainly is correct, in turn, to decry the posture of political commentators who brandish “barely concealed contempt for working people who fail to fall in line for Democrats.” Yet I confess to complete bafflement as to how she ascribes such scorn to me or detects its telltale traces in my post on Samuel “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher.

Etelson contends that “Lehmann implies that Wurzelbacher was not ‘authentically’ working class because he was a plumber’s assistant, not a licensed plumber, and was anti-union.” That “implies” is doing an awful lot of rhetorical work there, as is the scare-quoted “authentically.” Briefly, each point in order: I did not write about Wurzelbacher’s misleading job characterization because it deprived him of some purified standing as a working-class icon; I did so because it was untrue. The point of calling out that untruth (in addition to its centrality to the work of journalism) was to note how Wurzelbacher’s image was rapidly endorsed and exploited by a media-political ecosystem that substitutes glib badges of cultural symbolism for the genuine complexities of class politics. That “Joe the Plumber” crowded out “the economy” as a subject in the final presidential debate, as I noted in the article, is but one telling sign of the grim consequences of allowing this fundamental confusion to stand.

Now, for the “authentically”: In a vast roster of published commentary (including this very post), I’ve denounced the traffic in authenticity as a self-evident political virtue as a mug’s game that continues to perpetuate the confusion of class and culture that played such a prominent role in Wurzelbacher’s public career. But I will indulge the “authenticity” trope briefly here because it has some bearing on Etelson’s fanciful caricature of who I am and what I write. I am, for the record, a high-school dropout from the Midwestern Rust Belt, with plenty of working-class Americans (liberal, right-wing, pro- and anti-union alike) firmly rooted in my family and hometown. I helped chronicle the disastrous fallout from NAFTA and other labor-soaking Democratic Party policies when I earned a decidedly working-class wage as the editor of the socialist magazine In These Times. I have continued to report on the follies of the Democratic Party’s embrace of a feckless knowledge elite and its overclass retainers throughout my career, including here at The Nation. Yet, in Etelson’s overheated telling, I am “gatekeeping who is and isn’t a bona fide working American” out of nothing more than insatiable knowledge-class hauteur, and must therefore “stop telling them they have only themselves to blame for their financial precarity.” Phew. I will let that drive-by fantasia speak for itself, save to note that it doesn’t really seem like I’m the one doing the gatekeeping here.

Chris Lehmann
washington, d.c.

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