Backtalk

Send your letters to backtalk@motherjones.com.

Our July/August cover package on the Republican attack machine prompted a very strong denial from Sen. Orrin Hatch's office and varied commentary from other sources. We also drew feedback for our stories on the Alaska fishery giveaway and financial companies that prey on the poor. Plus: The Chlorine Chemistry Council takes issue with our May/June article linking breast cancer with environmental toxics.

COUNTERATTACK MACHINE

When Mike Weiss first began peddling his fantasy theory that staffers for Sen. Hatch spread rumors about William Gould ("The Prey," July/August), I advised him and the editor of the journal he works for of the following facts:

  1. Any allegation that Mark Disler spread any rumors about Mr. Gould, including rumors that he is a communist or had gambling debts, is totally false.
  2. Mr. Disler had no involvement with the Gould nomination and made no representations to anyone about Mr. Gould. Any allegation to the contrary is a complete and malicious fabrication.
  3. Mr. Weiss cannot have a shred of evidence to support such an allegation, and he presented none whatsoever.
Let me briefly add:

  1. No Hatch staffer was even aware that these rumors existed until Mr. Weiss mentioned the rumors to them--ironically, Mr. Weiss has apparently done the most to spread the rumors.
  2. The fact that a columnist wrote critically of both Judge Barkett and Mr. Gould in a column--the entire linchpin of your fabrication--proves nothing. The two nominations were pending simultaneously, and opposition to Mr. Gould, especially in the business community, had been vocal and well-known long before the column in question was published.
  3. While Mr. Disler's mailings concerning Judge Barkett, which consisted of complete copies of some of her opinions, summaries of them, and a cover note, were unauthorized and inappropriate, they contained no "lies," "poisonous materials," "disinformation," or "leaked" information.
  4. For the record, 11 senators spoke on the Senate floor against the nomination of Judge Barkett based on her record. Among the 37 votes against her was former Democrat majority leader and student of the Constitution, Robert Byrd.
Paul Smith
Press Secretary to Sen. Orrin G. Hatch

Mike Weiss responds: Mark Disler, speaking through Paul Smith then as now, refused several requests for interviews. Apparently, the cat's got his tongue. Mother Jones stands by the story.

MORE ON THE MACHINE

The article by Eric Alterman on the greater intellectual cohesion of the right wing compared to the intellectual disarray on the left ("Fighting Smart," July/August) raised many valuable points, but one should never lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of the "ideas" coming from the right are demonstrably garbage.

At its best, this entire "idea base" is little more than interests dressed up as ideology and packaged as public policy. The number, intensity, and influence of right-wing idea manufacturers and the lack of left-wing ones can be attributed to the relationship of the right to economic power and resources that the left threatens. As in the Coors case, a millionaire can easily be convinced to fund a think tank to come up with reasons why millionaires should be allowed to keep all their money.

On the other hand, organizing a group designed to think up ways to end poverty, for example, is a different story. Where will the money come from to fly members of Congress and their families to exotic locations for conferences? Who will fund careerist academics with endowed chairs? Who will put on catered dinner parties for delegates to the next Democratic convention?

Raymond Birt
Lawrence, Kan.


The Democrats control the House, the Senate, and the presidency. How could there possibly be gridlock when they control everything?


In your July/August issue, you said that the Republican strategy was clear: gridlock. So what? The Democrats control the House, the Senate, and the presidency. How could there possibly be gridlock when they control everything? If there is gridlock, it can only be caused by the Democrats.

You spoke of the Republican Party as though they are vultures attacking innocent prey. This is insane. The Democrats constantly wanted any and everything investigated during the Reagan/Bush years. It didn't matter if there was any evidence or facts to warrant an investigation; the mere "appearance of impropriety" was enough to bring the legislative process to a halt to debate the need for congressional hearings of anyone affiliated with the Republican Party.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying the Republicans are a great bunch, but it would have made much better reading if you had done a nonpartisan piece on political attacking in general.

Tom Renten, e-mail

It was with pleasure that I received my first issue of Mother Jones and read your editorial "Captains of Malice," framed so nicely with an epigraph and reprise of Herman Melville. I am one of an increasing number who hear his masterpiece as a funeral dirge, an obituary notice for this predatory economy. Which makes Bob Dole merely a bad actor in a drama that was over in 1851, the year "Moby Dick" was published.

Should we then, like Ishmael, be stepping into the street and methodically knocking people's hats off? Or should we put out to sea?

Charles Potts
Walla Walla, Wash.

Your Dole cover was great, but still I would like to see him portrayed as the Grinch who stole Christmas. He did model for Dr. Seuss, didn't he?

Tania Taylor, e-mail

Thanks for your efforts! "The Prey" was splendid. I'm going to have my introductory American government class read that as an example of how the game is played in D.C.--at least by the Republicans. (Not that the administration stuck up for Bill Gould, either.)

Jere Bruner, e-mail

FISH TALES

We were very glad to see so much coverage of fisheries in the July/August issue of Mother Jones. [As you note in "Battle for the Deep,"] the North Pacific Fishery Management Council is looking at a system of management called individual transferable quotas (ITQs). This is not a limited entry plan but a plan that would privatize this public resource worth billions of dollars by giving the rights to the fish in the ocean to different companies, in perpetuity. This would not only preserve a destructive method of fishing, but also actually reward those who have caused the problems of overcapitalization and overfishing at the expense of small businesses and subsistence fishers who use less destructive gear.

Tyson Foods, as you mentioned, bought Arctic Alaska, the trawl company that would receive the largest allocation of the groundfish resource in Alaska if this privatization occurs. Not surprisingly, they are very much in favor of the idea of the public giving them millions of dollars' worth of a resource for free. Tyson appears to be working hard to get individuals appointed to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council who will vote to give them the resource. Given Tyson's connections with President Clinton, some in the fishing industry have already started to refer to the possibility of this giveaway of one of our most valuable resources as "Fishgate." Your articles will help the public understand how much is at risk.

Laura Cooper, Executive Director
North Pacific Fisheries Protection Association

I'm glad to see some of the national media at least addressing the misuse of the resources of the world's oceans. When Alaska first received statehood in 1959, our coasts, due to federal management, were in the same disastrous conditions as those facing New England today.

Today, 54 percent of all the fish harvested off [American] shores, from the Virgin Islands to the far Pacific, is harvested off Alaska's coast.

Now comes step two, the allocation battle. While I do not feel that individual transferable quotas are the answer to all fisheries management problems, I do feel that they, with proper controls for the protection of small coastal communities, plus safeguards against monopoly, offer not only the best but also the only practical solution when setting up a management system for longer-lived species. The annual harvest of these species should be taken through-out the year, instead of in the mad race to plunder that characterizes our common property system. I also feel that a royalty payment for the use of this public resource, plus a modest tax to cover management, should be imposed, although as a council member, I would never delay my vote waiting for Congress to act on this issue.

The American farmer feeds the world from the land he owns. Our harvesters of the commons cannot even feed their nation.

Clem V. Tillion II
North Pacific Fishery Management Council


Is Alaska's proposed ITQ plan a multibillion-dollar giveaway to big corporations, or the best hope to save the fishery by reducing waste?


Let me offer a few insights beyond Hal Bernton's excellent article. The real change [that will take place in Alaska if ITQs are implemented] will be to the Southern sharecropper model for this industry. That is where the big owners see the real money to be made, not by harvesting the fish themselves. Their aging fleets can be sold and not replaced, because the big corporations will now own the resource which will be leased on a sharecropper basis to the fishermen.

This is exactly what has happened in the Atlantic surf clam fishery, the only United States ITQ program. The majority of those shares are now leased annually to the fishermen for a far better return than the actual fishermen make, and the shareholders escape all the liability, expenses, and risk. The proposed ITQ plan for the North Pacific contains the same perpetual leasing provisions for all freezer/processor shares and sets the precedent for these factory trawlers. Make no mistake that the purpose of this plan is to fundamentally change the complexion of this independent free enterprise fishery system, and ask yourself and your congressman if you really support that change by giving away the public resources.

Jere Murray
Seldovia, Alaska

You did an excellent job covering the crisis facing our fisheries in your recent issue. The stories were compelling and accurate.

While conservationists advocate for sustainable fisheries behind the scenes at the United Nations, citizens are an essential part of the decisionmaking process that defines our democratic system. But currently there is little perception by the general public that healthy oceans are essential to life and that these ecosystems are in danger. Raising the profile of these issues in the public is critical if the fight to save our fisheries is to be won--for the fish and the fishermen.

Carl Safina, Director
Living Oceans Program
National Audubon Society

Your article did a solid job of revealing the Tyson stranglehold on the oceans. Whether Mother Jones readers fish or not, they can help rock the boat. This year, Congress will be reviewing and updating the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Your letters and calls to your senators, representatives, and Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown will help ensure passage of a stronger and more comprehensive Magnuson Act. Strongly urge them to support changes to the Magnuson Act (H.R. 4404) that will eliminate overfishing, minimize waste and bycatch, and protect marine habitats. Hopefully, Mother Jones' feature will get more people's political hooks in the water.

Penny Pagels
Greenpeace

Your excellent feature on the perilous state of world fish stocks misses an important point: Hydroelectric and irrigation projects are destroying coastal fisheries all over the world. Research shows that hydroelectric dams and other reservoirs hold back enough runoff to seriously damage coastal fish stocks. Runoff is vital to the normal functioning of the estuaries, deltas, and coastal zone ecosystems that provide crucial supports to these fisheries.

The United States government is now planning to dismantle many of its dams to protect its remaining Pacific and Atlantic coastal and anadromous stocks. Other nations investing heavily in mega-hydro could save their fisheries irreparable harm by following in the United States' footsteps.

Dianne Murray
Reid Cooper
Dam-Reservoir Working Group
Ontario PIRG

Your articles on fisheries in the July/August issue were excellent, but there is more!

Tyson's influence over national fishery policy may not be limited to Alaska and may, in fact, extend all the way down the Pacific coast. In April 1993, for example, the Commerce Department overruled the Pacific Fishery Management Council and granted the Seattle-based factory trawl fleet, of which Arctic Alaska is a major player, the lion's share of the Pacific whiting quota offshore of California, Oregon, and Washington.

It must be recognized that many of the world's true family fishermen, like many family farmers, want a resource, an industry, to pass along to their children. On behalf of the fishing families our organization represents, please make your readers aware that there are commercial and sport fishing groups who are working to ensure that there will be fisheries for future generations.

Pietro Parravano, President
Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations


Americans gave up eating wild game quite a while ago. Fish farms will likely be where much of our fish comes from in the future.


Your series of articles on the decline of fish populations failed to mention the impact of the growing size of the human population relative to the size of the fish populations. Unless we decrease demand by voluntarily lowering our own numbers, we will constantly be facing these kinds of resource limitations.

[Americans] gave up eating wild game quite a while ago, and without the aforementioned reduction of population size, fish farming will likely be where much of our fish comes from in the future, like it or not.

The best thing we can do for the fish (and the earth) is to reduce our own numbers.

Richard Frank
Newtonville, Mass.

BANKS IN THE HOOD

Sadly, the stories recounted in Mother Jones' excellent articles on neighborhoods where pawnshops, check-cashing stores, finance companies, and rent-to-own stores have replaced mainstream businesses and federally insured banks ("Robbin' the Hood," July/August) are not new to the House Banking Committee. We have been trying to keep financial institutions from further abandoning these communities.

It angers me that too many in the banking industry have forgotten that they received their federal or state charters on the condition that they would serve the convenience and needs of the entire community. Unfortunately, it often takes pressure from Congress and the community to wake up some of these deadbeat banks to their obligations.

Henry Gonzalez, D-Texas, Chair
U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs

There are two lending issues at the heart of Mike Hudson's "Robbin' the Hood." One is abusive lending practices, which every mainstream lender has an interest in ending. The other is credit risk, which every lender must price for.

Unfortunately, the author is totally incapable of separating the two issues. Until they are considered individually, there is no way to have a meaningful discussion that benefits consumers or anyone else.

Jeffrey A. Tassey, Senior Vice President
Government & Legal Affairs
American Financial Services Association

Your piece "Robbin' the Hood" documents the unfair system that has developed in the United States for credit and financial services.

Poor people will be relegated to inferior or overpriced services until regulators, company top management, investors, activists, and consumers all insist that mainstream U.S. financial institutions serve everyone. Federal banking regulators have an opportunity now to promote this goal as they rewrite the regulations implementing the federal Community Reinvestment Act. The act requires banks that desire federal approvals to merge or grow to prove that they are providing a fair share of branches in low-income neighborhoods. It is time for these regulators to flex their muscles and make banks serve all communities.

Gail Hillebrand, Litigation Counsel
Consumers Union, Inc.

Mike Hudson's broad-brush indictment of high-risk financial institutions, rent-to-own retailers, and pawnshops (how all three can be discussed in one article is beyond me) accuses whole classes of business of racism and usury and lets consumers of these businesses entirely off the hook. Hudson applauds the effort of Joe Kennedy to introduce asinine legislation requiring "cigarette-warning-like disclosures" of lousy interest rates. How in the world can this have any effect whatsoever on the phenomenon of demand for credit?

As a middle-class borrower, I don't get the best interest rates available--why should I? My borrowing has to generate profits commensurate with statistical risk. I am not looking for the government to subsidize my borrowing with artificial interest rate caps because my debt creates fair profit for the financial institutions I deal with.

The root problem is that many people expect to be able to live beyond their means. You liberals, as usual, turn to legislative solutions to protect people from their own poor judgment and to protect the misplaced avarice so well displayed by the woman Hudson quotes: "You may pay double . . . but if you want nice things, where are you going to get the credit?"

My advice to her is to save her money, get a J.C. Penney or Sears card, pay it on time, build decent credit, and buy "nice things" when they are within her means.

David Hisbrook
Grand Haven, Mich.

HOME IMPROVEMENT

When our company representatives traveled to Virginia to spend a day with your free-lance reporter, Mike Hudson, in the hope that an open, on-the-record presentation of the facts might compel him to write a balanced story, we frankly did so with minimal expectations.

Sure enough, with the exception of a handful of our comments--culled from more than five hours of conversation--Hudson's "investigation" of Jim Walter Homes' legal fight in South Texas ("Give 'em Hector," July/August) was just another recitation of the allegations and carefully crafted images attorney Hector Gonzalez willingly serves up for consumption by anyone susceptible to the allure of his "crusading lawyer vs. big Wall Street company" routine.

Hudson gives the back of his hand to our company's 40-year history as this nation's leading builder of affordable homes by dismissing that record with superficial references to a handful of problems that were resolved more than a dozen years ago. For all the detail accorded the South Texas litigation, Hudson neglects to mention that the basic premise of Gonzalez's lawsuit is that his clients' homes were not "substantially completed," and therefore they owe nothing for them--even though nearly all of his clients have lived in their homes for 10 or more years.

We readily admitted to Hudson that our inspections uncovered some South Texas homes in need of corrective work; however, in the vast majority of instances where Gonzalez and his "inspector" allege poor workmanship or faulty building materials, we can demonstrate extensive damage caused by years of homeowner neglect or poor maintenance.

Moreover, as Gonzalez well knows, Jim Walter Homes offered to correct any defects identified by a qualified, independent inspector as legitimately being the result of improper construction. Gonzalez has prevented us from doing so.

We do agree with one conclusion of the story: that our problems in South Texas are largely the result of the activities of one very clever attorney, through whose efforts a group of homeowners has avoided making mortgage payments on homes in which they continue to reside. The unfortunate downside of this action is that at the conclusion of the litigation they may lose their homes.

You state that Gonzalez is "trying to shame Jim Walter Homes into caving in" to his clients' demands. Perhaps that's because he knows their claims won't stand up in a fair and proper forum.

Robert W. Michael, President
Jim Walter Homes

Regarding the "Give 'em Hector" story, my staff and I all asked where were the local government watchdogs that should have been protecting the henhouse?

With the current slump in the residential construction market, much blame is being placed on local government and building departments because of perceived overregulation and red tape from planners, building inspectors, zoning regulations, building codes, and government in general.

However, when a community decides that their residents shall have the opportunity to live in safe, decent, and well-constructed homes, and adopts and enforces tough and fair building codes to ensure these goals--even for low- and moderate-income housing--problems like those described in Texas are much less likely to occur.

Ira Gwin, Director of Community Development
City of Commerce, Calif.

BREAST CANCER BIAS?

In his article "Why?" (May/June), Michael Castleman raises compelling questions about the current state of breast cancer research. However, there is much about the article that is incorrect. Mr. Castleman seems to have overlooked both the published research that does not support his claim that chlorinated organic compounds cause breast cancer, and the efforts of the chemical industry to investigate suspected environmental causes of the disease.

The latest study to examine the pesticide DDT and its alleged link to breast cancer, published in the April 20 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, did not find an increased risk of breast cancer resulting from exposure to DDT. Co-authored by Nancy Krieger and Mary Wolff, the study encompassed a very large study population and analyzed blood samples taken in the 1960s, when DDT was still prevalent in the environment. In his article, Mr. Castleman points to an earlier study by Mary Wolff as evidence of a link between breast cancer and chlorinated organic compounds, but does not mention her and Krieger's more recent research.

In epidemiology, it is essential to have multiple studies showing consistent results before drawing conclusions. The Chlorine Chemistry Council is committed both to sound scientific investigation of those compounds that persist in the environment and to realistic examination of potential health risks.

Brad Lienhard, Director
Chlorine Chemistry Council

Michael Castleman replies: My article cited a study by Wolff showing that levels of the DDT byproduct, DDE, in blood samples related to risk of subsequent breast cancer. Shortly after the article appeared, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute published a similar study by Krieger and Wolff showing no significant association between DDE and breast cancer risk. The Chlorine Chemistry Council cites the latter study to dismiss the former.

However, Krieger and Wolff themselves point out several reasons why such a dismissal is premature. One concerns the different ethnic compositions of the two study populations. The Wolff study used blood from the East Coast, the Krieger/Wolff study, from the West Coast. Asian women were significantly more heavily represented in the West Coast study, and Asian women are known to have low breast cancer rates compared with white and African-American women. Remove the Asian women from the latter study, and the DDE-breast cancer association looks considerably stronger.

The Krieger/Wolff paper is not the only relevant study published since the Mother Jones article appeared. In April, the New York State Health Department announced findings of a study on Long Island showing that breast cancer risk for women there relates directly to the distance they live from any of several chemical plants. The letter from the Chlorine Chemistry Council makes no mention of this report.

With 182,000 women expected to develop breast cancer this year, I believe that as a nation we should err on the side of caution and ban or severely restrict the use of the organochlorine chemicals as quickly as possible.

MORE ON BREAST CANCER


It's heartening that your outcry does not come from an industry, magazine, or company known as "women's." It's about time that breast cancer ceases to be a "women's" issue.


Once I attended a public meeting in a small town in northwest Ohio, where an agriculture professor from Ohio State University was explaining to the audience how safe and nice our agriculture is. A woman in the audience stood up and expressed her concern about atrazine, alachlor, and nitrate in her drinking water. The agriculture professor responded in a highly scientific manner: "A little bit of nitrate isn't gonna hurt anybody."

This attitude is typical of many colleges of agriculture across the country which continue to be at ease with the chemotherapy of the land through industrialized agriculture. I know this because I have worked within such an institution for several years. Through a close relationship with chemical industries, colleges of agriculture have legitimized, researched, taught, advertised, and promoted chemicalized agriculture and continue to do so.

Kamyar Enshayan
Cedar Falls, Iowa

I am writing to thank you for the breast cancer article you printed in the May/June issue. It is heartening to know that your outcry does not come from an industry, magazine, or company known as "women's." It's about time that breast cancer ceases to be a "women's" issue.

Looking at the magazines at my campus store, I found tons of breasts on the covers of Hot Rod, Cosmopolitan, Playboy, Vogue, Allure, etc. In four racks, though, yours was the only magazine that headlined breast cancer. Somehow, advertisers and magazine publishers found articles like "Ten New Ways to Get and Keep Your Man" more important than health this month.

Thank you for your contributions, Mother Jones. And thank you for caring about your daughters.

Jennifer Morrish
Los Angeles, Calif.

Note: J. Church of the Terry Fox Cancer Research Labs at Memorial University of Newfoundland recently e-mailed us with word of a new Internet discussion list on breast cancer. For information on this and other online resources, send e-mail to info@motherjones.com.

ON THE ROAD AGAIN

Steve Coll's account of a trip down the Grand Trunk Road ("The Road Taken," July/August) is superb. His series of vignettes about the chaotic character of the Grand Trunk Road are indeed emblematic of the changes that are sweeping across India.

Like Mark Twain's death, the imminent collapse of the Indian state has often been greatly exaggerated. In 40-odd years, India has successfully weathered several droughts, four wars, and the assassinations of two prime ministers.

I have, however, one quarrel with Coll's otherwise excellent article. The Fabian socialist Nehruvian state was not a complete failure. It laid the foundations for India's postindependence industrialization. Furthermore, in its own fitful fashion it successfully transformed India's agriculture. By the late 1970s India had become a food-surplus nation, no longer haunted by the looming specter of famine. The current strategy of economic liberalization, if fully implemented, will correct the shortcomings of the Nehruvian legacy.

Sumit Ganguly, Fellow
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

ROACH RIGHTS

I never thought I'd write a defense for roaches, but the article "Roach Patrol" by Adam Penenberg (Outfront, July/August) was insensitive and disgusting.

May I suggest that Mr. Penenberg boost his ego in other ways than squashing roaches under his shoe and spreading diatomaceous earth so that roaches "cut their outer cuticle layers, expel fluids, and eventually shrivel up and die." Give me a break.

Antonia Montana
Omaha, Neb.

As president of Roaches Against Insecticide Death (RAID), I deplore the use of your magazine as an instrument for inciting violence against us poor roaches. It's bad enough that we have to educate our young about the danger of romantic interludes in Roach Motels, but now, thanks to your magazine, we will have to worry about sprinkles of boric acid and diatomaceous earth.

Furthermore, we resent being called unwanted guests when, in fact, we perform a useful service by assisting busy homemakers in cleaning up around the house. We selflessly labor during the night to make sure the house is tidy by morning, but let's face it, humans are pigs. And although we try to stay out of sight, it's not our fault that some fool turns on a light in the middle of the night and catches us in the act of cleaning up.

Please refrain from printing such politically incorrect articles as "Roach Patrol" in the future. We believe that prejudice such as yours can be overcome with a little understanding.

Head Roach
Roaches Against Insecticide Death (RAID)