Letters to the editor

Lessons From Marx

I take great solace in Christopher Hitchens’s eloquent essay revitalizing the teachings of Karl Marx (“The Revenge of Karl Marx,” April Atlantic). Over many years of following the stock market, I have found no more consistent sign that we are at the bottom of a bear market than a renewed interest in the teachings of the author of Das Kapital. I have therefore given appropriate directions to my stockbroker.

Edmund C. Tiryakian
Hillsborough, N.C.


Word Frequencies in Response to April Issue
Breast Is Best?

Hanna Rosin’s argument that the benefits of breast-feeding are not scientifically validated (“The Case Against Breast-Feeding,” April Atlantic) misrepresents the medical evidence, detracting from an otherwise valid and important critique of the way American society neglects the needs of women and families.

Unfortunately, the inflammatory nature of Ms. Rosin’s article will only perpetuate a fabricated “debate” that’s pitting women against one another—the very phenomenon that she condemns. Our lack of societal support for women and families does not cancel out the fact that breast-feeding is a vital factor in the health—emotional and physical—of mothers and babies. Rather than attempting to make a case “against” breast-feeding that only intensifies the divisions among women, I urge The Atlantic to instead make the case for the support that so many American families lack, from birthplace to workplace.

United States Breastfeeding Committee form letter
Sent by 976 people in 49 states

I read “The Case Against Breast-Feeding” online after receiving a seriously agitated e-mail from the United States Breastfeeding Committee. The USBC’s e-mail was intended to inflame me into submitting a canned letter condemning the article and speaking out against it. I am now using the USBC’s letter template to thank Ms. Rosin and The Atlantic for the piece.

I am a first-time mother with a baby who will soon be 3 months old. Before I had my son, I was working 60-hour weeks as a project manager, a challenging job that I enjoy and am still devoted to. I am married, and my husband also works full time. Like many other women, I received a short maternity leave. Since my return, I’ve barely been able to hold my project together, and I feel guilty and deficient every day. It’s difficult to complete a task when you have to breast-feed 12 to 15 times a day, and your partner cannot really help out, because he isn’t lactating.

Breast-feeding has been extremely difficult for me. After weeks of pain and repeat visits to my lactation consultant, we were told that my son had some oral-motor-skill deficiencies that were creating the pain and frustration. Now, at the 3-month mark, the pain is more manageable and I’m finally beginning to enjoy this special time with my son.

I suspect that tons of mommies struggle with similar issues but are powering on, trying to do what is best for their children even though all other aspects of their lives are suffering or falling apart. It’s rare that I meet anyone, medical professional or otherwise, who doesn’t make me feel guilty for considering other options.

Lea Remigio
Orlando, Fla.

I spent some time on the phone talking with Hanna Rosin in her quest for information for her article, but I apparently did not spend enough time. I was disappointed in her handling of the scientific data on the health effects of human-milk feeding.

Ms. Rosin selectively quoted articles supporting her perspective that there is insufficient evidence for the health benefits of breast-feeding, and ignored the mass of data that provides ample evidence for its benefits. She grudgingly concedes, “The medical literature … shows that breast-feeding is probably, maybe, a little better” than formula feeding. She should have given more weight to a recent critical review of research in this field, published by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In this nearly 200-page, statistically based, objective analysis of the world’s research, the authors demonstrate that the weight of scientific evidence favors breast-feeding. For example, as they show, it is not trivial that breast-feeding reduces the occurrence of ear infections by half; this is, after all, a disease that nearly every child suffers from during the early years of life. Moreover, it has been estimated that a major increase in breast-feeding, especially for a longer duration, would reduce annual health-care costs in the United States by more than $4 billion.

I am pleased to see that Ms. Rosin is continuing to breast-feed her youngest, even if only for good emotional reasons. He will also reap health benefits, even if his mother does not believe it.

Lawrence M. Gartner, M.D.
Professor Emeritus, Departments of Pediatrics and Obstetrics
University of Chicago
Valley Center, Calif.

Hanna Rosin replies:

The USBC’s letter is the kind of feminist dreaminess I heard from many breast-feeding advocates. “Let’s all work to get support for women and families. Let’s stop pitting mothers against each other. Let’s ease the pressure on harried working mothers.” That’s great! I’m all for it. But it’s not happening anytime soon. So in the short term, the advocates have to recognize that it’s not 1971 anymore, and at this point they are contributing to the impossible pressures women today face, not helping alleviate them.

Yes, there is some scientific support for the benefits of breast-feeding. But the question is: How strong is that support, and for what benefits, exactly? And is it so strong that it overrides everything else going on in a woman’s life?
Consider the case of Lea Remigio. Somebody should have told her she was a heroine for trying so hard, and encouraged her to explore other options. Nobody should have made her feel guilty. Since publication of my story, I’ve heard from hundreds of moms like her—women who couldn’t breast-feed for one reason or another and tortured themselves over it. Women who bottle-fed but were ashamed to go to the playground lest anyone find out. Women who kept it up long after they wanted to, pumping in bathroom stalls at work, under their desks, in closets, just out of guilt. Enough already.
I did indeed cite some studies that supported my point, but in general I stuck to a broad overview of the research, and its many deficiencies. I devoted the most space to what’s universally considered the best study conducted to date—Michael Kramer’s research, which confirmed only minimal benefits of breast-feeding.
Here’s what we know for sure so far: breast-feeding seems to provide some small extra protection against infection. This may save your baby from one bout of diarrhea, or maybe from an ear infection. Beyond that, we’re not really certain what the benefits are. So every mother should take that information and make her own decision.
Prophet of Love

Although I appreciate Robert Wright’s insight into the way tolerance and love promote globalization (“One World, Under God,” April Atlantic), I must take issue with his interpretation of the Gospel according to Mark. Jesus may not talk about love much in this Gospel, but he is constantly showing it: healing the afflicted, feeding the hungry, and accepting all sorts of sinners and outcasts in his movement, including people from other religious and ethnic groups.

Calling a woman who is not from Israel a dog, for example, is hardly his “most salient comment on ethnic relations,” as Wright claims. When this Syro-Phoenecian woman argues with Jesus, he responds, “You’re right!” (as the Contemporary English Version loosely translates) and heals her daughter, apparently redefining his mission as including people of other nationalities. This is something far more radical than tolerance. It is a willingness to learn profound truths from a despised neighbor—and then pass the story on to your followers.

The Reverend Thomas W. Goodhue
Executive Director
Long Island Council of Churches
Hempstead, N.Y.

Robert Wright replies:

The Reverend Goodhue is right: in this Gospel story, Jesus does finally relent and heal the daughter of the woman whose plea for help he had rebuffed on grounds of her ethnicity. However, as I note in my book The Evolution of God (from which the article was adapted), he does so only after she implicitly acknowledges the inferior status of her ethnic group. In rebuffing her, he says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (New Revised Standard Version translation). The woman—far from arguing that Syro-Phoenecians aren’t dogs—answers, “Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then, with her having embraced her end of the master-dog metaphor, Jesus says, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” I wouldn’t call this a display of the ethnic egalitarianism we associate with Christian love today.

Bolivia Redux

Eliza Barclay’s portrait of Bolivian President Evo Morales in “The Mugabe of the Andes?” (April Atlantic) was grossly biased. It cited only antigovernment sources, offering claims made by Morales’s opponents in lieu of facts. For example, the expulsions of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. ambassador were noted with no mention of the cause: their support for radical opposition groups responsible for undermining the government and inciting deadly violence.

President Morales is a uniter, not a divider. His democratic movement seeks to rectify historic problems of social and cultural exclusion, including the centuries-old oppression of the indigenous majority. Far from advocating the rights of one group over another’s, Morales promotes equality among all Bolivians. This is a position that has encountered strong and sometimes violent resistance from the country’s entrenched interests.

Ambassador Pablo Solon
Deputy Permanent Representative of Bolivia to the United Nations

Eliza Barclay replies:

While I appreciate Ambassador Solon’s comments, the story does not cite only “antigovernment sources.” Miguel Centellas is a social scientist interested in empirical questions. His observation that middle-class support for Evo Morales has declined is not a statement about whether it should have declined. It’s based on facts on the ground. The story also cites a supporter of Morales’s MAS (Movement Toward Socialism) party, outside of La Paz, whom the party threatened to fine for not joining a march. I did not use her name, because she was afraid of retribution. But she remains a MAS supporter.

It’s true that I did not detail the cause for the expulsion of the DEA and the U.S. ambassador, Philip Goldberg, but one week after his expulsion, I attended a press conference in Washington at which he explained that U.S. diplomats regularly meet with groups that oppose the government, in countries around the world, and Bolivia should be no exception. I have not seen evidence that their meeting with opposition groups was directly or indirectly responsible for undermining the government and causing deadly violence.