Issue 337 | Correspondence | The Sun Magazine


In David Barsamian’s interview “Language of Mass Deception” [October 2003], Noam Chomsky does an unparalleled job of revealing how the U.S. Government, Inc., is engaged in perception management. I’d like to suggest an effective technique for breaking through government controls on information: talk radio.

A growing number of progressives are calling in to local and national programs to talk about the American empire, corporate crime, climate change, and other marginalized topics. The format demands concise statements and the patience to endure temperamental hosts, but it takes only a moment to interrupt reactionary thought patterns and to suggest alternative sources of information. There are even a handful of pioneering progressive hosts, like Enid Goldstein on and Thom Hartmann on, who love to hear from people who believe in the power of the word.

Preston Enright Denver, Colorado

After The Sun interviews an activist or political figure, readers respond on the Correspondence page, pointing out inconsistencies, flawed reasoning, partial truths, and dogmatic thinking. I’d like to know: why can’t The Sun’s interviewers show some of the same critical distance in their interviews?

David Barsamian’s interview with Noam Chomsky is the purest case yet of an “interview” consisting entirely of questions that comfortably fit the interviewee’s worldview. Best example: “Why did public-relations propaganda flourish in democratic societies?” There is no exchange of ideas here; just a Chomsky admirer taking dictation. Why not use the space for a real discussion that includes some fruitful disagreement, or else save everyone the trouble and reprint some of Chomsky’s writing?

Chomsky ended his interview with a call to “examine what’s presented to you with common sense and skepticism.” I’d love to see this put into practice in future Sun interviews.

John Raley San Francisco, California

Something doesn’t ring true in the stories “Any Marine,” by Stephen Elliott [August 2003], and “The Designated Marksman,” by Otis Haschemeyer [October 2003]. Was Stephen Elliott a combat marine? Was Otis Haschemeyer a navy SEAL? It doesn’t show up in their bios. I hope these writers are combat veterans, because there is something distasteful about made-up war stories. It is overreaching, no matter how skillfully done.

Don Hope West Hartford, Connecticut
Otis Haschemeyer responds:

The advice “Write what you know” can be helpful at times, but on another level is ridiculous. If we wrote only what we knew, then we would write only about ourselves, and I think this defeats one of the great gifts of fiction: the ability to evoke and live in another person’s shoes — which is also why we read fiction. If we can’t develop empathy for people unlike ourselves, then we might as well live in holes in the ground. I believe art stands against the idea of living in holes in the ground.

Though I don’t believe in the saying “Write what you know,” I do believe that an author must know what he or she writes about. I have done years of research for the novel from which “The Designated Marksman” comes. I hope that my facts are accurate.

But perhaps Don Hope’s potshot “Something doesn’t ring true” refers not to my facts but to my failure to render the emotional reality of the narrator. If this were the case, it would be a failure of imagination, not a failure of experience. And it is only because I do believe that I can imagine and render the emotional reality of my character that I write his story. Fiction exists to offer a deep emotional understanding of others and, through our empathy with the individual, approach a sense of universality. Because I believe this, I write fiction.

Hope’s wish that I am a vet suggests an ownership of experience, which is understandable, but by extension a closing of the world, an isolation of individual experience that is destructive. Emotional separations between people inspire callousness and, on occasion, atrocity. So I disagree with him and I do believe it is a question of skill. If my skill failed, I am sorry. I will try to do better in the future, but I will never give up my right to evoke through fiction anything I choose — my only criteria being whether I render the material compassionately and well. And I encourage Hope to write about his experiences, or others’ experiences, or even mine. I hope that he will do it well, but if not, I will still applaud his effort.

Stephen Elliott responds:

I share Don Hope’s concern. When I read Michael Chabon’s novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, I wrote the author a similar note. I was concerned that he was writing about homosexual characters but didn’t say he was gay in his bio. Then I found out he was married and had a child. It seemed dishonest somehow.

In his rebuttal to Philip Berrigan’s criticism of the use of atomic weapons on civilian targets in World War II, D.C. Towne makes a gripping, but very old and discredited, argument [Correspondence, October 2003]. There were alternatives to dropping the Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These included dropping it on a military target or, as a demonstration of what it could do, on an uninhabited site. A case has also been made that the Japanese government did not have time to respond to the first bomb before the second was dropped.

If we are to continue to mature as a nation and a people, we must accept and learn from our mistakes and strive to be more humane, especially in difficult times.

Kevin Carr Ashland, Oregon

Like Genie Zeiger [Readers Write on “Size,” August 2003], I am a member of my community’s Jewish burial society and have practiced the Jewish tradition of tahara: preparing the dead for burial. Zeiger’s comments about the deceased’s size (“Betty is so large it’s like bathing a small whale”) and description of her as “a poor, angry woman” violate every mandate of tahara.

Judaism holds that our bodies are holy receptacles into which God places a soul and that our bodies remain holy even after death. In keeping with these beliefs, great care and respect are accorded to the deceased, and those of us who perform tahara are required to approach our task with great solemnity and reverence. Admittedly, dressing and lifting a large woman who was “cantankerous” in life is physically and spiritually demanding. Tradition implores us, however, to overcome our mundane prejudices and judgments. At the end of the procedure, we recite a prayer asking the deceased for forgiveness for anything we may have done that hurt or offended her.

Preparing a body for burial is an intimate act. The Torah teaches care and respect for all that this world contains. While this teaching is often hard to live by, it is based on the belief that small acts of generosity can heal the greatest wounds. Tahara is supposed to be one of those acts.

Debbie Findling San Francisco, California

I thoroughly enjoyed Lillian T. Burch’s memories of her large-sized mother [Readers Write on “Size,” August 2003]. My own mother stood six feet tall, weighed around 260 pounds, and wore a wedding band large enough to slip a quarter through.

The women in my maternal grandfather’s Scottish-German family all have a distinctive trait that’s candidly referred to as the “Rettinger ass”: cartoonishly generous hips supported by sturdy peasant thighs and topped by thin waists. My earliest memory of my mother is of sitting in her lap, which was expansive and pillowy and had room for my two brothers and me, and the cat, too.

When my mother hugged you, you felt hugged, and when she smacked you, you knew it. Her big hands were good for both fixing the pipes under the kitchen sink and knitting sweaters from wonderfully thick yarn. My mother was not a delicate flower — she was a gorgeous, abundant tree. When she laughed — which was often — it sounded like an unapologetic wind echoing through the forest. No thin woman could have laughed like that.

My mother accepted her body and would often say, without self-pity or regret, “I know I’m fat. It used to bother me, but I don’t care anymore.” Truth is, if my mother had somehow magically shrunk in size, she wouldn’t have been my mother. This November marks the tenth anniversary of my mother’s death. I would give anything to sit in her lap or hear her hysterical laugh one more time.

Bridget Willey Waterbury, Connecticut

I first read The Sun ten years ago, when I was thirteen. I found it in a bookstore in Massachusetts while waiting for my grandmother to shop. She had invited me to stay with her for a few days, hoping the change of scenery would help me get over a debilitating depression that no one understood.

I wouldn’t escape that depression for years. As silly as it sounds, though, reading The Sun alone in my grandmother’s guest room, I realized that I was not the only one who thought the way I did. I felt as if the writers were speaking directly to me, offering me a tidbit of wisdom and hope. No writing had ever struck me as so honest and revealing.

Of all the pieces I read in the months that followed, Sparrow’s essay about his friend Clayton’s suicide [“Clayton,” September 1996] stuck with me the longest. Back then I wanted to discuss with Clayton the tragedy of living. Now I wish I could go back and stop him from doing what he did, tell him there is something beyond that mental prison.

It will have to be enough that I remember Clayton, along with all the writers and photographers who shared their insights and experiences with a young girl, and transformed her just a bit.

Mari Carter Orono, Maine

Considering that The Sun is, in many ways, a distillation of Sy Safransky’s interests, hopes, dreams, and fears, I’ve often wondered: will The Sun survive when he retires? I mean, no one lives forever, no matter how faithfully he jogs and prays to his gods. Surely he’s thought about this more than once.

I imagine it must be difficult for Safransky to wonder if the magazine he’s spent the last thirty years of his life creating will be sustained without him. But then, I suppose we all think about that to some extent: whether our words and deeds and love will outlive us; whether we can, in this way, become immortal.

Jennie Vaughn Chapel Hill, North Carolina
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