Letters for the week of September 24-30, 2003

Metaphors can be troublesome; Brecht was unfairly smeared; and the work of defense attorneys leads to sarcasm and schizophrenia.

“This Water Fountain Could Kill You!” Feature, 8/27

This water fountain could not kill you
Your article by Justin Berton contained numerous glaring errors, some of which are addressed here.

At no time did I ever say that the radioactive drinking fountains at Sproul Hall on the UC Berkeley campus could or would kill anyone. I merely pointed out that it was mildly radioactive, glazed with uranium like many other ceramics from that era. A person simply would not and could not spend enough time around such a drinking fountain to acquire any appreciable risk of cancer, and especially not small children who can’t even reach to the fountain.

At no time did I ever work with or for Helen Caldecott, and at no time was I ever in the “No Nukes movement.” I was aware of her concerns regarding nuclear power, which I did not share. Contrarily, I have always been a supporter of the proper usage of nuclear materials, including uranium for nuclear reactors when properly developed (not as was done at Chernobyl), and under full IAEA nuclear materials safeguards (not as is currently the case in North Korea). Nuclear reactors of the American type are currently the safest form of energy production (just look at how many men and women die in coal mines, oil-drilling accidents, refinery accidents, etc.), and the radiation exposure to the general public is minuscule compared with the radiation exposure from those uranium tiles still present in many people’s houses.

However, I was, and still am, very concerned about nuclear proliferation (as in North Korea). I worked actively at reducing the former Soviet nuclear weapons triggers, so that they could instead be used as nuclear fuel in their reactors, instead of being aimed at American targets atop ICBMs, as they were when I began working in the nuclear arena. I also worked at instituting exchanges of personnel, so that we would learn to work more closely, and as friends, with other persons around the globe, instead of as foes as was formerly the case.

With respect to the extensive usage of green uranium glaze at the Francis Scott Key School in San Francisco, including the uranium-glazed benches that front the school, my measurements are essentially in complete agreement with the measurements from the Department of Health. We differed only by a factor of two, and that was entirely accountable because we were measuring two slightly different things. I was measuring the radiation exposure at the surface of a person (skin entrance), and they were measuring the average exposure over a depth of about one centimeter. My Geiger counter is fully calibrated, and extremely accurate for the type of measurement I was making.

More importantly, the State Department of Health has advised that school not to let children sit on the uranium, for very good health physics reasons — namely, it is entirely avoidable radiation exposure, and not of an insignificant amount. They do not say that you have to be bare-bottomed to receive a radiation exposure. The beta rays and the gamma rays will readily penetrate clothing, though with some attenuation for the beta rays. Such usages of uranium undoubtedly exist in many other parts of the country, waiting for the proper authorities to discover and rectify it.

The general thrust of my presentation in San Diego, which Justin seems to have overlooked, focusing instead on his perceptions of my breathing and other extraneous matters, is that uranium glazed tiles are still in many hundreds of thousands of houses across the US, especially including older parts of the East Bay. This is a considerable health risk for people with small children crawling around on those tiles for hours on end, or being near them in their bathrooms and kitchens for lengthy periods of time, day after day, year after year.

Finally, on a more personal note, I advised Justin to be careful when I parked my car near to that date palm (Phoenix dactylifera), because as most people know, they have sharp spines at the base of their palm fronds. Somehow, he managed to poke himself anyway, so I insisted that before he got back in the car, that I pull forward. Sorry, Justin.

Further information will become available at [the not-yet-active Web site] www.uraniumtiles.org
Walter L. Wagner, director, Monterey Bay Perpetual Endowment Foundation for Wellness, Monterey

Editor’s Note
Our assertion that Walter Wagner once worked for Helen Caldecott was indeed incorrect; we regret the error. As for the drinking fountain, it’s true Wagner didn’t specifically say it could kill someone. He did, however, tell our reporter that its glaze contains roughly twice the percentage of uranium that he found in ceramic tiles at Francis Scott Key Elementary.

The cover headline was conceived as a metaphor to illustrate Wagner’s assertion that cumulative exposure from such sources can increase an individual’s risk of cancer (and consequently, death) — and also the perspective of Wagner’s critics cited in our report. We stand by the remainder of the story.

“Father Brecht and His Children,” Theater, 8/20

Correcting John Fuegi’s many slanders of Brecht
Amazement floored me on reading Lisa Drostova’s article. Her article consisted mostly of praise for John Fuegi’s old-fashioned American smear of poor B.B.

Her take severely distracted me from the background to the article, the Shotgun’s sparkling production of Mother Courage in John Hinkle Park, with a refreshing — need I say Brechtian? — historical background (the Thirty Years’ War in time and space) replete with Brechtian anachronisms.

What drew people to Brecht had to do with his being one of the great poets of the twentieth century, an influential director, and its greatest theater worker (in that most social of arts). As such he got the best out of artists, for example: L. Feuchtwanger (Edward II, etc.), E. Hauptmann (Happy End, etc.), R. Berlau (eventually the Berliner Ensemble model books); M. Steffins (the Threepenny novel, etc); H. Weigel (Mother Courage), H. Eisler (numerous songs), C. Laughton (Galileo). The list goes on. Some works credit his assistance but not on the title page, for example Feuchtwanger’s play Warren Hastings. There were some movie failures (Hangmen Also Die and Gunga Din, both chopped up by Hollywood).

Contrary to her assertions, Brecht did write great plays after 1941. An example is one of his greatest plays, The Congress of Whitewashers, which was written after he returned to East Germany. Congress … was “adapted” from Turandot, as The Threepenny Opera was “adapted” from The Beggar’s Opera (Gay, 1721).

Fuegi’s book, The Life and Lies of Bertolt Brecht — to use its title in English — seeks to smear Brecht through three levels of slanders.

Low-grade slanders: The reader may not have heard of the assertion that there were three cultural monsters during the 20th century: Hitler, Stalin, and Brecht. The explanation is that Fuegi’s efforts to present this thesis sank almost as soon as they emerged in his book.

Middle-grade slanders: The English Brecht scholar J. Willett and others have compiled and published long lists of Fuegi’s errors in a 1995 publication by the International Brecht Society (Brecht Yearbook 20). Those interested may consult the IBS Web site, Polyglot.lss.wisc.edu/german/brecht.

High-grade slanders: The salaciously inclined will want to review Fuegi’s treatment of Brecht’s “pornographic sonnets.” They are to be found toward the end of Fuegi’s book.

Drostova’s statement that “every other book seems careless by comparison” seems no truer than, to use another effort at a smear of a great artist, Robert Green’s 1593 comments about Shakespeare (whom Brecht most closely resembles, of 20th-century writers). According to Green, Shakespeare was an upstart crow using others’ words and borrowing others’ feathers. Notwithstanding, Shakespeare continued to borrow from Green (among others) at least until 1610-11 (The Winter’s Tale).

Fuegi’s smear obscures the (in my opinion) disfiguring effects of the gloom Brecht sometimes evinced as he coexisted with the privileged bureaucrats of Stalinism. Fuegi’s influence was wide. One among many examples is the Russian copycat Yuri Oklyansky’s book The Harem of Bertolt Brecht. There may be some satisfaction among the Stalinists (I’m sorry, I mean the ex-Stalinists, but is there a difference, really?) who kiss Washington’s ass (expertly) until the city’s butt is raw. The privileged bureaucracy that Stalin shielded, as the czarist bureaucracy from which it was originally derived, has its influences showing in such lines as Drostova’s twist that Brecht “lied like a rug in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee.” Is this a signal that Drostova’s real sympathies lie with HUAC?! Is suggesting that she should read Brecht’s journals a waste of time?

But I get apoplectic over Fuegi. The sour academic, no doubt inhaling the heady fumes around Fort Detrick, Maryland, may have contemplated long ago a breakout from slogging through the decades collecting interviews (not only for the IBS).
Fred Hayden, Albany

“The Molesters’ Hero,” Feature, 8/20

Who are the real heroes, and who are the villains?
Thank you for making sure advocates of individual constitutional rights are vilified, for making it easier for criminals to get away with their crimes. I propose that you run a series of “hero” stories, with each issue featuring another ugly mug-shot-type cover photo of the attorney who won a rare victory for a criminal defendant and the banner headline: The Murderers’ Hero, the Rapists’ Hero, the Drunk Drivers’ Hero, the Terrorists’ Hero.

This series would teach these so-called protectors of constitutional rights, like the deputy public defender who argued in the Supreme Court, to think twice before they bring a writ of certiorari to do away with those necessary — if somewhat regrettable — tools of law enforcement like ex post facto laws or coerced self-incrimination.

The whole problem would be solved if the state of California simply changed our attorney Rules of Professional Responsibility, so that criminal defense lawyers actively defended only those clients who are actually innocent of their crimes. That way, police and prosecutors would not have to resort to perjury, coercive questioning, overcharging, withholding exculpatory evidence, disqualifying minority jurors, and other such practices that occasionally find their way into the criminal justice system in the service of obtaining the convictions that we all know most defendants deserve.

Thank you, Express, for doing your part to portray a hero as the villain he really is. Isn’t he?
John D. Raskin, Berkeley

Yes, it was schizophrenic, but then so is society
I was troubled by public defender David Coleman’s tasteless and apparently senseless accusations of “victim-pandering vitriol” (Letters, September 10). The article, “Molesters’ Hero,” was indeed schizophrenic, but this is only reflective of people’s general schizophrenia concerning concepts of justice. On the one hand, people feel everyone should get a fair defense, and be treated equally. On the other hand, they also feel that people who do bad things should suffer. These two perceptions of justice coexist in our minds, but cannot coexist in practice. The article did a great job of presenting this duality.
Justin Azadivar, Berkeley

In a box accompanying last week’s cover story (“Where the Educational Units Sleep”), we incorrectly reported that the high-rise dorms of Units 1 and 2 were slated for demolition. The dining commons are being razed, and two new infill dorms will be built on each Unit. The retrofit nine-story dorms, alas, will remain.

“Harriet Tubman” is not male, as implied by a typo in last week’s Cityside (“Score a Goal and Smash the State”). Also, spectator Kate Hoffman is a former, not current, player in an SF soccer league.


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