Backtalk

Send your letters to backtalk@motherjones.com.

Barbara Grizzuti Harrison's Sept./Oct. cover essay on O.J. Simpson prompted a political critique from Ishmael Reed and a psychological one from Cecil Brown. We also drew responses to our congressional coverage, our story on student activism, and our tongue-in-cheek "annual report" on foreign arms sales. Plus: Everything you ever wanted to know about toilets.

SEX, RACE, AND O.J. SIMPSON

I once said, half in jest, that given the attitudes many "progressive" feminists hold toward black males, maybe the fellas ought to join Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum.

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Certainly, the anti-miscegenetic hysteria raised by the O.J. Simpson case will earn hundreds of millions of dollars for television and mass magazines (and some that aren't so mass).

As for Ms. Harrison, her piece ["Killing Love," Sept./Oct.] is the "Reefer Madness" of anti-miscegenetic literature (aversion therapy for any white woman who might get ideas). Enter into a relationship with a black man and you might end up abused, or dead.

Poor Ms. Harrison. She has to deal with this black boyfriend and her black friends who--like all blacks--can't be objective when it comes to judging a famous black male. They can't be fair-minded like the Simi Valley jury, or those wonderful jurors we used to get in the South. Her jeremiad was appropriately illustrated by an artist who depicted Mr. Simpson as a distorted, ugly, monstrous beast and Ms. Simpson as a flawless, pristine icon, showing once again that the racist imagination of the hip "progressive" is much more fertile than that of the literal-minded types at Time, who caught hell for darkening Mr. Simpson's face.

Maybe white feminists and black men should talk, away from the white, male publishers who print fox-guarding-the-chicken-coop articles about black misogyny.

Ishmael Reed
author of "Airing Dirty Laundry"
Oakland, Calif.

A few years ago, while I lived in Berlin, I saw an M.A. dissertation consisting of interviews with German women who had "dated" black American GIs. Nearly all the women had had some childhood encounter with blacks. One woman, for example, remembered her parents bringing a black friend home, and she was so fascinated that, while he was asleep, she climbed into his bed.

When I read Barbara Grizzuti Harrison's essay, I was reminded of those German women. As a child, so obsessed was she with blacks that she could only be placated if her family gave her a brown doll. "So they got me a Little Black Sambo doll. This was not what I'd had in mind." One wonders what she did have in mind.

Her reaction to the Sambo doll? "I tore one of its eyes out and with the prongs I carved a deep cut in the offending hand, mine." At an early age, she mixes up love and admiration of darkness with violence, castration (tearing out the eye), and self-mutilation with whiteness.

Is it any wonder that this child grows up to have a black lover whom she both hates and loves? Her racial pathology is so well-repressed that she can't even recognize it.

The image of the black man as rapist drives her internal monologue. She describes a lovemaking scene in which her black lover threatens to apply physical force, and lets us eavesdrop on her true reaction: "His words shock me into sobriety; but I would be lying if I didn't say that they nourish my belief. . .that he loves me, till death (mine?) do us part."

A white woman may consciously believe that she is sleeping with a black man because she loves him, but unconsciously she may be doing it because she hates him.

It becomes clear why Ms. Grizzuti Harrison (and MoJo editor Jeffrey Klein) can condemn O.J. Simpson as guilty before he has been tried by a jury. In her view, he is guilty of being a Sambo doll. Since he is not the doll she "had in mind," his guilt is eternal and resides in her own psychological makeup.

In order to justify her unconscious distrust of blacks, Ms. Grizzuti Harrison--like many white liberals--formulates a reaction that is the opposite of her real interest. She fights for civil rights and Mandela; she has a black girlfriend.

The value of her essay is that it represents how many people--alas, most of them white--use private and personal images to arrive at their guilty verdict, and yet are unable to see that this imagery is racist in origin.

However, I congratulate Ms. Grizzuti Harrison for having the courage to write it, and Mother Jones for having the courage to publish it.

Cecil Brown
author of "The Lives and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger"
Berkeley, Calif.

Barbara Grizzuti Harrison responds: I'd be pleased to talk with Ishmael Reed. I think it would be a conversation less about race than about "objectivity," which, as far as I am concerned, is lamentably overpraised; I think the truth of any charged matter can be found somewhere between rigorous fairness and passion, not in a sterile wasteland of "journalistic objectivity."

As for Cecil Brown, I can only say that he must be talking about someone else. Goodness. What I wanted, when I was a toddler, was a little black girl doll to play with my little white girl dolls. What does he think I wanted?

If I'd had no experience of black people at all--no black women friends and no black male friends--or if I'd lied by omission and left myself out of the essay, would I have been better qualified to write about O.J. Simpson?

You know what? I think men, poor things, black men and white men, are scared of women's appetites and what they perceive to be women's lack of moderation. Pity.

KLEIN AND PUNISHMENT

Editor Jeffrey Klein's commentary on the guiltless, sociopathic nature of much crime ("Crime and Punishment," Sept./Oct.) should be read by as many aspiring social reformers and mental health professionals as possible. Klein's firsthand observations bear witness to the fact that humanity demonstrates a seemingly boundless and willful capacity for self-delusion, not to mention violence. The malaise includes the diminishment of a basic ethical code and denial of personal responsibility for the effects of one's behavior--"I'm the mere product of my environment/upbringing," "The devil (or society) made me do it," "I had to do it to survive," etc.

Unfortunately, the pathology is not recognized in its incipient stages, and the various palliatives for the symptoms of social ills, including the most painful one, crime, continue to be expensive and ineffective.

A. Wayne Senzee
Phoenix, Ariz.

DEFENDING DICK

I know, I know. Dick Gephardt is a stiff. As his chief speechwriter for many years, I should know. But beneath the perfectly pressed suit beats the heart of a populist crusader.

Because Gephardt has chosen to work within the system he is trying to change ["Chameleon," Sept./Oct.], the casual observer needs to dig deep to see the Midwestern populism that lies at the heart of Dick Gephardt. But it's there. It was there in the Age of Reagan when he was a courageous voice against the secret war in Central America, and the stealth war against the family farm in middle America. It was there when he helped lead the fight to stop George Bush's capital gains giveaway for the rich.

And since Clinton has been president there has been no stronger champion of change than Dick Gephardt. No, he doesn't wear his heart on his sleeve. And, without a doubt, the system we have of financing our campaigns sucks. It will never be perfect, but one day it will be better. When it is, we will be able to thank Dick Gephardt, a man who, far from being a chameleon, is scorned by denizens of the establishment for being too much of a populist, and yet criticized by some liberals for being too much of an insider. He doesn't seem to fit in anywhere--except with the working people he's devoted his career to.

Paul Begala
Alexandria, Va.

ARGUING OVER GIFTS

[In "Shakedown," Sept./Oct.] Martin Schram creates a misleading impression about my views on campaign finance reform.

Mr. Schram takes a comment from a television news report in which I praised Senate passage of legislation to ban gifts and financial favors for members of Congress, and inaccurately implies that I fail to recognize campaign finance reform as the key to changing the way business is done in Washington.

Mr. Schram knows better. As he is well aware, I have spent more than 20 years at Common Cause, lobbying for campaign finance reform and publicly advocating that campaign finance reform is central to changing the system.

On May 11, 1994, the day the gift ban bill passed, I pointed out that campaign finance reform had to accompany gift ban legislation to achieve fundamental change. I said in a statement issued to the media: "If strong gift ban legislation is enacted by Congress, and if real campaign finance reform legislation is signed into law, this will fundamentally change the way business is done in Washington and on Capitol Hill."

It is unfortunate that, for want of a lead to his article, Mr. Schram has chosen to create an inaccurate and misleading impression of my views.

Fred Wertheimer
President, Common Cause
Washington, D.C.

Martin Schram responds: Thanks to Fred Wertheimer's welcome letter, we now know who to blame: It was Mr. Wertheimer himself, speaking to the nation via network TV news, who created a misleading impression about his views on campaign reform.

After the Senate's vote to ban senators from accepting free meals and small gifts from lobbyists, Mr. Wertheimer appeared on TV and said simply (as my article accurately reported): "This will fundamentally change the way business is done in Washington and on Capitol Hill."

Mr. Wertheimer knows better (as his letter and his lengthier written statement to the press make clear). Too bad he didn't simply tell his network TV news audience: "Don't be fooled, folks. This vote won't fundamentally change a damn thing--senators will still be allowed to legally shake down the special interests for $10,000 per lobbyist."

It is unfortunate that, for want of a sound bite, Mr. Wertheimer, who has been lobbying on the right side of big issues for two decades, created this inaccurate and misleading impression of his own views.

But my friend Wertheimer accomplished one good thing: He gave me a fine lead for my article.

ARMS 'R' US

The emergence of the United States as the undisputed leader in the post-Cold War weapons trade is a ripe subject for satire ("USArms: A Periodic Report," Sept./Oct.).

One of the most amazing revelations for me in researching my recent book on U.S. arms sales policies ("And Weapons for All," HarperCollins) was how closely the operations of the U.S. government in this field resemble the marketing efforts of a major multinational corporation--complete with an extensive Pentagon sales force, government-sponsored exhibits at international air and trade shows, generous financing terms, and even a government-compiled "U.S. Defense Articles and Services Catalog," which potential customers can peruse at U.S. embassies around the globe.

Ideally, the point of a well-targeted satirical piece is to inspire people to take action. Your readers should know that there is a growing movement under way to change U.S. arms transfer policy by establishing a "code of conduct" (embodied in legislation co-sponsored by Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., and Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga.) that would set much stricter standards for which nations or groups can receive American weaponry. Mother Jones readers interested in finding out what they can do to help should contact Peace Action (1819 H St., N.W., Washington, DC 20006; (202) 862-9740).

William D. Hartung, Senior Research Fellow
World Policy Institute
New School for Social Research

I would like to compliment you on your deftly written shareholders report for USArms. But I think it would have been fair to point out that the large sales in the past year or two were in large part the result of the extraordinarily clever marketing tactic carried out by the "company" under the leadership of several "CEOs."

Five hundred thousand uniformed product testers demonstrated U.S. equipment in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq. To the astonishment of foreign customers, U.S. products worked as advertised, outperforming brands x, y, and z. The reminder by Saddam Hussein that there are bullies on the block even after the end of the Cold War, and the insistence of our congressional board of directors to pull U.S. troops back from Europe and the Pacific, further stimulated the rest of the neighborhood to look for quality protection. Voil, a boom year or two for sales.

You [also] cleverly avoided mentioning that one half of the $32 billion in sales for 1993 involved only two transactions (fighter aircraft to Taiwan and Saudi Arabia), which had been kicked around by management and the board of directors for more than a decade. Such sales will not be repeated, and next year's annual report will drop to a normal sales level of $12-$13 billion.

But, hey, we'll just skip next year's report, as by then our shareholders will be more interested in some other exciting social issue such as saving the endangered Mississippi bedbug, or be anesthetized watching the seventh month of the O.J. Simpson trial.

On the whole, well done. P.T. Barnum would be proud.

Joel L. Johnson
Vice President, International
Aerospace Industries Association

THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS

It's refreshing to read an article ("Greeks and Granolas and Steeps and Slackers," Sept./Oct.) that doesn't lump all students into "Gen X" or "slacker" or "proto-yuppie" or whatever the latest catchphrase for the college-age crowd might be. It's far more complex than that, although the current marketing of youth culture fights mightily to homogenize the current campus scene. This "corporatization of slackerdom" is one of the more insidious strategies of corporate America: The more the typical student is portrayed as an apolitical, cynical observer of life, the easier it is to perpetuate our materialistic, consumption- oriented society without a challenge.

One of the buzzwords on campuses is "apathy." To me the problem has always come back to ignorance: There is very little in our educational upbringing that trains us to be good citizens or teaches us how to affect the world around us. This is a challenge for the future. How do we avail ourselves of every opportunity to train this generation and those to come to be the best possible activists?

Andy MacDonald
MassPIRG

Frequently, young activists are at best patronized and at worst completely discounted. Lest we forget to take our young activists seriously, remember that Martin Luther King Jr. was a 26-year-old upstart when he served as the official spokesman of the Montgomery bus boycott--often credited with launching the civil rights movement. Not bad for a twentysomething.

I'm confident in what can be accomplished by the committed folks of my generation in partnership with our "elder" counterparts. Abbie Hoffman wrote, "We need young people at the front because young people make revolution. Every idea I had, every idea that every one of my gurus ever had, they had the idea when they were 17 years old and then just kept refining it."

Pardon us while we refine.

Sonya Tinsley
Atlanta, Ga.

As a former president of Hampshire College, I was interested in your list of colleges that have an environment supportive of social activism ("The Top 10 Activist Campuses," Sept./Oct.), and was surprised that the list did not lead off with Hampshire.

Hampshire was the first college in the country to divest of stocks of corporations doing business in South Africa; the first to introduce an environmental studies program; and among the first to have a women's studies program. Hampshire is the only college in the country that has a program on reproductive health. It was years ahead of many of the colleges on your list in connecting community service with the concept of social change and incorporating this work into the curriculum.

What makes Hampshire different from a number of the institutions you mentioned is that the philosophy of the institution as a whole incorporates these ideas. Faculty who are engaged in social activism are rewarded.

Any institution that makes the choices that Hampshire has made is taking a big risk. Brown and others you mentioned have easy access to corporate support for many of its activities. Another college where the whole institution is as committed as Hampshire College is to social activism does not exist.

Adele Simmons
President, MacArthur Foundation
Chicago, Ill.

Paul Loeb is one of the few analysts who have actually listened to students and reported their concerns, rather than attempting to speak for students.

However, the section left unaddressed a key issue affecting student political involvement: the health of the national infrastructure supporting progressive campus organizing. During the 1980s groups such as United Campuses to Prevent Nuclear War and the National Student Action Center developed--but did not sustain--strong campus programs. Service groups picked up the slack, but often failed to address the root causes of social problems.

Meanwhile, groups committed to attacking progressive student activism (including the Young Republicans, Leadership Institute, and Madison Center for Educational Affairs), became well-oiled machines with million-dollar budgets.

To reverse these trends, more national support centers for progressive campus organizing will be key. Without them, students will have to attend one of the "top 10 activist campuses" in order to learn about organizing.

Rich Cowan
Clearinghouse Coordinator
University Conversion Project

The excerpt from Paul Rogat Loeb's new book was guilty of compounding an error that the mass media propagate: that do-goodism is any kind of substitute for political action.

Habitat for Humanity will never build enough homes to solve homelessness. Recycling efforts distort the main cause of ecological destruction: corporate greed. And all the middle-class interns in elections, statehouses, and in the Beltway aren't going to get the Democratic Party to be pro-working people instead of pro-big business.

While I respect the efforts of kindhearted students, it would be good for all concerned to see that the only time students had real influence in this country was when we went for the throat of the power structure.

Charles Lenchner
UMass-Amherst

Paul Loeb has it backwards in his piece about student activism in the '90s. He concludes: "Community service projects let students perform immediately useful tasks like feeding the hungry without engaging in more direct political action." Loeb makes service seem like a cop-out.

For many twentysomethings, service functions as an entre into activism rather than as a respite. This ties into what SDS founder Todd Gitlin has called "the upstream theory." After enough public health workers jump into a river to rescue drowning children, they eventually go upstream, looking to see who's pitching the children into the river in the first place.

Leslie Crutchfield
Who Cares magazine

Aside from the more mainstream attacks on young people, we have not been well supported by some of our more natural allies. Paul Loeb describes a generation "of ordinary citizens--especially students--[who] worked to end segregation, stop a dubious war, and further democratize this nation." We are asking, not disrespectfully, where is this generation now? Although we need to define for ourselves what our generation's identity will be, we still need the support and advice of our elders.

Organizations like the Student Environmental Action Coalition run on a budget that is 1/100th the annual budget of "adult" organizations in the nonprofit world, but we are seeing overwhelmingly positive results of investing in young people. There are thousands of organizations with even fewer resources being led by and for young people and students who are changing their communities and reclaiming their future.

For more information about SEAC, call 1 (800) 700-SEAC.

Miya Yoshitani, Liz Gres, Amit Srivastava, Chris Kromm, Shane Jimmerfield
Student Environmental Action Coalition

ADVANCED TOILETRY

As much as your photo essay "Know Your Toilets" (Sept./Oct.) illustrated cultural and economic differences, some critical issues were ignored.

Alexander Kira has done research on functional and cultural issues involving water closets. One example is our notion that a toilet is a seat as much as anything else. (A much lower seat height makes for more effective evacuation.) Likewise, in order to make toilets flush more quietly, lower, larger tanks were invented. (Old-style toilets with the tanks mounted above head height used less water, but were much louder.) Also, the United States is one of the few nations that use potable water for toilets.

In short, by exposing many of these attitudes as cultural conditioning, maybe we can alleviate some of the problems that arise when shit happens.

Nic Musolino
Savannah, Ga.

INTO THE STACKS!

As director of a small-town public library, I was heartened to read good ideas in "Pump Up Your Volumes" (Sept./Oct.). May I offer some more?

Find out if your library has a "Friends of the Library" group. If it doesn't, start one. The American Library Association can advise on the particulars.

Find out how your library is funded. If it's public, you can learn how much of the budget is covered by local revenues, and then let your representatives know that funding the library is important.

Offer your time. Small libraries with tight budgets and overworked staffs need help. Your assistance could be anything from shelving to helping out with storytimes, clerical tasks, or minor repair jobs.

My point is: Get involved! Find out what the library can do for you and what you can do for the library!

Donna L. Cole
Leeds Public Library
Leeds, Ala.

THANK YOU, TEDDY

Mike Weiss accurately and thoroughly described the campaign that was conducted against me ("The Prey," July/August). Of course, I have never been able to ascertain the origin of the charges that he describes.

However, there are two errors in your story. In the first of two National Labor Relations Board cases that it mentions, the union had not won a certification from which the employer appealed, as Weiss states. The issue was whether the NLRB would conduct an election (which might lead to a certification) before resolving disputes about whether certain employees could vote. In the interest of speed and a quick election, I voted with the majority of the NLRB to conduct the election without delay.

The second error relates to comments ascribed to me about some members of Sen. Edward Kennedy's staff. I was extremely irritated by Mark Childress' refusal to identify my false accusers. But the article fails to note my view that Sen. Kennedy will go into the history books as one of the greatest legislators in the history of the republic. There is no member of the Senate more widely respected than Sen. Kennedy. That is why he and his staff were able to convince every single voting Democrat in the Senate--from the North and from the South, liberal and conservative--to vote to confirm my nomination.

I could not have been confirmed as chairman of the National Labor Relations Board without the unstinting efforts of both Sen. Kennedy and his staff. I advised Mr. Weiss of this on a number of occasions, and the failure of his article to note my opinion on this matter presents my views in a misleading and erroneous fashion.

William B. Gould IV, Chairman
National Labor Relations Board
Washington, D.C.

WOODSTOCK INTELLIGENCE

Recently, I had a sanity lapse and agreed to go to Woodstock with some (possibly former) friends. As the media has pointed out to anyone silly enough to pay attention, it was cold and muddy. What's worse, it was impossible to move between stages which meant being subjected to some horrible bands. Fortunately, on one miserable wander through the Crafts Village tents, I came across a table with stacks of Mother Jones and a sign that said: "Free! Take one."

I was so grateful for some sign of intelligence that I grabbed a copy and went through contortions to keep it dry and mud-free on the way back to my tent. Later, while my friends fried brain cells and wasted precious auditory resources on Nine Inch Nails, I stayed back in my tent, dry and content, absorbing your magazine. It is truly one of my only happy memories of the whole "Woodstock experience."

Gwynner, e-mail