Issue 338 | Correspondence | The Sun Magazine


I got my mail, and right there on the top was another tan slip from the post office, meaning my portfolio was being returned again. I’m doing the best work of my life, and all I have to show for it is a stack of rejection letters. On top of that, my dog has cancer. I just stood by the front door with Lucky and cried.

Then, under the Eddie Bauer catalog, I found the November 2003 issue of The Sun. I always turn to Sunbeams first. After reading those words of wisdom about the struggle and the rewards of the creative process, I put the postal notice on a stack with the others, washed my face, gave Lucky a biscuit, and went back to the studio.

Richard Earnheart Silver City, New Mexico

I just finished the November 2003 issue, and I’m writing to share something about The Sun that I used to hate but have come to accept and even cherish: the way so many of the stories have no real end. They just drop off, or the end is really a beginning.

In Corvin Thomas’s “The Power of Jesus,” for example, will John get clean and sober, or will he continue to hide and hate himself? In Jasmine Skye’s “Telling You,” how does the narrator’s therapist respond to her infatuation with him? Does the response help heal her?

I have come to realize that this is real life. If the endings were neatly wrapped up, I wouldn’t be able to ask questions. Those questions are mine to answer as I choose.

Katherine Ellingsen Battle Creek, Michigan

I’ve twice been to the Faulkner Society’s Words and Music Festival, the setting for Erin Van Rheenen’s essay “Thirteen Ways of Claiming a Literary Prize” [November 2003], once as a paying participant, and again as a faculty member. The nonprofit Faulkner Society does generous, perhaps imperfect, but always exciting work on behalf of writers, both emerging and established. Information about the society can be found online at

Jeff Bens Harrison, New York

I have always enjoyed your fiction and your Readers Write section, but your interviews have delivered a continuous dribble of introspective, gosh-we’re-all-connected nonsense.

We just don’t have time for that. We’ve got an unelected regime systematically consolidating power in this country. They want to rob us of our civil liberties, take away the rights of gays and lesbians, put millions out of work, and deprive even more of healthcare — all for the benefit of the privileged few. David Barsamian’s interview with Noam Chomsky [“Language of Mass Deception,” October 2003] magnificently describes their hideous propaganda machine.

The Sun has an intelligent and influential readership. More than ever, your magazine has a deep responsibility to offer its readers a politically active response to this crisis — not new modes of introspection.

Robert Vogel Berkeley, California

If Noam Chomsky is so concerned about government lies, propaganda, and selective use of facts, why does he engage in such practices himself? The two most egregious examples from his interview pertain to Iraq and Israel.

Chomsky says that “probably two-thirds of the population [of Iraq] is on the edge of starvation.” I have seen plenty of recent video from Iraq, and people there don’t look to me as if they are starving. Even if he can provide some documentation for his statement, it doesn’t mean that starvation was caused by the UN sanctions, as he alleges. Saddam Hussein and his party loyalists lived lavishly, with fancy cars, private zoos, and so on. The sanctions certainly didn’t hurt them. A more tenable hypothesis would be that Saddam’s cruel regime prevented goods from getting to the common Iraqi.

Chomsky’s description of Israel as an “offshore U.S. military base” is more hyperbole. A U.S. military base would have U.S. commanders and soldiers. Does the U.S. give military aid to Israel? Yes. Would Chomsky rather we gave aid to Saudi Arabia, where U.S. soldiers were killed in their barracks and every non-Muslim is a second-class citizen? Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. Shouldn’t we be supportive of it?

Harvey Leviton Minneapolis, Minnesota

Noam Chomsky says, “the problem [that Republicans have] with things like schools and Social Security is that they are based on natural human concern for others.” He contends that Republicans don’t want us to “have sympathy and solidarity; . . . [to] care whether the disabled widow across town is able to eat.”

This doesn’t make sense. A person who has a natural human concern for others may very well argue that we do not need the government to provide for the poor. Charities, family, neighbors, churches, and friends could perform this function.

The problem that most Republicans have with “things like schools and Social Security” is precisely that they are government programs that are less efficient than some private alternatives. To hear Chomsky, you would think that most Republicans are either liars or just stupid.

Such a deliberate effort to broad-brush Republicans as uncaring is a hostile and destructive path to take, and certainly doesn’t resemble the caring, sympathy, and solidarity that Chomsky preaches. He seems to reserve his sympathy for those who share his point of view.

If Chomsky is just trying to rally those who already agree with him, then he may be doing a good job. But if he wants to win over those who disagree, or who are on the fence and listening for an objective voice, then his remarks will likely be received as inflammatory and offensive.

Rob Zielkowski Novi, Michigan
Noam Chomsky responds:

The UN sanctions against Iraq (more accurately, the U.S. sanctions, since no one else other than the United Kingdom supported the harsh and brutal punishment on which the U.S. insisted) were one of the most cruel and destructive criminal acts of recent years. They devastated Iraq’s civilian society, strengthened the tyrant, and compelled the population to rely on him for survival, thus undermining the possibility of an internal uprising that would have sent him to the same fate as Nicolae Ceausescu, Suharto, Ferdinand Marcos, and other comparable monsters the U.S. supported until the end of their bloody rules. There is ample literature to support my statement that two-thirds of Iraq’s population is “on the edge of starvation.” The Center for Economic and Social Rights, a leading nongovernmental organization in Iraq, says that “over 60 percent of the population . . . depends for survival on a comprehensive food-rationing system.” The UN Food and Agriculture Organization says, “The situation of famine has been prevented largely by an efficient public rationing system . . . [and] the collapse of the system will spell a catastrophe for the majority of the Iraqi people.” Humanitarian organizations reported grave concern at the time of the interview that the forthcoming invasion might lead to such a collapse.

The radical deterioration of the situation in Iraq coincided closely with the UN sanctions: As the sanctions were imposed, civilian living conditions declined to some of the lowest levels in the world. As the sanctions were slightly relaxed in 1996, the situation improved. Saddam Hussein had always been a murderous thug, even when Washington happily supported him, but he did not become more of a thug when the sanctions were imposed, nor less of a thug when they were relaxed. The Boston Globe, the Washington Post, and others reported that UN officials and aid workers “expressed awe at the efficiency” of the food-distribution system Saddam’s government organized, and were unable to discover any corruption despite intensive investigation. In fact, the UN felt incapable of duplicating the system. No one concerned with the civilian situation in Iraq takes seriously the propaganda claim that the devastation resulted from Saddam’s thuggishness and shocking waste of resources. That includes U.S. officials. When Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was asked about the half million reported deaths resulting from the sanctions regime, she did not repeat the propaganda claim, because it would have elicited ridicule, but said simply that our government knew the price was high, but thought it was “worth it.” The Westerners most knowledgeable about Iraq were the highly respected international diplomats Dennis Halliday and Hans van Sponeck, who administered the UN aid programs. Halliday resigned in protest in 1998, charging that the sanctions were “genocidal”; van Sponeck resigned in 2000 with similar objections, also charging that the U.S. was blocking even the presentation of the facts at the Security Council.

Doubtless Saddam could have relieved the situation to some extent by using the wealth he wasted on palaces to feed the population. But if that fact is taken to justify the cruel and brutal sanctions that the U.S. imposed, with murderous effect, then it should be legitimate for some imaginary superpower to drive the U.S. down to the level of Cambodia and Uganda, since the extraordinary concentration of wealth here could be used to alleviate the consequences.

In the interview, I said that “the real superpower in the region is that offshore U.S. military base known as Israel, which has hundreds of nuclear weapons and a massive armed forces.” No reasonable reader could have interpreted that as meaning that Israel is an official base with U.S. commanders. Rather, this very small country has become the region’s military superpower as a result of an unprecedented flow of military aid from the U.S. In 1958 President Eisenhower and the National Security Council stated that a “logical corollary” of U.S. opposition to Arab nationalism was support for Israel as our most reliable ally in the Middle East — along with Turkey and Iran, with which Israel established close military alliances. Israel now functions as a virtual U.S. military base. U.S. support for Israel has nothing to do with democracy, as the record demonstrates. The U.S. sells arms to Saudi Arabia at an extraordinary level, not caring that its government is the most extreme fundamentalist regime in the world and has a horrendous human-rights record. All that matters is that it happens to control the world’s major energy reserves.

It may be convenient to live with illusions, but it is not wise.

Regarding the efforts of the Republican extremists now in office — not Republicans as a whole — to demolish the progressive legislation of the past century: We should remember that Social Security and the limited medical-support programs we have were won by popular struggle precisely because of the abject failure of private charity to deal with these problems, which the general population recognized as a social, community responsibility. That feeling of responsibility is based on the natural human emotions of sympathy and solidarity, which must be driven from the mind, according to the radical nationalists now relentlessly pursuing their agenda. For a good overview of their plans, see Paul Krugman’s regular articles in the New York Times and his recent book The Great Unraveling.

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