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Blame Game

Joy Gordon perpetuates a number of untruths regarding the United States’ policy toward Cuba [“El Bloqueo,” Report, July]. Gordon writes that the U.S. embargo has affected Cubans’ access to electricity, but how could that be, when for three decades the island enjoyed massive subsidies from the Soviet Union, including millions of tons of cheap oil that Castro reexported for profit? While I was growing up barefoot in Cuba, the regime controlled enough resources to maintain a military presence on two continents and enough fertilizer to produce 8 million tons of sugar in a year, to the detriment of other crops.

The embargo might be alive, but it is far from well. Most experts agree that President Obama has eviscerated the old policy to the point that about 60 percent of the sanctions remain in place, but the Cuban regime remains reluctant to implement the legal and economic reforms necessary for the island to benefit from these changes. Cuba’s own policy, and not the “pervasive and profound” damage of the embargo, explains why the number of Cubans fleeing to the United States skyrocketed after relations thawed between the two countries.

It will always be easier for a totalitarian regime to blame others than to acknowledge its own inadequacies. U.S. policy toward Cuba has been far from perfect, but reforms to that policy should reflect our values and interests, not excuse a repressive, incompetent, and obdurate regime.

Sebastian Arcos
Associate Director, Cuban Research
Florida International University

Joy Gordon responds:

The topic of Cuba is deeply contentious, but some things are clear. Cuba was devastated by the loss of trade with the Soviet bloc after 1991, and the United States enacted a series of measures that targeted all of Cuba’s major efforts to rebuild its economy, including the sale of sugar and nickel, development of biotechnology, foreign investment, and the export of medical services. The aggressive enforcement of U.S. banking restrictions made it costly and circuitous for Cuba to engage in the most ordinary financial transactions necessary for any form of trade.

While a number of positive changes have taken place during the recent process of normalization, none alters the core embargo provisions that prevent Cuba from accessing U.S. markets, make foreign investment risky and expensive, and prohibit foreign companies from selling any goods made with Cuban materials in the United States. The Obama Administration’s enforcement of the embargo restrictions concerning trade and investment continues to be stringent.

Certainly, the Cuban government has been slow and deeply ambivalent about undertaking necessary economic reforms. But that does not obviate the responsibility of the U.S. government, which has worsened the situation at every turn.

Lone Ranger

Rebecca Solnit explains clearly why modern “conservatives” reject everything from environmental regulations to gun control, women’s rights, and anti-poverty programs [“The Ideology of Isolation,” Easy Chair, July]. If we are divided and isolated, she points out, it is easy to say, “To hell with others and their problems.” What is missing from her analysis is a description of the benefits that we derive from an interdependent society.

I recently read a magazine advice column that answered a question from a man who lived on a private, gravel road. He believed that he should have to pay only for the gravel on the part of the road that he used to get to his house, and that the neighbor at the end of the road should pay more. He was articulating an extreme view of personal responsibility. The columnist disagreed with him, but her response didn’t address the fact that both neighbors — and, indeed, residents on adjacent streets — benefit from having a functional road, with all that implies for garbage pickup, utility and emergency services, noise levels, safety, property values, and even the possibility of neighborly interaction.

Solnit rightly skewers the cowboy and every other fantasy of the “self-made man.” But her ideal of a productive and interconnected society cannot be realized until Americans stop arguing with their neighbors and start cooperating. It’s time to argue for something — for the good of all our citizens.

Jenny Anne Horst-Martz

Solnit’s piece omits the third essential ingredient, along with individual freedom and responsibility, of the right-wing “bouillon cube”: the fetishization of the free market and its relationship to a postulated avatar, Homo economicus.

Conservatives insist on seeing H. economicus as a perfectly rational, utterly self-centered (and, as Solnit notes, isolated) agent who easily calculates the utility of any economic proposition, despite abundant and growing evidence that actual human beings don’t behave this way. The end result of all this calculating is meant to be “choice,” a supreme good of which one can never have enough. But in the real world, H. sapiens can be overwhelmed and distressed by too much choice, as savvy product marketers know.

Barry Schwartz, a psychologist at Swarthmore College, has shown that if you take away some choices from the rich (who have too many) and provide them to the poor (who have too few), both parties end up happier. But I don’t think there’s any hope that H. economicus and the cowboys on the right will believe him.

Rob Lewis
Langley, Wash.

I take issue with Solnit’s characterization of conservatives in general, and of cowboys in particular. I have lived and worked in the West my entire life, most of it in the cattle business. The folks I know endorse the qualities and attitudes she describes only to a certain extent. She is correct to say that individual freedom and responsibility are core values, but our philosophy cannot be summed up as “yourself for yourself on your own” or “to hell with others and their problems.”

Most of the people I know live with a fundamental contradiction when it comes to freedom and personal responsibility. When a tragedy occurs, whether it is a natural disaster or a medical problem, they are quite willing to assume the role of brother’s keeper to friends and neighbors. But they do not believe that their brother, friend, or neighbor is obligated to help them. I find it presumptuous of Solnit to assume that she knows what goes on inside the minds of those who disagree with her. Given that, I would like to ask her some questions.

Isn’t it possible that opposition to increased taxes is driven by a recognition that government programs often fail to meet their stated objectives and, in fact, often have negative, unintended consequences? A case could be made that the uncontrolled growth and ineffectuality of the bureaucracies administering social programs contribute significantly to budget deficits.

Isn’t it possible that politicians who promote the mentality of victimization are doing it for their own benefit? They say: “You are being treated unfairly. Contribute to my campaign and vote for me, and I will solve your problem.” Anyone who tries to convince people that they have no control over their destinies is doing them a horrible disservice.

And, finally, isn’t it possible that opposition to radical steps to mitigate climate change results from a belief that it is still uncertain to what degree man is responsible? The remedies proposed would likely have minimal impact and would devastate the world economy, hurting those who can least afford it most of all.

I would not presume to boil Solnit’s ideology down to a bouillon cube. Such an effort is bound to generate more heat than light. It may sell magazines, but is very unlikely to solve problems.

Walt Giacomini
Rio Dell, Calif.

Hive Mind

Tom Bissell accepts the inevitability of tribalism in “My Holy Land Vacation” [Folio, July]. He ends his tour of Israel at Yad Vashem, ruminating that the Holocaust solidified tribal thinking and behavior among Jews. Bissell identifies with the “tribe” of Jews while gazing (protectively?) upon his own miniature tribe, his wife and child, back at home. And this is supposed to make the reader understand Bissell’s sympathy for Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, including Palestinian children.

I wish Bissell had left the tourist sites to speak in depth with all sorts of people who live in Israel. But that would have ruined the purpose of his report, which, at least I think, was to show us that evangelical Christians are people, too — to help us understand the artificial though deeply felt connection between evangelical Americans and Jewish Israelis.

There are other ways, besides tribalism, to come to terms with the complexities of our world. I am sure Bissell knows that the second largest number of the world’s Jews live as citizens in his own country and are, by and large, only very loosely connected to religion or tribe — or even to Israel, for that matter. Even those who care deeply about their religion have been asking for a very long time now: What does it mean to be Jewish? It’s not an easy question to ask, and there is no easy answer. It might mean speaking out as a Jew — in good pariah tradition — against what the State of Israel is doing to the Palestinians. A growing number of us are doing so.

Audrey Berlowitz
Greensboro, N.C.

Reality Check

Call them banal. Call them narcissistic. Call them alliterative. But don’t call them lazy. The Kardashian-Jenner sisters “gesture at an economy in which doing nothing . . . still earns,” Mark Greif complains in his takedown of the clan [“American Idle,” Readings, July]. Has he ever worked retail? The sisters’ first enterprise was a shop for children’s clothing, followed by upscale women’s stores that they initially staffed and ran themselves. In their reality show, they spend a lot of time eating take-out salads and going to lunch, in between paid appearances, modeling gigs, buying and refurbishing houses, launching lifestyle apps, and promoting their books and themselves in every possible way. Two of the sisters are raising kids. Insatiable? Yes. Indolent? Hardly.

Abigail Meisel
Oxford, Miss.


Because of an editing error, Nat Segnit’s “Abandon All Hope” [Criticism, August] misstated at one point the site of the Bosch by Night projections. The projections avoided the site of a collapsed building, not Markt Street. The sentence, on page 75, should read, “In the event, the show is shifted two facades to the right, avoiding the disaster zone altogether.” We regret the error.