Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 22, 2012

Creeped out by Sandra Steingraber

Filed under: health and fitness — louisproyect @ 8:30 pm

Over the past dozen years or so, I have written 620 reviews that appeared on Rotten Tomatoes, an aggregator of film reviews written by those regarded as a “top critic” (adorned by a star) like Anthony Lane of the New Yorker Magazine and the lowliest like me. Most reviewers, like my colleagues in NYFCO—a group by virtue of my membership allows me to post to RT—are appealing to the same reader, namely the man or women trying to figure out which movie to go see on a Saturday night. My reviews target an entirely different readership, those reprobates who are looking for a radical documentary or some neo-neorealist flick from the Third World, the grittier the better.

I would estimate that 80 percent of my reviews were based on a press screening or a DVD sent to my home by a publicist. And of those, about a half were accompanied by an invitation to interview the director or star, something that has never interested me until a couple of weeks ago when a publicist told me that Sandra Steingraber was in town for a tour promoting the new documentary based on her book “Living Downstream”.

Last June I wrote a highly complementary review of the book that started:

Anticipating that “Pink Ribbons Inc.” would deal with the question of the corporate role in making women sick, I read Sandra Steingraber’s “Living Downstream: an ecologist looks at cancer in the environment”, a book that I purchased in 1997 when it first came out. To give you a sense of its provenance, you can read this blurb by Richard Levins on the back cover: “Sandra Steingraber’s ‘upstream’ approach to cancer is imperative. It is about time someone wrote this book.” Levins, as you might know, is one of America’s most respected Marxist biologists.

Born in 1959, Steingraber grew up in rural Illinois surrounded by corn and soybean fields that were drenched by chemical pesticides and herbicides. In her 20s, when studying biology, she developed bladder cancer, a disease that is not usually found among the young but is endemic to the kind of workplaces that The Plastic Focus Group endured. The book is written as a kind of memoir and investigative journalism that revolves around her return to her hometown and the various places that might have led to her disease.

Despite my enthusiasm for her book, I had nagging doubts about the wisdom of doing an interview with a big shot celebrity. This is a distinguished professor from Ithaca College who has probably been interviewed on NPR dozens of times. She has also been the recipient of many awards. In the documentary you can see her receiving one of them before an audience of several thousand adoring people. I worried that she might regard 30 minutes spent with me as a waste of her precious time even though she probably understood that she was obligated to meet with me since the publicist had arranged it.

I went down to the publicist’s office in the West Village for a 2pm meeting last Friday during a driving rain. When I got up to the office, the publicist introduced me to Steingraber and the director Chanda Chevannes who were sitting at a conference table looking at me with an expression on their faces like Charles Manson’s parole board. I almost excused myself to go to the bathroom to see if my forehead had accidentally been smudged on the subway in the shape of a swastika.

Since I had brought my camcorder with me, I broached the subject of recording the interview, explaining that I would not put it up on Vimeo if they preferred not to. But I would like to have it for my own use in writing up the interview later on. The expression on Steingraber’s face changed at this point as she said, “No-no. I don’t want to do that.” This time she looked more like Julia Roberts being asked for her autograph by a stubborn fan following her down the street.

I was also told that the interview must end after 30 minutes. Fine, I replied, since I planned on getting straight to the point. I was starting to get a very bad vibe. I wasn’t sure whether the two were more aggravated by my obscurity or by my politics.

Keep in mind that my questions sought to clarify issues posed by the film and her writings. I didn’t plan to ask her, for example, how she felt during an exam at her oncologist. Let NPR take care of that.

Since we were nearing Election Day and since Steingraber blogs at Huffington Post, an Obama outpost like the Nation or MSNBC, I wanted to hone in on class questions. I asked her that since she credited Rachel Carsons with leading to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, what she made of Lisa Jackson, the current head of the EPA and an Obama appointee. One of the major concerns of “Living Downstream” is the carcinogenic nature of Atrazine, a widely used pesticide. It turns out that Jackson assembled an EPA panel that concluded that there was insufficient evidence to ban the chemical. I was also curious to see how Steingraber would react to Jackson’s statement before a Senate investigation committee that she knows of no instances where fracking led to contaminated water, an issue that Steingraber has taken up in recent years.

Her reply was to talk about the need of the federal government to protect its citizens. That’s about it. Despite her ability to make connections between the environment and our health, she was not able to tie both to the nature of the economic system we are living in. This is something that Chris Hedges does quite well but it does not lead to banquets and awards.

At two twenty-nine sharp, the director informed me that I had one minute left. She reminded me of Columbia University business school dean Glenn Hubbard telling Charles Ferguson in “Inside Job”: “In fact, you’ve got three minutes. So give it your best shot.”

As I was getting ready to put on my jacket and head back uptown, Steingraber asked me when my article would appear. I told her that evening. I planned to write it up when I got home. She then asked me for my email address. What for, I wondered? She told me that it was important to get the science of cancer causality and treatment correct so she wanted a copy of my article before it went up since corrections might be necessary. I didn’t mention it to her at the time—mostly because I was so stunned by the request—but I planned to write a film review not something to be submitted to the New England Journal of Medicine. I suspect that her real concern was politics, not cell mutation. Like most big shots she probably was anxious to control how she was perceived.

That evening I dashed off a brief email to her explaining that I was not going to write a review but simply post a notice about the showing of the documentary over at Lincoln Center the next day with a description from the film’s website. That would save her the trouble of putting my review under a microscope.

I also pointed out that she would have not had the nerve to ask someone like Anthony Lane to submit to such a vetting process, only someone at the bottom of the totem pole like me.

Whenever I am confronted by situations like this, I am always reminded of Michael Yates’s priceless account of going to an after-conference social hosted by Columbia University professors that appeared in his wonderful “Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate”:

I had come to Manhattan to give a talk at one of Columbia University’s ongoing seminars. Faculty and outside scholars have organized these on a wide variety of subjects; the same one might run for many years. I was to speak to the Seminar on Full Employment. I walked through the great university’s gate at Broadway and 116th Street with some trepidation. I had never spoken at an Ivy League university, and I wondered if the group’s participants would be as brilliant as I sometimes imagined people at such schools were. We found our way to Faculty House, where we were to have dinner and where the meeting was to be held. We met the person who had invited me, a friendly elderly man of some renown. The first thing he did was inform me that I would have to pay for my wife’s dinner. I was astounded. I should have refused, but I gave him the money. Dinner was a lavish affair, with fine food and table settings. The dining room overlooked the slums of East Harlem. Everyone was white except the servers. The conversation revolved around trips these elite academics had taken and the research they were doing. When the talk turned to children, we silenced the polite chatter when we said that our three sons were cooks. Apparently no one could believe that a college professor had children who did such work. After dinner I gave my talk. It went well, but the questions were abstrusely academic and trivial. Later we were dragooned into going to a professor’s apartment, which overlooked Central Park, to watch a television show about the overboard spending of American consumers. The host served cheap beer; I got a half a glass. When the show ended we had to go around the room in order and make comments. These were so convoluted, egotistic, and laden with academic jargon that Karen and I wondered what we would say. I was glad her turn came first. She stated that the show was shallow and again that pretty much stopped the discussion. Thankfully we left soon after. As we walked out the door, we heard one person remind another that she owed a dollar for the short cab ride from the college to the apartment.


  1. Sounds like Steingrabber is one of the people who only begrudgingly agree to do interviews at the insistence of her publicist. Her obsessiveness is remarkable given that her responses weren’t going to get mainstream media attention. I’ve always wondered how people like her expect anything to change in the absence of an engagement with broader social and class relations. Do they just expect magic elves to descend upon Washington and implement everything that they believe needs to be done? Or it is more about their own self-fulfillment?

    Can’t resist the opportunity to note, by way of contrast, that I recorded an interview with Tariq Ali many years ago (clearly, in my mind, more accomplished than Steingrabber) , and that he was a sweetheart, waiting patiently until we got some engineering problems resolved in the studio. As you might expect, he understood the community radio milieu and all that goes with it.

    Comment by Richard Estes — October 22, 2012 @ 9:59 pm

  2. Louis, thanks for the kind words. I probably should have refused to speak unless they paid for Karen’s dinner! We should no doubt expect everyone who professes the need for a better world to behave in a comradely fashion. And when they do not, we should say, “Fuck off.”

    Comment by michael yates — October 23, 2012 @ 12:23 am

  3. Re: Tariq Ali:

    Not only would he have a patient & un-snobby attitude toward independent journalists seeking an interview but more importantly he wouldn’t hesitate to name the economic system that has so thoroughly plundered & despoiled the environment to the brink from which it may never recover.

    Even though it’s not his area of expertise per se I’d wager that Tariq Ali actually knows more than Steingraber about cancer in populations living downstream from industrial polluters and, given the opportunity, would make a much better film about this scourge that must be arrested.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — October 23, 2012 @ 1:19 am

  4. Great reporting – fascinating and full of dead-on points.
    There a a million ways to get at some sort of “class analysis” of this kind of establishment liberal professor, and I suppose you did OK, but the format was absurd from the get-go. The kind of overlord command – 30 minutes and you are done – should have been rejected. You took your time to travel to sit before these two, who should have been grateful for attention and intellectual exchange, and you get treated like some pesky intern.
    If she blogs for Huffington Post, then she is a scab. If she works for a college, as you did, then she is cashing checks from a credential mill for the power structure. Like Chris Hedges, a tin-eared scourge who never once pissed on my shoes, she seems to be interested in no communication with her lessers, just her own position of righteousness.

    Comment by Martin — October 23, 2012 @ 10:10 pm

  5. I have problems with Chris Hedges as well but compared to Steingraber, he is Che Guevara.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 23, 2012 @ 10:15 pm

  6. Whats wrong with Chris Hedges? He seems open to meeting a variety of people for discussion. He even debated those Black Bloc activists which most journalists wouldnt do.

    Comment by Mylo — October 25, 2012 @ 7:30 pm

  7. Really? What’s wrong with the self-appointed scourge-Christ from the Times? He is our Parson Weems – he makes a pontificating preacher sound like a ride on Coney Island, all high-culture jeremiad and Nader-like finger-wagging, but he was and is a dutiful son of the establishment – just having a psychic breakdown as the west dies. I have never heard him in anything close to what could be called a “discussion,” but I have heard him pontificate as a latter-day conscience of the liberal class, while never once seeming to actually think about the hypocrisies of what he says, consider alternative viewpoints about his abject futility, or give up the pose of self-appointed martyr-heroism makign a large family and livign tin the good ol USA.

    Comment by Martin — October 25, 2012 @ 8:53 pm

  8. Well, Hedges has done good work writing for the better of War vets and has done a lot to support Occupy. He’s done a lot of good writing on poor people and bringing their stories to light. Yes, he’s a kind of lapsed CHristian, but a lot of activists are and I dont think they should be maligned for embracing a sort of liberation theology. As far as discussions go Ive seen Hedges in plenty of debates and interviews, so I dont think its reasonable to say he does not discuss his ideas.

    Comment by Mylo — October 26, 2012 @ 1:21 am

  9. Mylo. You can relax as ultimately most if not all the regulars here concur that Hedges’ “pros” far outweigh his “cons”.

    The problem is that he, along with similar Libertarian figures such as Nader, Greenwald & Catholic Worker Liberation Theologist types, have never gone out of their way to study Marx, Engels, Lenin & Trotsky. Until then they seem unable to come to grips with the fact that Uncle Sam’s capitalism is at its bedrock is a Congenitally Predatory system containing the same probability of reform as a Bengal Tiger changing its stripes.

    We grizzled warriors all hold out hope that passionate, vociferous & articulate assets to the left like Hedges will come to read some of these classics so as he might one day hone his intellectual arsenal & transmogrify into an Unrepentant Marxist.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — October 26, 2012 @ 2:15 am

  10. Hi Karl. I agree with you. I really wish that Hedges would read Marx , his work certainly lacks the critical insight and strength of Marxist theory. While we are on the subject, I have always been unable to understand why Chomsky is so against Marx and Marxism. Well, I know Chomsky is an anarchist through and through but hes so bright (understatement!) that I cant understand how he could be so simplistic and crude in his telling of Marxist intellectual history.

    Comment by Mylo — October 26, 2012 @ 12:50 pm

  11. Actually, Mylo, Chomsky is a Marxist (and a pretty unrepentant one at that) insofar as Marxism is first & foremost simply the history of the working class and its struggles that wouldn’t otherwise be written if left up to historians employed by the ruling class.

    All of his analyses employ a materialist conception of history and for the most part see class struggle as the motor of history.

    The biggest disagreements come with understanding the Russian Revolution & the Bolshevik Party, on the one hand, and his tendency to view from time to time the Democratic Party in the USA as a “lesser evil”. Just before the 1st Gulf War, for example, he advocated giving sanctions against a Iraq a chance rather than invasion. Turns out the invasion was a more humane way to slaughter Iraqis as the 10 years of sanctions under Clinton killed an estimated 500,000 children, once again shattering the illusion of lesser evilism.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — October 26, 2012 @ 1:42 pm

  12. On mixing it up with the rich and shameless… I’ve worked at Harvard for 26 years and whenever I meet one of them I’m compelled to remember that quote from “Down by Law”: “My mama used to say that America’s the big melting pot. You bring it to a boil and all the scum rises to the top.”

    Comment by Leon — October 26, 2012 @ 10:21 pm

  13. BTW, Mylo is spot-on about Chomsky and Hedges. Chomsky is a nice guy, generous with his time, un-pretentious in person but he is also fond of cliched, throw-away lines about marxism, the Russian Rev., etc… . It gets annoying. Hedges… well, he’s another story. Hedges visited Occupy Harvard and told the students: “Don’t sweat the small stuff. Don’t get involved with union struggles.” Gee, thanks shit-head. Next time you talk about “The Beatitudes” or however you spell it, as your inspiration, I’ll remember the one that goes something like.. “Oh ye, living paycheck to paycheck, don’t sweat the small stuff. Embrace your poverty and let your children enjoy living in your car.” Is that how it goes?

    Comment by Leon — October 26, 2012 @ 10:27 pm

  14. Chomsky shares a lot in common with MIM/LLCO, even though he has never proclaimed himself a Maoist. Chomsky came of age in a time when the post-WWII boom made it seem like First World workers would never revolt. The MIM/LLCO view asserts outright that Third World revolutions are the only revolutions of the future and that First World workers are now part of a global bourgeoisie. Chomsky has never gone that far openly, but he essentially dismisses all notions of building a revolutionary party among First World workers. His attempts to style himself as an anarchist are really just a technique of obscuring this aspect of his views. He does not attempt to create a revolution the way that Bakunin & Nechayev would have. He just dismisses the idea that US workers will ever revolt and assumes that Third World revolution is all that exists as a serious prospect. But if you try to get him involved in a discussion of whether or not First World workers may revolt in the future as capitalism goes down under his way of brushing the issue aside is to say “I’m not a Marxist, I’m an anarchist.” It’s a theoretical dodge more than anything else.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — October 27, 2012 @ 3:36 am

  15. How do you know “His attempts to style himself as an anarchist are really just a technique of obscuring this aspect of his views”?

    Comment by Pandora — October 27, 2012 @ 4:56 am

  16. I became an avid reader of Chomsky in 1984 and by now I’ve had multiple chances to compare his arguments with other anarchists as well as with Third Worldists such as the Maoist Internationaist movement which has since morphed into the Leading Light Communist Organization. Chomsky’s views are that of someone who has written off the idea of a revolution by First World working classes (which is the view of MIM/LLCO) but who chooses not to argue it as such. He has never devoted any attention to any real anarchist theory, despite in all other respects being of the type that one would expect to express theory. His Bakunin-said-about-Marx parable has never been used as more than just a way of waving the issue of Marxism away, but not as a basis for developing a genuine anarchist theory. It was understandable that someone in the 1960s would have concluded that First World workers were not going to revolt and that attempting to organize them in a Marxist party was a waste of time. But it would have been better if the matter had been stated that way by Chomsky from the onset.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — October 27, 2012 @ 11:52 am

  17. […] Creeped out by Sandra Steingraber […]

    Pingback by Sandra Steingraber Named 2012 Treehugger Person of the Year | The Ithaca Independent — December 21, 2012 @ 4:45 pm

  18. […] Creeped out by Sandra Steingraber […]

    Pingback by Sandra Steingraber Named 2012 Treehugger Person of the Year — December 30, 2012 @ 8:21 pm

  19. I am a big fan of Sandra but I find being unable to debate with her a problem. She as outlined the number one problem with Fracking that is how can we use billions of gallons of fresh water for fracking when people haven’t even got fresh water. It is immoral. However I find some of her views strange like Darwin who was an inbred idiot and didn’t even know what species are. Black people are the same species as White people that’s a biological fact but Darwin taught otherwise. Since the big bang everything as intelligently adapted to its environment every atom every cell and every bit of dark matter. It is the proof of intelligent adaptation that all scientist should be studying like the intelligence of DNA and not trying to prove atheism which most of them are and I suspect Sandra of doing. This is destroying science and if I can quote Einstein “we all dance to the pipers tune” Yes and we should be busy scientifically finding out who the piper is not just saying its all chance.

    Comment by petershakespearebaxter — February 25, 2013 @ 12:03 pm

  20. Character assassination when there is so much at stake is a complete waste of time. She puts her body on the line and donates unlimited amounts of time as well as her personal money to protect us all from health risks. What you feel about her personality is completely irrelevant and boring.

    Comment by Roxy — April 18, 2013 @ 5:09 pm

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