Backtalk

Send your letters to backtalk@motherjones.com.

Our May/June discussion of the communitarian movement and its founder, Amitai Etzioni, drew a wide range of responses, including a note from Etzioni himself. We also received letters about our cover package on the link between breast cancer and environmental toxins, and feedback on our stories about faulty nuclear reactor parts (the manufacturer and the NRC both say there’s no problem) and the CIA spying on foreign car companies.

COMMUNITY OF IDEAS


The Moral Majority asked all the right questions but gave all the wrong answers.

Most of the 12 luminaries you asked to comment on community (“What is community?” May/June) bemoan, attack, criticize, and otherwise express disaffection. The accompanying article (“I or we?”), about communitarianism and myself as its leader (which shows me dancing with President Clinton, which I have not yet done, and wearing pleated pants, which I am sure I will not do), is similarly chock-full of negativism. These are all earmarks of an era that has lost its communitarian bearings, an era of people who are isolated, who have been cut off from their social moorings, and are cast about in troubled and angry seas. In contrast, members of communities are well nurtured, sharing, and caring.

One must note that communities are not necessarily residential. There are communities at work of people who share an ideology or faith, race, or ethnicity. There are communities of gay people in a particular town, and even of the civil servants in various countries who share a commitment to making the world greener. They are, mostly, better for it.

I write “mostly” because communities can become hierarchical, authoritarian, and oppressive. Like all good things in life, from food to medication, if overdone they become harmful. The new communities that I champion are responsive communities, in which values are not imposed by a church or a political party but arrived at and revised by a constant dialogue among the members of the community.

There is another danger communities pose. The stronger they become internally the more they tend to oppose outsiders. Even on campuses, people of all kinds prefer to spend some of their social life with their own kind. Many African Americans like to have meals in the cafeteria with other African Americans, and the same holds for some Latinos, Asian Americans, gays, Jews, and others. Should we fight this all the way? I am not sure. Maybe the best way is to ensure that these voluntary social differences do not spill into economic and other avenues and encourage bridge-building on the next level, of a community of communities. This is exactly the kind of issue we should dialogue about until we find a social format (or several) that we can all buy into.

As I see it the Moral Majority asked all the right questions but gave all the wrong answers. Questions of value are too vital to leave to the right wing. We need to find open, inclusive answers to these questions–in short, communitarian answers. Join us to join the dialogue.

To find out more, write The Communitarian Network, 2020 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Suite 282, Washington, D.C. 20006.

Amitai Etzioni
Washington, D.C.

The post-Cold War timing of communitarianism is scary. Communitarianism is all too qualified as the new premise for neo-’50s conformity. With “rampant individualism” as the new, internal enemy, political movements seeking social hegemony would be free to attach that label to whatever targets their prejudices or interests motivate.

Homophobic referendum organizers, anti-pornography feminists, tariff-seeking protectionists, voucher-seeking church schools, neighborhood vigilantes, and school library censors are enough bother already. Giving them a premise to reinforce one another as “defenders of community” could make them intolerable.

David R. Burwasser
Oberlin, Ohio

Articles on Amitai Etzioni’s communitarian activism usually summarize his thinking and offer up several critics. Though informative, this treatment sells short the paradigm’s potential for helping us resolve our social dilemmas.

These ideas suffer when presented in an either/or format (as in your title, “I or we?”). It’s the community against the individual, or against minorities, or against women. But individuals are strengthened in association with–and rebellion from–chosen and given communities. Rosa Parks, for example, didn’t spontaneously decide to assert her rights; she was supported by the political communities of the Highlander Folk School and the NAACP. Significantly, her act led to both relief for her immediate community and a reaffirmation of the shared value of equal access to the political process.

Paul Downs
San Francisco, Calif.

Amitai Etzioni said that, “In the 1960s, liberals destroyed the good–like the family and respect for the community,” and that “there was a fear of moral voices.” He’s 100 percent backwards. The family and community were already destroyed by the ’50s corporate splitting up of families by moving workers all over the map and conning young people to head for the “growth” ‘burbs. The ’60s movement was an idealistic and noble attempt to regain morals and community.

Business-as-usual means deceive, cheat, rob, and otherwise screw one’s fellow man. Peace, love, and brotherhood had to go. And, apparently, they’re gone.

John Jonik
Philadelphia, Pa.

BREAST CANCER


Do I agree with your arguments for not doing premenopausal mammograms? Yes. Will I stop recommending them? No.

We could not agree more with the May/June Mother Jones pullout (“What can women do?”) recommending a “well-rounded diet of political action” aimed at preventable environmental factors of the breast cancer epidemic. As evidence builds documenting the links between breast cancer and the environment, women–now more than ever–are calling for an end to the polluting practices that lay behind the epidemic.

We see breast cancer as an entry point into the broader discussion of health and its connection to the environment. Through public hearings and increased citizen participation in all areas of decision making, we aim to identify what we as a society can do to promote comprehensive prevention of environmentally related diseases.

To join the Action for Cancer Prevention Campaign, call WEDO at (212) 759-7982 or call Greenpeace at (312) 563-6060.

Bella Abzug, Co-Chair
Women’s Environment & Development Organization
Joan D’Argo
Greenpeace

Do I agree with your arguments for not doing mammograms in premenopausal women? Yes. Will I stop recommending them? No. “Failure to diagnose breast cancer” is the second most common allegation in a malpractice suit. Why should I stop? Rational medical care is out of our hands. Witness the push for ultrasound and CA-125 for ovarian cancer screening. There is no good evidence either one decreases the incidence of ovarian cancer, but the public demands them. We’ve created a society that wants no risks, demands perfection, and figures someone else will foot the bill. Bad things happen to good people. We do our best, but we are only imperfect humans.

David A. Rivera, M.D., Ob. Gyn.
Lansing, Mich.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 33, and the only obvious risk factor that I have is that I am childless, a risk that would not be expected to manifest itself at so young an age.

Your discussion of organochlorines that came into use during World War II and a 20- to 30-year time lag for cancers to show up (“Why?” May/June) reminded me of a comment my mother made to me after I was diagnosed. She said that when I was a pre-schooler the city drove through the neighborhood spraying pesticides, and that it had concerned her at the time. Was this DDT? I don’t know, but it is certainly an interesting coincidence that 30 years later cancer is found where it wouldn’t be expected.

As to the rest of your article, that is more troubling. I am now a cancer survivor going on eight years. For all that time I have had annual diagnostic mammograms and have been taking tamoxifen. Just when I began to feel comfortable calling myself a survivor, that which I felt was helping to secure my survival is called into question. What further traumas must my future hold?

Mary L. Kwas
Cordova, Tenn.

Anti-mammography screening sentiment for women aged 40 to 50 is most often expressed in terms of the lack of cost effectiveness and/or the difficulties in reading mammograms of the dense breast tissue of younger women. We think you do your readers a disservice to so emphasize radiation risk when modern mammography equipment produces minimal radiation exposure. Unfortunately, research has not yet provided us with a truly adequate method of breast cancer screening for women of any age.

In 1993, 39,900 women under the age of 50 were diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States. Their only hope for long-term survival was early detection. Try telling a 45-year-old woman who found a small, node-negative lesion by screening mammography that the procedure is a bad idea. The National Cancer Institute’s conclusions and new policy notwithstanding, we don’t presently have an adequate alternative to the three-part early detection program of monthly self-exam, yearly clinical exam, and annual/ biannual mammography screening.

Geri Barish, President
Karen Wolk, Executive Director
1 in 9: The Long Island Breast Cancer Coalition


My sister died from breast cancer at 36. A plastics plant burned down where we grew up in the 1960s. Black smoke covered the town for days.

Your cover story on breast cancer and the environment covers a crucial topic. However, perhaps there are a few inaccuracies that are worth noting.

It is not fair or accurate to say that National Cancer Institute funding for cancer prevention in general and breast cancer research in particular is disproportionately low. For breast cancer research our budget figures show a striking increase, rising from $81 million in FY 1990 to an FY 1994 estimate of $262.9 million and an FY 1995 requested budget of $323.7 million.

I will now briefly summarize some of the NCI-supported studies that are focused on identifying and evaluating causal factors which may be important in determining breast cancer risk. One project involves a large cohort of women enrolled in a multi-center breast screening program which was initiated in 1973. Another study is evaluating etiologic factors related to breast cancer in relatively young (45 and younger) women in Seattle, Trenton, and Atlanta. A major study is clarifying the relationship of ancestry, migratory patterns, and dietary and reproductive patterns to the increasing rates of breast cancer in Japanese and Chinese women as they migrate to the United States. NCI scientists are also following up on the Falck and Wolfe reports linking exposure to organochlorine compounds with breast cancer risk.

While this is not a comprehensive survey of NCI’s research related to breast cancer causation and prevention, it indicates the extent and depth of the institute’s commitment to research. We take these issues seriously, and we will certainly keep an open mind.

Susan M. Sieber, Ph.D., Deputy Director
Division of Cancer Etiology Department of Health & Human Services

My sister died from breast cancer at 36.

We grew up in Bellevue, Ohio, where a plastics plant burned down in the early 1960s. The black smoke from the burning plastics covered the town for several days, as I recall. Even writing about this brings back the smell of plastic burning!

This would put my sister in a high organochlorine environment approximately 25 years prior to her developing cancer. Bellevue and other sites where plastic fires have occurred might represent a good opportunity to study cancer rates of a population exposed to organochlorines.

Terry Shannon
e-mail

While the importance of additional studies of environmental toxins and breast cancer risk is unquestionable, your recent article missed an important parallel to another set of industrial pressures marketing increased breast cancer risk. Postmenopausal hormone therapy significantly increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer. Manufacturers of postmenopausal estrogen have marketed their products to reduce risk of osteoporosis and heart disease. The adverse effect on breast cancer risk has been ignored.

Another important change in our society that is driving the increase in breast cancer is greater alcohol intake among young women. Despite numerous studies showing that alcohol intake before first pregnancy increases risk of breast cancer, we do not know what dietary factors may counteract the negative effects of alcohol, nor do we have public health messages warning women of the dangers of alcohol intake.

We must urgently address these social origins of this epidemic and build the knowledge base that will support prevention of breast cancer.

Graham A. Colditz, M.D., Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Medicine
Harvard Medical School

I LOVE WHAT YOU DO FOR ME, TOYOTA

If information is being collected on foreign car companies by the CIA (“Company spies,” May/June)–and to the best of our knowledge it is not–we are not recipients of such information.

While some may not subscribe to the “everybody’s doing it” theory on foreign governments seeking proprietary information about U.S. firms, only those not familiar with competition in the global marketplace would doubt it. If the U.S. government were to provide accurate and usable information on foreign companies, U.S. industry would be receptive, and it would help “level the playing field” for American companies who currently are operating at a disadvantage.

Steven J. Harris, Executive Director
Public Relations
Chrysler Corporation

Its confident assertions notwithstanding, about the only thing your article proves conclusively is that there is a great deal of misunderstanding, confusion, and poorly-informed rhetoric–in and out of government–about who is doing what, and how, and why, at what I call the “jagged convergence of spying and economics.”

In driving home his point that, yes, we really are doing it, Robert Dreyfuss trots out the ponderous and formidable Edward Luttwak, the Herman Kahn of economic warfare. Dr. Luttwak sees stealing other people’s property (trade secrets), outrageous invasions of personal and commercial privacy, and–presumably–commercial applications of classic espionage techniques involving disinformation, deception, and “dirty tricks,” as just another day at the office.

In Dr. Luttwak’s universe, [former CIA head] Bob Gates may indeed be “baby-faced” and a hopeless “innocent” babbling about “principles.” But Mr. Gates is right when he argues that U.S. government and its intelligence agencies should stay away from these kinds of tactics, and that the country will be hurt, not helped, by resorting to clearly illegal and arguably imprudent measures.

Running with the Luttwak pack are most of the hard-driving corporatist industrial policy wonks in the Clinton administration who are quoted at length displaying a shocking ignorance about the real world of intelligence. They treat the intelligence community like an aging and disreputable, but essentially reformed, hooligan who can be used one more time before finally being committed to the Cold War reliquary. They, too, will learn, but only God knows at what cost.

William T. Warner, Adjunct Fellow
Center for Strategic & International Studies

Why should we, the taxpayers, fund an espionage operation that makes Ford, GM, or Chrysler more profitable, unless it were proven that it directly benefited us? After all, an increase in corporate profits does not necessarily translate into better working conditions or better wages for American workers.

I say we should recognize the economic value of the data we collect through our agency, the CIA, and either use it to barter with the corporations who want it, or make it freely available to the ones who funded its discovery: all American taxpayers.

Luigi P. Bai
Houston, Texas

NUCLEAR EXCHANGE

Your article “Faulty rods” (May/June) implies that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission takes an unresponsive approach to reviewing alleged safety concerns with products or services supplied to the nuclear industry. The results of the in-depth inspection of Teledyne Wah Chang Albany are documented in NRC inspection report dated Nov. 27, 1991. The NRC concluded that the allegations that improperly heat-treated zircaloy 2 fuel tube shells had been supplied to fuel rod manufacturers could not be substantiated based on inspection of corrosion samples and observation of heat treating of zircaloy 2 billets.

Fuel rod failures due to nodular corrosion in operating reactors, particularly boiling water reactors, have been well recognized in the past. However, there is no known or direct link between nodular corrosion and the beta quench process. Trending information in a recent survey of nuclear industry operating experience by NRC indicated that the greater percentage of reported fuel rod failures for which the cause has been identified is attributable to debris-induced fretting, flow-vibrational (grid) fretting, or undetected fabrication defects. There has been no indication that the number of fuel rod failures by nodular corrosion has been increasing.

Charles E. Rossi, Director
Division of Reactor Inspection and Licensee Performance
Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation

The “Faulty Rods” article misstates some important facts and leaves out several others.

First, Chris Hall’s concerns about our tube manufacturing process were not ignored in any way. They were investigated fully by our technical staff and found to be baseless. When this conclusion did not satisfy Mr. Hall, Teledyne retained an independent expert who reviewed the process and agreed that Mr. Hall’s concerns were unfounded. Finally, as you note in your story, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission performed a thorough audit at the facility and confirmed the results of the two previous studies. These detailed studies show conclusively that Teledyne does now and has always produced a consistent, properly beta-quenched tube which meets our customer’s specifications.

Second, the fuel rod failure mechanism discussed in the NRC information notice has nothing to do with the process Mr. Hall questioned. Beta quenching is used to create a material which is resistant to nodular corrosion. None of the failures described by the NRC involved nodular corrosion; rather, they were due to reactor core design, reactor operation practices, and manufacturing processes downstream from our end product.

In addition, although Mr. Hall was employed in our engineering department as a technician, he is not a degreed or certified engineer as your story suggests. More importantly, he is not a metallurgist. Finally, he was not fired as you reported, but was laid off as part of a 5 percent cutback in our work force caused by a decrease in our business.

A. E. Riesen, President
Teledyne Wah Chang

Ashley Craddock replies: If Charles Rossi believes “there is no known or direct link between nodular corrosion and the beta quench process,” maybe he should let Teledyne know so they can scrap the Beta Quench Tower and finish off the whole fuel rod debacle with all due speed.

But one thing about fuel rods that hasn’t been in question since at least the mid-1970s is that heating zirconium alloy to the beta range, then quickly cooling it (i.e., beta quenching it) significantly reduces the rods’ in-reactor susceptibility to nodular corrosion. Something that hasn’t been clarified is how well that same zirconium alloy will stand up to the increased wear and tear inherent in the longer reactor runs they’re now being put through.

Both Rossi and Al Riesen seek refuge from responsibility for the recent spate of rod failures in allegedly exculpatory studies of the beta quench process. But their hiding places are full of holes. The NRC’s own report acknowledges that its “investigators did not verify accuracy and repeatability” of the beta quench process “due to time limitations,” even though “an inconsistent process would affect final product quality.”

The internal study Riesen points to is equally suspect. Internal memos indicate that the technical staff that investigated Chris Hall’s concerns not only found a number of problems, but were slow to fix even those they labeled top priority. At least one Teledyne employee who participated in the inspection is still concerned and says the response was insufficient.

At best, it’s irresponsible for either the NRC or Teledyne to write off the recent rise in fuel rod failures without considering the possible role of nodular corrosion. First off, nodular corrosion is commonly most virulent at spacer grids where “flow-vibrational (grid) fretting” occurs. Secondly, at an Ohio reactor where a GE report attributed the heavy incidence of rod failures to both debris-induced fretting and undetected manufacturing defects, operators say no debris was present and have laid the blame squarely at the feet of manufacturing defects.

Before the NRC so blithely wrote off Chris Hall’s complaints in its one and only investigation of the plant, investigators should have checked into Teledyne’s overall record of reliability. Teledyne subsidiaries nationwide have a well-documented and expensive history of defrauding the U.S. government on issues of testing and quality control.

Finally, as to Riesen’s claim that Chris Hall wasn’t fired, both the Department of Labor and the NRC said he was. Moreover, if Teledyne is as innocent as Riesen says, why settle out of court with Mr. Hall one week short of the hearing date?

MORE NUKE TALK

Ashley Craddock’s investigation of faulty fuel rods in nuclear reactors details the quality control problems that are inherent throughout the nuclear power industry. The problem of substandard parts in nuclear reactors can both precipitate an accident and hinder operators’ ability to mitigate one. Unfortunately the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, charged with protecting the public health and safety, is more concerned with the financial health of the industry it supposedly regulates. The NRC rarely requires nuclear reactor owners to take action in response to problems like the degradation of fuel rods identified in the article.

As the redundant layers of defense against the release of radioactivity are whittled away by age, substandard parts, faulty design, and deregulation, America’s nuclear reactors move closer to meltdown.

James P. Riccio, Staff Attorney
Critical Mass Energy Project

Public Citizen

While faulty fuel rods in nuclear power plants are a serious problem that can result in unusually large releases of radioactive pollution, it is insufficient to just ensure that no fuel rods are faulty. The routine, normal, legal operation of a nuclear power plant, without malfunctions or faulty components, releases huge amounts of hazardous radioactive air and water pollution, and creates undisposable radioactive waste.

A typical nuclear power plant routinely releases up to several thousand curies of radioactive air pollution annually, vented into the atmosphere, to avoid building up so much radiation at the plant that nobody could work there. This radioactive pollution can be absorbed by plants and crops and get into dairy products by cows grazing on contaminated grass.

A typical nuclear power plant also routinely discharges several million gallons of radioactive waste water into the lake, river, or ocean where it is located.

Even the Nuclear Regulatory Commission admitted, in a document entitled “Below Regulatory Concern Policy,” that relatively low levels of radiation exposure can cause cancer, fetal developmental anomalies (birth defects, etc.), and genetic effects. In the same document, the NRC stated that one of every 285 members of the public exposed to an annual dose of 100 millirems of radiation would get a fatal cancer sometime in their life as a result of that exposure.

Outrageously, that same number, 100 millirems (equivalent to the radiation from 20 chest x-rays), is the NRC’s annual dose limit for each member of the public, from the various radiation sources the NRC regulates (including radioactive air and water pollution and waste from nuclear power plants, and radioactive waste incineration).

The U.S. Department of Energy permits each member of the public to be exposed annually to another 100 millirems of radiation, from the radiation sources it regulates (which include weapons production and testing) in addition to the NRC annual 100 millirem limit.

Therefore, every member of the public can be legally exposed to 200 millirems of radiation–the equivalent of 40 chest x-rays–annually.

This is an inexcusable sacrificing of public health. The time is long overdue for the national environmental groups to lead and mobilize the public and build a coalition in a campaign to pressure Congress to introduce and pass legislation to ban radioactive contamination of our air, water, land, and food.

Steve Gannis, Coordinator
Ohio Citizens Against a Radioactive Environment

SHE OR HE?

“Crossing the line” (May/June) raises interesting questions about why transsexuals feel the need to become members of the opposite sex.

Transsexuals force us to confront the possibility, and often reality, that we center our lives (or that they are centered for us) around our genitalia. But I think we can also be proud of the bodies we were born with, while at the same time rejecting the societal gender stereotypes that go with them. As for me, I love being a woman, but I don’t love the misogyny that comes along with it.

Rachel K. Bussel
Berkeley, Calif.