Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Buy Someone A Book For the Holidays!

As a book reviewer, I come across a lot of books. Add to that the fact that I work in a library and one can see how many books of all kinds I am exposed to. While this exposure certainly has its advantages and benefits, it also makes it necessary to not read books I want to read, only because of time. In addition, it makes it difficult to choose a limited number to recommend to others. Nonetheless, here is a list of books that I have read over the past few years that I can honestly say I would give to friends and family as gifts.

Insect Dreams by Marc Estrin--A clever and funny tale about Kafka's beetle Gregor Samsa and the world of the 20th century. This latter subject ultimately turns the humor in this story into tragedy, which transforms it from just a good work of fiction into a classic one.

Subterranean Fire by Sharon Smith--This history of labor's struggle for economic justice in the United States is a necessary and hopeful read for those who earn a wage in these times of economic uncertainty.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak--Nominally a work written for the young adult market, this work unveils the emotional horrors of war and oppression while simultaneously celebrating the everyday beauty found in human existence. It is about the casualties that the masters of war ignore.

The Scar of David by Susan Abulhawa--The beauty in this story is not in its few moments of joy and happiness or its even rarer moments of hope. No, the beauty lies in the stories of a people determined not to die. In a young girl’s belief in family and friends. This story is a story of Palestine. The writing here echoes the finest couplets of Gibran and Rumi.

People's History of Sports in the United States--Dave Zirin has composed a wonderfully written, well-researched, and very readable story of US sport and its meaning to the oppressed and those who fight with them against the rulers. Like any sports book, there are stories of glory and prowess. This book is about the playing field and its role in the struggle for freedom and equal rights. It is about the rulers attempts to keep sport safely in the realm of nationalism and the status quo and the struggle of some athletes to make their efforts much more than that. Zirin makes it clear that it is a also a history that continues to be written.

Where the Wind Blew by Bob Sommer--Sommers' novel is an emotionally taut tale. Like the strings on his old girlfriend's cello, the story is tuned perfectly. One twist of the pegs to the left or right would make the story less than what it is--either too flat or mere melodrama. Where the Wind Blew is an intelligent and sensitive treatment of a time when the apocalypse was always just around the corner.

Born Under a Bad Sky by Jeffrey St. Clair--Most of the book is made up of hard-hitting articles regrading the destruction of the environment and exposes of those determined to continue that destruction. The jewel of the book lies in the last 116 pages of narrative. Titled "The Beautiful and the Damned," this section is St. Clair's beautifully rendered tale of a trip down some of the US West's best known rivers. Seemingly inspired by Hunter S. Thompson, Aldo Leopold and the sheer beauty of the natural surroundings it describes, "The Beautiful and the Damned" does more than end Born Under a Bad Sky with a flourish, it conveys it into the genuinely sublime.

War Without End by Michael Schwartz--This is the best book on the US war in Iraq published in English to this date. It is comprehensive in its breath, revealing in its detail, and relentlessly radical in its critique. Michael Schwartz explains not only what the US has done to that country and its people, but why it is still there. Furthermore, it explains why there is a good chance that US troops will be there forever unless massive public protests are mounted against that presence.

The Duel--by Tariq Ali This is an important book. There has been very little published in English about Pakistan that doesn’t merely parrot the positions of the Pakistan government, the US desires for that government, or some combination of the two. It is written in an engaging and accessible style. As the US widens its war against those who would defy its designs into Pakistan, it becomes essential reading for anyone who refuses to accept the Orientalist narrative spewed by the policy makers in Washington, DC. Ali has written a history that explains and interprets the reality of Pakistan that is free of western prejudices and self-serving assumptions conceived in the foreign policy bureaucracies of DC and London.

The Trip to Milky Way by Gary Corcoran--Trip to the Milky Way (Coldtree Press 2007) is a novel of flight and it’s a story of love. A beautifully told tale of one man’s journey from the military draft and toward himself during the US war on Vietnam, this occasionally humorous, often heart-wrenching novel is a tale of a generation that serves as a metaphor for a nation that lost its way. The story is a story of wandering. Sometimes the wanderer is lost and sometimes he is just wandering.

GB84 by David Peace--GB84 is nothing short of stunning. It is a novel about the savagery of capitalism. Jackboots and legalized police beatings of unarmed strikers. Secret hit squads and government/corporate-sponsored organizations of police pretending to be miners whose job is to convince the strikers to scab. Democratic forms and fascist realities. The war of the super rich against the workers. This is David Peace at his best.

The Lightning Thief Series by Rick Riordan--This is a delightful series set in modern times that features modern children of the gods and humans battling it out for the future of the Earth. An introduction to Greek mythology that makes it all seem very alive.

And I believe I would be remiss if I didn't mention my 2007 novel Short Order Frame Up. Here are some comments from readers and reviewers regarding that novel.

"Ron Jacobs has created a working-class brew of language and music, a quasi-bitter, semi-sweet world of weed and sport, of love and violence, of not-so-innocent innocence up against the walls of racism and power. A compelling story, alas, and an underlying reality of life in America." -Marc Estrin, author of Insect Dreams

"With Short Order, Ron Jacobs delivers something I haven't come across since the works of James Baldwin: a great anti-racist novel. Powerful and political without being preachy. Poignant without being treacly. It's stunning." - Dave Zirin

and one more.....

Finally a novel about social and racial justice wrapped in the digestible genre of a murder mystery and set in Baltimore, a town that divides the north from the south and embodies the hopes and prejudices of post-60s America. Short-Order Frame Up is charged by its keen eye for historical detail and social conscience. But the devotion to context never interferes with the relentless pull of the story. A finely written but disturbing novel that probes the lingering bruises on the American psyche.--Jeffrey St. Clair

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Continuing Saga of the Beatles’ White Album

The culmination of the year that was 1968 was the release of the Beatles album familiarly known as the White Album. A collection of songs with roots in a myriad of musical styles, this two-disc collection would be the soundtrack to the individual and collective lives of millions of people for the next several months. From the hippie ghettos of western civilization to the suburban bedrooms of America's youth and even to the arid hills east of Los Angeles where a megomaniacal manchild named Charles Manson raised in the California prison system was creating a family bent on murder and mayhem, the White Album would become a totem of the cultural changes that shattered the known western world. It's not that the White Album was the best rock album to come out that year. Indeed, other works could just as easily claim that title: Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland; Cream’s Wheels of Fire; Big Brother's Cheap Thrills; or even the first Creedence Clearwater disc. No, it was because the White Album was from the top of the rock pantheon--the Beatles.

The music ranged from British dance hall ditties to folk tinged ballads with some serious hard rock in between. Then there was the John Cage/Stockhausen mishmash of sound called “Revolution #9”. A counterpart to the other song titled Revolution (known as “Revolution #1”), “Revolution #9” was meant to be the chaotic sounds of revolution as conceived by John Lennon. At times reminiscent of a political protest and other times more like a football game, the entire collage reminds many listeners of a trip on LSD. Revolution #1, on the other hand, represented a debate going on between the Beatles, within John Lennon’s mind , and in the larger society over the merits of revolutionary change and the forms any such change should take. Chairman Mao and dogmatic cadres or Fabian-like evolutionary change spurred by a revolutionary change in consciousness. Of course, this latter possibility was also open to interpretation. Would this change in consciousness be towards the “new man” that Che Guevara wrote about or would it be the new consciousness Timothy Leary spoke of and Charles Reich would attempt to denote in his 1970 book The Greening of America?

The Beatles didn’t have the answers. Indeed, they were asking the questions like everyone else. However, in the convulsive year that was 1968, when all the pillars of what already was were being challenged, there were many who did think the Beatles had the answers. One of these was the aforementioned Charles Manson. His conclusions regarding the tunes “Helter Skelter” and “Piggies” combined with a racist and apocalyptic vision fueled an exceptionally gory spate of Hollywood murders and a particularly surreal series of spectacular trials. White Panther John Sinclair, meanwhile, wrote an open letter to John Lennon regarding the latter’s apparent hesitation regarding the political upheaval and dramatic shift to the left among the youth of the world. The letter was responded to by Lennon and was read by millions of readers in underground newspapers across the world. To be more precise, the letters concerned the single release of the song and not the album release. This difference was essential, primarily because the lyrics that read

But when you talk about destruction

Don't you know that you can count me out

On the single version, go like this on the album version

But when you talk about destruction

Don't you know that you can count me out (in).

The latter version obviously showed some ambivalence on the part of the Beatles (or at least John Lennon) regarding an approach that ignored the fact of the violence being used against the protesters. One other aspect of Sinclair’s argument had to do with these lyrics:

You say you'll change the constitution

Well, you know

We all want to change your head

You tell me it's the institution

Well, you know

You better free you mind instead

It was Sinclair’s contention that both the institutions and one’s mind needed to be freed. Lennon eventually came around to a mode of thinking considerably closer to Sinclair’s. In fact, he helped spearhead a campaign to get Sinclair released from prison after he was sentenced to ten years for giving a narc one joint of marijuana.

But the four songs mentioned above were not the album. “Back In the USSR” poked gentle fun at the American rockers who celebrated the United States as the greatest place to be while conveniently ignoring its legacy of racism and war. “Julia” is a beautiful poem to Lennon’s mother, his first son and even Yoko Ono—the “ocean child” of the lyrics. “Blackbird” is a song about Rosa Parks and her refusal to move when ordered to do so by the realities of American apartheid. As we all know, that refusal was a pivotal movement in the struggle to rid the nation of that disgrace. George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was inspired by an epigram of the I Ching and is one of the most beautiful songs ever composed by a Beatle. Ad infinitum. I’ll let the reader fill in the spaces regarding the rest of the selections on this double disc.

Everyone had (or has) their favorite Beatle. Mine was always John Lennon. Similarly, everyone has their favorite Beatles song(s) and album(s). Without a doubt, mine is the White Album.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Moving Beyond Hope-A Leftist Looks at the Near Future

I can't deny the exhilaration I felt on Tuesday, November 4th when the presidential election was called for Barack Obama. When people in my working class multiethnic neighborhood started setting off firecrackers and shouting out their windows, my housemate's daughter joined them. The feelings most of us felt on knowing that the reactionary Bush regime was on its last legs were genuine emotions of hope and relief. Our job now is to turn the critical support that Obama received from many on the left into a movement that strives to return the focus of the movement away from the man and his victory and towards ending the war/occupations, etc. To do this, we must engage the issues. The most important issues are the issues of imperial war and capitalist failure. We should understand the difference between the symbolism of a black man winning the presidency of the United States and the reality of a moderate liberal free marketeer who believes that there is a war on terror and that it can be won by killing Afghanis and other people whose religion and culture are used to define them as the enemy.

We need to learn from history. For starters, this means push for and support any left leaning reforms proposed by Obama and oppose his reactionary efforts to continue, expand and intensify the war on the world and the impoverishment of the nation. As activists, we must resist cynicism and embrace the desire for change. The Obama campaign on the ground reminded me of other bourgeois popular movements that were supported by the national left in those countries--Peoples Power in Philippines comes quickly to mind. This reform movement rid that nation of the Marcos dictatorship, but replaced it with a regime that entrenched itself in the neoliberal economic politics of its day. The Philippines remains a nation that fails to serve a large number of its people. In short, we must keep in mind what we already know--that the defeat of the reactionary Bush regime and the election of Barack Obama is merely the first forward step in a long time in a struggle that is even longer. Even more importantly, the Left must help the larger numbers of antiwarriors and seekers of economic justice understand this as we organize and work to make our most fundamental hopes come true.

How then, do we do this? There are two key elements. Politics and organization. Let me discuss the second one first. This is where we can learn from the Obama campaign. As an observer, I was impressed by its grassroots nature, steadiness of message, understanding of its purpose and its relentless yet levelheaded pursuit of its goal. There are a couple elements here that the Left can surely learn from, no matter what the political situation is in the world. We must understand our purpose and maintain a relentless yet levelheaded pursuit of our goals. Opposition to the occupations and wars of Washington must be organized with an understanding that it is imperialism that causes these wars and that understanding must be translated to the grassroots. Resistance to the capitalists' theft of the peoples monies for their aggrandizement must be explained for what it is--the natural workings of monopoly capitalism, not some aberration due to greed and lack of regulation. We know this because we study this. It is necessary that we make this knowledge better understood by many more people. After all, people do want to understand why their world is so screwed up. The election of Obama and his message of change is evidence of that. His presidency is almost certain to prove that the change he is referring to is not going to be enough.

Obama's message is one that encourages inclusiveness. We have all heard him say that this nation is not the "blue states of America or the red states of America, but the United States of America." No matter what we think about the red, the blue or the red, white and blue, the fundamental message of this statement is that humanity shares several commonalities and that is what we must emphasize. As leftists, we must naturally go beyond the commonalities of our humanity and address the commonalities shared by those whom we wish to organize--the working class and its allies. There are many organizations on the progressive and left side of the political spectrum here in the US. They are naturally composed of both members of the working class and their allies. A few that come to mind are labor unions, SDS, UFPJ, ANSWER, and even MoveOn and the Green Party. In addition, there are other informal movements and networks organized around death penalty and prisoner issues, immigration and sanctuary issues, women's and TBGLT issues and so on. Add to that the national networks opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the war on drugs and you come up with a substantial number of folks. This is our potential base. This is who we must debate anti-capitalist politics with. This is who we must enter into coalitions with--coalitions that will rebuild the movement against the war and torture; coalitions that will end the police state actions of the immigration authorities and insure full human rights for those who live in this country without papers; coalitions that will expose Wall Street for the gang of criminals that it is and insure that working people and those without work but looking benefit from any bailouts legislated in Washington; and so on.

We have lived under one of the most unabashedly antidemocratic regimes in US history for the past eight years. We have seen principles written into this nation's most important document--the Bill of Rights--openly and gleefully violated and buried. We have seen the richest people, the corporations and banks in this country steal without shame from the national treasury. We have seen authoritarian bigots impose their regressive and racist dogma into the national conversation and law books, sometimes under the pretense of security and other times under the cloak of a religion built on hate. We have seen men and women sent off to kill men, women and children in the name of power and wealth. We have heard the politicians and technocrats in Washington discuss the torture of other human beings as calmly as they touch the switch that lights the national Christmas tree every year. The blatant contempt we have felt has resulted in a despair I haven't seen since the dark days of the early 1970s when Nixon and his secret police were using whatever means they could to destroy the popular movements of the 1960s.

The election results on November 4th, 2008 prove to us as much as anybody else that, despite this recent legacy, many residents of this land hope things can change. History has not always been kind to those with hopes such as these. After all, this nation, like all nations, has seen times worse than these past eight years, only to have their hopes picked up by some politician speaking pretty phrases but limited by his determination to resolve the crises he faced while leaving the very system that created the crisis intact. Yet, hope is better than despair. I leave you with a quote from the 19th century anarchist Peter Kropotkin:

Revolutions are born of hope, not despair.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

How Can I Miss You When You Won't Go Away-Iraq and Washington

I should be used to it by now, but I'm not. When I read statements from US policymakers telling the world that Iraq is still not capable of defending itself without US help, I am still angered and amazed at the bold-faced arrogance. Most recently, several US political leaders and generals have told the Iraqi and American people that only they know when it is time for US troops to leave Iraq. Furthermore, while Iraqis from virtually every segment of that nation's political sphere demand changes in the US-imposed agreement to keep US forces there, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice vocalizes Washington's response: we decide what we want to do in Iraq and we decide how long we will stay, so take it or leave it. If you leave it, then we will find another way to stay, and if we do, we will make your lives more miserable than we already have.

What's different about this communication from Washington is that it is not only directed at the everyday people of Iraq. It is also directed at the client government Washington has installed there. Of course, the demands being made by the Green Zone parliament are only being made because the Iraqi people are pressuring this group of Iraqi politicians to make those demands. Naturally, there are those in Washington and in the US media who see the Green Zone government's demands as ungrateful and bordering on insubordination. One can almost hear them asking: How could those ungrateful people have the brashness to demand the right to prosecute those who would kill Iraqi civilians without recourse? How dare these Iraqi officials who rule only because we gave them the wherewithal to do so tell us that all US troops must leave their country by a certain date? Even more to the point, how dare the government in Baghdad that Washington created and maintains tell us what Iraqi sovereignty is? After all, it is the occupier who determines what the natives will rule and what the occupier will rule. Haven't they read their Kipling?

As Michael Schwartz makes very clear in his recently released book War Without End: The Iraq War in Context, Washington went into Iraq with the intention of controlling the resources and destiny of that country and using it as a base for controlling the Middle East and South Asia. As Schwartz also makes very clear, Washington will not leave until it is certain of that control. Of course, there is a part of this equation that is the unpredictable variable. What if the Iraqis refuse to go along with this plan of Washington's? Or, even more important to those of us whose tax dollars are funding this war, what if we refuse to go along with this plan?

Schwartz's book, which is, if not the best book written on the US war and occupation of Iraq, certainly one of the best, is more than a litany of the death and destruction undertaken by occupying troops. It is also a sharp analysis of the twists and turns of the war and occupation that is based on the underlying assumption that this war and occupation has always been about dominance of the Middle East and control of its resources and destiny. After reading this book, it becomes clear that this motivation is the only one that makes consistent sense.

As the debate continues to unfold around the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between Washington and the Iraqis in the Green Zone, one can expect threats of a US withdrawal to be made. In fact, certain news reports in some US newspapers reported as much on October 22, 2008. According to these reports, Washington has told members of the Green Zone government that Washington will pull its troops if the SOFA is not signed. Apparently, Washington considers this to be a threat and hopes that the green Zone politicians will fall in line out of fear that they will not survive without US troops to protect them. At this juncture in Iraq's history, one wonders if this threat from Washington might be a miscalculation. As noted above, Ms. Rice is on record saying that she doesn't believe the Green Zone government can defend itself as it is currently constituted. However, is it possible that Iraqis (even those in the Green Zone government) are not interested in that government as it is currently constituted? If so, then Washington's threat of withdrawal is not only an empty threat, it is potentially a shrewd move on the part of the Iraqis and a potential victory for the Iraqi people, who have made it clear with IEDs, votes, public opinion polls and a myriad other means that they want the US military and its support mechanisms (including contractors, intelligence services and others) out of their country the sooner, the better.

Unfortunately, a US departure is not likely to come so easily, no matter how much the Iraqis and Americans may want it. The more likely scenario is that the debate over the SOFA will continue and if an agreement is not reached by the deadline of December 31, 2008, some kind of temporary mandate will be established by Washington to keep its troops in place throughout Iraq. If Washington is unable to keep its troops in Iraq legally after that date, then don't look for a withdrawal. After all, if I recall, the fact that the invasion that brought US troops into Iraq in 2003 was of questionable legality. That certainly didn't seem to matter very much then. Continuing the occupation of Iraq illegally is unlikely to make much difference in 2009, either.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Obama and the Contradictions of Race in the United States

When I got on the bus last April after Barack Obama's primary victory in North Carolina, the conversation was naturally enough about that victory. Despite its southern location, the town I live in--Asheville, NC--is known for its liberal politics and social tolerance. Consequently, the overriding tone was one of exuberance. Young black men and older veterans of the desegregation struggles of the 1960s smiled knowingly at each other. Indeed. one fellow said to every black person who got on the bus--"Black President." Occasionally, he gave the new passenger what the right wing called a "terrorist fist pump." If there was somebody on the bus who objected to this display, they kept their mouth shut.

As any person who follows the US news knows, this silence is disappearing. Indeed, since Sarah Palin hit the campaign trail, the rallies of her supporters and those of her fellow ticket member have become focal points for some of the most racist and small minded elements of the US body politic. The cries of "kill him" and "terrorist" heard at recent GOP campaign rallies are stoked by the slate of commercials appearing on television that insinuate some kind of evil comradeship between Barack Obama and and education professor Bill Ayers. Right wing talk shows and television programs broadcast outright lies that suggest Obama is somehow in league with Osama Bin Laden and hates the United States. They imply that his multiracial background is somehow Unamerican and a threat to national security. The GOP candidates meanwhile, send mixed messages regarding their agreement with these sentiments.

Given the recent rise in racist sentiment against Obama and the attempts to label his background as different from the America most Americans know, the question arises. Is a vote for Barack Obama a vote against racism? Despite his consistent support for a system dependent on racially tinged wars and economic policies that tend to hurt non-white people and nations the most, does the fact that he is an African-American strike a blow against the racist forces still at play in the United States? Will a black man in the White House put a symbolic end to the overriding assumption in US politics that only white men deserve to rule this capitalist preserve?

I believe it will. It will strike a blow against the retrograde racism that still resides in the US subconscious--a racism that surfaces when the racial order is seriously threatened as it was in the 1950s and 1960s during the struggles against racial apartheid in the US South and the more insidious racism of its northern states. It is this same racism that echoes in the attacks on Obama on FoxNews and right wing blogs. An Obama victory would symbolically undo the last vestige of white power in the Washington political world, while at the same time further entrenching the very system that white power birthed and white privilege has maintained.

It will also prove that skin tone, much like Maggie Thatcher's rule in Great Britain proved about gender, that a person's skin color does not decide their preference for any particular political or economic system. In other words, being black does not mean that one is a revolutionary. For those of us who have followed the political histories of various third world nations, it is no surprise that the temptation of money and power negates the racial and ethnic allegiances of most men and women. This isn't to say that Obama has sold himself down a river of avarice and power without principle. It is merely noted to point out that Barack Obama has made it clear that he believes in the US system as much as almost any person who has run for the office. Consequently, he sees his primary role to be ensuring that that system perseveres.

Despite the servitude to this system built on the sweat and blood of African slaves, immigrant and native workingmen and women, and the blood of too many young men and women in uniform, Barack Obama's run for president has become a historically important event. If he makes it to the White House, his presence there has the potential to become an event on par with the presidency of Abraham Lincoln during a bitter and bloody war that ended slavery in the United States. Like Lincoln, Obama is a servant of the capitalist system. Also like Lincoln, he is no radical, not even in his own party. Yet, like Lincoln, his presence in the White House could very well begin another reimagination of the neverending story of race in America. No matter what, his candidacy has highlighted the ever-present contradictions of a nation that founded itself by proclaiming the freedom and equality of all men while enslaving a considerable portion of its dark-skinned population.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

She Ain't No Working Class Hero

The recent selection of Sarah Palin as the Republican vice presidential nominee has revived the media's interest in what they love to call the white working class in the United States. Her husband, write commentators across the spectrum, is a union member. He is what we like to think of when we talk about the US working class. Well, besides the fact that Mr. Palin is one-quarter Yu'pik, his union membership is another aspect of his person that makes him a non-typical member of the US working class. In fact, not only is union membership at historical lows in the US, a good number of the workers joining unions these days are not white. Neither are they in jobs that pay well like those in the Alaskan energy industry (according to his tax records Todd Palin earned close to 93,000 in 2007 from his energy industry job and other earnings as a salmon fisherman.)

Back in the 1970s, the US Left was much stronger than it is today. This was true not only in the nation's schools, but also in its workforce. Part of the reason for this was the intentional strategy of many Left formations to seek work in the labor force and organize among the workers. Several of my friends began working in factories making everything from bricks in Maryland to auto parts in Michigan. Others took jobs as bus drivers or laborers building Washington DC's subway system. Some became pressmen and some went into the fields to work picking fruit and vegetables. A couple even ended up in West Virginia's coal mines. It was the efforts of these individuals and their cadres that helped foment the upsurge in militant labor activity across the US in the early to mid-1970s. Wildcats in the mines and auto plants. Militancy among the pressmen during newspaper strikes in DC and elsewhere. Communists elected to union positions on the floor and in district offices.

Behind this leftist surge into the workforce were some very intense debates regarding the nature of the US working class. There were those groups that still considered this class to be composed of white males. Subsidiary to this perception was the unspoken assumption that these men, while understanding the issues of labor, were essentially reactionary when it came to issues of race, gender and culture. The ultimate media representation of this stereotype was the US television character Archie Bunker on the popular TV show All In the Family. It's not that this perception came out of nowhere, as unions had historically excluded blacks and others from the construction and other trades. Perhaps foremost among leftist groups that perceived the US working class in this way were the Revolutionary Unions. These affiliated regional organizations eventually whittled away dissenters and coalesced under one Revolutionary Union that evenually became the Revolutionary Communist Party (which was a different creature than the current RCP). Their perception of the working class as reactionary and culturally conservative led them to imitate what was in actuality the most reactionary part of the US working class. The wrongness of their analysis became apparent to many in the RU and elsewhere on the Left when the RU found themselves aligned with some of the most reactionary and racist elements of the movement against school busing in Boston.

Meanwhile, others on the Left saw a different trend in the US working class and focused their attention on that trend. Put simply, these leftists recognized that the US working class was changing from the enclave of white men to a workplace where people came from all parts of US society: blacks, immigrants, women and the young. Seeing this demographic change and realizing that it was probably a trend that would continue, many of these groups organized among the new workers. This naturally led to workplace divisions, but it also gave a new life to workplace organizing. Indeed, one could reasonably argue that the existence of certain unions owe their continued existence to the realization by the US Left of the 1970s that this new element of the US working class would not only respond to union organizing efforts, but would also eventually become the majority demographic in certain sectors of the labor force.

Which brings us back to the selection of Sarah Palin as the 2008 GOP VP nominee. The selection was quite obviously made with two elements of US society in mind--the socially conservative Christian fundamentalists that serve as the GOP's voting base and the US working class. It is my contention that the latter element is a misnomer. It is not the US working class that the GOP is chasing with Palin's nomination. It is the reactionary element of the white part of that working class. The pretense by the GOP, the media and others in US society that this element of the working class is "the working class" is not only incorrect, it is (at the least) unconsciously nativist, if not outright racist. After all, the working class is composed of a very large percentage of women, blacks, Latinos and others with non-US national origins. Many, if not most, of this part of the working class do not share Sarah Palin's (and the Christian conservative base she represents) apparent views on the war in Iraq, women's rights, race, and even the ultimate goodness of the US capitalist system. Instead of reminding US voters that Palin is nothing more than a right wing Republican that believes that the Iraq war is a mission from God, which is exactly what George Bush is, the media present her to the US public as a real representative of the working class. Tthe Democrats seem to share that view. Yet, if they listened to their rank and file, the Democratic leadership would know better. Instead, they share with the media the essentially elitist view that the working class is mostly white and mostly reactionary. Consequently, they look for ways to pander to this element of the US voting public while ignoring the rest of us who work for somebody else to make a living, are not reactionary, and want nothing to do with Sarah Palin and her sidekicks John McCain and the US right wing.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Bad Guys to the Left, Evildoers to the Right--What's a Godfearing Country to Do?

It's a classic antiauthoritarian trope that enemies don't really exist, therefore governments need to create them. The primary reason they must be created is so that governments can justify their existence. Whether or not governments would exist without the threat of a perceived enemy is up to challenge, but an argument that national militaries exist precisely because of perceived threats requires very little imagination. After all, what sane people would bankrupt their national treasury to maintain the world's largest warmaking capability unless they felt they were threatened? Of course, that perceived threat may or may not be real so, just in case, the role of the rest of the political wing and its media is to provide the perception that the threat is genuine. Which means it is worth bankrupting our treasury and our future. In fact, it is even worth sending our children off to kill and die.

Russia As Enemy

All that being said, the question arises: is Russia really an enemy? Or are the recent machinations by the US military and diplomatic corps merely the result of a desire by Washington's to have a really big enemy to justify its bloated military budget? After all, it seems that the occupation of Iraq has failed to maintain the support of the people in the the US and that the battle for Afghanistan will never be on a grand enough scale to continue justifying the massive expenditures the war industry demands. Russia, however, is not only a very big country that likes to use its military, it also has the historical role as an enemy of Washington. It doesn't matter that the previous Russian enemy was a vastly different government that not only opposed Washington's moves around the world but also claimed to be Washington's ideological opposite. No, the fact that the Russian government that sent its military into Georgia and warned Poland not to allow US missiles on its soil is not about ideology, it's about territory. Territory that Washington has been trying to make part of its sphere of influence since at least the end of World War Two. Stalin and his successors repelled Washington's designs for almost fifty years.

However, as soon as the government they built disintegrated after decades of cold war pressures, the politicians and generals inside the Beltway saw their moment and attacked. Global capitalist institutions demanded payments and starvation while their diplomatic and military protectors demanded territory and allegiance from Moscow's former states. NATO became a weapon in this crusade to remove Moscow's former allies from its enforced protection. Yugoslavia was plucked and deboned under NATO's warplanes. The US dollar and the Euro were waved in front of the new governments that accepted the demands of Wall Street and the European bourses. The former Stalinist leaders of the Soviet provinces were now venture capitalists beholden to the West and the occasional international gangster. Russia did its best to hold on to those regions it considered necessary for trade, launching a bloody war in Chechnya and creating havoc inside Georgia and other former republics whose ports and resources Russia wanted to keep out of the West's hands. Then energy costs went through the roof. Moscow began to see riches it could only have hoped for back in those dreadful days after Gorbachev. Europe needed oil and natural gas and Moscow was able to provide it. Washington was none too happy because this created a wild card that got in the way of its plans for a US/ Europe alliance under the NATO banner against Moscow and any hopes it might have for a new empire. Simultaneously, Moscow began to flex its new economic power, challenging the encroachment of NATO, opposing Washington's desire to isolate Iran, and ultimately responding militarily to the attack on South Ossetia and Abkhazia. If Washington was surprised by this move, they should not have been. It was as predictable as the gratuitous violence in a Dirty Harry movie.

Terrorism-The Other Enemy

The rising possibility of a Russian enemy does not preclude the fact of the existing enemy we are told Washington's military is fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course, as long as the United States keeps up its killing and occupation of those countries, the elusive enemy known as "the terrorists" will exist. Despite the obvious semantic complications arising from doing battle with a strategy (terrorism), Washington has done an exceedingly good job convincing the world that the best way to deal with religiously inspired groups hoping to install a system of governance they consider to be more just than the planet's current regimes is to kill as many members of those groups and the people they live amongst. Naturally, this strategy convinced many of those who have lost loved ones to join the groups whose name their loved ones died in (even if their loved ones had nothing to do with said group). Furthermore, the ideology of such groups is now seen by many as an ideology of national liberation and anti-imperialism.

The convenience of a battle against "terrorism" is that one can make any group or nation part of the enemy. This is what George Bush knew when he told the world in 2001 that "you are either with us or you are against us." There is no room for neutrality in the eyes of this empire. Consequently, one is an enemy even if one has no opinion for or against. Indeed, sometimes one is an enemy even if one opposes the "terrorists." A recent example of this latter reality can be found in an August 28, 2008 news report from the Los Angeles Times about Venezuela and Hezbollah. Although Hezbollah is seen as a legitimate entity and not considered a "terrorist" group by many around the world, Washington and Tel Aviv (who seem to be the final arbiters of such things) differ with that opinion. Consequently, it is one as far as Washington and some other capitals are concerned.

Anyhow, back to the article. Its essence is that because of Venezuela's relations with Tehran, US and Israeli intelligence "worry that Venezuela is emerging as a base for anti-US militant groups and spy services." In what can only be described as a very poor attempt to link together a number of suppositions, rumors and statements by Tel Aviv, the article draws the conclusion that some Hezbollah supporters may be living in Venezuela. Since they may be living there, they may also be conducting fundraising and other operations from their residences there. Furthermore, the article continues, even though the Venezuelan government has tightened up its oversight of any possible fundraising activities by Hezbollah, the fact that there are various Iranian-Venezuelan joint business enterprises opens the possibility that Venezuela is still being used as a fundraising base.

Given that the United States is also the site of fundraising by various groups Washington considers enemies, this article can serve only one purpose--to create a link between "terrorists" and Hugo Chavez. It is a link that of course does not exist but, like the nonexistent link between Saddam Hussein and Al-Queda, if it is repeated enough there will be many people who accept it as fact. In addition, it may even be used as a basis for policy, much like nonexistent Hussein-Al-Queda link was. Despite the fact that Chavez's Bolivarian revolution has been proven to have no connection to terrorism of any kind, the intention of stories like this is to insinuate that it does. Furthermore, the intention of those insinuations is to isolate governments like Venezuela's that oppose the imperial designs of Washington by linking them to groups that no government would publicly claim as allies. By creating this imaginary link, an enemy of Washington is enhanced. By enhancing that enemy, the war industry enhances the perception that it is needed to protect us from those enemies our government has created. In turn, the war industry's profits are enhanced at our expense.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Jerry Garcia Meets Barack Obama

August 1st would have been Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia's 68th birthday. While not of the same importance as Christmas is to Christians, the date is a way for those who enjoyed the Grateful Dead's music and countercultural traveling medicine show to mark their time on earth since discovering the phenomenon the Dead represented. It is also a harsh reminder of how little some things change and how many hopes have been dashed since that moment of discovery. The counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s is more historical artifact for most westerners nowadays. Indeed, those that imitate it today are few and, like other subcultures that return amongst certain members of western society, the current version is more about appearance than substance. Like virtually everything else under capitalism, the counterculture, which was packaged and sold almost as quickly as it made its appearance, is now available at almost any shopping mall. Naturally, it has been stripped of political meaning, yet it still continues to represent a certain type of freedom and is usually associated with a desire for peace and a hatred of war.

Nine or ten years ago a friend of mine whom I had not spoken to since 1982 called me. After a minute or two of establishing our current situations vis-a-vis our place of domicile, employment and family situation, my buddy (whom I'll call C) asked if I still imbibed in the cannabis. Despite my aversion to speaking of such things on the telephone, I answered yes. "Hard to believe," he responded. "We thought the stuff would be legal by now and look at it. People getting busted for it and seeing time like they did in the 1950s. That utopia we dreamed about and threw rocks at the cops for sure took a nosedive. Instead, we have a Brave New World drug scene where doctors pass out pills whose sole role is to homogenize our emotions and our essential beings." I listened and agreed. "Besides the weed thing," I said. "Look at the political spectrum. From authoritarian neoliberalism to authoritarian neoconservatism." The far left is microscopic and the so-called progressives are unable to move beyond their monied sponsors."

We continued on this track for about half an hour before bidding each other goodbye. Since then, C and I stay in touch via email and occasionally visit each other in person when I am in the DC area for a protest or family visit. His cynicism does not seem greater or lesser than mine and neither of us engage in political organizing as much as we did back in the early 1970s. Like many of our contemporaries who were engaged in left organizing back then, we are following the current US presidential campaign with a special interest in the Obama phenomenon. Being grounded in both leftist analysis and the aforementioned cynicism, Obama's rapid swerve to the right once it became apparent that he had clinched the votes necessary for the Democratic nomination did not surprise us. It did, however, make voting for him less likely.

The remaining members of the Grateful Dead regrouped before the California primary this year and endorsed Barack Obama's run for the presidency. In addition, they performed a benefit concert for his organization. The setlist was fantastic and recordings I have heard of the concert prove that the band still has the ability to turn in some good sets even with other guitarists playing in Garcia's place. However, the endorsement of a candidate by the group was uncharacteristic. Garcia once commented when asked about voting in the US elections: "Constantly choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil." He wanted no part of such a choice, preferring instead to put his money and energies towards grassroots causes. It seems he understood that once one makes an allegiance with evil--even the lesser one--they risk becoming part of that evil themselves. The more active the allegiance, the greater the risk. Just look at the major national antiwar organization United For Peace and Justice (UFPJ) and their public stance regarding the desire of organizers of the protests at the upcoming Democratic convention to stage a large antiwar march at the convention. According to a recent press release from some organizers of the march, Leslie Cagan of UFPJ told some Denver organizers, “We don't think it makes sense to plan for a mass march that might not end up being all that mass!” In other words, UFPJ is refusing to help build support for the march.

There can only be one reason for UFPJ's stance. That reason is UFPJ's allegiance to the Democratic Party. This allegiance is not an allegiance found among the grassroots of UFPJ but at the top. It involves a political misunderstanding of the Democrats' role in maintaining the US empire and a fear of losing funding from elements of UFPJ that are tied to the Democratic Party. Ignoring the fact that it is the Democratic Congress that has kept the Empire's wars going, UFPJ continues to call the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan "Bush's Wars." Besides the attempts to silence the antiwar voice in the streets, there are also ongoing attempts by Democratic Party manipulators to keep antiwar language out of the Party's platform. This is in spite of a statement signed by the progressive wing of the party demanding that the language be included. If 2004 is any indication, there will be no antiwar language in the 2008 Democratic Party platform. At least in 2004, there was a candidate (Kucinich) whose supporters struggled to get such language included until Kucinich rolled over and called off his supporters. It is unlikely that the battle to include such language will even make it to the convention this year. On top of that, one can expect some rather bellicose statements in support of Israel and against Iran. Not exactly the antiwar party you might have thought it was, huh?

I know Jerry Garcia was not a politician or even a politically inclined guy. Perhaps that was why he could see the bullshit that passes for representation in this country for what it is.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

No Colors Anymore...The Sixties Painted Black

In recent years a number of novels that revolve around Sixties radicals coming to terms with their pasts have hit the bookstores. Some of the better attempts at this are Neil Gordon's The Company You Keep and Dana Spiotta's Eat the Document. Each of these novels provides a different take on the theme and manages to pull off something quite different. Into this quickly populating genre comes Bob Sommers' Where the Wind Blew. This novel begins with the protagonist on the run and hiding in a national forest camping out of his car. His wife, who knows nothing of his past and knows him only as a successful businessman in Kansas, is left to run the family business and answer questions from a rightwing talk show host who is only to eager to bring down anyone who might be linked to the 1960s radical movement.

As the story unfolds, we find out that Peter St. John's true name and past is discovered accidentally by a high school reporter who set out merely to do a profile of a successful businessperson in her tranquil Kansas town. Her discovery of St. John's previous name through an internet search leads her to ask even more questions. St. John tells her the truth about his past. Part of that truth is that this name is Peter Howell and he is wanted for involvement in the bombing of a corporation involved with military production that accidentally killed four people, including three of the bombers. Peter tells the high school reporter what happened, attempts to insure his family's economic stability and hits the road. He has no idea where he is going but knows somewhere in his soul that he must make amends with his past.

Told in a series of flashbacks that tell about his growing involvement in an independent radical cell grown frustrated with the never-ending war in Vietnam interspersed with a chronicle of his journey away from his suburban mask as Peter St. John, Howell/St. John becomes a fugitive once again. This time, however, he is running from his second life back into his first. He recalls his girlfriend from college who lost Peter to the antiwar movement while she perfected her cello playing and music composition. He relives the night of the bombing and the mixture of machismo and politics that brought the cell to undertaking that act. He recalls the tension after Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia—an action that led directly to the decision to set their bomb. Throughout the story lies an undercurrent of doubt and guilt—for the deaths caused by the bombing; for leaving his St. John family. For not doing enough to stop the war and giving up.

Sommers' novel is an emotionally taut tale. Like the strings on his old girlfriend's cello, the story is tuned perfectly. One twist of the pegs to the left or right would make the story less than what it is—either too flat or mere melodrama. Where the Wind Blew is an intelligent and sensitive treatment of a time when the apocalypse was always just around the corner. It is also a look at how the period we call the Sixties is never far from the present, no matter what we do to deny it or how far we run. It is the story of one man's redemption in a journey both literal and figurative back to that time when his transgressions, no matter how well-meaning, continue to ripple through time.

Unlike Sommers' novel, Zachary Lazar's Sway offers no possibility for redemption. A disturbing fictionalized story of the dark urges released in the freeform milieu that was the 1960s counterculture, Sway brings the lives of Charlie Manson's Family and the Rolling Stones together. Although these two never met, the story Lazar creates makes a connection between the two plausible. Little Richie, a late friend of mine who was part of the communal experiment (that still thrives) known as the Hog Farm, used to talk about parties he attended in late 1960s Los Angeles. These parties might be at some Hollywood producer's spread or just at some hippie's place. Whenever Charlie Manson and his crew showed up, there was what Richie called “a perceptible chill” that fell upon the place. One didn't even need to have a sixth sense to feel this chill, either. It came, Richie said, with the people in the group.

The tenuous connection the Rolling Stones and Charlie Manson did have was the filmmaker Kenneth Anger. Anger, who is still alive, was a maker of innovative films that blended ancient Egyptian spirituality, Aleister Crowley-like occultism, motorcycle gangs and other urges of the 1960s counterculture into collages of disturbing imagery and music that work on the subconscious mind. His film Lucifer Rising featured the hapless rock musician Bobby Beausoleil. Beausoleil, who was linked with Manson, was convicted of murdering Gary Hinman—a murder which turned out to be the prelude to the series of grisly slaughters in 1969 known as the Manson murders. Anger also spent some time with the Stones, even including a couple members of the band in cameo roles in Lucifer Rising. If one broadens this a bit, it is fair to say that the other, more ephemeral connection the Stones and Anger shared was a curiosity with the dark side of the era's spirit. Implicit in that curiosity was the realization that this darkness was the essential complement to the period's light.

It is not Lazar's intention in Sway to enhance the physical connection between Anger and the Stones in his novel. Instead, there is an understanding that grows as the novel progresses that the connection between the Stones and the Manson Family exists solely in the era's zeitgeist. This zeitgeist is the same one that informed Peter Howell and his fictional cell of radical bombers. Indeed, it is that zeitgeist that killed the bombers and the employee who happened to be too near the explosion. Lazar's Anger defines one aspect of this zeitgeist early in the novel, utilizing the psychological term thanatomania; or suicidal or homicidal madness. Vietnam, nuclear proliferation, racial, generational and class warfare; heroin, pcp, and methamphetamine abuse on a large scale. Environmental destruction. Some saw capitalism and its Soviet heresy as the cause for this mania. Others looked into religion or the dark arts for their explanations.

The 1960s represent an emotional and intellectual crucible that we still refer to, even if we are not conscious that we do. Those who lived through the period either revisit it more than they would like or, like Peter Howell's self-made reincarnation as Peter St. John, have put as many artificial and emotional barriers between themselves and that period to ensure they are never reminded of the time. One wonders if the Stones revisit that historical moment every time they perform or does it take an unfortunate reminder from somewhere or someone to remove them from their artificial and gilded conventional present, much like the high school reporter’s discovery of Peter Howell’s past removed him from his Kansan suburban reality?

If it is the latter for the Stones, do those reminders bring back only the fear and none of the joy from the apocalyptic time we call the Sixties? Or are they more circumspect, acknowledging that it was the contrasts between the two realities and their vying for the same emotional and psychic space that enhanced the tension of that struggle?

Ulrike Meinhof was a real person that lived what could easily have been a fictional life. A leftist journalist in West Germany during the 1950s and 1960s, she went from being a pacifist to a founder of the revolutionary terrorist Red Army Faktion (RAF). In fact, the organization was often referred to as the Baader-Meinhof Gang after the surnames of its founders, even though both founders were captured in 1972, well before the bulk of the group's actions . The story of her life from the moment she committed herself to armed struggle is a story of bombings, bank robberies, hijackings, murder, underground life, romantic trysts with comrades and probably others, capture and imprisonment and death. All of this was chronicled by the German media in sensational fashion. Before Meinhof made the leap into terror, she was an editor of the German journal konkret. Her columns for that journal were literate and pointed analyses of the conquered state of West Germany, its fascist legacy and the left alternative.

Recently, Seven Stories Press released many of these writings in an English translation for the first time. Titled Everybody Talks About the Weather...We Don't, the text is introduced by the editor, McGill professor Karin Bauer. Bauer writes about Meinhof's life and death and the meaning of what came between. Clarity of thought and emotion are the overriding tone of Meinhof's essays, as they provide insight into the intellectual journey of a thoughtful and intelligent person—a journey taken by many western Germans as they watched their government regurgitate and forgive parts of its Nazi past in the name of freedom and security.

Although it is difficult for many to separate the RAF Meinhof from her previous role as writer and editor (and maybe it isn't even something one should do), the essays here represent a Meinhof whose rationality lacks the frustration apparent in her move towards bombings and murder. They are certainly critical of the new NATO-built neocolony known as West Germany, and they are critical of that entity from a leftist perspective that saw the Christian Democrats as more Nazi than Democrat and began to see Bonn's Social-Democratic Party (SPD) as a political successor to the party that sucked the life out of the 1918 German revolution. In other words, Meinhof came to believe that the SPD was part of the capitalist machinery she opposed. As the Sixties progressed, she and much of the German extraparliamentary left saw collaboration with that party's leadership as politically impossible because, after all, it was collaboration with the enemy.

In a rather bitter footnote, Meinhof's daughter Bettina Roehl (who Meinhof abandoned when she went underground) blasts what she terms the myth of Meinhof and the German New Left. In a rather conventional attack on the “communist conspiracy,” Roehl points to East Berlin's partial funding of konkret in its early years and later revelations about interactions between the RAF and East German intelligence as evidence enough that the new left in Germany was just another element of that conspiracy. It is not my place to wonder how much of Roehl's apparent hatred of all things Communist is related to her sense of abandonment, but it is useful to remember that for every contact made by the Eastern bloc's intelligence agencies and every dollar sent to a western journal, there were at least an equal number of contacts made and dollars sent in the opposite direction. That was the nature of the bipolar world of the Cold War.

Roehl's anger and dislike of the radical movement her mom killed and died for serves as an all-too-real metaphor for the nature of love in a time when all human relationships were being redefined and often torn asunder, if not for freedom than for another kind of love that seemed more important. That love could be Anita Pallenberg's rejection of Brian Jones for something else that included Keith Richards and freedom or it could be Peter Howell's growing involvement in the revolutionary antiwar movement in the name of a love for the Vietnamese people. Then again it could be his decision to leave his created Kansas family—a decision made today but certainly informed by his Peter Howell past. It could even be whatever pushed Ulrike Meinhof away from her role as mother, leftist writer and speaker into the RAF’s affair with murder, mayhem and suicide. Such decisions aren't always the best decisions in retrospect, but love doesn't always work like that, even the love of an idea. Sometimes, one just has to make the leap. When they do, any and all consequences are secondary at best. For better and worse.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Television, Murder, Vietnam and A Thirteen Year Old Kid In America 1968

I was a kid in 1968. It was the year I turned 13 and it was the year my dad began to prepare to go to Vietnam. The Tet offensive was on the television in January. I remember the picture of the South Vietnamese police chief killing a suspected NLF fighter. After that, my father didn't watch television news when his younger kids were around. I won grand prize in the science fair at my junior high for an investigation into whether or not my pet guppies talked. Then I won first place in my division at the statewide fair held the last weekend in March of that year at the University of Maryland's Cole Field House.

My dad picked me up after the fair closed down. After we had packed the exhibit in the trunk of his station wagon, we got in the front seat. On the way from College Park, MD to our house in Laurel, MD—about ten miles away—we listened to the speech by President Johnson where he told the nation that he would not “seek or accept the nomination” for his party's candidacy for the presidency. After a brief discussion with my dad about what this meant and why it happened, we turned to a conversation about the differences between FM and AM radio. Then he told me that he had been given orders to go to Vietnam. I didn't say anything while he told me when he thought he would be leaving and what it meant for the family. He never mentioned whether he thought what he would be doing there was right or wrong. When we got home, I talked with my parents for a few minutes and went to bed.

The next day in Social Studies class the teacher talked about how remarkable it was that Lyndon Johnson had decided not to run for reelection. From there, he segued into a conversation about the elections. After a quick show of hands regarding who we supported, he asked me why I supported Gene McCarthy. I told him it was because he wanted to end the war in Vietnam. In fact, McCarthy was calling for a negotiated settlement with the northern Vietnamese and the NLF while everyone else (except for maybe Bobby Kennedy) was still talking about some kind of victory. There was only one other person in the class who supported McCarthy. Two or three others supported Bobby Kennedy, who had entered the race only days before. Most supported either Humphrey (who was LBJ's replacement) or Nixon. On the playground at lunch that day, one of the Nixon supporters called me a faggot because I supported McCarthy.

Three days later, April 4, 1968, I was watching TV with my older sister when the graphic before a breaking news bulletin flashed across the screen. I walked over to the TV and turned up the volume. (There were no remotes back then.) A talking head came on the screen and announced that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot in Memphis. My sister and I looked at each other. We knew this was something big. I sat down to watch the incoming news while my sister put our younger siblings to bed. I knew that King had been in Memphis supporting a strike of sanitation workers and that there had been trouble at one of the marches. When our parents got home, I told my father what had happened. He sat down for a few minutes and watched as news reports filtered in about angry blacks gathering in different parts of Washington, DC. That night, I listened to WTOP--the all news station in DC-- relay reports on the growing insurrection in that city and around the nation. When I got up to deliver my newspaper route the next morning, the front page was covered with banner headlines and full color pictures of the assassination and the angry response.

The following week, our family attended a cookout at a neighbor's house down the block in our lily-white middle class suburban development. Most of Maryland was under curfew, gun sales were forbidden and liquor sales had been stopped in DC, Baltimore and several counties. While I ate beans, salad and burgers from the paper plate I had loaded up, some of the adults conversed about the murder and the insurrection. The remarks I heard from some of the neighbors changed my impression of them forever. I had never heard such racist remarks before except from some of the working class toughs who wore their hair greased back like early Elvis and smoked cigarettes while hanging out in front of the Peoples Drug Store at the local shopping center. If I learned one thing that night, it was that the ignorance of racism knew no class boundaries. The names they called Martin Luther King and the suggestions they had for the local police to “keep order” in the black section of town were reminiscent of the Klan literature one of my newspaper customers gave me almost every time I collected his month's payment from him. Literature that I threw away after reading it the first time and being repulsed by the hatred therein.

After the King assassination I began to read the newspaper much more carefully. Not just the sports section like before, but all of the news sections as well. Prior to that, I had skimmed the front page and the local section, but had never really read anything too carefully. As the presidential campaign heated up, I switched my allegiance to Bobby Kennedy. His ability to gather huge crowds no matter where he showed up—West Virginia one day and Washington, DC the next—was impressive. He had somehow figured out how to speak to people on a different level than all of the other candidates and he said he was against the war. Meanwhile, I had discovered another newspaper that told a completely different story. That paper was Washington DC's first underground paper, The Washington Free Press. A friend's older brother who went to the University of Maryland used to give me his old copies when he was done with them. Somewhere not very far from the boring suburban redneck town that I lived in there was something going on that was both new and connected to the revolution I was certain had to be happening somewhere. It had to be happening because the Beatles were singing about it, the Rolling Stones seemed to have joined it, and the Free Press reported it. I didn't understand why they didn't like Kennedy or thought the elections were bullshit but I wanted to find out why.

When Bobby Kennedy was killed I was watching TV with my sister once again. I remember feeling angry, sad and bitter all at the same time. After he was killed I gave up on the elections for a while. No more passing out campaign literature at the shopping center or door to door. There was nothing left to do but wait until the convention and hope some kind of miracle happened that would stop the war. A war my dad was heading off to in a few short months. In late July we took a family vacation at a beach near Norfolk, VA. My father was getting ready to go to some kind of school there that was required before he went away to Vietnam. The name of that school? Air War College. You don't have to guess what the general course of studies was. After a week, my older sister and I returned to Laurel. I delivered my newspapers, mowed lawns for the neighbors and hung out with my friends listening to music, reading, and watching TV. It was one of those nights of TV watching when another news bulletin flashed across the screen. Soviet troops had invaded Czechoslovakia. This was a year for news bulletins. I followed this event with interest because I was secretly hoping that the Czechs truly could find some kind of humane alternative to both Stalinism and monopoly capitalism, even if that terminology was unknown to me at the time..

Not long after that night, I began watching the coverage of the Democratic Convention in Chicago. I recall a sign shown on television that said “Welcome to Czechago.” Those few nights of watching cops beat the shit out of people and politicians showing their true colors—be they fascist in nature or on the side of the protesters—did more to educate and radicalize me than pretty much anything I had ever read or would ever read in my life. The angry repartee between William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal on one of the networks gelled in my mind along with pictures of tear gas, bloodied reporters, people chanting “The whole world's watching,” and my mom crying because her country was falling to pieces. When my dad came home for a weekend, he tried to convince me that the protesters were wrong and that voting was the way to solve the country's problems. I was not convinced.

By this time, Detroit Tigers pitcher Denny McLain was getting closer and closer to a mark not reached by a major league pitcher in many seasons. He was approaching thirty wins. Although I had given my heart to the Red Sox the year before, I tried to watch or listen to every game McLain pitched. If it wasn't on TV and I couldn't get the game over my AM radio via the nighttime skip phenomenon that somehow brought the games to my transistor, then I reconstructed the box scores the next morning before I delivered my papers. When the World Series came around, I was pulling for Bob Gibson and the St. Louis Cardinals. I loved to watch Gibson pitch even though he had beat the Red Sox the year before.

Meanwhile, in school we were composing a scrapbook for the elections. Each of us had to choose either Nixon or Humphrey for our scrapbook and fill it with materials related to the campaign. I chose Humphrey, even though he was for the war, he wasn't Nixon. When it came time to turn in the scrapbook, I covered the front of the binder with “Dick Gregory for President” stickers. My teacher was not happy. She yelled at me and asked how I could support someone who opposed the war when my dad was on his way over there. I snidely suggested that the answer was obvious and ended up being sent to the counselor. He yelled at me and told me to get my head out of my ass. I left there thinking that he should do the same.

On election day we watched the final returns come in over the television in our social studies class. There weren't any exit poll projections back then. The news people actually let the election run its course. When Walter Cronkite said that Nixon had won I had a feeling that the world as I knew it was over. In fact, it was only getting worse. The difference was now I was aware of it. I didn't hit the streets in protest for another year but I was already there in my heart and soul.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Counterpunch reviews Short Order Frame Up

Jeffrey St. Clair gave my novel Short Order Frame Up a pretty decent capsule review that captures the essence of the work. It can be found at this url (third book reviewed).

Monday, March 24, 2008

Who'll Stop the Rain?

Pretty much everyone but the dead know that the US occupation of Iraq is now entering its sixth year. When one looks for comparable circumstances in recent history, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land of course comes to mind, but so does the US war on Vietnam and the French war on Algiers. Despite the best efforts of the Bush administration and other war supporters to frame the Iraqi adventure positively—as in the liberation of Europe from Nazism—the fact is that the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation bear all of the worst elements of the three colonialist endeavors mentioned in the second sentence of this paragraph.

The comparisons run from details like the brutal arrests of men and boys merely because they are males by occupying troops to the greedy profiteering and self-righteous pontificating about the occupied peoples inability to govern themselves. They include the killing of innocents by the occupying troops and the turn towards terrorism by the resistance forces fighting against the occupier and his puppet government. Add to this list the attempts by the occupiers to turn the subject peoples against themselves by creating situations and dynamics that accentuate differences inside the occupied nation and one has a brief description of the current reality in Iraq.

If we listen to those occupying troops who have been in Iraq, we hear some of them now telling the world that not only are they against the war, but that they are actively opposed to it. Unfortunately, many of their fellows in uniform, meanwhile, tell themselves that they don't really care. After all, they say, it's out of our hands. The politicians and the generals are the ones who make the decisions. Perhaps this apathy is understandable on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan where caring too much may only make death more likely, but it is inexcusable for those of us not in uniform to not care what happens to the Iraqis, Afghanis, and the individual service men and women on the ground. After all, we have nothing to lose but our refusal to accept the responsibility we must take for the murder and destruction carried on in our name by those men and women. To continue to shirk that responsibility will only precipitate actions even more reprehensible than those already known.

In Frantz Fanon's last work A Dying Colonialism, he writes about the situation faced by the French five years in to the Algerians' war for independence. In essence, he states that France would either have to intensify its military escapade or leave entirely and let the Algerians decide their own future without France. This is similar to where Washington sits right now. It must either enhance its military and political control (whatever there is of the latter) or it must eventually withdraw and let the Iraqis figure out the future of their estranged nation. Since the political will of the American people does not seem to exist to send more US troops into the fray, but it does exist for a US-armed and paid combination of official military and militias to do Washington's work there, the US commanders hope that the combination of Iraqi security forces and Sunni-dominated Awakening militias will do the occupier's bidding and enhance US control. The likelihood of success for this endeavor is, to say the least, questionable, especially given the tenuous allegiance of the Awakening Councils to the US military . Yet, there is no alternative for an occupier unwilling to conscript its youth into colonial service but is insistent on maintaining an empire to gratify its citizens' consumptive desires. Then again, just because there does not seem to be an existing political will to expand the occupation does not mean that such a will can not be created. Nor does it mean that the Pentagon and the politicians might not decide to expand the occupation, no matter which way the political winds might be blowing.

In the mainstream US press, commentators wonder what went wrong. How could Washington let certain domination slip from its grasp? How could a military so dominant in every regard fail to destroy all opposition in Iraq (and Afghanistan—which has been going on for two more years than Iraq)? Why aren't the oil profits from Iraq paying for the occupation and the remaking of that country in Washington's image? In his March 16, 2008 commentary John Burns of the New York Times glowingly describes the attack on Baghdad in March 2003 as if it were the ultimate fireworks show that would certainly free the Iraqi people from the terrible dictator Saddam Hussein—a dictator some Iraqis would now prefer over the occupation and its callous destruction. How could this have gone wrong, he wonders, echoing the refrain of his fellow apologists for imperial America? Of course, his answer is not that the war and occupation are illegal and immoral but that they were mismanaged. Like most of the rest of the US population—politicians, citizens, bureaucrats and others—these commentators forget the Iraqi people and their distaste for occupation. The Iraqis may not throw the occupiers out of their country, but they will not allow them to succeed in their mission. The current state of stalemate, insurgency and internal strife is not making things easier for the Iraqi people, but neither is it allowing the US and its marionettes in Baghdad to install the regime they desire.

The world has seen horrible scenes of carnage coming out of Iraq the past five years. Car bombs and suicide bombs. Cities leveled by US bombs and missiles and children with skin melted by white phosphorus and other chemical weapons. Prisoner abuse and torture by US forces and decapitations by men claiming to be insurgents. Wedding parties and funerals attacked from the air and helicopters in pieces in the ground. None of this seems to faze the men and women calling the shots. They sit inside their offices and travel in motorcades protected by mercenaries that shoot at anything they distrust without fear of reprisal. These things happen because the US invaded Iraq and continues to occupy it. They would not be occurring if this was not the case. Yet, it is this exact situation that is provided by Washington as the reason the occupation must continue. Like Israel in the Palestinian territories, Washington chooses who it will work with and on what terms, despite the obvious fact that those chosen represent only one (not necessarily very popular) element of the subject peoples, if that.

Underlying the entire philosophy of the antiwar movement is the question of what constitutes the Iraqi nation. Is it the Green Zone government or is it the various elements of the insurgency and their supporters? If one considers the former to be the legitimate regime, than they can only go so far in their opposition to the occupation. Why? Because that regime requires the presence of US forces to exist for now and the foreseeable future. That is why the so-called antiwar Democrats and their supporters are not calling for the complete withdrawal of all US forces—military, CIA, mercenaries and others—but speak instead of a timetable for the withdrawal of combat forces only. This element of the antiwar movement does not oppose the US mission in Iraq. They only want to go about it in a way where fewer Americans are in danger and all of the dying is done by the Iraqis. Essentially, they are no different than the war hawks who talk and write about a one-hundred-year occupation. If one considers the disparate groups of the resistance to be the representatives of the Iraqi nation, then the only stance they can take is for the complete and unconditional withdrawal of all US forces of any kind from Iraq. The absence of occupying forces would naturally allow the Iraqis to determine a future that would most likely be considerably more stable than anything Washington might impose. Indeed, the possibility even remains that most of the various factions currently at odds would eventually reconcile enough to work together. This scenario makes even more sense if one considers that part of the US strategy in Iraq has been to inflame the differences between different elements of Iraqi society. In addition, certain lines between the Green Zone government and the resistance are somewhat blurred because there are elements in the current Green Zone government that agree more with one or the other resistance groups yet have a place in Maliki's regime. This fact would be resolved by the Iraqis, too, once the occupiers left.

The occupation of Iraq is not in the interests of the world's peoples. Even those of us in the US are paying for this exercise in greed and death. Economically, this adventure is costing more per day now than it did when it began. Already, hundreds of thousands of American men and women have taken part in the occupation and thousands more are on their way this year. Close to 4,000 have been killed in Iraq, (with more than 800 more killed in Afghanistan). Unknown thousands of Iraqis have died as a result of the US invasion and occupation; millions more have been uprooted from their homes, while thousands languish in prisons merely because they are male and/or because they oppose the occupation of their country. Those who benefit from this exercise are few, yet it continues. Why? Because of the indifference of those who can end it. It is not enough to merely be against the war. One must actively oppose it. It is not only our consciences that should demand this, it is also our future.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Innocent Flesh-Recruiting Kids to Kill

I used to umpire Little League baseball in the roughest section of Burlington, VT. Compared to so-called rough sections of bigger cities in other parts of the United States, the Old North End was certainly not very rough. However, it did have the largest number of working and other poor families, a large number of immigrants and a higher number of single parent homes than most of the rest of Burlington. On any given game day, there would be a couple parole officers hanging around the game watching younger siblings of their charges playing ball. One of the officers who used to talk ball with me a little told me that he had been the parole officer for two old brothers of one of the better players in the league and hoped that the third and youngest boy would avoid the fate of his brothers who had both served time for drugs and robbery. In addition to the parole officers, various workers from Social Services and a good number of parents and relatives, a couple military recruiters began showing up at the occasional game in spring 2002.

The boys (and some of the girls) were intrigued by the recruiters. Their uniforms and their sense of certainty seemed to appeal to these young people—especially the ones with the least stable home lives. Burlington never had much of a gang problem, but it always seemed to me that the appeal of the recruiters was that they promised membership in something very much like a gang with all of the solidarity and unity such membership could provide. On the days the recruiters showed up they would converse with the kids—none who were older than 13—about the Red Sox, the game and what they thought about high school. After all, the military was only recruiting high school graduates at the time. To their credit, the recruiters were more convivial than anything else and may even have inspired some of the kids they talked to into staying in school. Yet, their primary reason for befriending these kids was to get them to join the military and go to war.

High schools across the nation include JROTC as a standard course. In some schools it replaces physical education. The course is about physical education but it is also about regimentation and indoctrination. Boys and girls in the course do not use guns except when they carry fake ones in drill. They do, however, get indoctrinated in the military doctrine and nationalistic propaganda. Meanwhile, the US military has total access to young people's phone numbers and school records. Recruiters come to schools and speak to mandatory assemblies. The US Army sends mail and calls students incessantly in their last two years of high school and send recruitment vans into neighborhoods where many youth are present. Recruiters hang out in shopping malls near arcades hoping to get boys hyped up on the latest video game to consider a couple years in Iraq or Afghanistan as an option. They push their way into job fairs at two and four year colleges and set up offices in as many towns as possible throughout the United States. The Marines have a program called Young Marines that encourages parents to sign up their children in elementary school for drill practices, militarized outings and indoctrination. The culture of militarism is pervasive and it is heavily geared toward young people between the ages of twelve and twenty.

I mention all this in relation to a recent news item from the Associated Press stating that the group the Pentagon calls Al-Qaida in Iraq is recruiting and training teenagers. For the moment, let's assume that this article is true and is not some kind of fake news planted by US psy-ops. According to the story, some videos were found in an operation against insurgents. According to Rear Admiral Smith of the US Navy, the videos “were meant to spread Al Qaida's message among the young rather than train the boys for missions.” This was not the first time such videos had been found, the story continued, but “it was the most disturbing.”

Now, if I understand this right, the US military is appalled and disturbed because some Iraqi insurgent groups (that may or may not have anything to do with Al Qaida in Iraq) are using videos to propagandize among adolescents in the hope that they will enlist. Meanwhile, the US military, which is engaged in the same type of operations as the Iraqi insurgency only as the occupying force, glorifies its mission of bloodshed, intimidation, and killing in videos, video games, in schools, on the television, at shopping malls and through the mails. Naturally, these methods are not training the US adolescents that they are targeting for operations, but they are definitely “meant to spread the US military's message among the young (to borrow Admiral Smith's words.)”

As I write this, a news item is coming over the radio stating that the US Army Surgeon General issued an order telling military counselors to stop helping Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans fill out paperwork required to seek psychological assistance. After denying such a document existed, the General backtracked from that denial when the document was produced. He is now looking for another lie to explain away the order. Do you think the recruiters mention this to the teenagers they target?