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Letters -- April 1996

LETTERS

New Iron Curtain

Washington's Character

A French Mirror

Strawberry Fields

Advice & Consent

New Iron Curtain

Anatol Lieven's article "A New Iron Curtain" (January Atlantic) is a throwback to the Cold War. As during the age of Stalinism, Lieven wants to disenfranchise (to shut them up) the peoples in the zone between Russia and Europe. Lieven blames the victims of imperialism, not the imperialists. For him, the relationship between Russia and the West is one of geo- and power politics. With friends like Anatol Lieven, Russia needs no enemies. It was Russian ideology and imperialism living beyond their means, not Western weapons, conspiracy, or money, that bankrupted the Soviet Union. Instead of underwriting the Russian "right" to keep Russia's neighbors economically backward--and thus, also, Russia poor--a true friend would teach Russians moderation. Lieven is absolutely wrong in saying that Russians do not threaten their neighbors. They threaten even the West. The problem is that the threats, implied or direct, keep Western capital out of Eastern Europe, especially Ukraine and the Baltics. Nothing is gained by pretending that Russia is not economically backward or that the Russian state (hiding behind the "right to security") over the centuries has not committed horrendous atrocities on the peoples of Eastern Europe. A truly objective analyst of post-Soviet Eastern Europe would draw a difference between imperial states and colonized peoples.

Andrew Ezergailis
Professor of Russian History
Ithaca College
Ithaca, N.Y.

Anatol Lieven characterizes Westerners who support the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as political opportunists gunning for the Polish vote or as anti-Russian propagandists nostalgic for the Cold War. In so doing he squanders center court in The Atlantic Monthly on a bout with a straw man. Lieven demonstrates beyond any doubt that all Russian politicians oppose NATO's eastward enlargement and will hint at catastrophic consequences to dissuade the alliance from going ahead with its plans. Why is this the least bit surprising or revealing? In today's wounded, disillusioned Russia, no political figure with an ounce of savvy would miss a chance to impugn the motives of an alliance that stood in opposition to the motherland for four decades. If NATO does undertake a limited expansion, however, Russian leaders will have no choice but to accept it. Soon thereafter they will (quietly, perhaps) come to value it. In an enlarged NATO, Germany will have no need to pursue an independent security strategy in central Europe, the smaller nations of the region will be far less inclined to pick fights among themselves, and stable democracies and small, defensive armed forces under civilian control will be the norm to Russia's west. Lieven claims that an honest, coherent discussion in the West of the necessity for expansion has not occurred. Perhaps he was just not aware of it.

Gary L. Geipel
Indianapolis, Ind.

Anatol Lieven replies:

Andrew Ezergailis writes that I am "underwriting the Russian 'right' to keep Russia's neighbors economically backward." This is a willful misrepresentation of my position. As I wrote in my article, I am strongly in favor of the earliest possible membership in the European Union for both the Balts and the Visegrad countries. As I also wrote, one reason I oppose NATO expansion at present is precisely that I believe that the Western European governments are using it to distract the Eastern Europeans from what would be for them a much bigger prize. This is, of course, because the Western Europeans are terrified, owing to the internal changes they would have to carry out (reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, for example) in order to extend the European Union to the east.

Concerning Professor Ezergailis's suggestion that a supposed Russian security threat to Eastern Europe is keeping Western investment from the region, there is no evidence either for a real threat or for the myth of its having any effect on Western businessmen. Relations between Russia and Estonia have sometimes been strained in recent years, but this has not prevented Western capital from helping to make Estonia one of the great economic success stories of Eastern Europe. If other countries have lagged behind, it has been for their own internal reasons.

As for Gary Geipel, the differences between us are probably in the end rather slight. Like him, I strongly support the integration of Eastern and Western Europe, and I do not oppose the idea of NATO expansion at some stage in the future; I just don't see the need for it right now, when Russians are at their most nervous and resentful. I honestly believe that if we proceed cautiously, we can have both integration and a reasonably co-operative Russia. What's the flaming hurry?

Washington's Character

Amazing! Never mind that today discussions about ethnic and racial matters are commonplace, and that historians, looking to America's past, emphasize those themes. You run a piece ("A Man on Horseback,"by Richard Brookhiser, January Atlantic) on "the human qualities of George Washington, and what they say about 'character'"--a piece that utters not a word about the man's owning scores of slaves.

Not that the author didn't provide himself with opportunities. The Roman models for American republicans, after all, also owned slaves, and one wonders whether or not a man "tremendous in his wrath" ever visited that temper on his human chattel. Which of those 110 "Rules of Civility" did Washington observe when dealing with his slaves? If he avoided killing "vermin, or fleas, lice, ticks, etc. in the sight of others," did he also forbear mistreating the people who were his property, within or without the sight of others? And if manners "meant the graceful acknowledgment of others across social distances," how mannerly was he across the social gap between master and slave?

John D. Milligan
Buffalo, N.Y.

Richard Brookhiser replies:

Anyone who writes about George Washington has to be mindful of his record of slave-owning. He certainly was. In the last twenty years of his life the topic was seldom far from his thoughts. He went so far as to propose selling Mount Vernon and hiring out its freed slaves as laborers. (The plan came to nothing, because there were no takers for a property with such bad soil.) He ended up freeing all his slaves in his will--something no other slave-owning President, including Jefferson, did. I discuss these and other aspects of Washington's slave-owning in my book Founding Father, from which the article was drawn.

A French Mirror

Hans Koning's article "A French Mirror" (December Atlantic) makes the case that the French are doing a good job of preparing for the future. Although I agree that the French have done well at preserving towns and cities and building an effective public-transportation system, most evidence I gathered from a year spent in France is that they are running themselves into a ditch.

Perhaps Koning has mistaken the lavish rhetoric of French public officials for vision. It is not. A 12 percent unemployment rate, a six percent federal deficit, shrinking disposable incomes, and sharpening ethnic strife suggest that France hasn't done a great job of looking ahead. The public school system is rigorous but negative and famously inflexible. Universities, while free, are training for jobs and a society that no longer exist. Retraining and continuing education are mostly nonexistent.

I must admit that it was refreshing--at least for a while--to live in a nation where the bottom line and the "private sector can do everything" mania are not running amok. But France's imperial executive bureaucracy, which continues to invest heavily in lost jobs to the detriment of new opportunities, is hardly more creative than our new revolutionaries who sing their age-old fantasies in dreary chorus. The troubles of our era call for innovative methods that neither ideologues here nor bureaucratic royalty there seems capable of generating. Though opposite in their prescriptions, both finally have one answer to all evils: more of the same.

David Pezzullo
Baltimore, Md.

I, too, spent a number of months in France last year, but I came away with a very different view of la vie française. Hans Koning's romantic claptrap about a noble and benevolent welfare state must result from drinking too much vin ordinaire at Les Deux Magots. If a café or magazine or movie is any good, it ought not to need government help, n'est-ce pas ? And although France's telephone system may be as good as ours, it costs four times as much to make a call--or to buy gas or to travel. The high costs debilitate everyone.

For all of France's wonderful buildings, glorious past, and sens civique, the nation is riven by social warfare and populated by a citizenry that struggles to put protein into its diet because of misguided agricultural programs, is beggared by an outdated retail pricing framework that makes it hard to buy decent clothing, and has its aspirations limited by an education system that still employs dictée--learning by rote--rather than problem-solving as its organizing principle. Gripped by a stubborn recession, venal scandals, bitter strikes, and intractable unemployment, daily life in most of the nation is very different from the socialiste utopia that Koning describes.

Jeffrey S. Young
Rescue, Calif.

Hans Koning managed to identify all the worst aspects of France in his article "A French Mirror." France is a wonderful place in spite of its oppressive civil-service elitism--not because of it.

The vibrant and growing use of personal computers in the United States is far superior both qualitatively and quantitatively to anything in France. Yet Koning is impressed by the second-rate Minitel hardware because the government gave millions of Minitels away. He seems dazzled by the huge number of nuclear reactors in France--although they are considered a blot on the landscape anywhere else--because they were built by government instead of private utilities. In France an elite of politicians and civil servants, trained in a handful of elitist colleges in Paris and living in luxury apartments paid for by French taxpayers, take as many decisions as possible out of the hands of French citizens and into their own. Public-employee unions and college students--civil servants in training--extort money from the public through intimidating strikes and by rioting in the streets. It was oppressive under Louis XIV, it was oppressive under the Terror and both Napoleons, and it is still oppressive under Gaullists or socialists. I'll take the "icy wind of our sacred marketplace" over that anytime.

Richard E. Ralston
Marina del Rey, Calif.

"A French Mirror" is a paean to French government intervention in everything from technology to culture. Unfortunately, the article is factually incorrect and its logic is faulty. The French national railroad (SNCF) is not financially self-supporting, as Hans Koning claims. It is running an annual deficit of $2.4 billion (New York Times, December 8, 1995). It is no more self-supporting than the government-planned Concorde, which has never earned a profit. France's budget deficits have ballooned in the 1990s, its currency has fluctuated widely, and interest rates are high, thus driving down economic growth. The Minitels that Koning admires are completely outclassed by the number of services, the number of subscribers, and the global reach of the Internet in this country. When was the last time the author used a French computer or even saw one? He says that France, unlike the United States, is planning for the twenty-first century. The premier industries in the twenty-first century, everyone agrees, will be computers, telecommunications, and biotechnology. The United States is the acknowledged world leader and pacesetter in each of these fields. The ten largest software companies in the world are in the United States. These industries have been driven primarily by entrepreneurship in a free-market economy. Silicon Valley is the envy of the world. President François Mitterrand in the early 1980s came to the San Francisco Bay Area to look at Silicon Valley and went home vowing to make it easier to start companies in France. And this from a socialist President who had nationalized many French companies when he came to power. The French are now trying, desperately, to privatize major industries, such as autos and computers. When Renault (which is currently state-owned) tried to merge with Volvo, Volvo shareholders vociferously declined, and the deal fell through.

With the recent upheavals, if the French are not able to cut their deficits, they will not be able to join the common European currency, and will thus continue to cede monetary control to the Bundesbank and ensure their inevitable decline. Koning's recommendations for the United States will be no more successful in this country than they are in France.

Donald F. DuBois
Palo Alto, Calif.

Hans Koning's piece came out with less than perfect timing, just as a major clash over the future of the French state was erupting in the streets of Paris. The causes and results of December's strikes point up the weaknesses in his argument. Where Koning sees apolitical and farsighted civil servants keeping a firm grip on the tiller of the ship of state, millions of French citizens see a clubby and cliquish group of elitists dictating economic policy to them. On more than one occasion French friends have told me that it is America's lack of just such a class of "énarques" (graduates of the ultra-elite Ecole Nationale d'Administration) that makes our democracy more responsive to the wishes of its citizenry.

Not that the strikers should be glorified either: "intransigence" seemed to be the watchword among the national-railway employees in the most recent conflict. Instead of focusing on sens civique, Koning would have done well to elaborate on the force that sometimes directly opposes it, namely the hyperdeveloped French sense of solidarité. At its best a French strike can permit a specific group to manifest its unity in the face of a reticent or aggressive government, but the window-smashing, rock-throwing, and tire-burning of recent major strikes do not speak well of the sens civique of certain fishermen, farmers, truck drivers, and airline employees.

Mark Burde
St. Louis, Mo.

Hans Koning replies:

I wrote "A French Mirror" to hold up a mirror of alternatives to our present policies; nowhere did I suggest that France has created a utopia. What France has is an active civic sense. Disposable incomes in France are not shrinking but (in the opinion of the government) increasing too much. I do not know what it means to call the public school system "negative"; it is blissfully not bowing to the suggestions for more practicality--which usually amount to public relations and "communications" nonsense instead of serious studies. Les Deux Magots, unfortunately, does not serve vin ordinaire, only very expensive stuff. Jeffrey Young informs us that if a magazine or movie is any good, it has no need for public funds. Sacra simplicitas--or, if you prefer, you must be kidding! The bad is driving out the good at increasing speed, but public money may save the good.

When the French strikes peaked in December, I wondered what this would do to my article. Events may play tricks on writers for a monthly, but in this case they confirmed my report. The French strikes were to protect certain social achievements that a new government (which came into power after my article was written) tried to undo, contrary to its election-campaign promises. Rather than being "intimidating" or leading to "rioting in the streets," they were supported by an unusually large majority of the population, 60-70 percent, right through those weeks of hardship.

In talking about elitist civil servants, Mark Burde ignores the unprecedentedly sharp turn to the right that Jacques Chirac's government tried (it is now having apologetic second thoughts). I was lucky enough to predict strife, but there was no rock-throwing or tire-burning. Those are the weapons of Western Europe's farmers and fishermen, who have no strike option.

Here is the crux of the matter, missed by these correspondents. Of course there is a social war in France. There is a social war in every country. The idea that the great industrialists and bankers have the selfsame interests as the average citizen is hype that no democratic country but the United States takes seriously. The sens civique is precisely what made such a large majority support the striking railroad workers, postal workers, and Metro drivers. After the strikes a trade-union leader said, "We do not want to live like Anglo-Saxons"--that is, in an "individualism without borders." I think the polls begin to show that neither Anglo-Saxons nor Americans generally want "to live like Anglo-Saxons."

Donald DuBois may have been too angry to read carefully. I wrote not that the national railroad was self-supporting but that the TGV, the high-speed train, is "more than self-supporting." So it is. It helps to reduce the deficit of the SNCF. Of course the Minitels, a low-cost and now fifteen-year-old service, are no match for the Internet, although they do provide a number of services still not available in the United States--for example, safe shopping (credit-card verification takes place in the terminal and does not go online). France Telecom says that the Minitel still satisfies most people most of the time (two billion calls in 1995, with more than a billion dollars' worth of business), but that the company is now in the process of becoming a provider of Internet services, not competing with Minitel but "as a complementary service." The Internet will be available nationwide for the price of a local call, because it will use the points of access already established to the Transpac network for the Minitel.

Strawberry Fields

"The Strawberry Fields" (November Atlantic) contains a glaring error: Eric Schlosser's gratuitous statements that Governor Pete Wilson has "relaxed enforcement of the state's tough labor laws," and that "growers avoided prosecution for workplace violations by hiding behind the legal fiction that labor contractors and sharecroppers were the actual employers of migrants." Schlosser thus attempts to attribute illegal sharecropping arrangements to inaction on the part of the Department of Industrial Relations, the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, and this administration.

Curiously, earlier in the piece Schlosser and his sources cite with approval the legal action recently undertaken by this office involving one such sharecropping arrangement by Kirk Produce Company, and also the seminal 1989 California Supreme Court case involving similar issues, S. G. Borello & Sons v. Department of Industrial Relations. In both cases the division took the position that the evidence presented made the grower the true employer of record, and the sharecropper merely an agent or employee.

One cannot have it both ways. If, as Schlosser concludes, we have "relaxed enforcement" of the state's labor laws, how can he explain that each of these cases was originally investigated and brought to court by this division? The Kirk Produce case was brought by the division under the aegis of the Targeted Industries Partnership Program (TIPP), through which the division participates in the vigorous enforcement of state and federal labor laws in the garment-manufacturing and agricultural industries. Last August this agency led a team of state, federal, and local authorities to free seventy-two Thai workers from a garment- manufacturing "slaveshop" in El Monte, California.

TIPP was one of Governor Wilson's program initiatives to improve enforcement and avoid duplication of effort by state and federal agencies charged with enforcing labor standards in the workplace. Through a combination of vigorous enforcement and preventive outreach educational efforts the program has achieved a remarkable degree of compliance in the agricultural industry.

Jose Millan
Interim State Labor Commissioner
Division of Labor Standards Enforcement
San Francisco, Calif.

Eric Schlosser replies:

Jose Millan's claim that TIPP "has achieved a remarkable degree of compliance" is itself remarkable. TIPP has managed to stem some violations that are easily observed by inspectors in the field, such as the absence of drinking water and of portable toilets. But it has been much less successful at uncovering systematic wage theft. During the first two years of its existence, in a state with nearly one million farm workers, TIPP issued just twenty-nine citations for violations of the minimum-wage law.

The Borello case was set in motion by a state labor examiner who drove past a pickle field, noticed blatant violations of the labor code, and felt so enraged that he issued a citation on the spot, ignoring the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement's policy not to target sharecropping. The division pursued the Borello case halfheartedly, calling no witnesses at the initial hearing and not even bothering to contest an appeals-court decision in favor of the grower. The California Supreme Court chose entirely on its own initiative to review the case, a judicial prerogative that is rarely exercised.

Governor Wilson's administration does, however, deserve some credit for its efforts to halt illegal sharecropping in the strawberry industry. The current U.S. Department of Labor has done little to enforce the Fair Labor Standards Act in California agriculture. The federal government has the power, under FLSA, to seize agricultural goods harvested by workers paid less than minimum wage--a power that, if exercised, would do a great deal of good.

Advice & Consent

Thanks for Paul Gagnon's thoughtful critique of current American education, "What Should Children Learn?" (December Atlantic). One need only become familiar with Victorian history to recognize the defining effect the Industrial Revolution had upon its and our times. History witnessed the celerity with which the machine, in all its diverse manifestations, shrank the world and consolidated power into the hands of those few who understood its meaning. The ensuing luxuries, on one hand, and dislocations, on the other, set a sociopolitical order that lingers today. While the unwise may dismiss the need for deep inquiry into this period and its aftermath--in favor, perhaps, of the customs and enterprises of the Tlingit Indians (this is actually one of the study subjects of my fifth grader)--they will find themselves unprepared for the vicissitudes that are upon us as the Information Revolution unfolds. Barbara Tuchman's The Proud Tower can serve as an allegory for the current situation, wherein the informational haves not only eclipse the political power but also determine the destiny of the have-nots.

John G. Dzwonczyk
Avon Lake, Ohio


Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 1996; Letters; Volume 277, No. 4; pages 8-17.

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