I was disappointed to read Betsy Ford’s and Marilyn Johnson’s negative letters about your November 2008 cover [Correspondence, February 2009]. The moment I saw Halle Merrill’s cover photograph, it pulled me in. The image of the older Cuban man reveals so much about him and his life. You see his attitude of openness and how experience has shaped him and is revealed through his face and body. The fact that he is pictured with his shirt off emphasizes his humanity. The way he is holding himself lets us see that he is, as the photographer said, “comfortable in his own skin.”
“It’s only when the structure of society gets torn down that you find out what you are really made of,” Chris Hedges says in Bethany Saltman’s interview with him [“Moral Combat,” December 2008]. I’ve encountered statements like this many times, and I always want to call the person on it.
Human beings are social creatures. We have been living in societies for hundreds of thousands of years. Any evolutionary biologist will tell you that social organization is coded into our DNA. In what sense, then, is it correct to say that “what [we] are really made of” is revealed only when social structures collapse?
The challenge we face is to create societies that emphasize the good side of our nature, which is just as much a part of us as the bad. We have the power to structure society in ways that bring out the best in people.
I commend Chris Hedges on his stance with regard to the individual rights of all people. If the folly of religion must continue to embarrass humanity with its insipid tomfoolery, at least let it include rather than exclude.
My argument with Hedges is that he seems to miss the main point of Sam Harris’s book The End of Faith. It is moderates like Hedges who encourage tolerance of extreme religious fundamentalism. People who continue to think the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, the Bhagavad-Gita, and so on have anything relevant to say in the twenty-first century are causing great harm. Hedges says he “reads the texts selectively,” to which I ask, “Then why give the holy books the time of day?” Surely there is more inspiration and wisdom in modern stories of actual people than in the inconsistent, bloody books of antiquity.
We often lock up people who hold unfounded beliefs and act on them. The only reason Christians, Muslims, and Jews are not put in mental institutions is because our culture still tolerates the belief that Yahweh and Allah and Jesus are real beyond the pages of books.
Chris Hedges says the so-called “new atheists” — in whose ranks he includes Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens — are essentially “fundamentalists.” I don’t think Sam Harris should be lumped in with Christopher Hitchens or the new atheists, and he certainly should not be called a “fundamentalist.” Harris is simply asking for a conversation. His plea is for public discourse around the issue of religion. He does not identify himself as an atheist any more than he accepts being called a “non-astrologer.”
From everything I’ve read and seen of Harris, he is centered and calm. He does not publicly eviscerate people, as the equally brilliant Hitchens can, and his compassion almost trumps his clarity. He beseeches us to be kind, knowing that, if we live long enough, we will lose everyone and everything that we love. Harris is not an atheist: he just believes in one less god than Hedges does.
Chris Hedges says that atheists are just like fundamentalists. To make his argument, he defines a fundamentalist broadly as someone who believes in a “binary worldview that divides the world into us and them, good and evil, right and wrong.” This is just a convenient way to shift the blame. If believing in right and wrong makes someone a fundamentalist, then (except for a few postmodern relativists) everyone is a fundamentalist. Am I a fundamentalist for believing that the earth is round? What if I believe that drivers should stop for red lights? I guess I am a traffic-law fundamentalist!
Atheists are essentially skeptics. They believe only that which can be proven, and they can change their beliefs based on new information. Religious fundamentalists never change their beliefs, because they think the texts that are the basis of their faith are infallible and unchanging.
Hedges says that the new atheists are as bad as the fundamentalists because they “spit as much venom at me as the Christian Right does.” I can’t see how a few poor word choices is equal to the thousands of years of suffering and bloodshed caused by religious fundamentalism.
Hedges thinks it is bad when a few atheists raise their voices to be heard over the religious nuts that fill the airwaves. I think it is good. If you are going to counter fundamentalist intolerance and hatred, you cannot be an accommodating, tolerant doormat.
I can see that Sparrow is having a good time in “Buy One, Get One Free” [December 2008], but I fail to see the purpose. There’s nothing radical about covering an election using comedy and irony — that’s pretty much the norm on cable TV these days. And he isn’t particularly funny.
I enjoy The Colbert Report on TV because the irony and message are clear, but in Sparrow’s writing it’s hard to tell when he’s being ironic, and there is no discernable message. Perhaps since Sparrow is a poet, his writing should be taken as poetry. If that’s the case, I guess I just don’t appreciate his poetry.
If you had published Sparrow’s presidential-campaign piece in October, it would have made it difficult for me to choose my candidate. I laughed out loud at his campaign rhetoric, but in the end I soberly saw the truth in his humor. Sparrow brings us back to reality. Maybe he could be appointed Secretary of Truth.
The December issue of The Sun devotes six pages to the self-amused ramblings of Sparrow, whose facetious candidacy for president trivializes the crises we face. In his narcissistic rant, he makes a passing remark about Ralph Nader spending eternity crouched in hell. This reminded me of Mark Twain’s famous response to Christians who told him he would be doomed to eternal torment. He remarked that, given the company he would presumably have to keep in heaven, he was better off not going there.
If Ralph Nader is destined for hell, there are quite a few of us Nader voters who would prefer to join him there than tarry in the anti-gay-marriage, pro-war, pro–Wall Street heaven that presumably awaits the current president-elect.
My longer essays in The Sun usually receive hate mail and fan mail in this proportion: two to one. As a believer in democracy, I must accept the people’s verdict: I am trivial and narcissistic. But at least I tell people not to vote for me, unlike Ralph Nader.
After I finished reading Vivé Griffith’s essay “The Three Ages of Woman” [December 2008], I closed my eyes and remembered when I’d been young and filled with the excitement of new love.
My man and I were summer-camp counselors in steamy Kentucky. I can still see his bare back glistening with sweat as he sat on the edge of the lake. I “rescued” him in the water-safety-instructor class. We cooked bacon and eggs over an open fire in the morning and snuck off to be together at night.
Like Griffith, I am middle-aged, feeling neither young nor old but in between. The young man of my memory is now my gray-haired husband, who traveled with me last summer to Italy, the setting of Griffith’s essay. We prowled the streets of Rome, the canals of Venice, and the alleyways of Florence. We stood under gilded domes and in front of masterpieces in museums. Griffith’s writing took me back to both sweet places and times.
On the night of December 6, 2008, the latest Sun lay open on my nightstand to Grace Mattern’s four beautiful and haunting poems about the death of her partner. That same day my partner of thirty years had died unexpectedly. He’d been fine when I’d left him that morning for a hike and lunch with a friend. When I’d come home, I’d found him lying on the floor, unmoving.
I will forever be grateful to Mattern for those poems.
I have never mustered the courage to ask my gay and lesbian friends why they are attracted to people of the same sex. “Gender Vertigo,” by Anna Mills [November 2008], helped me understand that it is as much a mystery to them as it is to me. I suppose if someone asked me why I, a woman, am attracted to men, I’d be hard-pressed to answer. Sexual attraction is a mystery for all of us.
In response to the letters in the November 2008 Correspondence, I would like to put in my own two cents in defense of Louis E. Bourgeois’s essay “Baton Rouge” [July 2008]. I thought it was uplifting, with a twist of wry mystic optimism at the end. It actually made me smile and laugh. I was sorry to see that neither Les Brady nor Wallace Condon got it: that self-expression is catharsis; that good writing unites us; and that so-called nihilism is one step away from the All. Perhaps they have never quite touched bottom and are unconsciously wary of that deep, painful place of solitude: a great aloneness, so often followed by a great release.
Three years ago, my mother told me I was too young to read your magazine. Today I am seventeen, and the subscription is in my name. She patiently waits to read each issue until after I am finished. I have fallen in love with The Sun. Thank you for helping me grow, for teaching me, and for being real.