Letters — From the March 2016 issue

Letters

Editor’s Note

This month we are introducing three changes to the regular format of Harper’s Magazine. In the Readings section, the usual found documents and fine art are accompanied by a thematically linked collection of original essays; the result should combine the vigor of the Forum with the humor of Readings. A new rubric, Scene, will showcase short reported features, with an emphasis on clear, lively writing. Finally, we have the first in a quarterly series of long poems chosen and introduced by our new poetry editor, Ben Lerner.


 

Trafficking in Stereotypes

Most people equate human trafficking with sex trafficking — criminal networks sexually exploiting women and girls for profit. That is clearly a heinous crime. But Vanessa Gregory [“The Lottery,” Annotation, January] reveals an insidious and perhaps even more common form of human trafficking that operates unbeknownst to both the public and the justice system: labor trafficking. Foreign guest workers are exploited by factories and construction sites; housekeepers are forced into domestic servitude; children are coerced into peddling goods door-to-door. Victims suffer financial, psychological, physical, and, often, sexual abuse. At first glance, these cases appear far less menacing than sex trafficking, but they involve men, women, and children who are being held hostage by debt, poverty, and power. This power is often wielded with impunity, because the traffickers are individuals, small businesses, and corporations that claim to provide workers with legal job opportunities.

The Signal International case is a powerful example of the systemic exploitation of human beings for profit under the guise of legitimate business and labor practices. Signal’s business practices underscore the need for labor trafficking to receive the same attention as sex trafficking, starting with stronger protections for workers and earlier interventions by enforcement agencies.

Katherine Kaufka Walts
Director, Center for the Human Rights of Children
Loyola University
Chicago

Friendly Fire

Andrew Cockburn’s “A Special Relationship” [Letter from Washington, January] weaves together the threads of fundamentalist jihadism and U.S. policy in a timely way. The United States fails to appreciate the consequences of its involvement in overseas conflicts, to understand that today’s proxies and surrogates hold agendas that could tomorrow render them adversaries, or to recognize that allies such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey are pursuing geopolitical interests not consonant with our own.

These complexities pose a challenge to those now seeking the presidency, most of whom advocate deeper U.S. involvement in multidimensional conflicts. They also point to the fundamental analytical shallowness of neocon strategies that rely on military strength in the absence of historical understanding.

Edmund McWilliams
Retired Senior Foreign Service Officer
White Oaks, N.M.

Andrew Cockburn depicts a White House that is bent on regime change in Syria, despite a New York Times report from October 2013, which stated that from the beginning, “Obama made it clear to his aides that he did not envision an American military intervention.” Cockburn suggests that the eventual intervention was part of a master plan concocted by the Saudis to thwart Shiite influence in the region. But such a plan does not square with the invasion of Iraq, which resulted in the rise of a Shiite regime that has alienated Sunnis so much that they have come to see the Islamic State as a lesser evil in Anbar province. This is to say nothing of the Pentagon training program for Syrian rebels, which required trainees to agree in advance that their weapons would be used only against the Islamic State, not against the soldiers of Bashar al-Assad. If this is a proxy war, it is not a very good one.

The White House has been far more determined to punish Al Qaeda, through its drone attacks in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The sad truth is that the most effective intervention in Syria has come from Assad’s allies. Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah have now joined forces with the Baathist military to destroy non–Islamic State rebels who took up arms after peaceful protesters were attacked by government snipers. The failure of Cockburn to acknowledge the scorched-earth tactics of this unholy alliance is regrettable.

Louis Proyect
New York City

Andrew Cockburn responds:
Louis Proyect’s string of misconceptions usefully reflects the addled thinking of the administration, its allies, and the media, which has done so much to prolong Syria’s agony. Obama forswore as politically impossible military intervention (excepting the anti–Islamic State air campaign) in Syria. Instead he opted for covert action, in collusion with regional allies, that was aimed at displacing the Assad regime. Since he and other administration officials repeatedly stressed that “Assad must go” and supported armed opposition forces as a means to that end, it is hard to see why eschewing direct military intervention indicated a contrary policy. The United States and Saudi Arabia have pursued the same policy in Syria. This is confirmed not merely by their public statements; as I revealed in my article, the United States actively enabled Saudi arms supplies to flow to that country’s jihadist proxies. The loud complaints last fall that Russia was bombing “CIA-backed moderates” (who were embedded with an Al Qaeda coalition) on the front lines against Assad’s forces give the lie to assertions that we were interested only in fighting the Islamic State.

Last Request

I hope that after reading Brooke Jarvis’s article about the life and death of Peter Rasmussen [“When I Die,” Letter from Oregon, January], your readers will be stimulated to have important conversations with their loved ones about what they value in their lives and what they think they might want during their final days on this planet. Such poignant discussions are the highest form of caring for one another. As one of the professionals who worked closely with Dr. Rasmussen during his medical career, I can attest to the fact that he was a master at encouraging such discussions and honoring the wishes of his patients whenever possible.

Joan Stembridge
Salem, Ore.

Heavy Burden

As the executive producer of both Extreme Weight Loss and The Biggest Loser, I know that millions of people struggling with obesity are unhealthy, living in pain and fear, and hurting on the inside. Their size actually allows us to see their pain and lack of hope. Our shows provide this hope and prove that, with love, it’s possible to change course and lead a happier, more satisfying life. That’s why Moody’s characterization of Extreme Weight Loss [“Slender Mercies,” Criticism, December] as a “weed species in the garden of American entertainment” is so offensive — and so wrong.

We preach hard work, health, fitness, and commitment to living the best life possible. The real “weed” in the garden is the attitude that a kid abused by his father doesn’t deserve to love himself or to be loved. To belittle what that kid achieved in just one short year is to ignore his pain. We provide a much-needed service that, frankly, is missing in society. I’m sure everyone — including Moody — has a friend, relative, or co-worker who is overweight and suffering. Rather than “criticism,” you’d be better serving up some compassion.

J. D. Roth
Executive Producer, Extreme Weight Loss
Manhattan Beach, Calif.

Rick Moody responds:
It’s easy to imagine that, having given one’s professional life to producing weight-loss television programming, as J. D. Roth apparently has done, one might be a bit oversensitive about popular attitudes toward the genre. But professional sensitivity should not lead one to rush into an impassioned letter about an “offensive” article on the subject without closely reading said article. At no point did I write that Extreme Weight Loss, a program I have loved fervently for its entire history, was a “weed species.” I did say that “weight-loss programming is a weed species,” but I did so in the context of enumerating the preconceptions that might make it hard for someone to understand just how great Extreme Weight Loss really is. I then wrote another 3,000 words arguing that Extreme Weight Loss is incredibly moving, earnest, valiant, and, in fact, spiritual in its orientation.

In a similar fashion, Roth suggests that my essay “belittled” Bruce Pitcher, who was physically abused by his father. What I actually said was, “Television is rarely as genuine as the minute of screen time devoted to Bruce Pitcher’s testimony” at his father’s parole hearing.

I welcome being reminded by Roth that there are real people suffering with food addiction and weight-loss issues. As a person with an addictive illness myself, I wrote what I wrote because of my compassion for food addicts and for addicts in general. Perhaps a closer reading of my article would support this point.

Rick Moody
Astoria, N.Y.

Correction

Because of a production error, two sentences in “A Radioactive Money Pit” [M. V. Ramana and Sajan Saini, Annotation, February] were printed incorrectly. The sentences, from the third paragraph, should read, “Nuclear plants like Vogtle are in a class by themselves, with costs of $97 to $136 per megawatt-hour — and the difference is growing. Lazard estimates that wind and solar power have become 61 percent and 82 percent cheaper since 2009.” We regret the error.

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