Backtalk

Our March/April issue contained a combustible mix of stories, sparking discussion of everything from the mistakes of mainstream environmentalism to the meaning of liberalism, from the role of the country’s outdated “bomb tribe” to the potential health risks of abortion. Plus: Socially responsible work and food for strong bones.

IT’S NOT EASY BEING GREEN

Mark Dowie’s analysis of environmentalism (“The Fourth Wave,” March/April) is right as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. The national groups, including Greenpeace, did become too large in the 1980s, and did grow top-heavy and too focused on legislative solutions to environmental problems. As with many social movements of the last half century–the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement–the draw to legislative solutions was too seductive, and took the organizations too far from their grassroots.

In addition, during the Reagan years, when the country was bloated on short-term money and false prosperity, the environmental organizations drew some crumbs from the table and raised unprecedented amounts of money with fundraising strategies as shortsighted and short-term as the merger-and-acquisition economy. When the meal was over, we had to tighten our belts with the rest of America.

But the interesting story is, as Dowie says, the simultaneous mushrooming of grassroots environmental movements in every state, city, and town in this country. There is a difficult glitch in this “fourth wave” of environmentalism, however, which Dowie mentions but then sweeps under the rug: “The mosaic needs grout.” There are thousands of environmental groups, from Earth-Firsters to kitchen table toxic organizations. But there is no glue that holds them together or makes them a force that can counter the Christian Coalition with its 1.5 million members and $20 million budget. We outnumber them, but we can’t seem to outorganize them.

While it may be convenient for Dowie to lump all national environmental organizations together and then glibly divide the activist turf between them, it ignores the rather significant differences among the organizations. Have you already forgotten NAFTA and GATT?

At Greenpeace, we are committed to building an organization accountable at both a local and a global level. It is no easy task, and we need all the support we can get, especially from people like the readers of Mother Jones. If you’ve got a local fight on your hands, or would like to sign up as a Greenpeace member or as a canvasser, or just have something you want to say, please don’t hesitate to call Greenpeace US at 1-800-784-4410.

Barbara Dudley
Executive Director, Greenpeace US
Washington, D.C.

If you ask me, environmentalists are no more to blame for this country’s failure to reverse 500 years of ecological decline than abolitionists were for 400 years of slavery.

Who’s really to blame? When a middle-class family stops writing a check to its favorite environmental group, doing battle against corporate polluters, whose fault is it? The family’s, for putting next month’s mortgage payment over the health of the planet? The environmental group’s, for not completely solving toxic waste, acid rain, and global warming? Or the polluters’, not only for poisoning the planet, but for feeding that family’s anxieties through “downsizing,” “jobs vs. environment” propagandizing, and subtly victim-blaming “greenwashing”?

Gina Collins
Director, Green Corps
Washington, D.C.

Regrettably, the worst weakness in the environmental movement is only exacerbated by Dowie’s article: infighting over the relative values of grassroots and national action.

National groups have a substantial membership base and a large pool of technical and legal expertise at their disposal. Grassroots groups have influence on public opinion and knowledge of local environmental problems, and are at the political nerve center of what members of Congress respond to: votes.

Healthy movements encompass the broadest range of interests toward a common objective. We spend too much time and energy looking at which segment of the movement is the most legitimate; meanwhile, the environmental protection system of the country crumbles. Without local and national action, the natural treasures cherished by local communities, and the national environmental laws that protect our health and resources, will be lost.

John H. Adams, Executive Director
Natural Resources Defense Council
New York, N.Y.

As a person incorrectly described as the grandfather of the conservation movement and John Muir reincarnate, I am grateful to Mark Dowie for his wake-up call to environmental organizations.

What the environmental movement needs to know is what Dick Lamm, three-time governor of Colorado, said at my 80th birthday party in July 1992: “Politicians are weather vanes in a world that needs compasses. If we can’t peddle compasses, we’d better make a big wind.”

David R. Brower, President
Earth Island Action Group
San Francisco, Calif.

If, as Dowie says (and I agree), the environmental movement is “staring failure square in the face,” I say admit the failure and quit. Let’s all resign from the environmental movement. I, Randall Hayes, hereby resign.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t quit from caring about natural treasures–tide pools, canopies of ancient forest, children chasing tadpoles in clear streams.

If you also care about these things, let’s not simply quit. I say we quit the mainstream environmental movement and sign up for a new movement. This new movement has a lot to do with a deeply held spiritual relationship with nature. It has to do with grassroots activists hitting the streets, climbing on soapboxes, and making personal contact by the tens of thousands. It has to do with real challenges to intransigent corporate executives. It has to do with developing socially and economically sustainable societies.

So if a wimpy environmentalist is not what you want to be, cast your vote: I hereby resign from the environmental movement. Sign me up for the fourth wave.

Randall Hayes, Executive Director
Rainforest Action Network
San Francisco, Calif.

It has never been easy in the mainstream environmental movement to raise questions about the national organizations’ failure to reach out effectively to ethnic minorities and working-class people. Both the leaders and the membership of these groups tend to respond to such questions in one of three ways. 1) They express dismay at the “lack of interest” in the environment among such people. 2) They cite from past experience the difficulty of organizing these constituencies. 3) They dismiss the entire question on the basis of alleged hostilities between workers and environmentalists.

What has never occurred to these dolts is that coalition-building is a two-way street that requires environmental leaders to listen to women, minorities, neighborhood groups, and blue-collar workers and to adjust their priorities on the basis of what they learn from doing so. All environmental wisdom does not reside in the middle class. For the poor, the subject is often strikingly close to home, and they have much wisdom to share.

Jim Schwab
Author, Deeper Shades of Green
Chicago, Ill.

CULTURE WARS, PART II

Louis Menand’s assertion that, far from fragmenting, American society is becoming more culturally integrated (“Mixed Paint,” March/April) is exactly right. As I have argued elsewhere, amid the interminable discussions on multiculturalism, virtually no one admits that the diverse “cultures” in question do not offer any real alternative to American life, leisure, or business. Chicanos, like Chinese-Americans, like nearly everyone, want to hold good jobs, live in the suburbs, and drive well-engineered cars. Exceptions are small, insular communities like the Amish and Hasidic Jews, who stand outside of the mainstream–and largely outside of discussions of multiculturalism.

Even those on the left who jabber about diversity, hegemony, and “the other” have a vision no different than anyone else’s. Heated disputes turn on curricula, programs, and hiring; the implicit goal is the same: What is the best way to enter and prosper in the American mainstream?

Obviously, all groups do not participate in American society with the same success. Those excluded because of racial or ethnic injustice, however, do not necessarily constitute a distinct culture–far from it. In his provocative book on poor black children in Philadelphia, On the Edge, Carl H. Nightingale found that these kids have increasingly succumbed to consumer society, which targets them as vulnerable. Precisely because they are excluded and humiliated, they become fanatical devotees of name brands, gold chains, and pricey cars–insignia of American success.

Immigration has, at least, widened the spectrum of restaurants. But can anyone claim that Thai, Mexican, Chinese, Italian, and Middle Eastern food bars in the local mall illustrate multiculturalism and not the great leveler, consumerism? Does the fact that salsa sales surpass ketchup sales signify that the United States has become more culturally diverse, or just that more people eat Mexican-American food?

Russell Jacoby
Author, Dogmatic Wisdom
Venice, Calif.

Menand is a secret agent of the classical liberal establishment. He tries to mislead Mother Jones‘ readers into believing that the values a state forces on people through its police, courts, and prisons are one and the same thing as the values a society upholds–its culture.

But societies are not to be confused with states. Societies work through peer cultures, radio call-in shows, Mother Jones and other opinion shapers, neighbors leaning over the back fence. Societies gently chide miscreants, frown upon misbehavior, and rain kudos and approbation on those who uphold shared, community values.

To be fair, a society may become so exercised about some common good that it will turn to the state to enforce its beliefs. Classical liberals would rather have no shared values at all than face such a possibility. But they miss a crucial point: States enter into the values-enforcement business most often not because societies are anxious to lend additional force to their values, but rather because the moral voice of society has waned to the point that moral anarchy prevails (violent crime, illegitimacy, abandonment of children–the all-too-well-known list of social maladies). Overwhelmed, people turn to the state to fill the vacuum, to provide the order on which liberties rest.

The best protection of liberty is hence to shore up the foundations of a civil and ethical society, rather than escaping from values. The way to proceed is to launch an inclusive, open, and democratic megadialogue about the values we ought to share, and to foster those through the moral voice of the community.

Moral vacuum, not excess, is the highway of statism, at least in our age. Menand, by railing against culture of all kinds, curses the darkness instead of casting a light on values we may come jointly to embrace.

Amitai Etzioni, President
American Sociological Association
Washington, D.C.

I confess I share the anti-statist instincts that Louis Menand expresses in endorsing Isaiah Berlin’s defense of negative liberty; not, I should perhaps add, for a priori reasons, but because of the depressing history of positive liberty: Castro, Franco, Hitler, McCarthy, Mao, Peron, Stalin…you get the picture. But I fear things are not as easy as he suggests.

The reason is simple: children. Liberalism of the sort we both adhere to treats citizens as autonomous equals, free to make of their own lives what they like, subject to those constraints that make it possible for us to share the same territory. But children aren’t autonomous; they have to be taught autonomy. And teaching children in ways that will develop their autonomy cannot be done while remaining agnostic about all substantive issues about the good.

Someone less smart than Professor Menand might then say: OK, we’ve got to have schools. But let’s keep them value-free. Families, churches, temples, gangs, and the like will provide the substantive values (along, no doubt, with television and the rest of public culture). To which I would say: You’ve got to be kidding. I’ll leave aside my skepticism about the “vision” you’re guaranteed by socialization through TV and the local clergy; you can’t teach history and social studies in a value-free way; you can only produce a ghastly parody of value-neutrality whose effect is to encourage relativism or nihilism. (Which is what too many of the products of America’s schools now parrot when, or perhaps I should say if, they get to college.)

Liberalism is a good philosophy for dealing with sane grown-ups. It has a hard time with crazy adults; and it needs to be augmented with a view about how the state can help create sane grown-ups out of children.

Kwame Anthony Appiah
Professor of Afro-American Studies and Philosophy, Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass.

How could I agree with so much in “Mixed Paint” but disagree with the conclusions? The answer is in Menand’s interpretation of why everyone is obsessed with culture. He claims that this obsession lies in the “intellectual tradition” that culture is the “element of continuity and moral coherence in a world characterized precisely by its lack of respect for continuity and moral coherence.” This is hardly the case. Politicians, intellectuals, local school boards, and students are obsessed with culture because it is related to power.

When conservatives or liberals attack multiculturalism, they are less worried about the fragmentation of American society than about who will steer it into the future. And this is also the main concern of those who push for “multi” conceptions of culture. Why fight over what schools or universities teach unless you think that culture and ideology have some impact on how society functions and for whom?

For better or worse, culture wars are playing an important part in shaping how we get politically from here to the future. And political choices will make a big difference in where Americans end up economically and socially a generation from now. Just waiting for everyone to get impatient with “facing backwards,” as Menand recommends, is putting your head in history’s sand.

Martin Carnoy
Professor of Education and Economics
Stanford University
Palo Alto, Calif.

In the end, Menand’s untroubled faith in the classic liberal creed rests on a kind of self-deception. Confident of “an irreversible process of integration in American life,” he believes liberalism need “only wait” for Americans to return to an ideal of “negative” liberty. But liberalism is not always an unambiguous defender of liberty. In the 1970s, Milton Friedman’s classically liberal economic designs combined easily with Nixon, Kissinger, and the CIA to bring free markets and military dictatorship to much of Latin America. Meanwhile, liberal institutions are not as secure as Menand believes. Proposition 187 has injected race back into the American understanding of citizenship, and the so-called Civic Liberals of The New Republic have attacked welfare programs to the point of making a joke of the erstwhile liberal ideal of equal opportunity. Just when we need to reinvigorate liberal ideals, Louis Menand risks turning complacency into a principled stance.

John Brenkman, Professor of English
City University of New York
New York, N.Y.

JUDGED BY THEIR WORKS

In her article “Will Work for Food” (March/April), Meredith Maran shares her disaffection with several socially responsible businesses where she has worked. Maran describes how she made the “mistake” of viewing these businesses as being exempt from the reach of capitalism. Her “mistake” wasn’t that she expected to find fulfillment in the “promised land of socially responsible business.” Her mistake was believing in a “land” at all. There is only a winding path leading in the direction of that visionary land. The heralded work environments she refers to tend to be as progressive and flawed as those who are responsible for shaping them. These companies should not be measured on an absolute scale of perfection, but rather on how fast they are moving down the promised path, or indeed, whether they’re moving down the path at all.

Danny Grossman
Wild Planet Toys
San Francisco, Calif.

A breed of entrepreneurial business types who care about their fellow human beings and their planet is now emerging. They are not satisfied, like many of their predecessors, to rip off the world and then, after they and their heirs have taken what they want, create philanthropic institutions to expiate their guilt. These new types, to which Meredith Maran refers, have an intention to have their businesses actually reflect their social values.

Their problem is that they are trying to change their businesses in a society in which their values, except in token fashion, are not shared, and in fact, are often responded to with hostility. Furthermore, their internal environment needs work too, for they themselves have grown up in the culture which has spawned the current dysfunctional mythology of business, and it is a bootstrap operation for them to extricate themselves from their own culture’s dominant values in order to change such a monolithic institution.

I joined with some of these value-driven business types, the Social Venture Network, to find ways to introduce dharma into business. I’ve come to realize how tough a job this is. At a recent meeting, one manufacturer recently confessed that he paid almost 40 percent of his employees less than what he considers a living wage. Everyone in the room looked aghast. Then he said, “If I paid them what I think they should receive, I’d be out of business in six months. The competition is too fierce.”

So where do you begin? You make an effort, such as Ben and Jerry, Paul Hawken, Anita and Gordon Roddick, Peter Barnes, and others do, to walk the fine line between a socially responsible business and a successful business. And then you surround yourself with folks like Maran, who, without malice or cynicism, will point up your shortcomings.

Ram Dass
Seva & Hanuman Foundations
San Anselmo, Calif.

ABORTION & BREAST CANCER

We are closely following the emerging research on a possible link between breast cancer and abortion (“Abortion’s Risk?” March/April). The contradictory results in studies published to date indicate that more and better research is needed before questions about this issue can be fully resolved.

For just this reason, responsible independent experts, including epidemiologists at the National Cancer Institute, and the American Cancer Society, agree that no scientific link between abortion and later development of breast cancer has been established, and that fear of such a link should not influence decision-making about abortion.

Furthermore, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that anti-choice politicians and activists do not support abortion whether it is safe or not. When they proclaim that abortion should be banned because it might be linked to breast cancer, they are misusing this controversy to further their political agenda. At best, this approach is disingenuous; at worst it is medically and ethically irresponsible.

Kay Arndorfer
Acting Executive Director
National Abortion Federation
Washington, D.C.

In this climate of insane obstacles to reproductive rights, it is very disturbing to see an article in a progressive magazine warning that an abortion “may not be” safe, then quoting misleading statistics relating abortion to breast cancer. The writer waits to near the end of the article to state that the “risk” is no more than for a person who has never had children or waits to have a child after 30. Obviously there is no cause and effect: Women who have an abortion or abortions are thus not giving birth, and women who have few or no children statistically are more apt to have breast cancer than those who have many children starting at a young age. So what was the point of the article?

Patti Hudson
Simi-Conejo National Organization for Women
Simi, Calif.

Michael Castleman responds: The point of the article was to encourage those who believe in choice to engage in a proactive discussion of any possible link between abortion and breast cancer, instead of the reactive, largely defensive discussions we’ve seen to date. The article’s critics are correct in saying that the abortion-breast cancer link is currently tenuous. The article stated this quite clearly, and mentioned that a few studies have shown that abortion decreases risk of breast cancer.

If future studies link abortion to an increased risk of breast cancer (and it looks like one or two now in progress may), women should still remain absolutely free to make a fully informed decision to terminate pregnancies. Unfortunately, the reluctance pro-choice forces have shown to discuss even the possibility of an abortion-breast cancer link has left the issue wide-open to the right’s misrepresentations. The best defense against pro-life rhetoric is a good offense. I look forward to seeing more discussion of this issue by political progressives who can infuse it with the perspective that the right lacks.

NUCLEAR ATTACK!

Congratulations for exposing the truth about Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s unswerving commitment to nuclear weapons research, development, and testing (“The Bomb Tribe,” March/April). Unfortunately, the lab is escalating its campaign to secure the National Ignition Facility (NIF).

The lab’s latest ploy involves lobbying building trade unions by linking wildly distorted claims about the NIF’s purpose to the jobs it will supposedly create. In fact, the meager number of direct jobs created by the NIF will range from just 22 to 612 per year, over seven years of construction, at about a million bucks apiece. In the civilian sector, jobs like these would cost about $120,000. If the objective is to create jobs, the NIF is an exorbitantly expensive way to do it.

Jacqueline Cabasso, Executive Director
Western States Legal Foundation
Oakland, Calif.

Bomb designers have even more to cheer about since the Department of Energy released its much anticipated study of what the nation should do with nuclear weapons labs–and other labs–after the Cold War. Released on February 1, 1995, the Galvin Commission report was supposed to identify costs and benefits of alternative future scenarios for the labs, including possible closure and consolidation of some labs and redirection and restructuring of the remainder.

Instead, the report’s recommendations support new investment in nuclear testing-related infrastructure, continued dominance of the basic energy research agenda by nuclear science and applied research, and an outrageously undemocratic proposal to “corporatize” the national labs. In essence, this proposal would privatize control of more than $6 billion of public spending annually with little or no oversight by Congress, the DOE, or the public at large, tightening the nucleocrats’ grip on the national labs, much to the detriment of the nation’s real security needs.

Greg Bischak, Executive Director
National Commission for Economic Conversion and Disarmament
Washington, D.C.

David Beers correctly identifies the substantial role of the weaponeers in promoting and preserving the nuclear arms race. It’s a sad commentary on a cultural and moral evolution that began when physicists in the Manhattan Project gathered–at no small degree of personal sacrifice–to do what they believed was their patriotic duty. When World War II ended, most of the Manhattan Project physicists disbanded and resumed their distinguished civilian careers.

How different is the current tribe! Lacking alternative careers, this group builds nuclear weapons for the money, the prestige, and the thrills. The National Ignition Facility is a public works program for nuclear engineers and scientists–an expensive way to keep an already privileged group employed long after their reason for employment has vanished. It would be far cheaper for the nation to simply pension this group off at full pay with the simple proviso that they not work in bomb design again.

William J. Weida
Economists Allied for Arms Reduction
Colorado Springs, Colo.

Readers of Mother Jones may wish to know that, while the highly public debate over NIF continues, Los Alamos has already begun construction of a facility that will, if completed, be even more critically important to the design of new weapons. Called the Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrotest Facility (DARHT), it simulates the implosion of the plutonium “pits” that provide the primary explosion for each bomb.

The construction of DARHT has been temporarily halted by a lawsuit brought by our organization and Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety under the National Environmental Policy Act. But without more public pressure, DARHT and NIF will be built as planned. Please call your elected representatives and ask them why the U.S. is still spending billions of dollars on unneeded and provocative programs that undermine international nonproliferation goals.

Greg Mello
Los Alamos Study Group
Santa Fe, N.M.

DOC SOUP

The article “Medscam” by L.J. Davis (March/April) was valuable in telling us how some “bad apples” can take advantage of the medical industry. It happens, it’s bad, and should be dealt with and, if possible, corrected. But what is most germane to the problem of medical care in the country is the role of the big corporations, specifically the big insurance companies, in raising the cost of medical care and degrading it.

There are estimates that the cost of administration for medical care in this country is anywhere from 18 percent to 27 percent of the total medical care package. This is essentially the rake-off of the medical dollar by insurance companies, which are taking over the medical industry. It’s to their advantage to utilize managed-care in the takeover. Physicians and other health service providers are forced, if they want to see the patients, to take a much less substantial fee in order to be able to function.

In the area I am most familiar with, mental health care, most psychologists are finding their income diminished by anywhere from 20 to 40 percent. They have few options if they want to remain in the field. Those with four to six years of doctoral training are being replaced on panels by practitioners who merely have a two-year master’s degree. Why? Since their services cost more, the insurance companies save money by replacing them. Who ultimately loses? Obviously, the public.

Marvin Spanner, Ph.D.
American Board of Professional Psychology
Encino, Calif.

I commend Mother Jones for highlighting the pervasive problem of health care fraud. Last year, my staff on the Aging Committee released the findings of a year-long investigation which determined that our health care system loses as much as $100 billion a year–or about $11 million every single hour–to fraud and abuse.

In the wake of the report, I introduced legislation to toughen penalties for health care fraud and give law enforcement authorities better tools to prosecute unscrupulous providers. That legislation had wide bipartisan support and was included in all of the major health care reform bills considered by Congress last year. Some of its provisions were adopted by the Senate as part of the large anti-crime bill. However, none of the health care reform plans passed, and the anti-fraud measures were dropped from the final crime bill. In January, I reintroduced similar legislation, and I am hopeful that Congress will move quickly to enact it. Every day that we wait to put these tools into effect means millions more dollars lost to health care fraud and drives up the already sky-high cost of health care.

Sen. William S. Cohen
(R-Maine)

DAIRY TALES

I was glad to see MoJo point out the paradox of osteoporosis (“Eat a Steak, Break a Bone,” March/April). Americans lead the world in dairy consumption, yet also lead in disease associated with lack of calcium. The reason is that excessive intake of protein leaches calcium out of the body. So why didn’t you point out that there are many nondairy sources of calcium that are low in protein?

The star in this category is dulse; runners-up are broccoli and kale. Other calcium sources with negligible protein include rhubarb, leeks, artichokes, okra, spinach, squash, papaya, pears, watercress, rutabaga, beet and turnip greens, collards, mulberries, and parsley.

Kathleen A. Fischer
Milwaukee, Wis.