"Ian Rankin once explained to an interviewer (the head of the Indian Communist Party!) that crime fiction is a way of talking about social inequality. Ron Jacobs applies that same maxim to the Sixties... in his wonderfully noir trilogy of those exhilarating and troubled times. And what Rankin does for Edinburgh, Jacobs amply illuminates for the Movement. Much much more than ripping yarns (though they are that too), from a master who's been there, done that, and lived to tell a tale or two."

--Ramsey Kanaan, Publisher PM Press/noir enthusiast

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.