Issue 357 | Correspondence | The Sun Magazine


I would like to thank Krista Bremer for her essay “Driven by Desire” [June 2005]. Like her husband, I have a special bond with my 1986 Toyota Tercel. While Bremer yearned for power windows, my five-year-old daughter believes the hand-crank windows in my Tercel are magic — because they go up or down even when the engine is off!

Chris Osterbauer Ellsworth, Maine

In his attempt to apply his Zen Buddhist training to economics [“Wash Your Bowls,” June 2005], Norman Fischer overlooks the fact that markets, be they modern or ancient, all use a system of exchange. Under such a system I don’t give my goods, services, or money unless I’m convinced I’ve received something of equal or greater value in return. The motivation built into this system is not goodness, as Fischer suggests, but greed, one of the three “poisons” elucidated by the Buddha.

There is another system. In the Theravadan Buddhist tradition it is sometimes called dana, which is the Pali word for “generosity.” In modern contexts it is called a “gift economy.”

Under a gift system I offer my goods or services in response to others’ perceived needs. I don’t expect anything in return, because my needs are met by the gifts that others in my community offer me. In Southeast Asia thousands of Theravadan Buddhist monasteries operate on this model. The potlatch tradition of the Northwest Coast Native Americans and the economic system at the annual Burning Man gathering are other examples of gift economies.

Fischer quotes Zen master Dogen: “Producing things can be nothing other than giving.” This is true only in a gift economy, not in an exchange-based market system. It is not possible “to buy and sell in a spirit of . . . compassion.”

Casey Heart Seattle, Washington
Norman Fischer responds:

Casey Heart is correct that market systems are based on exchange, not goodwill. But I think it’s overly pessimistic to say that markets are necessarily evil, being driven solely by greed, and that the only alternative to them is a form of gift economy. The point of my essay was that, short of society’s wholesale economic overhaul, it is possible for individuals, through intention and mental cultivation, to mollify or even transform market systems — at least, as far as their own subjective experience of them is concerned.

Americans have always been told that our power to change our government lies in the ballot box. If this is no longer true, as Thom Hartmann says [“Crimes Against Democracy,” interview by Jim Guinness, June 2005], what do we do now? And who in a position of authority cares? If anyone is talking about this in a national forum, I have not heard it. Certainly we deserve open-source software or paper ballots. But what are we to do?

Helen Etters Winston-Salem, North Carolina

Thom Hartmann’s indictment of America as a capital-E Empire is both right on the money and way off the mark. Peel away the modern-day façade, and you’re left with just another standard-issue empire that, like all empires before it, will crumble into the landfill it has dug for itself.

As far as constitutional history goes, Hartmann knows his turnips from his beets. Unfortunately, like most progressives, he has erected his own ideological empire on a not-particularly-deep foundation. Progressives trot out the Founding Fathers and socialists and Darwinists to make their case. Conservatives and fundamentalists build their case on God — or, at least, their exceedingly dangerous and narrow-minded view of God.

If Hartmann really wants to prove his case, he might turn to the Hebrew Bible, which is a progressive’s dream — if only progressives cared to read it. It’s laden with social heroes, outcasts, and sages who risked and gave their lives for justice, equality, and compassion.

Like so many of us on the Left, Hartmann relies on the failed strategies of the past. The Left needs to stop being ashamed of the “G word.” Progressives are in denial about God. The Right is in denial about empire.

Patrick Miller Santa Fe, New Mexico

Thom Hartmann makes some good points about the threatened integrity of our voting system. When he attempts to discuss politics and economics, however, he veers into one-sided polemics.

Hartmann’s description of a downtrodden middle class is pure mythology. Don’t get me wrong: plenty of people in America are struggling, and the government needs to do whatever it can to help them. But Hartmann seems to think we live in a Dickensian world where all the good jobs and economic opportunities have vanished. This is simply not the case.

Just look around, and you’ll see hundreds of square miles of modern housing, millions of late-model cars on the highways, and block after block of office complexes, stores, and apartment buildings. Most of these wealth-producing assets are owned not by “evil” corporations, but by the individuals and small-business entities that make up the overwhelming majority of enterprises in the U.S. and produce most of the jobs. This is the real middle class: people who have clawed their way up out of poverty through either education or entrepreneurship.

We have the most vibrant economy in the world. Compare the U.S. unemployment rate of just over 5 percent with 10 percent in the European Union. Hartmann claims the Republican Party wants to take us back to a time of low-wage, unskilled labor, but to believe this amid the reality of the high-tech, highly competitive world we live in is to be blinded by ideology.

Hartmann says, “Whenever capitalism is used as a political system, it is a tyranny. It’s rule by the rich.” Yet the past century has demonstrated that capitalism delivers a better quality of life than socialism. Indeed, our Founding Fathers, whom Hartmann frequently refers to, stressed that democracy could not work without a free market.

Hartmann rightly condemns unregulated or laissez-faire capitalism, but we have not had unregulated capitalism since the 1930s. True, there are political ups and downs in the regulatory structure, but the vast edifice of regulations remains in place through any change of administration. What’s missing from this rambling interview are any concrete recommendations for real change that are rooted in reality.

Richard Thieltges Helena, Montana

I just finished reading Amy Wilson’s “What They Taught Me” [June 2005], and I am weeping, though I don’t know exactly why. Is it because babies are starving? Because I can’t imagine a world where I would eat before my child has eaten? Because children are buried without a name? Am I weeping because Amy Wilson was ashamed to eat her treats from home but ate them anyway? As I read, I was eating a bowl of tofu, broccoli, and brown rice, mindlessly shoveling down the food because I felt faint from hunger, not having eaten for four hours.

Renee Ramsey Half Moon Bay, California

In his open letter to supporters of the magazine [“Friend of The Sun,” June 2005], editor Sy Safransky tells readers that their support makes it possible for him to send free copies of The Sun to prisoners.

I am one of the indigent prisoners referred to in that letter. I have received The Sun for six months now, and I love it. The writers expose me to a level of thought I have not experienced before. Sometimes I feel enlightened, other times confused. Regardless, each piece of writing helps to open my heart and mind.

Doc Ansaldo Ione, California

To the anonymous Readers Write contributor who was running away from his family because he could no longer tolerate their life of excess, his unloving wife, and his ungrateful offspring [“On the Edge,” May 2005]: I know I should not condone your behavior, but I do. I hope you did turn left instead of right at the light, and that you kept going.

Name Withheld

I cried when I read Laura Van Etten’s “Safety Planning” [May 2005]. I have worked at a battered-women’s shelter for almost twenty-five years, and it was heartbreaking to hear about workers and volunteers who are so burnt out they have nothing to offer survivors of sexual and domestic violence but dubious hot-line “support” and a room at a shelter that sounds more chaotic than an abusive relationship. I’m grateful for the agency where I work. We never dismiss survivors as “repeats,” and we recognize that leaving domestic violence is a process, not an event.

Mary Zelinka Albany, Oregon

In her essay “They Always Call You ‘Miss’ ” [March 2005] Alison Clement perfectly describes the trials and tribulations of the waitressing experience — only they don’t always call you “miss.” I wish they were so nice. Sometimes it’s “girlie” or “hey, you” or “babe” or even “foxy.” (Is that a compliment?) Sometimes they don’t call you anything; they just wave or snap their fingers.

There is something primal about food; it brings out the best and the worst in people. I know the satisfaction of giving people what they want even when they don’t know what it is, and the rejection — not to mention the meager tip — when you get it wrong.

C. Spivey Dartmouth, Massachusetts

Alison Clement’s “They Always Call You ‘Miss’ ” was a kvetch piece of inordinate proportions. I don’t know what circumstances brought Clement to waiting tables, but I hope she has some alternatives. She doesn’t belong in a service job.

I have worked as a waiter myself and know it’s hard work, but having such negative views of patrons only serves to make the work harder. I never looked down on the people I served, and I never looked down on myself for being in the position of serving others.

I have been a restaurant patron far longer than I was a waiter, and I could write a similar essay about waitpersons who are unprofessional in their approach, even rude or thoughtless, perhaps because they feel looked-down-upon by their customers. Respect is a two-way street.

Irwin Gooen Oneonta, New York
Alison Clement responds:

It’s called humor, for crying out loud.

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