Letters to the Editor

2007 07 31
On the call to round them up

Here’s a letter in a Brooklyn newspaper calling for Islam to be officially declared a cult, and for Muslims to be rounded up into “intern camps.”

Since you can always find bigots here, there, and everywhere, it doesn’t surprise me to learn that some of my neighbours in Brooklyn feel this way. It does, however, surprise me to see it printed in a Brooklyn newspaper, even a small, second rate one. It’s the most offensive and alarming of a few letters I’ve read in that newspaper recently, but certainly not the only one that displays open anti-Muslim bigotry.

I’ve written a letter to the editor already. Even if you don’t live in Brooklyn, you might consider dropping the editor a quick note to say that you’re surprised that such a cosmopolitan place has a newspaper willing to provide space for this kind of view.

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2005 01 29
A letter to Fred Kaplan

I wonder if I’ll get a response to this:

Mr. Kaplan,

Back at the end of October, you wrote a column for Slate about the Lancet study (estimating excess deaths as a result of the Iraq War). Your column wasn’t very good, but that’s ok. You were writing during the first wave of discussion about the study, and the dust hadn’t settled yet. My initial reaction was sceptical too.

In the meantime, though, the dust has had some time to settle. And my impression is that apart from a few reasonable concerns (a misleading summary of the piece by the editor of the journal, for example), the study is more solid than either of us originally took it to be. For some intelligent discussion of the study, here are a few links from Crooked Timber.




And the tireless Tim Lambert has a bunch of posts on the subject here:


I’m writing because a search for “Lancet” on Slate turns up exactly one relevant hit: your flawed piece. I do understand that the Lancet study was published last year, and that the study itself might not be considered newsworthy any longer. But it still seems to be worth revisiting in a future column, since your first column wasn’t able to take the ensuing discussion into account, and because both the war, and the debate about the war, are still going on.

Howls of outrage (2)

2004 04 01
[Letter to Okrent]

I wrote to Daniel Okrent last week to point him towards this post. He responded very graciously, so of course I abused his friendliness by writing him a longer email in response. See why you can’t encourage the wierdos? They’ll only go away if you ignore them. Anyhow, here’s what I wrote him back:

Thanks for responding. If I can add one other point: In my post I complain that the “he said/he said” style of reporting prevents reporters from setting out facts which really shouldn’t be in dispute. This flip side of this is that the “he said/he said” style of reporting often prevents reporters from examining claims which *should* be in dispute, but aren’t. Many journalists seems to think that once they’ve rounded up the views of the Democrats and the Republicans, they’ve achieved the appropriate balance and can put the story to bed. But what about cases in which both Democrats and Republicans have a stake in holding a common front on some issue?

The debate over classified material that we’re seeing with the 9/11 commission is a great example. Democrats know perfectly well that they’re going to be back in power sooner or later, and so they can’t really be keen to set *too* strong a precedent on the release of classified materials. But anyone who knows a bit about the history of classified material knows that a great deal of material is classified for the same reason my tape of my high school band is now classified – it’s downright embarrassing. Because both parties want to minimize their own embarrassment, matters in which the public has a vital stake don’t get the treatment they deserve.

I guarantee you that the media will talk about the “compromises” struck by the 9/11 commission over classified material in a way that reveals their assumption that anything which is bipartisan must be reasonable. But it ain’t necessarily so.

Sorry for going on so long. I would say that I don’t envy your job, but that would be a transparent lie. I will concede that it can’t be an easy one. Keep up the good work,


Before you accuse me of kissing ass, let me be clear. I’m not completely happy with Okrent so far, but I do think he’s doing some good work. Give him time. He’s just warming up.

Oh, and as for that tape, it’s priceless. It’s a good thing that our band – unofficially, “Three Jews and a Goy” – never got out of my basement. The world just wasn’t ready for us.

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2004 03 06

In honour of David Brooks’ latest, I reprint part of an old post:

Abolish tenure at the New York Times editorial page! Abolish it now! Dump Dowd! Dump Safire! Dump Friedman! Dump (the well-intentioned, but very boring) Herbert! And dump that jackass Brooks on the sidewalk without cabfare home!

Why does the Times editorial page infuriate me so? I realized the other day that it’s not just that its influence is undeserved. The main thing is not that it’s bad, but that it is so unnecessarily bad.

There are very few people who would turn down the opportunity to write for the OpEd page of the New York Times. Money isn’t an issue. It may be unearned, but the OpEd page has prestige that basically makes money no object. And so the Times can have anyone they want. Anyone.

That means that those who call the shots either a) believe that the NYTimes OpEd page has a tenure policy which ties their hands; or b) are so stupid that Thomas Friedman is the best person they can think of in the whole world to write about foreign policy (and so on and on and on).

Just think about that: The best. They can think of. In the whole world.

The mediocrity of the Times page is a wholly voluntary matter, a gory, self-inflicted wound whose remedy is a few hours on the phone hiring and firing the right people.

Abolish tenure at the New York Times! Abolish it now!

That is all.

UPDATE: That’s not all. On a lark, I rewrote the post and sent it to the editors of the NYT and Mr. Brooks:

To the editors,

David Brooks’ latest column reminds me why I loath the Times’ Op-Ed page. It’s not that its influence is almost wholly unearned. Nor is it even that the quality is generally so low. It’s that it is so unnecessarily low. There are few people in the world who would turn down a column in the Times. That means that the Times can have anyone they want. Anyone. And that means that the people who write for the Times are the very best people that the management at the Times can think of. The mind boggles. David Brooks is, apparently, the very best person in the world to inform about U.S. domestic politics; Thomas Friedman the very best to enlighten about U.S. foreign policy; Maureen Dowd the very best to trivialize the issues of the day; and so on. What makes this mediocrity so infuriating is that it is wholly self-inflicted – and easily remedied by a few hours on the phone hiring and firing the right people.

What in the world is your excuse?

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2004 02 14
[Another letter to the Times]

A letter to the NYTimes:
Chance of publication: 0.000001%

Jeffrey Gettleman writes that “[i]nternational isolation and sanctions imposed after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 had already shattered a public health care system that was once the jewel of the Middle East”. That is quite correct, but it leaves out the third major cause of the collapse of Iraq’s civilian infrastructure: the deliberate destruction caused by the Allied bombing campaign during the first Gulf War (see, for example, this piece by Barton Gellman: http://www.globalpolicy.org/security/issues/iraq/history/0623strategy.htm). Gettleman’s piece is about the current state of the public health care system in Iraq, so he needn’t have dwelt on this point. But to leave it out entirely while naming the other causes is to play a small part in wiping this campaign from the public’s memory.

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2004 02 04
[Letter to Okrent]

My apologies to regular readers – if I have any – for repeating myself. I’ve just sent an email to Daniel Okrent, inspired by his latest column, which was not bad at all (his column, I mean). Here’s the letter:

I thought your Feb. 1st piece (“All the News That’s Fit to Print? Or Just Our News?) was wonderful. It’s very refreshing to see the New York Times open up a space within its pages for honest criticism. It might sting a bit, but in the long run a column like yours really enhances the credibility of the New York Times.

Here’s one more example (in case your readers have been stingy with criticism lately) which I suspect falls into the general pattern you discuss in your column.

In early August, a few news outlets began to report that, contrary to the Pentagon’s assurances at the time, the U.S. had used napalm during the major combat operations phase of the war in Iraq. The denial, it turned out, was based on the technical detail that napalm is now officially called Mark 77, and has been improved by the substitution of kerosine for petrol. But everyone calls it “napalm”, it smell like napalm, and it certainly works like napalm. (There was also a 1980 UN convention banning its use which the U.S. was almost alone in rejecting.)

It seems hard to deny that this is newsworthy. First, the Pentagon’s response to inquiries about the weapon was duplicitous, and that surely merited comment. If the public is to judge the prosecution of a war, it needs accurate information, and that was not supplied in this case.

Second, if napalm is not a chemical weapon, I’m not sure what is. Both its physical and its psychological effects put it on par with some of the chemical weapons which figured prominently in the case against Saddam Hussein. I’m not actually sure myself that there is a (or much) moral difference between killing someone with a bomb and burning them to death with napalm, but then again I’m not the one who made the conflation of different types of WMD the centerpiece of my rhetorical strategy. The use of a chemical weapon to prosecute a war based largely on accusations involving chemical weapons seems an irony worth noting.

A quick search of lexis-nexis shows that the story was picked up overseas, and by a few smallish papers in the U.S. The AP ran the story on August 5th, as did the San Diego Union-Tribune (which reported two days later that the Pentagon had put in a 3.6 million dollar request for a 1000 more Mark 77 Firebombs). A few other small papers picked up the story in the next few days, and then it vanished. As far as I can tell, neither the Washington Post nor the New York Times ever touched the story.

Cover-up and conspiracy? Well, at the same time the New York Times was printing all kinds of damning stuff about the administration (not as much as I think appropriate, but still . . .). I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist anyway. Perhaps the most likely explanation is that the New York Times wasn’t interested in a story broken by the AP and already a few days old by the time they noticed it (assuming they noticed it).

I admit that none of this was earthshattering. Still, surely it was worth a mention. Surely the readers of the Times were poorly served by the omission, if only so that they might know that it is technically incorrect to say that chemical weapons weren’t used in the recent war.

The Times didn’t bother to publish the letter I wrote at the time and which I reproduce below, to show you that I wasn’t nearly as long-winded in my first attempt to reach the newspaper and that space really shouldn’t have been a consideration in the decision about whether it was worth publishing.

Thanks for your time, and good luck with what must surely be a mostly thankless job!


To the editors of the New York Times,

For several days now, a few news outlets – mostly overseas – have reported that the U.S. used napalm (actually, an “improved” version of it) in Iraq. Yet I have seen no mention of this in the New York Times, and a search of your site for “napalm” in the last 30 days comes up blank. Surely the U.S.’s recent use of a chemical weapon – that’s what it is, isn’t it? – is worth reporting, especially since the occasion of the use is so rich with irony.

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2003 08 12
Letter on Napalm

OK, couldn’t resist writing the NYTimes about it:

To the editors of the New York Times,

For several days now, a few news outlets – mostly overseas – have reported that the U.S. used napalm (actually, an “improved” version of it) in Iraq. Yet I have seen no mention of this in the New York Times, and a search of your site for “napalm” in the last 30 days comes up blank. Surely the U.S.’s recent use of a chemical weapon – that’s what it is, isn’t it? – is worth reporting, especially since the occasion of the use is so rich with irony.

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2003 06 27
A letter to Paul Krugman

Too busy to post today, but I did write a quick note to Paul Krugman:

Hello, a quick note from a fan.

You often suggest that Republicans tend to rule in the interests of the rich. I wish this were so, since the rich tend to have many interests in common with the poor, even when they don’t realize it.

I think it’s more accurate to say that the Republican party tends to rule in the short-term interests of the rich. In the long run, of course, the rich are also hurt by policies which harm the environment, or leave the labour market insufficiently educated – even if wealth provides some insulation from these consequences.

It would be even more accurate, alas, to say that the Republican party tends to rule in the short-term interests of the rich, taken one group at a time. Things would be much better if the Republican party stepped back from the fray, and thought about how to maximize the short-term fortunes of the rich as a whole. As it is, satisfying interests groups one at a time may often lead to lower benefits for the rich overall. When a particular group of the rich gets bought off by the administration, it may well have negative consequences for other groups of the rich, which are not compensated for by their own special packages.

Keep up the good work!

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2003 02 11
[Letter on Brooks]

I sent a letter to the NYTimes today:

In a recent column fantasizing about President Bush’s interview with Tim Russert, David Brooks feels obliged to trot out that old canard that liberals have trouble grasping evil. As a self-identifying liberal, I would like to assure Mr. Brooks that I have no such trouble. I cringe when Mr. Bush uses the word not because I disagree with him about the application of the term to Saddam Hussein or bin Laden, but because Bush’s use of the word is usually a prelude to some new piece of stupidity. It’s not evil I have trouble with, Mr. Brooks, it’s inept and incompetent responses to it.

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