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The Mommy Warriors

I edited Mommy Wars because I was struck by American moms’ need to disparage other women in order to feel good about ourselves. Sandra Tsing Loh (“Rhymes With Rich,” May Atlantic) provides an example of this tendency when she dismisses Mommy Wars by attacking the writers for being white and suffering from “afflufemza.” The contributors are all college educated (as, I imagine, are most Atlantic readers), but nearly 20 percent are nonwhite, offering a mix of African-American, Pakistani, and Latina perspectives in a book of only twenty-six contributors. Here are some of the women Tsing Loh disparages as privileged: Natalie Smith Parra, a Latina former welfare mom and immigrant-rights activist; Lila Leff, founder of the Umoja Student Development Corporation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to helping at-risk Chicago youth; Veronica Chambers, who supports her extended African-American family on her writing income alone; Jane Juska, a grandmother, teacher, and prison literacy volunteer from Berkeley; plus the many stay-at-home moms in the book with $0 listed in their IRS income columns.

Even the more affluent moms write with candor about universal problems women face: cancer, domestic violence, children with special needs, post-partum depression, financial hardship, a mother’s suicide, infertility, child abuse, and plain old lousy husbands. Tsing Loh employs a tired misogyny in her attempt to denigrate the moms in the book, and she quotes details of our lives out of context. She derides, for instance, Dawn Drzal’s Regina Rubens outfit—and fails to mention that Ms. Drzal’s essay recounts a bout of postpartum depression so severe that she contemplated suicide. Monica Buckley Price is berated for complaining about her husband’s extended absences—without acknowledgment that she struggled to treat their only child’s autism during that period of time. And Tsing Loh ridicules my second marriage, but conveniently leaves out my first—to a man who beat and nearly killed me.

Throughout the article, Tsing Loh suggests that she is superior to the women in my book because she is not white, is not affluent, and sends her child to a public school. Ironically, in 2004 I offered Tsing Loh a chance to share her story in Mommy Wars, and the woman who pegs her authority to a lack of material wealth declined via an e-mail that explained, “I generally don’t do anthologies because the money tends to be poor … correct me if the pay is in the four digits.”

The primal forces of motherhood have the power to unite women rather than divide us. Before we can adequately assist other women—as Tsing Loh rightly encourages women to do—we need to find unity as mothers. Tsing Loh instead seems committed to fostering women’s battles with one another.

Leslie Morgan Steiner
Washington, D.C.

I appreciate much of what Sandra Tsing Loh discusses in “Rhymes With Rich.” But saying that “the troubles of the poor … don’t seem to lap up much around the ankles of any of these mothers” is unfair to women of all income levels. I’m qualified to write about my feelings as a stay-at-home mom, not about racial or economic diversity. I do wish that I had more fully expressed how grateful I am to have a choice, and I know that the majority of women don’t have that option. But I doubt they begrudge me—or judge me for—my choices as hotly as does Tsing Loh.

I was lucky enough to be born standing in the right line, and so were my children. I try to remind them of that every day—whether taking them to volunteer or giving a portion of their allowance (they each get a dollar a week) to the homeless. I realize this sounds like I’m throwing pennies down from the turret of my Georgetown castle. (For the record, it’s two bedrooms; my girls share a room. Since writing my essay for Mommy Wars, I’ve moved, divorced, and started writing more to pay some bills.) But I want my children to know that they’re fortunate, not entitled. And I want them to be grateful, not guilt-ridden. Believe me, as a freckle-faced WASP living in a privileged enclave, I have enough guilt for all of us.

Page Evans
Author of “Sharks and Jets” from Mommy Wars
Washington, D.C.

I’m sorry Sandra Tsing Loh reviewed the book she wished had been written, rather than Mommy Wars. She raises some interesting and valid points about the plights of mothers who work for subsistence wages while trying to raise their own kids (and sometimes other people’s). But if we’re trying to get to a place where all work is valued (and I think this is Tsing Loh’s underlying argument), aren’t the struggles of the high-earning women also valid? What’s more, the immigrant women that Tsing Loh identifies with, in her daughter’s Los Angeles magnet school, are working to give their kids the kinds of opportunities the women in the book have—and I’m not sure they would begrudge their more fortunate sisters the choices they’ve made. Finally, I wonder what Tsing Loh would do if she weren’t one of the lucky few to get her child into one of those highly competitive magnet schools? Would she really send her daughter to one of L.A.’s failing, 94 percent minority public schools? Or would she join the ranks of those of us she seems to regard as somehow compromised, and make a different choice?

Dee Dee Myers
Washington, D.C.

Sandra Tsing Loh replies:

Leslie Morgan Steiner writes: “Before we can adequately assist other women … we need to find unity as mothers.” Perhaps we should ask the women who huddled inside the Superdome if they felt they had the luxury of waiting for that hell-freezing-over day (the day I change my pan of Steiner’s book to the appropriate rave and we sing “Kumbaya”), or if they would have simply preferred to be handed the damn water bottles already.

Unity first, then help—that’s a gloomy prognosis for the future of female philanthropy. Because despite the heat of Steiner’s rebuttal, I must stubbornly continue to disagree. I find her calculation that “nearly 20 percent” minority is not overwhelmingly white a bit spooky, frankly. She misreads my take on affluent women; my point was not that I’m above “mommy wars” because I’m morally superior, but just the opposite. I’m certain that if I lived in Georgetown or in those Barney Greengrass–fed, Ferragamo-shod, Bugaboo stroller–bashing blocks of the Upper West Side, I too would be driven that certain kind of crazy.

But the hot, pulsing, opera-bag-across-the-face core (I think of Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine in The Turning Point) of why I find Steiner’s quasi-feminist thesis to be spectacularly dishonest comes when she cites my daring to ask for money. (And putting it in quotes is really wonderfully catty—I did laugh.) When Steiner first wrote me to solicit an essay for Mommy Wars, she enthusiastically branded her anthology “the next Bitch in the House.” While Bitch ended up a surprise New York Times best- seller—no impediment to Steiner securing a Random House contract—I couldn’t help recalling that potential Bitch essayists had been originally offered about $500 for, say, 3,000 words—one-twelfth the going rate for midcareer magazine work.

Thus my quote: “I generally don’t do anthologies because the money tends to be poor … correct me if the pay is in the four digits.” Four digits—good lord, that could come to … $1,000! Write quickly and one might start approaching one-tenth of what Steiner’s own investment-banker husband makes in an hour (women, unite!). Yet in the next trickle-down feminist turn, Steiner doubles triumphantly back to reveal me as the cold business mercenary who, sadly, wasn’t passionate enough to “share her story.” Yes, it’s a jungle out there in the women’s-angst-anthology-with-all-profits-going-to-the-female-editor world.

Bottom line: don’t ever ask a media professional who says that women’s work should be valued to give you a fair market wage. You’ll pay for it later, sister. Rawr!

By contrast, I feel that Page Evans is poignantly wrestling with the complex issues we, as America’s luckier women, face. I can relate. But Dee Dee Myers’s grasp of L.A.’s public-school magnet system is fuzzy; the system is highly competitive only in that kids from the most disadvantaged zip codes get in first. My daughter’s magnet school is Title I due to poverty and high risk factors—many of her classmates came from Head Start. And yes, we were indeed planning on trying our regular 96 percent Hispanic school, never mind Myers’s stated belief that I’d find that unthinkable (which itself is fascinating). I really must get to D.C. more often.

That said, our magnet school does enjoy a self-selection of parents motivated enough to fill out the government forms required to get their children in. So if we’re not guilty, to borrow Evans’s alchemical thinking, we are grateful. In fact, I’m grateful enough that my charitable giving this year, which goes largely to local poor non- magnet schools that lack PTAs, will be “in the five digits.” Tired misogynist that I am, I don’t need female unity to write a check; I just need a pen. And happily, after telling this book reviewer to go to hell, Steiner need not wait to use her Wharton-trained business savvy to invent a way to channel economic resources toward, if not poorer women, causes about which she clearly feels great passion: spousal abuse, postpartum depression, and autism.

Now that would impress me. Applause, flowers, chocolates … It’s all standing by.

The Desert One Debacle

Mark Bowden’s account of the Desert One mission (“The Desert One Debacle,” May Atlantic) is inaccurate in one significant respect: his assertion that I “directed” Harold Brown, the secretary of defense, to convey to the commanders on the ground that “if they were prepared to go ahead with only five choppers, they had White House approval.” I did no such thing. I reported to the president about the ongoing mishap and urged him to inquire, through Harold Brown, whether the mission commander would be prepared to go forward with a smaller number of available helicopters. The commander, as it turned out, wisely decided that this would not be workable. A detailed account of that episode, confirming the above, is to be found on page 498 of my White House memoir, Power and Principle.

Zbigniew Brzezinski
Washington, D.C.

Mark Bowden accepts mission commander Charles Beckwith’s claim that without six helicopters the mission could not proceed, because Beckwith could not transport his entire rescue team from Desert One to the hide site outside Tehran. But there were solutions to the transportation problem. Colonel Jerry King, the operations planner for the mission, suggested that helicopter crews be reduced (each helicopter had a crew of five), leaving the gunners and their equipment behind to create additional space for the rescue team. The gunners were superfluous, as the rescue team was armed to the teeth. Removing them would have accommodated at least ten of the men, and removing one or both of the internal auxiliary fuel tanks would have provided room for the rest. The flight to the hide site was only 270 miles, and the plan was to jettison the auxiliary tanks at the hide site anyway, to make room for the hostages.

Alternatively, the helicopter with the mechanical failure could have continued the mission. The failure turned out to be a burned-out hydraulic pump on the backup flight-controls system. In combat situations, aircraft have flown without backup controls, and flying in a spare pump from the Nimitz was also feasible: the jet could have made the trip in two hours, and the repair would have taken about an hour. The helicopter would have had to spend the day at Desert One and proceed to the hide site the following evening, but it would have arrived in plenty of time for the mission, which was not to commence until after midnight the next day.

Most of these solutions were suggested at the time. That President Carter decided not to proceed anyway raises questions about his true intentions.

Professor Richard C. Thornton
George Washington University
Washington, D.C.

In “The Desert One Debacle,” Mark Bowden writes, “Days earlier the entire force had flown from Florida to Egypt on big Army jet transports.” The Army does not have big jet transports. Those planes would have been provided by the Air Force.

Steve Harper
Fayetteville, N.C.

Some of the charts that Mark Bowden uses to depict aircraft positioning in the Atlantic Online supplement to his article very closely resemble those in my book, The Guts to Try, and some bits and pieces of dialogue and comments, unique to my book, show up in Bowden’s piece. I do not see any reference or credit for this material.

James H. Kyle, Col., U.S. Air Force (Ret.)
Honolulu, Hawaii

Mark Bowden replies:

I am sorry for the error in portraying Mr. Brzezinski’s advice, am grateful for his correction, and will see that it makes it into the book and onto my Web site. Mr. Harper is exactly right about the transports being Air Force, not Army, a correction that I have made to the book and Web site.

Colonel Kyle’s book, The Guts to Try, is referenced as a source in my book, Guests of the Ayatollah, from which the May cover story was excerpted. His is one of the better accounts of the rescue mission, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the incident. My story was based primarily on interviews with participants in the mission, many of whom have never been interviewed, by Colonel Kyle or anyone else. Since we did interview some of the same men, however, and wrote about the same episode, it is hardly surprising that some snatches of dialogue and descriptions of the position of aircraft would be similar or the same. If Colonel Kyle wishes to correct significant inadequacies or errors in my account, I will be grateful.

Professor Thornton notes correctly, as I did in the story, that serious consideration was given to proceeding with the mission using only five helicopters, and while there was some support for going ahead, the decision was made to abort, as pre-planning for the mission dictated. I have not made an effort to critique or second-guess that decision; it is an argument that I leave to those who know a lot more about helicopters and load requirements than I do. President Carter left the decision to the men who were risking their lives on the mission, which I think was the right thing to do.

Defending Hugo Chávez

Throughout his essay on controversial Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez (“The Talented Mr. Chávez,” May Atlantic), Franklin Foer adopts the rhetoric and misrepresentations of Chávez’s more dishonest opponents. For example, he writes that the failed 2002 coup attempt against Chávez was led by high military officials “nervous about the president’s feints toward a fully nationalized economy.” This ignores the role of politicians, the business sector, and the corporate media in the destabilization campaign leading to the coup, and it misconstrues Chávez’s economic program. At his most radical, and despite his rhetoric, Chávez calls for a mixed economy—and the private sector has expanded faster than the public sector since he took office seven years ago.

Foer distorts regional politics. The Venezuelan military cannot patrol every inch of its country’s 1,379-mile border with Colombia, yet Chávez does not, as Foer implies, have a policy allowing the FARC guerrillas to freely cross into Venezuela’s territory. In fact, Chávez, concerned with preventing incursions of right-wing paramilitaries from Colombia, has established good working relations with his ideological opposite, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, much to the chagrin of leftist supporters. Foer recycles the claims of Chávez’s opponents, including those in the Pentagon, and so is blind to the fact that the real threat to regional stability comes from right-wing paramilitaries.

Foer writes that the poverty rate has risen from 43 percent to 53 percent during Chávez’s presidency. But the 53 percent figure is from the first quarter of 2004, and the Venezuelan economy has grown by more than 28 percent (in real, inflation-adjusted terms) since then, with poverty falling to 37 percent. The earlier jump in poverty was, to a large extent, a direct result of the 2002–2003 opposition-led oil strike, which crippled the economy and sent unemployment soaring. Yet even the current decline in the official poverty rate does not capture the enormous gains from increased social spending—$17 billion this year—on health care, education, and subsidized food. Foer ridicules these programs, but there is broad agreement among scholars of Latin America, many sharply critical of Chavismo, that these misiones are an innovative experiment in a region where nearly half the population lives in extreme poverty.

Foer suggests that Venezuelan public opinion is deeply divided over Chávez, but it is not an equal division. Chávez’s approval rating consistently hovers between 60 and 70 percent, and he leads all potential presidential contenders in the polls. Also, a survey by the respected Chilean polling firm Latinobarómetro found that when asked to rank how democratic their country is on a scale of 1 (not democratic) to 10 (totally democratic), Venezuelans scored their country at 7.6, considerably better than the regional average of 5.5.

At one point Foer acknowledges that Latin America’s “leftward swing” was a reaction against the free-market policies that “failed to deliver on their much-hyped promise of prosperity.” But then he states that Chávez threatens to disrupt an “embrace of market capitalism [that] seemed to bring relative prosperity and genuine stability within grasp.” Here Foer misses the crucial development driving the turn left in Latin America: the disastrous economic failures of the last twenty-five years. Per capita income (or gross domestic product) has grown by only 10 percent over the last quarter century, the worst such performance in more than 100 years. Today, 213 million Latin Americans, or 40 percent of the population, are destitute.

Finally, Foer’s presentation of Latin American politics as a contest between two lefts, one acceptable and one not, is overly simplistic. Latin American leaders themselves don’t buy it. Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, or Lula, has been one of Chávez’s biggest defenders—not, as Foer deduces, because he is scared of his base, but because the two share many goals, including diversifying sources of investment and furthering regional economic integration. Even Chile’s former President Ricardo Lagos, the kind of responsible, left-of-center politician extolled by Foer, recently told the United States to back off its criticisms of Venezuela. It would be a “mistake,” he said, to “demonize Hugo Chávez.” Foer should heed the advice of the Latin American leaders that he respects.

Greg Grandin, New York University; John Womack, Harvard University; Deborah Levenson, Boston College; Charles Hale, University of Texas at Austin; Fernando Coronil, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor; Jocelyn Olcott, Duke University; Gilbert Joseph, Yale University; Julie Skurski, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor; Cindy Forster, Scripps College; Mark Healey, University of California at Berkeley; Daniel Hellinger, Webster University; Miguel Tinker-Salas, Pomona College; Mark Weisbrot, Center for Economic and Policy Research

Franklin Foer replies:

Hugo Chávez has been skilled in winning a following on the American Left, especially within the academy. It’s striking, however, that his defenders take so little time to rebut the most damning criticism of the man: his anti-democratic impulse. Chávez has gutted many of the governmental institutions that stood in his way and does little to hide his desire to remain in office for decades.

To respond point by point: I don’t disagree with the letter writers’ characterization of the 2002 coup. Chávez had alienated many sectors of the Venezuelan elite, as well as the country’s middle class. The military was merely the actor that enabled the coup to temporarily succeed. Furthermore, I never asserted that Chávez wants to impose a Cuban-style economy on the country, and I don’t think that is his intention. But he occasionally feints in that direction, and in the months before the coup, his rhetoric was clearly on the radical side.

The letter writers spend considerable time discussing the FARC, which made only a cameo appearance in my piece. I agree that the Venezuelan border is porous, and that Chávez’s relationship to the guerillas is mixed. Has he willfully ignored their presence at times? I’m not sure. But the intelligence officials I cited say he has. And my point was hardly an ideological one. The United States has vital interests in Latin America. It can’t afford hostile governments that fail to cooperate in its counter-narcotics operations. Chávez, who prohibits American surveillance planes from entering his country’s airspace, has stymied those efforts.

On the question of poverty, I used data published in the middle of last year, just as I began reporting my essay. There was no willful twisting of evidence. Once again, I don’t disagree with the letter writers’ points. The misiones are innovative and do help the Venezuelan people, especially in reversing feelings of exclusion. But they are designed as short-term infusions of cash, not long-term solutions to deep social problems. Because they are so scattershot—because they do little to build new health-care or educational systems, for instance—they will never provide the engine for genuine progress. Why, for instance, has infant mortality increased under Chávez’s watch?

Is Venezuelan society deeply divided? I don’t see how anyone could deny this claim. The Chavistas and the opposition despise one another and are locked in mortal political combat. Street protests are part of the fabric of Venezuelan life. Labor unions, the middle class, and most of the big newspapers are virulently anti-Chávez. Instead of reconciling with opponents—or even debating them—Chávez has defined them as American stooges, as un-Venezuelan.

The writers cite Ricardo Lagos’s praise of Chávez. This, sadly, proves a point that I make in the article: that pragmatic Latin American leaders are afraid to challenge Chávez, because the Latin American center-left adores him.

Iran Goes Nuclear

James Fallows’s piece (“The Nuclear Power Beside Iraq,” May Atlantic) argues that “the worst option would be a military strike” in dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But the word worst connotes comparison. Fallows details the many difficulties a military operation might face. But I searched in vain for the alternative approaches that he deems to be better than “the worst.” That omission seems representative of the dilemma facing the international community.

Mark Sherrill
McLean, Va.

James Fallows replies:

There are two implied alternatives. One is finding a diplomatic way to dissuade Iran from building nuclear weapons, which is most often discussed in the context of a “grand bargain” involving all aspects of political, economic, and military relations between Iran and other powers, mainly the United States. The other choice is to rely on robust and no-kidding deterrence to make sure that an Iranian bomb is never used, which is the same policy the United States relies on to be sure that Russia, China, Pakistan, and India do not use their nuclear bombs.

Shaken, Not Stirred

Christopher Hitchens belittles Ian Fleming’s “role selection” (“Bottoms Up,” April Atlantic), specifically his invitation to Noël Coward to play Dr. No. But Coward was successful in many roles, comic and serious, and he would likely have done a fine job (playing it either coldly evil or over-the-top camp).

Then there is Hitchens’s potshot at John F. Kennedy’s 1961 Life magazine reading list, which included From Russia With Love. But the other nine books were very different: Montrose, by John Buchan; Melbourne, by David Cecil; Marlborough, by Winston Churchill; John Quincy Adams, by Samuel Flagg Bemis; The Emergence of Lincoln, by Allan Nevins; The Price of Union, by Herbert Agar; John C. Calhoun, American Portrait, by Margaret L. Coit; Byron in Italy, by Peter Quennell; and Stendhal’s The Red and the Black.

Alecia Flores
Penryn, Calif.

Christopher Hitchens replies:

I too would have adored to see Noël Coward playing Dr. No, but I can’t then visualize the same motion picture (or novel). As for Kennedy’s reading list, Ms. Flores is entitled to believe if she chooses that the boy president had really read those books. (She may also believe if she chooses that the young Kennedy, and not Ted Sorenson, was the author of Profiles in Courage.) I feel quite confident, however, that the Fleming selection on that list was made by the Galahad of Camelot himself and not by an anxious staffer striving to give a more weighty impression.

Life and Death in the IRA

One of the men Matthew Teague interviewed for his story about the IRA (“Double Blind,” April Atlantic) was Denis Donaldson, “the legendary IRA hunger-striker” who had gone into hiding. Shockingly, it was recently reported that the same Denis Donaldson had been shot to death after having “been tortured before being killed—apparently with one or two shotgun blasts to his head—inside his isolated home near Glenties, County Donegal, in northwest Ireland.”

Can we please have a comment by Mr. Teague?

LaVerne Barnes
Vancouver, British Columbia

Matthew Teague replies:

I was, of course, shocked by the news of Donaldson’s death—and my heart goes out to Mrs. Donaldson, whom I met while reporting the story. That’s the ultimate tragedy within the story: beneath the intrigue, the spying, and the politics, real men and women die, and real families suffer.

Advice and Consent

In “Primary Sources” (May Atlantic), the “In Search of Lost Time” item says that the worst traffic bottleneck costs 27,144 lost hours per year. Those are thousands of hours, not hours, so the correct number is 27,144,000.

George Terhune
Quincy, Calif.

The Editors reply:

Mr. Terhune is correct. We regret the error.

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