First of the Month A website of the radical imagination. 2014-04-08T04:18:54-05:00 Institutional Memories Honorable Discharges at the Dementia Center

don't part your lips on the dementia ward
unless you want to be crammed full of puree
you're in the company of mostly angels
who've already made it past their judgment day

don't open your mouth on the memory unit
unless you've got nothing to say
you're in the presence of people
who never imagined they'd be this way

between the two of us
only one of us knows who we are
my money's on you but I'll bet your money's on me too
until I don't think it matters anymore

one of us is here
one of us is gone
both of us are at a distance
barren and long

don't stop along the highway
you'll miss the light in her eyes
put your own concerns away for a while
and prepare to be surprised

don't open your kisser on the nutjob wing
if you don't expect to be stuffed
don't open your piehole don't open your bible don't think about survival
in a dining room full of people who've officially had enough

(I've Got You) Under My Tongue

there's a patient population
tranquilized and stunned
waiting for you to discover us
keep it under your tongue

sometimes when my daddy comes
it's almost worth every pill
he wouldn't ever come to see me at all
if he didn't think I was mentally ill

sometimes when a new inmate arrives
they last a while before the drugs kick (them) in
the rest of us know it's a losing battle
but it doesn't stop us from pulling for him or her to win

there's a geriatric dumping ground
I've seen where it is
old people mumbling with food on their faces
hurting to live

I've been over to the big barber shop
in the basement of building five
my daddy likes to see me with a buzzcut
so he knows I'm not alive

I'm good friends with slow learners
we're all prisoners here
sharing what's left of us among each other's
the only way to make the bars on the windows disappear

I've been workshopped
I've been bled
force-fed psychotropic injections
for disease I've never had

I've been diagnosed
to be put through
paying for being outnumbered
by the likes of you

they took my ward mate down to the shock shop
executed him one weakness at a time
first he didn't know who I was then he didn't who he was
and at fourteen he was soon to be past his prime

(share our defeat later while you can
right now I want to see you fly
as far away as you can get from here
behind your eyes

smile while you can still mean it
laugh out loud
celebrate life one last time
because in here it's not allowed)

they're taking my ward mate down to the morgue
boy he looks so small
his face all melted onto the front of his mind
in his eyes no one at all

more pills for the rest of us
but tonight I'm going out over the hill
I get to still believe in miracles
on account of I'm mentally ill

sometimes when my daddy comes
I can't get my fill
and he wouldn't come to see me at all
if he didn't think I was mentally ill

Carmelita Estrellita 2014-04-08T04:18:54-05:00
The Anti-War of Harvey Kurtzman In the early 1950s, Entertaining Comics was king of the ten-cent jungle. EC invented the horror comic (Tales From the Crypt, Vault of Horror, Haunt of Fear). It issued the first "scientific" science-fiction (Weird Science, Weird Fantasy). It re-invigorated the crime comic (Crime SuspenStories, Shock SuspenStories), with a social conscience. And with the blessing of its owner, William M. Gaines, it packaged them with an unprecedented—and splendiferous—amount of sex and gore. Unfortunately, when a public outcry linking comics to juvenile delinquency—to the outraged, befuddled sputterings of Gaines and avid pre-teen readers, like myself—it was an antipathy toward and a ban on just such content that forced him to gut his line.

EC had employed the finest artists and writers in its field, and, of these, Harvey Kurtzman became the most revered. Kurtzman was the first EC alum inducted into the Comic Book Hall of Fame. He alone had an industry-wide award of excellence (The Harveys) named for him. (He has also been called the father of underground comics, though when told of this honor, Kurtzman demanded a blood test.)

Kurtzman stood somewhat apart at EC. He considered horror comics "immoral." (What he thought about the others was probably not much more positive.) His reputation today primarily rests upon his having created, edited and written the first twenty-four issues of the satiric humor comic MAD, whose impact on a generation used to the cozy cliches and platitudes of the Eisenhower Age was immeasurable. (After leaving EC, Kurtzman launched three unsuccessful humor mags, Trump, Humbug, and Help, before settling in at Playboy, where he created and wrote "Little Annie Fanny" for twenty-one years, providing stimulation of a different sort.) But before any of this, at EC, Kurtzman produced what have been recognized as the first "anti-war" war comics. With them, the novelist/ newspaper columnist Pete Hamill once wrote, Kurtzman "revolutionized the form...(His) combat stories were hard, bleak, free of rah-rah patriotism. They were about men, not costumed superheroes."

The recent publication of Corpse on the Imjin! (Fantagraphics. 2012), reprinting, in black and white, twenty-five of Kurtzman’s war stories, and reproducing each of his color covers, made it seem a good time for me to look back at this phase of Kurtzman’s career, especially since, throughout the years I and my EC-devotee pals were cramming his inclinations into our skulls, we were also avidly assaulting alleys, storming porches, playing war.


Kurtzman was born October 3, 1924, in Brooklyn. As a kid, he drew cartoons in chalk on sidewalks. As a teen, he assisted the staff cartoonist at The Daily Worker. Kurtzman graduated New York’s High School of Art and Music and, after a brief stint at Cooper Union, was drafted. He was still stateside when Japan surrendered. Following his discharge, he kicked around the lower tiers of the comic book industry, most notably turning out about 150 idiosyncratic, one-page gag strips, "Hey Look!", for Marvel.

In 1949 Kurtzman brought his portfolio to EC, hoping for work in its tonier non-fiction books like Picture Stories From the Bible or Picture Stories From American History. But Gaines was about to end these and launch his self-proclaimed "New Trend." Gaines hooked Kurtzman into a one-shot warning about the dangers of VD and then plugged him into other books, where his new hire fit uneasily.

The following year, Gaines agreed to Kurtzman’s idea for an adventure comic, Two-Fisted Tales, and, after several issues, named him editor. It did well enough that, in 1951, Gaines put him in charge of a new war comic, Frontline Combat. With the public becoming absorbed in the Korean conflict, war became the focus of both. Kurtzman edited fourteen issues of TFT and fifteen of FC. He wrote all but one of the stories these issues contained, drew nearly three-quarters of their eye-catching covers, and illustrated over a dozen of the tales to which they opened. But with the armistice of 1953, war book sales declined. Since Kurtzman was by now thoroughly involved with MAD, Gaines killed the other two titles.


Before Kurtzman, war comics, wrote William W. Savage, in Comic Books in America 1945-1954, confined themselves to expressing "the virtue of the American cause and the sterling qualities of the American fighting men...(T)hey questioned nothing; and they dealt almost exclusively in happy...endings." Kurtzman conveyed his counter-message by exercising a degree of control over his books that made him an auteur before Francoise Truffaut let anyone know such a thing existed.

Kurtzman began with a story idea, whose "twisteroo" ending would deliver a moral lesson. He would write a one-paragraph summary, which he would flesh out to fill the six-to-eight pages allotted it within the comic for which it was intended and tailor for the style of the artist to whom he would assign it. While other editors punched stories out daily, Kurtzman could spend weeks on one of his.

Most comic editors gave artists pages whose panels were blank, except for lettered captions and word balloons. But Kurtzman gave them tracing paper sketches of what he wanted, close-up or long shot, darkness or light, minute detail and angle of viewing. He often acted out scenes to be drawn for artists, changing his voice, facial expression and posture to capture characters’ emotions. He presented "absolute, complete layouts," John Severin, one EC artist, said. "He knew exactly what he wanted," said Jack Davis, another. "All you had to do was pencil and render his sketches." And if you didn’t, you got no further work.

Besides his control, Kurtzman was known for his research. He was driven, he said in a Comics Journal interview, to imbue his depictions of war with "precision... accuracy... authenticity." He scoured library archives. He interviewed veterans, historians, members of foreign consulates. He visited army camps and airplane factories. He or staff members went up in planes, down in subs, off in tanks, or into armories to guarantee his stories resonated as genuine. He peppered readers Spanish, German and Korean phrases. He taught them how to stop a bleeding jugular vein under combat conditions. Kurtzman’s comics were right about everything, from the geography of Iwo Jima to the color of buttons on Civil War tunics. His approach, said his long-time associate, Will Elder, was "meticulous."

Kurtzman considered war "the ugliest disease... men were cursed with." He believed that if he showed this ugliness to a younger generation, it might find another way to solve its problems. But that turned out to require more than maps and buttons.


Kurtzman’s objection to war seems to have been that it killed people. "Thou shalt not kill," he reminded readers (TFT 23). "Life is our most precious possession," he instructed (TFT 25). "Each and every life... is important," he reiterated (TFT 28). "What good is revolution," he asked, "when everything you love is dead?" (TFT 22).

But on the other hand, as one Kurtzman soldier told a buddy, "(T)here are times you have to fight... To some degree we have an obligation to support war." (TFT 24). "We kill... because we gotta," said another. "It’s a dirty job we have to do." (TFT 19). "Why are we dying?" a Seabee asked himself. His answer, two pages later, was to save his brother. (FC 7). "No man is an island," was the message of FC 1. We are "all in war together, soldier and civilian," was that of TFT 30. "A good American is one who has been loyal to his country," stated FC 5. By FC 12, Kurtzman was urging us to join the Ground Observation Corps to spot approaching enemy bombers.

Was it any wonder a concerned but confused ten-to-twelve-year old might be unwilling to commit to the Ghandian way?

The problem we presented Kurtzman was that we were already well acquainted with fictionalized death. Even in other war comics, as Savage unceremoniously noted, "American boys dropped like flies." And in the war movies of our Saturday matinees, supporting actors, whether fuzz-faced recruits mooning over photos of their gals back home or grizzled vets one mission short of returning to the wife and kids, fell with regularity. Even stars didn’t always survive until the final credits. Robert Mitchum went in G.I. Joe. So did the usually indestructible John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima. Death, we knew, came to the best of us. But it didn’t irrevocably follow that put us personally at risk.

Given our hard-heartedness, Kurtzman’s de-glamorization did not go far enough to disturb us. His American soldiers did not butcher prisoners of war. They gang-raped no women. They did not live in fox holes amidst their own bodily filth. Their wounds lacked even the gore of EC’s horror books. Because his stories were short, he could not develop his characters sufficiently for us to empathize with them. No sickening slaughters, occasioned by the madness or stupidities or geo-political greed of leaders, were exposed to overwhelm us. We flipped his pages and skipped on.

Even more problematically, Kurtzman was a patriot. This is not surprising, since he wrote in the glow that followed World War II. (He also considered Korea "justifiable.") He seemed to have believed, like most of the country in these days before Bob Dylan twisted the phrase with irreversible irony that God truly was on our side. "As long as believe in GOOD, we can’t go wrong," he wrote in FC 2. In TFT 24, one fighter at Bunker Hill reassured another that, despite being out-numbered and under-weaponed, they would prevail. "We have something to fight for. We have a cause!" When conceding that Americans might have committed atrocities, in answer to a reader’s letter (TFT 28), he argued that, unlike other countries "our government and constitution condemn such practices." He seemed blind to the reality that both sides always have "a cause" and one fellow’s atrocity may be another’s patriotic act. As Max Hastings points out in Inferno: The World at War, 1939 - 1945, "It was only because many young men of many nations shared... (a) dogged commitment to do ‘the right thing,’ as each belligerent society defined it, that the war could be carried on."

For someone with Daily Worker roots, Kurtzman was a surprisingly timid political thinker. He could write about the Spanish-American war without mentioning imperialism. He could omit specific reference to the Holocaust from his stories of World War II. He repeatedly stressed his neutrality in depicting the Civil War. (Slavery, he wrote, was just one of its several causes, and his readers never saw a Negro whipped or sold.) The only behavior for which Kurtzman criticized the government was its treatment of Native Americans. There, he decried the breaking of treaties and killing of women and children. But when he addressed the bombing of Nagasaki, the lesson Kurtzman drew from this arguably unnecessary killing of 30,000 was: "HOPE was not destroyed... Life... bloom(ed) again." With a message like that, anything short of turning the planet over to cockroaches seemed to warrant parades and marching bands. Kurtzman’s war comics were not without value. His depictions of ordinary soldiers were relatively nuanced, humanizing and admirable. George Evans’s lovingly rendered bi-planes, Alex Toth’s immaculate jets poised against blank space, and Jack Davis’s muddy, sweaty, stubble-faced G.I.s were wonderful examples of illustrative art. And Kurtzman’s own pages were superb. Sometimes they filled with anguished faces. Sometimes they emptied of all but a "RROWAR," extending across several panels, letters rising or falling in size, darkening or lightening in tone to express volume and intensity. Often his prose trooped across his panels, landing heavily like boots or a tank’s tread as it pounded on. Kurtzman’s bullets unfailingly left visible paths, reinforcing their constant presence and the fate they foreshadowed. And his corpses lay, twisted distorted, in Guernica-like grotesqueness.

But this phase of Kurtzman’s career falls short of greatness. Certainly it did not achieve the goal he set for it. As Savage concluded "it is questionable that (the stories)...had much effect on the children who happened to read them...(in achieving a) lessening of enthusiasm" for war.

This is not, after all, surprising. If comics, as Bill Gaines and I agreed, could not turn me and my fellows into switchblade wielders, why should one expect them to set us burning draft cards? The deeper, more intriguing question though is, if they couldn’t, were we equally immune to the influence of, say, the Bible, Aesop and fairy tales?

For lessons were installed in us somehow. I doubt we emerged from the womb with more than a desire for food and warmth. Yet we acquired beliefs; we accepted truths; we obeyed rules, not always because we feared spankings or after school detentions if we didn’t. Neuroscientists and psychoanalysts may have more evolved explanations, but my sense is a portion was inborn, waiting to be tapped, and the rest laid upon us, drop-by-drop, by parents and teachers and the remainder of the larger, more powerful world of our surround. Slowly society shaped us into how it wanted us to be. But simultaneously, within each of us, lurked an individualized "I," fighting toward light and for space so it could grow.

There was a reason EC’s Picture Stories flopped and MAD and Vault of Horror didn’t. Kids weren’t looking to comics for instruction. Kurtzman’s war books, for the most part, missed the point that, of this, we’d had our fill. So when he told me double-crossers would be punished, and heroes could be scared, and blacks and whites should pull together, I nodded and snoozed. But one early story jolted me awake—and its concluding images stayed with me for sixty years.

In "Tin Can" (FC 3, art by Davis, regrettably omitted from Imjin!) the primary duty of its central character, the unsubtly named Eddie Yearling (nicknamed in-case-you-missed-it "The Kid") is the cleaning of his destroyer’s lavatory. Yearling doesn’t mind, for he recognizes everyone on board is "part of the big plan," and as long as everyone plays their part their "operation" will succeed. Then his ship hits a mine. To prevent its sinking, the crew seals off the head, realizing too late he is inside. Saving him means losing the vessel. So Kurtzman delivers his biting message. "It’s like you said, Seaman... You’re just a small part of a large operation! Every man counts on the big job, but no man is bigger than the job..." And Yearling is left to drown.

Kurtzman was a young man who experienced a "good" war. He believed war a terrible thing, and he hoped a new generation of young men would find a way to do without it. He seemed not to recognize that wars are the creation of older men and the young only pawns by which they play them. But when he locked Yearling in that lav, his pounding on its door growing weaker and less frequent with each concluding panel, the consequence of accepting one’s self as a cog in someone else’s machine was made manifest.

At a dime-a-pop, comics were the first chance for my friends and I to pick and pocket our own theologies and to pen our own declarations of independence. Al Feldstein, EC’s other great editor, astutely recognized that the company’s great appeal to the young was that, whether "with a laugh...(or) blood" it was engaged with "flaunting...the destruction of...authority." The laughs popped social pomposities and sacred cows. The blood bathed us like Carrie at her prom. EC showed us, when nothing else around us dared to, that defiance was an option. And once constraints were loosened, we could try to figure out what to do, where to go, how not to end up trapped, the waters rising.

This article reviously appeared online at

culturewatch Bob Levin 2014-04-08T03:30:28-05:00
Black Mountains Beyond Mountains By Amiri Baraka, Edward Dorn & Claudia Moreno Pisano

First thanks Claudia Moreno Pisano for enabling us to reprint the following slightly compacted excerpt from Amiri Baraka & Edward Dorn: The Collected Letters, which is edited and annotated by Ms. Pisano. This swatch of the correspondence between Baraka—soon-to-be-magus of Black Arts—and Dorn—Black Mountain poet—gets to the heart of their relationship in the 60s. Their calls and responses here were sparked by a disagreement over Castro’s Cuba that's picked up new resonance since it's easy to hear echoes of the Cold War in our time. What may be most striking now, though, is not the poets’ efforts to go international but their shared clarity about the depth (and width) of white supremacy in America.[1]

Ms. Pisano provides the back story for these letters in the italicized introduction below and offers more commentary later. B.D.

In the spring of 1959, Fidel Castro visited Washington, D.C., on a public relations mission; the United States had become fearful of Castro’s intentions by this time, and Castro was attempting to alleviate these fears. While he was in the United States, the New York Times printed an article about Dr. Olga Herrara Marcos: “A military court sentenced Dr. Olga Herrara Marcos today to death by firing squad. She is believed to be the first woman to be sentenced to death in the history of the republic.” Marcos had been found guilty of being an informant to the Batista regime, giving up the locations of the rebels. Shortly after this announcement, Time magazine ran a picture of Marcos looking terrified and pathetic in the courtroom. The events struck a nerve with Dorn, who wrote a poem about it at the time (“the Herrara poem”), “An Address for the First Woman to Face Death in Havana,” which disparaged the idea of big nations and alternately pitied and excoriated those who got caught in the machinery. He sent it now, in 1961, to Jones, who promised to “answer” it. Jones “disapproved of the poem; ‘counter-revolutionary’ was his phrase” (van Hallberg 56).

[Baraka responds to Dorn’s “Address” is the opening note in this selection from their correspondence. B.D.]

Oct 6, 1961.....Dear Ed,

Here is an item especially for you! I hope you will send them something. The poem you sent me I cd (and have) comment on [...], but not here. I wd even like to publish it, in Bear probably, tho I plan to answer it (like in Communist publications) not w/ poem, or maybe w/ poem. But I have to answer it. A good book for you to read (not to change the subject) wd be The Soul of Man Under Socialism by none other than our good friend, Oscar Wilde. It is really a marvelous book, even if it is couched in what must be the most purple socio-political terms in history. It cd almost be sub-titled Capitalism as a Big Camp.

Thank you for those lovely pictures of Pocatello. It looks mysterious! Anyway, speaking of Mitch Levertov, his wife just took a poem of mine for The Nation. Although we exchanged quite a few notes re/ aesthetics & that horseshit. O.K., I hate writing long hand. David Poole’s Condition of Rational Inquiry wd also stand you in good substance for yr long asceticism. That’s what the west is, ain’t it? Asceticism? I pause, for a reply!

Yaws, Roi

Have you heard of new vol. D. Allen is doing? Send anything?

Oct 10 [1961].....Poky,

Come on, back off. I’m not no fucking counter-anything. I’m as truly gassed as anyone, but much more embarrassed than others, at the poor prospects of fellow poets singing the praises of any thing so venal as a State. I am afraid I am not very interested in the “argument” aspects of a statement like the Herrara poem. It wasn’t written “against” anything, as ascetic, (was that aesthetics) aside, you ought to know the very word Batista makes me puke. The modern state, revolutionary or not, is run like a Grauman’s Chinese opening. Everybody has some scene, a trademark, like a beard, or a fat stomach and bald head, or a wig-type haircut, with big white teeth sticking out of the middle of the smile. Piss on it. The only point I ever had is that when a picture, namely of Mrs. Herrara, Marcos, is printed, showing her puckered up babyface tears, brought forth by the lunatic braggart announcement of her death, it is a matter of public shame. Sides, are a bigassed drag. The biggest small-talk of all, like which one are you on? motherfucker. I think I know what kind of a stupid, scared, caught woman she was. But whatever she did, or what those who murdered her did, or their “reasons,” or her “reasons,” my limited prospect of the thing is completely correct. And satisfying for everyone. Because there is no embarrassment in sympathy. Aside from the fact that “sympathizers” are always assholes.

Thanks too for the titles, I am always glad to hear of books. Altho I don’t plan to use them, ie, in the way you suggest. I don’t see the thing as “rational” at all, and perhaps you’d stick to the view that that’s the trouble. Whatever the Cuban people are doing, god blesses them, and for however long they can make it. A statement in poem such as I sent you is highly accidental, in the same way junk gathering sculpture is, and gratifying accidents are a really bigger part of the West than that asceticism you mention. If I had seen a picture of a Pre-Castro victim of the same system of organized horseshit, approximately the same thing wld have come out. This is one of the famous limitations of occasional writing. Its alignments are like the ligaments of a starved man, very clear. If you feel you have to answer it, please do. But if you plan to take a line like: Exhibit 1—an example of a counter-revolutionary hyena getting his kicks—then I wld rather not have anything to do with it. What I am trying to say is, that if you think the poem is vulnerable to propaganda purposes of your own, then I am not sure I want to meet that kind of test yet. Let the National Review worry about that aspect, if that’s it. The Wieners poem is one of the greatest of his, or almost anyone’s, isn’t it? Ya, wow. By the way did you get to send that Yugen to Raworth?

I was wondering; how does the winter hang there now.

Love, Ed

By the way, I am sending Allen that long poem, part of which, was printed by Bear. Landscapes. If he takes it, which is unlikely, he’ll contact you I assume, abt notices [...] if there are any etc.

Like the more I think abt it, can’t you read? The tone and meaning of that poem are perfectly clear. I don’t mean “just to me”—but wholly. I wish you’d make as clear to me what you mean by counterrevolutionary. The issue is the simple one of machination, but which is no more simple than revolution. The only valid relationship I can see between bigassed nations—Russia & USA—and their more pipsqueak imitators is that the bigasses have what the little asses want too—but with this new tack—they say they need it. Which is only a part truth. Most of what constitutes the “good” life, no one needs. What excitement is there beyond feeding, clothing, and housing anyone? It all ends with the same dull propositions polarized by that big trick “consumption and production.” But “leaders” are all bigassed in their way. What happens to the so called poor fucking people is a residue of cynicism which is made “classic” by every age—Russia & USA are the twin progenitors of those conditions now. A France or a Germany never made it that big. When I hear Cuba si, USA no, I think—fuck both of ’em. They agree with each other so much. USA has a bigger paw on the rope, that’s all.

Oct 11, 1961.....Roi

It gets thick here. Last July my friend Ray Obermayr was having a drink down at a place called the Court Tavern. In walks these performers, part of the company of the Ink Spots who were playing a gig at a place called the Green Lantern. The owners refused to serve them. Ray said, ok, I know a place you can get a drink. He took them over to the Jim Dandy (the JD) which is a colored bar, the only one in Poky. This is a railroad town, you dig, the string runs from Portland to Denver on this particular line, the UP. On that line there’s pot, and the lighter forms of shit. It follows the string. The other night I talked to a shade cat who was busted in Burley, if you can dig that, a place of 5 thousand souls. So they get to the JD and have a drink. The local head of the N double[2] hears abt it by this time, a Mr. Wood, porter I guess, who makes a run from here to Denver. OK. They, He, Ray, and two other cats go back over to the Court to test it. (This year a piece of “liberal” legislation was passed in Idaho saying Negroes cld drink and eat anywhere. You know...makes a fairer state, but don’t use it. In the Court, Wood asked for the test drink and was refused, meanwhile from the bar some cracker cat yells at Ray, are you with these niggers, and Ray says yes, and he hallers niggerlover, then breaks a bottle and comes at all of them. The two other guys cut and that left Ray and Wood. The Cracker cut Wood a big gash on the neck and then the fight was on, with Ray and Wood backed into a narrow corridor going past the bar into the back room.

The only way they survived it was that not more than two or three or four of them murderers cld get to them in that narrow passage. Wood, an old man, handled himself with professional skill, and Ray used to box, and is tough anyway. So in their way they clobber ’em.

Ray tried in the following days to keep his own bit straight by going to the college president and putting it on the line, thinking he wanted to get it out right off, rather than waiting till the middle of the year to be fired, or better, more likely, having it suggested he leave.

He got quite a few threatening calls, I’m gonna get you, you fucking niggalova. OK. He got a couple today. I guess the whole place is threatened, on edge.

The trial has been going on recently, many hearings. There are two cases. One is against the guy who held the broken bottle. Assault. The other is the civil rights case. In both the tavern people stack the case with witnesses who lied their asses off. It looks now like it will be held that the man never held a bottle.

Court room scene. Real suspender flipping lawyer saying to uh Mr. Obermay, that is your name isn’t it, Professsssor Obermayr, uh you do teach at the College don’t you, well, now, isn’t that interesting, a proooffeesssseer. My My. Uh when did you start subscribing to the Daily Worker, oh you never did, well, uh how long have you been a communist. Oh. Uh, professor, uh, what were the people at the bar drinking, you were there weren’t you. Did any of them have Cokes? (the bar was filled etc)

That’s the way it went—also like—Prof Obermayr, uh, what color were the men who entered the Court Tavern on such and such a date. To which Ray answered, one was medium brown, one was dark brown, and one was pink. (him)

At the time it happened the local press gave it rather shitty angling. The AP called a couple of times from Salt Lake and it looked like enough attention would be forthcoming to make the CR part of it stick. But it got silently dropped. The thing Ray felt about it was simple enough—that it was the only time in his life in which, without thinking too much about it, or even at all, he had Fought for better or worse, for something he deeply believed in. No matter how subject that is to analysis, it must be true.

The prosecuting attorney is quite uninterested in pushing the case at all, because he obviously wants to be again. For instance he didn’t intervene once when the defense was putting those questions. The technical evasions are many and standard, some of the people involved in the brawl weren’t picked up because “they couldn’t be found,” and you can guess at the size of Pocatello.

So I guess it cld be said to have gotten out of hand. The threats are strange, like all threats are—one needn’t believe them, pay attention, yet one must. I guess I am worried abt the whole thing. The N double doesn’t seem to have given Wood any help, altho I don’t know what they cld do, I just don’t know. Of course it is up to the state to “prosecute,” and they don’t look willing. At all, man.

OK. Tonight I thot I’d write and tell you abt it...for no immediate reason, just I suppose hoping you’d have something to say abt it, altho God knows I don’t know what, it is just that the whole jig cld be up for him, Ray, you know.

Love, Ed

By the way, I wonder if you know—Bob Creeley’s second oldest daughter, a blueeyed, lovely little girl, was killed in a landslide at Arroyo Embudo a week ago Sunday a week ago Sunday.[3] It is a tragedy I can hardly follow.

Idaho Oct 12 [1961]

LR: That poem. That’s awfully good, isn’t it. That slow, “contemplative” phrase. I don’t “understand it” for anything, but so much is going on, very thickly. I feel I ought to turn around, or something, go out for a walk. I guess I will later. And the surplus verities. They are likewise wild. I don’t know how you get such an abstract thing as “the silence of motives” to mean so much. I guess because it does empty. You will get my letter I mailed to you as I picked this out of the mailbox. Wow. The thing with Leslie, Creeley’s daughter hangs over us. Very much. We knew her it turns out too well. The way you are haunted by a face, transplanted to every context. Same in death or love, twin poles, an express runs like clockwork back and forth between them. Have been moping around with tears always there. Man, at this point I ache with something. Enough. Anxious to hear from you—love Ed

On Wednesday, October 18, 1961, Jones was arrested at his apartment by FBI agents. He was charged with sending obscenity—i.e., issue No. 9 of the Floating Bear—through the mail, much as City Lights publisher and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti had been charged in 1957 for sending Allen Ginsberg’s Howl through the United States Postal Service. Issue No. 9 contained “Roosevelt After Inauguration” by William Burroughs and a short play by Jones from his still in progress The System of Dante’s Hell; the charges stemmed from Burroughs’s political satire and the overt homosexuality in Jones’s play. Though the Floating Bear was not sold publicly, (per Diane DiPrima) “What LeRoi and I had failed to take into account was that at least one of the folks on our mailing list was in prison. Harold Carrington, a Black writer in Rahway, New Jersey, never got his copy of Floating Bear # 9. Instead, a warden who routinely read all the mail, turned it into the postal authorities.” Di Prima herself was also charged, though rather than picking her up at her apartment, they held Jones without setting bail until she turned up so that she would, instead, be forced to turn herself in (di Prima Recollections 270).

In this letter, Jones continues his argument with Dorn about the Herrara poem. His note about “bulgarian hats” is a reference to one of Dorn’s poems, “Prayer for the People of the World” (“Did America say give me your poor? / Yes for poor is the vitamin not stored / it goes out in the urine of all endeavor. / So Poor came in long black flea coats /and bulgarian hats / spies and bombers / and she made five rich while flies covered the rest / who were suppressed or murdered / or out-bred their own demise.”) Jones began articulating here his growing sense that a poem could only function politically and ideologically, where Dorn’s idea in the Herrara poem was about the very specific expression of sentiment involved in this woman’s life. The ideology was “accidental”; the sentiment would have applied, Dorn implied, no matter what political regime caused it.

[1961 October].....Dear Ed,

In all, a terrible week. With the Creeley tragedy at the head of the list, my god, a whole chronicle of uglies in the last week (or news of it). Maya Deren, the filmmaker died at 39...Booker Little, the trumpet player, friday, of leukemia at 23...Basil’s show cancelled by lying gallery owner, DeKooning booked for socking a guy in the bar...& now I add something as you can see from enclosed clipping. Bullshit, all of it. But they want me, I spose, and maybe I just oughta get the fuck out of here??

Your letter stunned me, also aggravated. Idaho too? I didn’t think there was enough coons out there to stir up any trouble. Oh, well, one drop makes you whole, or something. Garvey was right. Back to Africa (i.e., the ofays).

Right now we’ve got to get some kind of civil rights law to handle our case...also round up all literary types to say we’re “serious” or some other bullshit. They also picked up my ole caked up waterpipe and, as the stupid muthafucka grinned at me, “we’re gonna an-o-lize it to see what you smoke in here.” Fuck ’em. He also asked me where I got it, I told him I won it at Coney Island. (1 pt.)

Also, as you can see, the newspapers dragged my poor old bourgeois daddy into it. He’s about as true blue american as they come. I sure hope they don’t bug him too much. Shit, he’s worked for those bastards TWENTY SEVEN years. Oh, well.

Ellie Dorfman asked me to send you 12 copies of the book. They are on their way. Chance it might be reviewed in The Second Coming. Also, I sent it to Denise at The Nation, which might prove something. She just last week reviewed my book, Gil’s and Paul’s. She was enthralled by Gil, respected Paul, and said I was a comer. (had “promise,” as O. Wilde wd say).

If my letter re your poem sounded crusadery and contentious I’m sorry. But I have gone deep, and gotten caught with images of the world, that exists, or that will be here even after WE go. I have not the exquisite objectivity of circumstance. The calm precise mind of Luxury. Only we, on this earth, can talk of material existence as just another philosophical problem. Poets of the middle ages (we go back to St. Hugh, and the number they gave soul and body. Single consciousness, the renaissance...and forget that these people with “bulgarian hats” are a Majority. Your body does not hurt you.) I sit for hours reading books of obscure philosophy, magic formulas for bringing back the dead, &c. & have been hungry for four days to make myself a hero! O.K., we are both good men, but I think, now, that mere goodness is a limitation...just as Christians try to limit Christ to mere Goodness. “Moral earnestness” (if there be such a thing) ought to be transformed into action. (You name it). I know we can think that to write a poem, and be Aristotle’s God is sufficient. But I can’t sleep. And I do not believe in all this relative shit. There is a right and a wrong. A good and a bad. And it’s up to me, you, all of the so called minds, to find out. It is only knowledge of things that will bring this “moral earnestness.” We are pushed around by our inferiors! (But then the “accident” of my birth has pushed me into this impasse, I feel guilty everytime I experience some racial slight or bullshit like that, since I begin to whine inside & mumble things like...but I’m intelligent, and beautiful, and learned & smart & used to...&c. Oh christ fuck shit (as McClure wd say).

The point is that I will not be put in the position of justifying evil. I will not make it relative. I will not allow myself to be used. I am a man, simply. A black man, if you will. And there is a huge monkey of self-hatred goes with that, I don’t need to tell you. I feel I am copping out, letting people down, if I say in the face of this ugliness “I am a poet.”

If you say of the woman in the poem “The first” woman to die in know it is strictly “poetic.” Not at all true. For the same reasons Fidel did. I tell you a maudlin short story...My grandfather, (first man to open a super market in Alabama...but run out with fire when he prospered) came to New Jersey and opened another store...became a big Republican Politician. When he wanted to break with the organization, and run independent for Assemblyman they warned him not to. (A stupid, bullshit job like Assemblyman) O.K., he went ahead and ran...and on the night of the election with him winning, on the way home from his office he was hit in the head with a street lamp! “It just fell on his head and killed him,” they told my grandmother. A Streetlamp! He was over 6 feet and 200 pounds. A huge vital intelligent boot. But when that thing happened, that republican light mashing out his brains, he sat for 5 years in a rocking chair by the stove and spat in a cup, never saying another word. This happened in the 40s. About 3 years ago, the Republicans sent my grandmother 5 Gs for the thing! There is specific evil. With no easy analogies. Eastland is an evil man. I think Castro means to do better. It is some small thing I want. Some goodness I have to see. And these motherfuckers here are going to kill me for it.

Well, Ok I ain’t gonna be the James Baldwin of the Beat Generation. I add only that it is still warm here, my babies cry all the time and thanks for the kind words about the poem.

We here looking forward to Creeley. Wish you cd make it out here again. I ain’t coming to Idaho without my 45 and 17 nubians.

O.K., love to yrs

Oct. 21, [1961].....Dear Roi

You hit me rather hard, I deserved it, and am a little ashamed, more, a lot. I’d thot of this more as a technical problem, ie, if I found myself on the same street with you slugging I’d slug too, I don’t think I really wld ask what you were slugging abt. I wouldn’t, no, never. I never have connected loyalty to anything save love, ideas, never, with them, principles also, I am a renegade, they aren’t worth a shit and you know it. Christ fuck shit is definitely poetic. An internalized diarrhea that never makes it to a hard, holdable ball of shit. People who write of wind, have, simply crossed the barrier, with some courage there, even, I shld think. But in any case it is the final lapse into uselessness. That wasn’t the question. It is emphatically not poetic to say the first woman, the poetic form, has always been, that plural spread, the 20,000ndth. A multitudinous voice. Springs from a rotten center where the world at that you apparently have a keener right to that knowledge than I. I willingly back off from it to some other corner. What I have to say is of course valid. Every man, every woman, who died, dies first, they then are the first ones, one. Any other tack is silly. Unless you of course want to disparage death. The exclusiveness of action is a little difficult to get around. Don’t come to me about relativity, I’ve read Time and Western Man [4] too, or whatever else, and that’s all you know of that abstraction, what you’ve read. In a sighting on right and wrong I am at least as didactic as you.

I get so fucking lonely here, I’d like to tell you this: In NY last spring I thot you the only man who said anything, stood for anything, anything, AND STILL DO, (Allen, the other man there has become so iconoclastic with his “world” I yawn (like my mother used to say of carnivals when I wanted to go to one, if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all).

But if you’ve seen one poet you haven’t. Poets are the only fucking people I can stand in this era, everybody else is not worth it.

Like Denise likes Gil because he writes lyrics, and since she can’t write anymore at all, that makes it. But you are a comer. Uh huh. So it is not so simple minded as doing something or anything. Frankly when I got that blurb from the save Cuva committee w/ Elaine DeKooning etc, I was so fucking embarrassed I didn’t know whether or not to sign or not. The fucking stupid lukewarm language, whoever wrote that for all of us liberals was damn near illiterate. Who wants to sign shit like that? But I did because it seemed more the point, your “Fidel’s gonna do ‘better’” than not. But it is a crappy association. That’s indeed the exclusiveness of so called action—you exclude the fire to keep the embers alive. Good God! The laziness of their statement, likewise their action. Those pricks would jump on any ice truck going by. Petty people, like petty rulers, or petty policy makers, piss me off more than big fat billiard heads, I guess.

I guess all I am arguing is that a poet is only ashamed of it if he’d better be something else. That one poor attempt to cut you back, in that poem of mine, The Biggest Killing, is just a prelude to all this I guess. That revolutions are invariably shortsighted enough to determine usefulness, thus starting the assininity of set process all over again. That selfish, exclusive ego again! I don’t find it easy to live in my body either, altho true it is white and shldnt present too great a problem. Your grandfather is not a single instance, no instances are. Color in that sense is ridiculous. I will not hear any of that in the face of the expendability of 40% of the world’s population. Cops even, have this in common with us. When rulers vie in their arrogance for housing and rice and chickens, and nickel, or nylon, at the expense of a mass they know anyway will be automated out very shortly, relativities like “better” become truly time-relative. In that sense the hero is truly dead, in that he is that corrupt, and everybody, deeply and really, is cynical.

But poets are that only outcast force that cannot gain by being chided with plumbing,[5] as I pray John Wieners will not be. It is utterly pointless to think action is a complement to speech. Speech then becomes set and then finally, swallowed. Up. I mean down. Wow, down. And right back out that same plumbing. None of us can help it that this is a sick time. The trouble came about because the mass, a boy with a postmaster father became intelligent, or agent, or agent, so their goddamn means. The time does not flounder for them, they seek uses, their own, only.

It’s like that modern French idea that you can only be a true man if you’ve had an adventure, namely killed someone. And all that complicated horseshit about it ought to be for a “right cause.” I mean in this case of Ray’s, he is that kind of man altho he did it, pasted a white cracker in the choppers and will have his ass burned for it, he doesn’t have any desire to see that bastard go to jail for cutting the coon on the neck. It isn’t that way, I mean simple minded, you understand. It is to Fidel. Operatively, right or wrong, better, right and wrong can be very goddamn convenient hangers for what the hell you feel about something, and that’s back to the World, and only poets know what that’s all about. And if you’re afraid, for whatever embarrassment, to say you’re a poet, then god pity you, you mother, you’ve really copped. In that sense B Russell[6] is better today than anyone else in that he speaks to all, not some duped up ear with a built in trigger spring. And that angry wet chicken look he has at 90, wow, there’s your elegant mind, and man, he hasn’t said for one minute he’s not anything, he’s said on the contrary nothing but fuck you, which is infinitely more readable than Christ fuck shit. But then you wouldn’t put down direct address.

OK. I started out again not to argue because I don’t have any argument with you, at all, as I said. Shit, you must think I’m awfully out of it. But I am the one cat who’s got straight what poetic is, if nothing else. And I haven’t put it down yet. I may, probably will see you in the spring, if they haven’t done you in by that time. I have a reading in Jefferson? Missouri end of April, Lincoln College, that’s a shade school, and then one at a place called Baldwin-Wallace, which is in Ohio! I don’t know how I will make it save by hitch-hike, but I’ll be there like they say. Enclosed is the folder from Lincoln and that’s ma pitcher. I don’t know why I look that way. Habit I guess. The clip you sent w/ yr visage was just as depressing to me as what you said to me because they were both so fucking true. I mean true. Wld it be too naïve to ask is that the end of Bear? Goddamn, and that Burroughs thing was one of the best things you printed, perhaps the. Is there anything at all I cld possibly do to help, way out here. I can’t imagine it but if there is, say. A letter of protest. Ok, that sounds like shit. But I think Raworth might have good loud London contacts, I will send the clip on to him, and if you think so say to me or him. OK.

Look, I don’t want you to think badly of me for all this horseshit I’ve been sending you, I don’t really want to fall out of anything, and besides that, my hangups are not your own. I don’t even know why I say that save that I have such a real and living respect for the tight emotional verity of your last letter. I read it in a bar down in Poca and it set me right off the stool. I don’t know...the point is you are right, and that’s it. I don’t think I’ll let the Marcos poem get out, for all the reasons you enunciate meaning I am too slack at this point to know better. I said some irrelevant things, tho, there, that were true anywhere. But it isn’t that much at any rate. I hate it that I took up your time with ground that you’re possibly not interested in now. Or possibly ever were.

Oct 22 [1961]

Had to go out last night in face of raging snow storm...wood, all that unhappy jazz, I mean when it catches you, but wild beautiful, even if white weather. Got a card from Creeley saying he wouldn’t be getting to Harvard and thus seeing Charles after all, which is sad because he wanted to so much. I keep being brought back to that reality that my body doesn’t hurt, it must be you are right, irresistibly. I get sorry all over again for that poem, and the letter I sent. Shit. I know it isn’t enough for either of us to be “good,” and I ain’t even that, not even that. But there must be times when you are. Jesus that was a beautiful letter. And from it I see more than I ever did, of those things. There must be 2000 or 3000 Negroes in Idaho. Funny thing, I was telling that Englishman, TR,[7] about it, and he said essentially, altho I know he’d know less, the same thing you did, Idaho? I thot that shit was restricted to the deep south, the latter you know better of. I mean than. And your poor goddamn grandfather...that it has to be a colored grandfather is the sadness, because I get sad when you separate me from yourself with that color shit. Which is a “practical” point. I get excluded for some specious detachment. But then you do too, until the stance is innately real, for instance how long wld the Bear be allowed to go in Cuba? You’ve been there and may know better, abt that, but I do wonder.

I don’t know...we may perish here this you may, and admittedly for not half the reason...And if I say I believe you that it is up to you and me, all of the so called minds, to find out, what, I mean you say. Shld I get my ass to the so called city where there is no place at all for me (because I am Not just another poet sitting in Dillon’s). I know it is too true I get sententious where I should make the point. This is an apology.

The snow deep as hell now abt 2 feet, the sun out, too bright to look anywhere. We’re sorta cozy in this little shack, two fires going, plus Coltrane Giant Steps. Be goddamn careful...I don’t suppose I will get a very quick answer from you, naturally, but keep in mind please I am anxious about the scene there and about you especially. Ok, give our love to Hettie and the baby, Lucia has mentioned you and the baby in letters, so I guess everything is going ok?

Love to all of you—Ed


1 Just now, the point counterpoint between Baraka and Dorn throws shadows on a battle in the blogosphere between (the Atlantic’s) Ta-Nehisi Coates and (New Republic’s) Jon Chait. Their recent polemics led to Coates' moving, historically informed takedown of Chait’s case that an autonomous “culture of poverty” is more of a drag on African Americans than the legacy of white supremacy. Coates’ posts were in the tradition of Baraka’s and Dorn’s letters. Chait, OTOH, despite being one of the sharpest young liberal social critics, has still got a racial mountain to climb. Coates has already given him a good reading list, but Baraka’s and Dorn’s letters might provide a little lift too.


3 In New Mexico; the eight-year-old Leslie Creeley was digging a tunnel in the sand when it collapsed onto her.

4 Wyndham Lewis, Time and the Western World, 1927

5 This is a reference to Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems, “Song 3,” in which Olson reminisces about his father standing in the doorway of his house where “the plumbing / that it doesn’t work.” The “boy with a postmaster father” in this letter is Olson.

6 Bertrand Russell, British philosopher and historian, 1872-1970.

7 Thomas Raworth, British poet and artist, b. 1938.

Editor’s Note: Ms. Pisano provides more extensive notes to this correspondence in the volume, Amiri Baraka & Edward Dorn.

culturewatch Amiri Baraka, Edward Dorn & Claudia Moreno Pisano 2014-04-08T01:21:37-05:00
High Low Country: The Baraka/Dorn Correspondence I’m sure you’re going to somehow manage to say the opposite but mean the same, which we two I like to think always do. It is a good necessity. I just hope we don’t get caught, isolated from each other, across the river, waving.
—Ed Dorn

...[R]isk is something I need…I don’t expect to be right, but it does profit my energies when I am. Moreover it’s the swing itself I dig, if I feel it. Ditto I think you go by that. But I do feel close to you, whatever I say or however.
—Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones

The 60s correspondence between poets Amiri Baraka (then known as LeRoi Jones) and Edward Dorn—collected this year in a vital volume edited by Claudia Moreno Pisano—swings you in and out of what Allen Ginsberg once termed “the era of good feeling.” At the top of the decade, bohemian Baraka’s in thrall to tribunes of the New American Poetry (like Dorn), painters and jazz musicians. But changing times push him away from the Village’s pre-political moveable feast even as he insists: “Against all that other shit kicking around, there’s still that basically human act, the drunken party.” He rustled up more than a few good ones and as you read his letters to Dorn you're there at Creation:

...a wild extraordinary concert last week, with Don Cherry, Billy Higgins and Wilber Ware. It was really beautiful. No Shit. Cherry played a long slow gorgeous You Don’t Know What Love Is that floored everyone. He has gotten to be too much. Higgins, is about the finest yng drummer on the scene. And you know Wilbur, high as he was, he came on like big time gang busters. Thing went on in a big dirty loft, and we were carrying our own jugs, and the musicians just went as far out as they could, realizing the extreme empathy, &c. of the audience. [1]

Music is often on in the correspondence between Baraka and Dorn who writes a lovely note about listening to Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin way out West: “I still want to scream when I think of it, that death they put her thru…”

It’s very strange Billie singing in these mountains. I sat w/ my chin on the window sill and last night watched a fire started by a bug, across the valley, on the other side of the Portneuf. A nice bright blaze. The poor bastard can’t go much longer, the FBI is after him. This was something like his 7th fire and it finally made it. Beautiful light...At night it gets very cold, we have to pile the blankets on. We can see the whole other wall of the Valley across the way and in the folds of the mountains, where there is more moisture because of a northern exposure where the snow lingers, there are scrub oak, mountain maple, and other shrubs, they are now bright deep rich red, looks like blood running down the cuts of the mountain.

Along with an instinct for straight-no-chaser pathos, the two poets shared an incorrect sense of humor (“Our new little babysitter, who’s about 16...looks like she must shit caramels. Ummm.”) Both were close to Gilbert Sorrentino, who'd go on to be one of American lit’s most slashing satirists. And here’s Baraka’s rapt (if resistant) response to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?:

It is exactly like the mfing title; incredibly clever. I mean this cat has singlehandedly resurrected the embarrassed ghost of Oscar Daddio Wilde…But when he tried to tell you something you don’t know it’s strictly bush. Like one character walks around saying “truth or illusion.” Yeh. But Uta Hagen (coming out of a Bette Davis bag) is really great. I met Albee during the intermission (one of O’Hara’s friends) and he seems like the kinda cat who’d vomit on you if you punched him...just to get the last word.

Baraka and Dorn weren’t above macho poses, but their tough guy talk tended not to be triumphal. It usually spoke to human vulnerability:

Gild sd something to one of them, like, “You’re a prick,” and baby it was on. There was about 12 of them, and it turned out about 4 or 5 of them were like in another group...they were off-duty cops. Man, they kicked the shit out of us. I mean literally kicked. No fists much. But I backed against the wall street fighting style, and there was a cat on one side kicking me in the shins, I mean calm like he was jerking off.

It was love for poetry—not rage at violent wankers—that first brought city boy Baraka to mountain man Dorn. Their correspondence started in 1959 when Baraka wrote to ask Dorn to contribute poems to the little magazine Yugen, His letter initiated a epistolary tale of artists as young men running into the 60s—a story that makes a case (per Ammiel Alcalay’s Foreword) for putting “aside labels of schools and movements and conventional literary histories, such as exist of that period, and following the person.”

Baraka himself recalled his tight personal connection with Dorn as well as their harmonious aesthetics in a 2009 lecture that serves as a preface to the volume of their letters. Baraka affirmed the “value of what we had discussed and agreed on..."

but it was necessary for me to get away from the Village and the alienation which made me so ashamed as I stood in the Eighth St Book Store when Leroy McLucas (whom Ed collaborated with on a book about Native Americans) ran into the place in the middle of a book party shouting that they had just murdered Malcolm X. I was inconsolable. Ed could understand that but...what could he make of it himself? Was this Liberation which I now shrieked about an exclusive Black province—isn’t there an intellectual and ideological alignment that includes the willing?

Dorn’s will to imagine his buddy’s situation from within shows through in their correspondence. Dorn’s deep digging of DuBois’s Souls of Black Folks hints at why Baraka felt so brotherly toward him[2}:

Dear Roi—Just a note—I wanted to talk to you suddenly, desperately—wow you put me on to Dubois when I read your Tokenism piece—and was sort of thinking to go to the library for something of his but hadn’t until the other day I picked up a paperback The Souls of Black Folks. Reading “of our spiritual strivings” I could hardly finish that 1st chapter—I was crying that much, damn I near couldn’t make my eyes look anymore but got thru it all choked—I tried, in my excitement to read it to Helene but couldn’t do that either.

You’ve probably known the man’s work for a long time—so may not get with my present feeling—of thanks, to you, regret for myself etc. That old Hebrew use, that pull of those most powerful of the nouns we have—like [...]—that pressure of the full emotional sense of the word, like also Dahlberg’s opening paragraphs of his autobiography. Well it isn’t so much the man’s a negro—tho that stuns me too, knowing only Ellison and Baldwin, Wright etc.—Wow shit I wish I hadn’t been so slow—...Oh well, that’s not the point really—I feel I have been gripped where it most belongs by that man, you must be very proud to be of him, no?

Love, Ed

Dorn’s responsiveness moved Baraka to write candidly about rushes of shame, egotism and hubris that marked his own movements of mind early in the 60s. Per this passage from early in their correspondence which also hints at class-based biases that would (forever?) retard Baraka’s spins on the art of politics:

I’m getting to be a bigtime politico. Uptown (harlem) speaking on streets, getting arrested. Even made Senator Eastland’s list, which is some distinction. “Beatnik poet, radical leftist racist agitator,” to quote that dear man. Have a trial coming up next month (after 3 adjournments) for “resisting arrest; inciting to riot; disorderly conduct.” All true as hell. My only bitch is that I only got in one good swing before they popped me (but good). What is it all about? Who knows? It’s just that I’ve got to do something. I donno. I’m picked. What I wanted (& want) was soft music and good stuffy purity (of intent, of purpose) elegance, even (of the mind). And now I’m fighting in the streets and the cops think I’m dangerous. But what is heavy on my head is...Do I owe these people that much? Negroes, I mean. I realize that I am, literally, the only person around who can set them straight. I mean straight...not only as to what their struggle is about, but what form it ought to take! I meet these shabby headed “black nationalists” or quasi intellectual opportunities, who have never read a fucking book that was worth anything in their damned lives...and shudder that any kind of movement, or feeling shd come down to the “people” thru their fingers. Also, these stupid left wing farts whose only claim to goodness is that they know capitalism is bad! Shit. So where does that leave me? Fuck, if I know. I have people, old men, on Harlem streets come up and shake my hand, or old ladies kiss me, and nod “You are a good will help us.” And what? So some foul mouthed prick nationalist gets up on a box and denounces me for having a white wife! Brrr.

Dorn picked up on Baraka’s anxiety about being frozen in or out of the struggle against white supremacy long before the murder of Malcolm X. Their back and forths on this score begin to heat up after Baraka’s radicalizing visit to Cuba in 1961. "Black Mountains Beyond Mountains"—our companion post to this piece—reprints a swatch of letters from that year that amount to a sort of compaction of their entire correspondence. There were other telling exchanges during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Baraka wrote to Dorn in despair:

I don’t know what you’re thinking, but Kennedy’s speech & the last day’s events have frightened me, & mine, out of our wits. Now, the radio says the Russian ships won’t change their course, nor, I suppose, will whatever history has stacked...OH shit, I mean what shit. I mean who the fuck are these bastards to kill all of us? What futile bullshit. For what? And pompous motherfuckers like Kennedy sit & say this shit knowing, I suppose, that it won’t be their kids who get blown up. Goddam. There oughta be or I oughta start a group of terrorists whose only mission will be to bump off all the self-righteous motherfuckers who don’t believe they’re gonna die!

Dorn replied with his own protest against “the very subtle kind of death they had in mind for us all along”: “what was being outlawed was the very possibility of a private dignified death, say vaguely, what Jung talks of as the necessity of the organism, at that crucial point, to know what is happening to it.” Aware, though, of Baraka’s increasing need to act out, Dorn tried to talk him out of extremism:

Your special terrorist group, to bump off the safe ones makes great sense. A lovely idea...Unfortunately perhaps for you and others, your structure is not terrorist. You were born with other things to do, and now, no matter how funny that may seem, it isn’t. You know anyway the degree of preoccupation the terrorist must have, must be inherited. Terrorists are terrorists at birth.

A few weeks on he amped up his No in thunder to Baraka’s guilt “at not having thrown a few bombs at the right places.”

So ok, by birth you are an activist, but culturally you’re not. Now wait a minute boy! Culturally you’re really not. Now I don’t give a shit what color you are you got the same culture I got. I’ve talked to you. You got other things sure, of course that’s true, but we understand each other very well I think, and I think it’s because you came from a lower middle class liberal background and I came from a lower class conservative background. I mean right here that sociological reality, the lines of dispensation of, cutting across the whole middle patch, name your terms and the connections can be come up that sense america is the great leveler, like I know goddamn well you’re too cool to throw yourself on the chest of say Adenauer with a knife in your hands as say he gets out of the lincoln continental on park ave. And you probably aren’t ultimately devious either, which takes care of the hidden aspects of the same act. Perhaps I’m wrong. But I take it your anger, insofar as it can be localized, is poetic, and I am very aware that adjective is in bad odor, but I am pronouncing it here to describe the fact that you ain’t cut out for the shit you are one of the most articulate adumbraters of, and furthermore, you mother, you ought, of all people, to know, throwing oneself against their goddamn walls is one of the most useless USELESS fucking kinds of suicide ever invented by man.

Dorn worried Baraka’s journey into politics would be a doomy trip. Though he got why Baraka would have to kill LeRoi Jones—Prince of Bohemia—to stay sane in America’s “permissive asylum.” Baraka’s letters make it clear he was drinking and drugging dangerously before he broke out of the Village to go “home” to Harlem. (That move uptown may have saved his life even as it brought him near new dangers.) There are harrowing passages in the letters about Baraka’s stay in Bellevue after contracting hepatitis from a dirty needle. (During his convalescence there in the run-up to his blacker-than-thou stage, Baraka locks on the suffering of “poor old city white men":

The all night screamers...Where have these cats been all their lives? In what hopeless furnished room or whatever. A poor Negro or Puerto Rican is one thing. Their culture is reactive, is to a large extent formed, because of the need to exist & grow in such conditions. But the old white poor person is terribly shabby & unnerving.)

Baraka didn’t get hooked on heroin because he had an “automatic thermostat somewhere that gets me very sick when I’ve had what amounts to a habit-beginning portion.” But the lure of smack’s pain reduction was strong. Especially when his partners in high crime were world-class artists.

I was hanging out with Elvin Jones and this nutty painter friend of mine Bob Thompson, which is like, if you listen to Elvin play, hanging out at the Olympics or participating in the motherfuckers. Trane is playing at the Halfnote and after the last set the three of us lit out into the snow with those cats screaming at the tops of their did we love each other that night, I mean completely, and at a real point of ecstasy...we went to Bob’s house and used up all his skag...and that shit always makes me sick, always. But we finally ended up standing on corner, Elvin and I, talking till 8:00 Am, and I was so exhausted and high and drunk by that time I slept till evening. Completely dishonest but wow we got into something other than just standing around being suffering fucking artists. Man those cats suffer on the run, which is what I dig, and take I suppose to be the truest playback of my sensibility. But not that earnest mediocrity...that calmness and stealth. Fuck that.

That passage—and the entire Baraka/Dorn correspondence—amounts to more than a “playback” of these poets' sensibilities. It evokes the 60s livingly—the peaks one step away from the Pit.


1 Baraka goes on: “Also, as some weird added attraction! There was a cat there, from Copenhagen, a Negro cat, who was born in Denmark...can you dig that? Anyway, the cat’s been listening to records, for sho, but he’s into something very personal and very swinging. All came to their feet, after a few seconds hanging to see where the cat was going, he straightened out into this weirdweird sound and metre. Like he was huffing and puffing on an alto. Or like he wasn’t sure whether he was playing Baritone or alto, and dug Harry Carney and Hawk, but really wanted to play like Bird! Can you hear that?? Wow! John Tiinonson I think his name was. I hope sometimes we gets to hear him on some record.” Editor Pisano notes Baraka was referring to Afro-Danish saxophonist and composer, John Tchicai, in one of her many helpful addenda.

2 Hettie Jones reported in her autobiography that in 1964, after dedicating The Dead Lecturer to Dorn, “Roi was to tell me, soon, that Ed Dorn was the only white man that understood him.” (Pace Ms. Pisano.)

culturewatch Benj DeMott 2014-04-07T19:17:25-05:00
Soul Poem, #3 My father had one—a soul patch—when he was twenty-one.
Flanked by ingrown hairs & stubble gritty like sand & rough to touch.
I was three & recall when I hugged him his aftershave’s bergamot scent
vivid as color, but you should know I did not see people’s colors
back then. When my father said, all brothas got a patch, I imagined my uncles,
& when my grandmomma said, all white people smell like fish,
I didn’t know she meant my mother and everyone her color. It’s true,
my father's brothers all had soul patches & even some strangers, too.
They'd greet each other with a solemn nod & could I understand color back then,
I'd know my father thought all men were his brothers only if they were black
& wore their souls as a patch on the chin, like a small & useless mask.

Roxane Beth Johnson 2014-04-07T10:04:21-05:00
From Farce to Koan: Knicks Lure Phil Jackson Home I. Follies and Foibles

Finding fresh metaphors for Knickerbocker managerial incompetence requires a stretch. Celebrity coaches and general managers like Larry Brown, Donnie Walsh, Isaiah Thomas, and Don Nelson have become distant memories, nearly absorbed into the long history of franchise ineptitude that Red Holzman’s great teams made everyone forget, and to which Pat Riley’s thug squads lent a different coloration.

Amazingly, it was only two years ago that Jeremy Lin cavorted through the greatest part-season a Harvard-educated Asian point guard had ever had in the NBA. There was so much else crazy that year that Lin’s drama was quickly shipped Off Broadway to make way for last year’s remarkable 54 win season, achieved with a line-up badly in need of Geritol, but with Carmelo Anthony surprising everyone (almost as much as Lin had) by taking his talents to the bank and playing solid, unselfish, team basketball.

After those two checkered but fascinating seasons, it was clear early this season—as both Knicks and Nets seemed out to outdo one another with singularly dysfunctional tank jobs—that the ship, like Michael Ray Richardson once said, “be sinkin’.” The Nets are now the city squad that’s loaded up with aging talent, and have righted their course, whereas the Knicks’ season brings home why standing still is death in today’s NBA.

Potential super-teams have been assembled to compete with the Miami Heat. But how much has the concentration of powers contributed to the unprecedented flurry of serious injuries to super-stars? Those injuries and the growing gap between would-be super-teams and also-rans may both be by-products of the super-capitalist order that today’s league—the one that David Stern is handing over to Adam Silver—embodies.

But the Knicks, being originally from New York, are always a special case, now a kind of local version of American exceptionalism having hit the rocks at sea. Imagine Coach Mike Woodson as owner James L. Dolan’s personal Ahab, steering his Pequod through dangerous waters. By mid-season, Woody’s fate seemed as clear as Ahab’s was [1]

Woodson, let’s recall, did more than a yeoman’s job after he took over Mike D’Antoni’s Linsane crew two years ago and presided over last year’s Wild Bunch of disparate characters, which he somehow molded into a good team (probably with massive assistance from Jason Kidd whose court presence eased head cases as well as geriatric pains). Though the Indiana Pacers eventually proved it was not the great team New York media hyped and demanded.

II. Snark Bites

Only after moving to San Francisco (in 1985) did I learn everybody had a thing about the New York media, which I had simply taken for granted. The city’s sports mavens were reputed to alternate between hype-artistry and vicious, devouring takedowns, whereas the Times (at least) had always struck me as mild, insipid, overly judicious, calling everyone Mister, and all that.

I now get the national edition, which may or may not have the previous night’s scores (due to time differences), but reliably provides a running account of Knickerbocker fortunes. I have noticed a degree of cynicism and derision that, though more restrained, reminds me of the attitude I’ve always associated with the New York Post. On February 23, for example, Timesman Scott Cacciola, who replaced Howard Beck in covering the Knicks after Bleacher Report lured Beck away, wrote that the Knick defense “ranged from lethargic to apathetic.”

Perhaps the play and the players dictate—even demand—this departure from the genteel tact with which the Knicks, even when hapless, used to be treated. Throughout their painfully disillusioning early season plunge, even Times writers were quick to expand on the antics of J.R. Smith or that figure of pathos Ron Artest (“High Test” to me, from his St. John’s days, Mr. Peace according to Times etiquette?), searching through the target-rich franchise which years of James Dolan And His Accomplices have failed to turn around.

Who turns this guy Dolan down, anyway? Only Phil Jackson and Lebron James, I supposed (naively, it now appears, in hind-sight).

Metta World Peace? I still can’t call him that. I liked his energy right away when he starred for Mike Jarvis’s way-cool St. John’s teams, and he again endeared himself to me by thanking his psychiatrist while being interviewed after the Lakers won the 2009 NBA title. What an addition to this Wild Bunch!

J.R. Smith is yet another matter: no obscure St. John’s background for him; indeed, no college stop at all. Instead, he came into the N.B.A. from high school, uniquely gifted to span the carnival antinomies of All-Star Weekend and compete in both the dunk and three point shooting competitions. Recently fined $50,000 for failing to heed warnings not to indulge his prankish habit of untying opponents’ shoelaces(!), he seems prone to act out shamelessly (and senselessly).

The Knicks, having switched general managers just five days before the season opened (hiring Steve Mills, mysteriously and unaccountably jettisoning Glen Grunwald, the architect of that 54 win team), had assembled such a diverse group of players that it would be hard for anyone to contain them (think Andrea Bargnani’s laughable passes into the Garden crowd), but that’s The Coach’s job, and Woodson was flailing admirably, more like Robert Redford in All Is Lost than anything in the sports world, except maybe the new Broadway production Bronx Bombers, which closed quickly.

Woody obviously had lost control of the team, and seems also to have lost the faith of Carmelo Anthony, with whom he initially bonded around the jettisoning of Jeremy Lin—now thriving happily as sixth man for title-contending Houston (where an injury to the starting point guard may once again thrust him to center stage).[2] & [3]

Another literary/cinematic model for this Knick team might be Putney Swope, Robert Downey Sr.’s 60s film comedy of an advertising firm that suddenly falls under the control of the only black executive. Putney Swope manages to garner enough votes in an election to become CEO only because the other corporate gamesmen assume the black man has no shot and so throw away their votes on him, hoping to further their own ambitions. Seeing Darryl Walker in spectacles carrying a clip-board cements this Swopian image for me. [4]

The All-Star break surely seemed to demand stock-taking when it came to Woody. It wasn’t pretty: seventeen losses to sub-500 teams! Could there be a better measure, or a firmer condemnation of, poor coaching?

But could anyone coach this team, given its meddling and incompetent owner? Dolan’s true forerunner is that other New York mogul George Steinbrenner, with Woodson his latest Billy Martin. The coach’s imminent firing (the wait seemed to be for someone eminent enough to end the imminence) has been discussed endlessly for months. He appears inured to this, and, indeed, has been mired in controversy ever since he was promoted, when Mike D’Antoni beat Dolan to the punch by removing himself from the helm. But Woodson appears to keep his dignity, in his dark suits and impeccable ties, suffering silently, while waiting for the ax to fall.

Why not go D’Antoni’s route? It can’t be satisfying to keep coaching now. Give us one good soliloquy, Mike.

In the last game before the All-Star break, Jimmer Fredette (Jimmer, no less, whose contract was subsequently bought out!) lit the Knicks up for 25 points after spending the entire first quarter watching (Oh, what he saw!) from the bench. Once he got in, no slow white guy ever had more room: he went 6-8 on egregiously wide-open threes, as New York blew a twelve point third quarter lead at home to a mediocre team (at best). Woodson played Anthony 43 1/2 minutes. The star’s productivity and efficiency steadily declined until he missed the last shot to win in regulation, leading to five more minutes of ever-increasing futility (what Clyde Frazier called “ineptitude”) and wasting a 36 point, 11 rebound performance in a 106-101 loss.

Coming off the All-Star break, the Knicks held a better team (Memphis) at bay on the road, but painfully mismanaged the last two minutes, getting all the wrong people to take three-pointers set up by Carmelo’s unselfish and adroit passes. Somehow, J.R. Smith picked this as the time to be unselfish, passing up a great look to make the extra pass to Pablo Prigioni! The expression on Carmelo’s face made it seem that Project Anthony had run its course, and was—now and henceforth—doomed.

So: what was to be done? The answer, after the All-Star game, was “nothing.” “Nothing can be made of nothing,” as King Lear reminds us, so the slide continued, worsening all the while, with various tragi-comedic sub-plots being incorporated along the way. The trading deadline passed with no relief acquired, except the unloading of the contracts of Artest and noncontributing guard Beno Udrih.

It seemed like maybe we should just turn back the clock to the times when the circus was booked for Madison Square Garden in March, and the Knicks had to host their playoff games in the 69th Regiment Armory.

Even the team’s more stable leaders were losing it. Raymond Felton was arrested for illegally possessing a gun. Who sez Felton (The Post called him “Felon”) can’t shoot? (His field goal percentage was languishing at around 40%.) Tyson Chandler lost his cool the next night, getting into a jousting match with Warrior sub Marreese Speights.

The collapsing Knicks seemed beyond any hope of rallying to take the eighth and last spot in the playoffs, a berth achievable with considerably less than a .500 record in the dramatically weakened Eastern Conference. They lost to Dallas on a Dirk Novitzki’s last-second buzzer-beater that bounced high off the rim before dropping—a shot reminiscent of Don Nelson’s famous 1968 Celtic title saver. Then they encountered Lebron James back from a broken nose (and a missed game) just in time to torture the Knicks some more.

All the while, Carmelo Anthony was playing inspired basketball, putting together consecutive games of 44, 35, and 44, in which he shot 53% but couldn’t manage to lead his hapless teammates to a single win. “Anything that can go wrong is going wrong,” he put it pithily. In the earlier loss to Jimmer Fredertte’s Kings, Anthony’s 24 in the first half had kept the Knicks in the game, until he finally tired, overextended from his recent ordeal of carrying the dying franchise around on his shoulders. Carmelo was playing enough minutes to put one in mind of Bernard King when he tore his ACL in 1985 after carrying too heavy of a burden for Hubie Brown’s fading Knicks.

Losing seven straight (and 13 out of 15 games), the Knicks sank to 21-40. (Where last year’s team had been 37-21, this year’s went 21-37.) A similarly symmetrical 54 losses seemed within reach.

The slide included three futile appearances on national TV in just four days, When Chicago’s Joakim Noah burned them for a triple double that included the most assists (14) for a center since 1985-86, Cacciola described it as “another example of the Knicks offering themselves up as the blank canvas for an opponent’s artistry.” Mister Snark was finding a comfortable home with the Times.

III. Deus Ex Machina: It’s the Management, Stupid.

Then, suddenly, there was a winning streak and talk of hiring Phil Jackson in a front office role. Might such a mega-hire reverse the year’s unfortunate trajectory? Well, there is such a thing as synchronicity, Phil will happily tell you.

After winning their fourth straight against the plummeting 76’ers, the Knicks were 4 1/2 behind Atlanta for the eighth and last playoff spot in the downscale East. Win number five came without Tyson Chandler on the road by a wide margin: 116-92 in Boston. The same day Jackson indicated he would accept the front office position he had been mulling over for a week, contemplating as only he, now widely known as The Zen Master, can.

I fondly recall my first glimpse of Jackson, on local television, when he gangled off Red Holzman’s Knick bench with a strangely effective and massively disruptive rhythm-busting defensive presence. I noted he was the first player I had heard of being from Montana. His skill level was never great, but his length went a long way. And he was a true original.

When he was hired, with only CBA coaching experience, to coach Michael Jordan’s pre-championship Bulls, it seemed an unlikely match. But Jackson embarked on a eleven championship run, six with Michael, five more with Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles. L.A. had become home to Jackson. He has long been engaged to Jeannie Buss, the daughter of the late Jerry Buss, former owner of the Lakers, but apparently still harbored a special feeling for the Knicks.

The winning streak reached eight, and included a road win over Indiana. Despite seeming to have buried themselves in the standings, the Knicks found themselves three back in the loss column of the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks with 12 games left on the schedule.

Then it ended against Cleveland, and was quickly followed by a loss in Los Angeles that was as embarrassing as the Jimmer Fredette fiasco. With Jackson reported to be in Los Angeles, where he visited practice but did not attend the game at Staples Center, the Knicks gave up 51 points (a Laker franchise record for a quarter) in the third quarter, in a 127-96 embarrassment to a terrible Laker team, sporting its worst record since the franchise moved to Los Angeles.

That seemed to clinch matters for the playoffs, but New York won one in Sacramento, then at Golden State, and Atlanta kept losing (20 of 26; five straight after losing Kyle Korver to an injury), and the Knicks, nearing the midst of their Western swing, at 31-43, were just a game behind, as of March 31 with Atlanta at 31-41. Oddly, it was the win column that loomed more important than the loss column, with these decidedly sub-.500 teams battling for a playoff spot. (In the West, the ninth place team—the one that will not advance—stands at .595.)

But are Knick fans really still hoping for a playoff berth? Remember that the last seven games are against playoff teams. Moreover, even if the team grabs that eighth spot, it’ll only be a snark lover’s delight, since the Knicks would face either Miami or Indiana. And it doesn’t change the dispiriting Big Picture: here they are chasing an improbable dream of a merde playoff berth, following (what once seemed like) a rejuvenating 54-win campaign in 2012-13.

Why do we still care? Then again, who can turn away from this bizarre surprise-pregnant odyssey? Phil Jackson is New York’s Ulysses; he’s home again. What a bizarre deux ex machina for this drawn out rapidly fading farce of a season! Corporate resolution: chase success at the management level, rather than on the court.

One recalls the desperate front office gambits after the break-up of Red Holzman’s champions of 1972-73, which focused blindly on the acquisition of expensive individual super-stars Spencer Haywood and Bob McAdoo, without due regard for chemistry or fit. The salary cap is far more complicated now.

But maybe Jax is up to it. I can imagine his text to Woody, Jr, and High Test: “Putney Swope is ovah.” Though he has his own metaphors, once—and seemingly still—fresh to so many of the super-greats, recognizable to all by just a first name, who played for him: Michael, Scottie, Kobe, Shaq. These first-name only stars were no small part of his great success. Now it is his job to accumulate talent that someone else will lead to the promised land. Phil Jackson as Moses? Wait a minute. That first name has already been taken. Then what about Ulysses? But he already has a handle: The Zen Master. The big mystery is what he sees in the Knicks.

Jackson brings a unique mystique and track record of championships. Dolan has promised not to get in his way. Watching the Knicks slaughter the Nets in a critical game on April 2 that put them in a tie with Atlanta (actually, miniscule percentage points ahead, as the win column rules for sub-.500 teams!), I was intrigued by the potential good fit of the triangle offense for the Knicks. Jackson might hire his one-time disciple Steve Kerr to coach, using the resurgent Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, and the emergent star Tim Hardaway, Jr. as ball handlers with Anthony, with Amar’e Stoudemire and Chandler as posts. This scheme could create both a good nucleus and a way to tame and harness Anthony, feature Stoudemire, and do without a real point guard.

With that or any other plan, the question remains whether Dolan, who has been as resistant to reason as Afghanistan has proved to its various invaders, will be calmed by the Zen-inflected manner in which Phil goes about his business. Plenty of tickets will be sold to those with answers and opinions.


1 TNT’s Bleacher Report’s coverage soon came to speculate as to when, not whether, Woodson will be replaced.

2 Taking over as starting point guard- with Patrick Beverley’s injury, Lin may or may not be ensconced in Houston.

3 Perhaps the most intriguing Knick re-vamping possibility involves Carmelo Anthony moving to Houston to team with James Harden and Dwight Howard, with Lin returning to New York.

4 Mr. Walker was not exactly a cerebral player with the Knicks! Still slender, he prowls the huddle carefully, giving the impression that he could still make a good floor dive, should he drop that board. C’mon, Darryl. Talk to J.R. a little.

culturewatch Bob Liss 2014-04-07T09:23:32-05:00
Phantoms of Liberty I recently read two memoirs: Luis Buñuel's Mi último suspiro and Reinaldo Arenas' Antes que anochezca. Buñuel's memoir ends with the word tumba and Arenas' ends with the word noche: words that are like broken talismans or coins that have lost their value with the vertiginous inflation of illness and the regime change that is death.

Both Buñuel and Arenas made their homes just next to the impossible, and so it's impossible to pity them. One day, they knew, the words "tomb" and "night" would cease to be subversive, erotic, incantatory. One day Buñuel would wake up to find that his renowned libido had disappeared and Arenas would walk into a public urinal in New York and discover that no one wanted to play games with him anymore. Then the words would be nothing more than homages to themselves, and finally, not even homages, but the empty, hypocritical, lugubrious silence that both men abhorred.

Both books are stalked by the phantoms of dictators. Buñuel, famously and antically, forgave his, while Arenas' hatred for Castro perfected itself as it approached the asymptote of his death. Arenas signed off his suicide note with the following peroration: Cuba will be free. I already am. Those are the words of a fanatic. But, to be fair, Castro never invited Arenas back to Cuba to write novels in the way that Franco invited Buñuel to film Viridiana in Spain. (There is a famous Mexican cartoon of Buñuel being greeted by a smiling Franco while in the background a Spanish republican calls Buñuel a traitor. In the second frame, Buñuel hands a ribbon-wrapped box to Franco and walks away. In the third frame, the box explodes in Franco's face, and the protester shuts up. But what really happened is that Franco liked Viridiana, or at least he wasn't imaginative or zealous enough to find anything offensive in it. Sometimes, it seems, the game of history is played for nothing, nothing is at stake, a terrorist and a bourgeois or a dictator and an exile are just two sides of the same coin, two negotiations with chance, but then there are men like Arenas who don't forgive, and there's something tough and admirable in that attitude, although it's an asphyxiating attitude, an impossible attitude).

Buñuel's memoir could actually serve as the True Dictionary of the Avant-Garde—a river leading to oblivion in which it is possible to bathe over and over again—but then if you opened one of the innumerable trapdoors hidden inside the Dictionary, you would find yourself in one of Castro's concentration camps for homosexuals and the names Eisenstein, Brecht, Tzara, Éluard, Aragon, Crevel (yes, even Crevel!), Siqueiros, Rivera, Kahlo, Marquez, Cortázar, etc., would all be jailers or informers or apparatchiks of the Seguridad de Estado or worse, and the names of the saints would be dubious (Borges) or grotesque (Gombrowicz), or, to stick to Cuba, they would be the names of Catholic queers (Lezama Lima) or atheist nymphos (Virgilio Piñera).

On the subject of Borges, there is a rare point of agreement between the two authors. Buñuel, who writes that he doesn't like the blind, compares Borges to two blind men he once saw jerking each other off in a park, and says that Borges dreams incessantly and sycophantically of winning the Nobel Prize, while Arenas quotes Piñera's advice to the Argentinian people: "Kill Borges," although he thinks the Left is conspiring to withhold the Prize from Borges.

In Arenas' memoir, you won't find advice on how to make a first-rate martini (with a convoluted analogy about vermouth and Aquinas' theory of the Holy Spirit passing through the hymen of the Virgin Mary). In Buñuel's memoir, you won't find out much about poverty. In neither will you find extended meditations on the artistic process (as if art were committed in the margins of life, which is how it should be), although you will find that the artistic instinct is intimately connected to alcohol, sex, stoicism, and an uncompromising hatred of the powerful. In both memoirs, you will find instructions on how to die, or imaginative cartographies of possible deaths.

In The Exterminating Angel, one of the psychically blocked dinner guests fondly recalls how she felt nothing when she saw a third-class carriage run off the rails and crush its occupants to death. The lower classes have a lower sensitivity to pain, anyway, she says, like bulls when they're castrated. Arenas' memoir doesn't dwell on the pain of the poor and of animals. Instead, he talks about their anarchic capacity for pleasure in a way that proves the Rick Santorums of the world right. The state and morality are punitive and annihilating, according to both Buñuel and Arenas, and there can be no Third Way, no quarter given, no historic compromise.

A friend of mine once told me that when she was ten years old, she wrote her first poem. The poem was only one line in length and it was scrawled in red crayon on a piece of yellow construction paper. It was more of a proverb than a poem, actually, although it was more of a dithyramb than an proverb. The poem could have been written by Reinaldo Arenas while he was in a Cuban prison or while he was dying of AIDS in New York. It could also have been featured in a gulag version of "Kids Say the Darndest Things" (with Andrei Zhdanov playing the role of Bill Cosby and with proud or sheepish parents replaced by terrified parents facing a firing squad). The poem was written for a school assignment ("Compose a sentence using a metaphor"). The poem went:

The road to hell is paved with Fidel Castro.

Beneath the text was an illustration of a supine and gigantic Castro, like a felled Gulliver, over whom walked smiling figures, figures drunk on utopia, into a fiery pit swarming with devils. From the poem, one can deduce that my friend's parents fell somewhere on the spectrum between penitent ex-radicalism and quietist liberalism (if one looks closer one could possibly see them on the edge of the abyss of post-Cold War melancholy, muttering softly to their daughter, Fidel Castro had good intentions). One can also deduce that a child's mind, like a poet's mind, is more alive to metonymy than to metaphor, because metaphors (like prayers) are inherently reactionary, formulaic and petrifying, whereas true poetry, the poetry of Orpheus, melts stones, liquefies truth (which is to say, orthodoxy), so that if you want to kill a poet you can't do it with ideology, you have to kill him (or her) with your bare hands, the way the Circonian women killed Orpheus, you have to tear him (or her) to shreds or fuck him (or her) to death. Because true poetry, my friend realized many years later, finds the hidden grain in objects, releases the souls imprisoned in objects, telescopes the mysterious connection between objects and words, which is the opposite of what states do when they anesthetize objects with dead words, annihilating metaphors, stupefying tautologies. But the poets (the true poets) aren't taken in, they continue to talk (they don't sing anymore, true poetry now is always scribbled or spoken in the margins of prose), and that's why the state has to put them in prison or kill them off with AIDS, or buy them off with sinecures, or just ignore them, that's why they wouldn't leave poor Reinaldo Arenas alone, although we shouldn't let the poets themselves off the hook, I mean the false poets, the ones who don't contradict themselves, the ones who hold conferences and want to put poetry on life support, the dreary poets of the official Left who want to save Empire by criticizing Empire, who want to annex more territory for poetry, like Whitman who supported annexing half of Mexico for American poetry, the poets who sign petitions, the poets with good intentions, the poets who want to bring Waiting for Godot to the huddled Third World masses of Sarajevo and New Orleans, the poets who command us to weep and to feel false sentiments, the poets who drone on about conscience, the poets who do not feel the shame Adorno talked about, the shame of still having air to breathe in hell.

It says something about history, or maybe just about dying, that both Buñuel and Arenas—who were capable of profound joy and profound tolerance—conclude their memoirs in a place that surpasses pessimism, that does in fact resemble hell, in a wistful anticipation of apocalypse. But of course, as a communist once said, it's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

world David Golding 2014-04-07T04:06:46-05:00
Chattanooga and the UAW Nearly forty years ago today, the United Auto Workers (UAW) successfully organized a foreign auto transplant in the United States. The dismal denouement of that sequence in labor history is critical to understanding the defeat of the UAW’s organizing drive at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee in February 2014.

Back in 1978, the UAW organized the work force in Volkswagen’s new plant at New Stanton, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania which produced the “Rabbit,” a small subcompact car targeted at the American market. Since VW had garnered plaudits and profits from the popularity of the “Beetle” and the beloved “hippie-mobile,” the VW bus, expectations ran high as the plant ramped up production. Company officials spoke confidently of capturing five percent of the American market and projected the new plant, VW’s first in the United States, would be essential to meet the envisioned demand. Nine years later, Volkswagen announced it would close the following year, eliminating 2500 jobs at the plant and a lesser number at VW’s American offices in Detroit. The union denounced the decision as revealing “a shortsighted, bottom-line mentality” that “betrays a loyal and productive U. S. workforce in Pennsylvania.”

But, as so often is the case, a deeper reality belied angry claims of the moment. VW had dramatically overestimated the Rabbit’s appeal. The car’s sales peaked at 3 percent of the U.S. market in 1980. By the time the company announced the closing in November 1987, that figure had dropped to 1.9%. VW remained a model of efficiency and workplace collaboration, but there had been a “revolution” in the American market. By 1987, 35 models of small-sized, economical autos were sold by foreign manufacturers in America, some manufactured in South Korea, Yugoslavia, Mexico, or Europe; others in Japanese-owned plants in the U.S. Continually undersold, VW cut its losses and closed shop.

The 1980s had witnessed, as we now grasp, the first sustained effect of a fundamental transformation of manufacturing and the industrial economy, both in the U. S. and throughout the industrialized world. Technological innovation—robotics and digitalization—was already a factor in manufacturing. And change was also driven by a race to the bottom rooted in low-wage countries where governments offered corporate-friendly policies and financial inducements. Simultaneously, foreign car producers, including Nissan, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, and, in time, VW again, shifted a percentage of their production to the United States, largely in the American South. All these developments put pressure on Detroit’s Big Three auto companies and on the UAW as well. The 1980s marked the start of the union’s decline. In 1979, the UAW reported some 1.5 million members. That figure has dropped drastically since and, in 2013, the UAW comprised less than 400,000 members, with only about two-thirds of them still working in the auto industry.

Union organizers in Chattanooga, though, seemed to be beating these trends earlier this year. In the run-up to the vote to join or reject the UAW, many observers thought victory was at hand. The company, following German tradition, and reinforced by the insistence of its German union, I. G. Metall, had stayed neutral. The UAW had begun organizing, with adequate funds, two years before the vote, and, in the months before the election, reported that a majority of the workforce had signed cards supporting the drive. What went wrong?

The internet and the traditional press have crackled with answers to that question since the February 14th results were announced. While explanations have varied, most commentators have cited the intervention of politicians in the closing months and/or criticized the union’s strategy and tactics. (Those who welcomed the results harped on related themes, though in triumphal tones.) Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam and U. S. Senator Bob Corker had both publicly threatened a union victory might result in a withdrawal of attractive state inducements if VW wished to open a second plant in Chattanooga. Their threats seemed weighty in the wake of VW’s recent decision to build a new Audi plant in Mexico. UAW president, Bob King, speaking with Time Magazine, expressed his fury at this “outside influence…It’s never happened in this country before…[that state and national politicians] threatened the company with no incentives, threatened workers with a loss of product.” King had his own critics. Their ire was raised by his (and the union’s) soft approach to VW. In 2011, this argument goes, King and the union approached VW in an overly conciliatory fashion to discuss the planned organizing drive. King was aware, of course, of VW’s traditional stance on labor relations, and both company and union knew I. G. Metall’s representatives on VW’s Board of Directors had been instrumental in framing the company’s position. King’s critics imply that if the UAW had taken a more aggressive stance, focused on creating community support, it might well have won over enough workers to reverse the close 712-626 election. Per Nicole Aschoff’s analysis in Jacobin: “The UAW needs to examine its fighting roots and remember where power comes from…rank and file workers.”

Any conversation that talks up the UAW’s “fighting roots” in the rank and file means to evoke the central mythos of UAW history, the famous Flint sit-down strike in 1937. That historic victory not only won union recognition at General Motors, but served as the inspirational template for generations of organizers: Trust the rank and file’s militancy, learn from their courage and tactics, and approach the corporation with the wary alertness of a combatant in struggle. But as my Cornell colleague, Louis Hyman, pointed out last year in Huff Post Business, that heroic version of the working class in struggle misses the central strategic lesson of the Flint strike. The Flint plant alone made the auto bodies for the entire GM system at that time. To close Flint then was to close every GM production plant, and all of the corporation’s suppliers as well. GM learned from Flint never to make that strategic mistake again.

When it comes to learning curves, important figures in the UAW and many of its supporters failed to keep up with the industry. At the 1984 UAW convention, then-president Owen Bieber vowed to organize all seven Japanese plants operating or planned in the U.S. Of the Honda plant in Marysville, Ohio, Bieber pledged: “If it takes five months or five years, the outcome of Honda in Ohio will be the same as it was for G.M. 50 years ago in Flint.” The Marysville plant remains non-union today. And, with the exception of two joint venture plants in Illinois and California, where American and foreign manufacturers worked with the UAW, there has been no successful union organizing drive in auto transplants since Westmoreland. Why?

It is not by accident that most auto transplants are located in the American South. (Though those that went elsewhere to Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio remain non-union too.) The region has “a global brand” as a union-free environment—as Micheline Maynard wrote in Forbes following the VW vote—which it proudly advertises and fiercely protects. And that brand isn’t limited to the auto industry. Take the example of union efforts to organize the textile industry in Kannapolis, North Carolina. Organizers called the first election in 1939; many elections later, the workers voted in the union in 1999, by a 52-48% margin. Four years later the company—then owned by Pillowtex—declared an “immediate and total liquidation” following bankruptcy proceedings and closed the Kannapolis plant.

One question that emerges from this painful history concerns the thinking of the majority of Southern workers (and that 48% in 1999) who have repeatedly voted against unionization since 1939. What’s on their mind? It’s not likely that an appeal to the “fighting roots” of the labor movement will speak to them. To succeed in the American South, as many union organizers well know, demands a sensitivity to cultural attitudes that can be profoundly difficult for outsiders to grasp. American culture, in general, but the South in particular, has nurtured an individualism inherently resistant to institutional structures and collective authority. A lone worker may accept the power of his or her employer as a given, but “joining up” with others, especially when union activism may result in the loss of one’s livelihood, is often very difficult. Moreover, for many Southerners, unionism seem at odds with their received sense of American patriotism. Many Southerners across class lines define unions as alien—institutions that belong to a suspect, northern (read liberal) culture. Religious beliefs and faith-based communal practices reinforce such attitudes, a compelling factor in a region suffused with a conservative theological understanding of evangelical Christianity. Then there’s race. Unions have meant integration in the South, and that has encouraged white working people to resist union drives longer than in other sections of the country. Employers such as those in Kannapolis limited the number of African Americans to 25% of the work force as late as the 1980s since black workers tended to support unions. This entire complex of cultural and racial attitudes isn’t set in concrete. The South has seen important changes. Still, the region’s distinctive mix of individualism, conformism and racism remains potent.

Beyond “culture” there’s basic economics. We have read much in recent years about American firms outsourcing manufacturing jobs in pursuit of lower wage costs. Apple’s massive Chinese supplier, Foxconn, with nearly 1 million workers in 2012, has received extensive criticism for their cost-cutting imperatives. But German auto manufacturers’ approach to the American South is informed by the same logic. Given production costs in Germany, the American South is a low wage site, and it’s prime territory for that reason. Broadscale hostility to unions in the South makes the region attractive to Euro and Asian corporations, but so does the South’s ongoing history of low wages and serious un-(and under)employment, notwithstanding the “recovery” from the 2008 recession. When VW Chattanooga prepared to open in 2011, for example, it received 80,000 applications for 2,000 jobs. In 2014, as those workers with VW jobs voted not to join the union, 27 percent of Chattanoogans lived below the poverty threshold of $19,530 for a family of three. A $30,000 a year job with benefits was enormously attractive—a lifeline for employees and their families who felt lucky to grab hold.

The wage issue loomed large for certain workers who voted against unionization. Sharply aware of the two-tiered wage system the UAW had accepted for its Detroit members, where new hires received as much as 30% less than more experienced workers, a significant number of Chattanooga workers calculated they already made as much, if not more, than new hires would receive in the new contract. The union, moreover, has not won major increases for any of its workers. As David Barkholz wrote in Automotive News: “The value proposition to VW workers [in Chattanooga] just wasn’t there.”

Finally, there is the unavoidable issue of capital flight. Every worker is at the mercy of his or her employer—whether American or foreign-owned—since it can pick up and move wherever it wishes, whenever it wishes. As long as legal obligations are met, no law prevents a private firm from executing its judgment of what’s in its best interests, as Jefferson Cowie’s Capital Moves details so well. Furthermore, as much as 50 percent of autos sold in the United States are already manufactured in non-union plants, either in transplants here or in plants abroad. Little wonder, then, that the UAW continues to wane. Its decline, of course, is one chapter in the current deterioration of American unionism. Unionization in the private sector is now under 7 percent, down from approximately 35 percent in the mid-1950s. While public sector unionization remains in the mid-30 percent range, that’s likely to fall in the near future. Steven Greenhouse’s recent, depressing analysis in the New York Times of the impact of Wisconsin’s Act 10, which severely restricted the right of public-employee unions to collective bargaining, is suggestive on this front. And Wisconsin’s experience isn’t limited to one state. Michigan may be close to the heart of UAW history and myth, but it endorsed a referendum last fall to make it a right-to-work state, which legally enables the governor to follow the Wisconsin model.

Any discussion of the Chattanooga story that ends on an upbeat note is dishonest. Calls for worker militancy, untethered to a realistic strategy, may be momentarily stirring. But such rhetoric is ultimately distracting, and potentially destructive. It’s possible a particular plant might win union recognition in the near future. Union supporters now look to workers in the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, who will vote to unionize this summer. Yet the fact the union in Canton has been organizing for nine years suggests such a victory, if achieved, won’t signal the start of an immediate turnaround. The broader transformation of manufacturing, the dominant power of capital, and the deep differences among working people in the dailiness of their social, cultural, and/or political lives are undeniable. For unions, the current situation makes for an environment that’s as daunting as the 1920s, or perhaps even the 1880s. Heroic myths are self-defeating and, to borrow from Bertolt Brecht, the essential if difficult task is to start, not from the “good old” days, but from “the bad new ones.”

grindstone Nick Salvatore 2014-04-07T03:33:13-05:00
Democratic Promise: An Open Letter to Adolph Reed I’ve been expecting you to rain on “Obamamania” for years so your Harpers piece last month didn’t come out of the blue. Though it feels a little inapposite to since your analysis nicely eschews authorial narcissism. You don’t go in for the sort of brazen self-aggrandizement that makes other wannabe-prominent leftist critics of our president seem mean and Unger-y—per that old YouTube video by Harvard Law Professor Roberto Mangabeira Unger As you’ll recall, this former teacher and backer of Obama insisted the president “must be defeated” in 2012. From Unger’s hemeroidal upside down angle, a G.O.P. win would’ve magically flipped the Democratic Party—leading to its “reorientation…as the vehicle of the progressive alternative.” You’re up for a progressive revival too, but you’re under no illusions loss is more. Your long view shouldn’t be confused with Unger’s selfie politics. It goes beyond any single election season.

That’s why you begin with Bill Clinton (and if you’d had more space, I bet you’d’ve brought up Jimmy Carter). But your double-troubling title, “Nothing Left,” isn’t aimed only at ambitious Democratic pols who reached the White House. It puts a hurt on millenarian American radicalism even as it echoes Christopher Hitchens’ polemic against Bill Clinton—Nobody Left to Lie To. Hitchens once said you were America’s sharpest argufier and your piece’s compactions—starting with that title—prove you haven’t lost your knack. Your list of faux-lefts—"youth/students; undocumented immigrants; the Iraqi labor movement; the Zapatistas; the urban ‘precariat’; green whatever; the Black/Latin/LBGT ‘Community’; the grassroots; the netroots and the blogosphere; this season’s worthless Democrat; Occupy; a ‘Trotskyist’ soft-ware engineer elected to the Seattle City Council”—is truly Reedy. Though I can't say your wit didn't wound as it wowed—I felt your shot at those (like me) who made much of Iraq’s post-Saddam unionists.

You’ll allow, though, the number of leftists with a weakness for stories about workers of the Levant is tiny. Which brings me to my first plaint about “Nothing Left.” While it’s good your contrarianism lands you in unobvious places, you often seem oddly inattentive to what’s right in front of your nose. Take your make-over of Paul Krugman. In your presentation, he’s a straight talker stinging beamish leftists who realized (too late) Obama wasn’t a “Nation-type progressive.” Maybe Krugman has been a scourge of the Nation. But isn’t he much better known for being a proud—some might say vain—critic of the Obama Administration’s fiscal responses to the Great Recession?

Not that you’re required to keep up with the flight of waspish columnists or monitor Cable News yada yada. It’s probably better for your soul as well as your temper to skip most of MSNBC’s inside dopes. Your anomalous historicism, however, isn’t a patch on up to the minute political reportage and analysis available on, say, Chris Hayes' nightly show. BTW, Hayes should invite you on to talk about your piece. Though its news value isn’t amped up by Harper’s layout. In the...wide margins of “Nothing Left” we get this: "Perceptions of Obama's difference from all other Democratic candidates was bound up in his becoming the first black president." That's a pull quote? In 2014?

Course your argument is founded on an a priori assumption there’s Nothing-New-Under-the-Sun in Obamatime. Which reminds me of other moments when leftists refused to be surprised by events other Americans seemed to think were a big f---ing deal. On that score, I’d trace roots of Obama’s rise not to Clinton’s era but to the post 9/11 period when Americans—outside the Vichy Left and provinces where New York haters ruled—were shocked into an unusual sense of comity. A few years on, Obama's brotherly positivity about America (which was bluesy and Hughesy: "let America be America again—The land that never has been yet—") spoke to a memory of felt unity alive in the country after 9/11 (and lost in the wake of Operation Iraqi Freedom). But things done changed again. When you trash Obama's "jingoistic oratory," you seem like a prophet in a country time forgot since right-wingers keep bashing the president for failing to uphold American exceptionalism. I'm guessing your anachronistic diss of Obama's supposed jingoism bespeaks more than a lack of currency. You seem peeved by Obama's "casual references to the left's excesses and Socialism's failure"? You’re right to notice Obama's good-byes to all that. Unlike you, though, I'm glad he cops to what everyone in the party of hope should never forget.

You’re also irritated Obama finds wisdom in conservatism. But I’m cool with that too since it hasn't killed his melioristic drive. It’s a no-brainer Obama’s no utopian as you underline by invoking Russell Jacoby's End of Utopia. Jacoby might be on your side now. But check his First reflection on the state of politics 5 years after 9/11. He started with a key antimony—Islamic fascism v. our old dog of a democracy—that’s gone missing from “Nothing Left.” Your critique of Obama for expanding "American aggression and slaughter into Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and who knows where else” seems pretty vacant. The following passage of Jacoby’s implicitly indicts you for shifting blame away from nihilists who attacked America first (and got our quandaries started):

A left flags when the status quo is better than the alternative. Today this is almost the case–not intellectually, but emotionally. Those who disembowel Dutch film makers, riot over Danish cartoons, behead American journalists, issue death sentences for English writers and slay Algerian novelists seek a future that makes the Inquisition look like a PTA meeting. We have nothing in common with them.

Jacoby’s lines take us back to the post 9/11 conjuncture that added resonance to candidate Obama’s patriotic prompts. (When Obama laid down black and white history lessons in his most famous speech, “A More Perfect Union”, he spoke of Jeremiah Wright’s world-view “as one that that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.”) But Jacoby also flashed forward to the president’s domestic agenda. Note how your favorite utopian focused on the minimum wage and healthcare back in 2006:

Yet to defend a bad establishment against a movement that is worse is one thing. To forget it is bad is another. The captains of government that are unwilling to raise the meager minimal wage–now $ 5.15 an hour–without exempting $10 million estates from taxes deserve a fate they will probably escape. These same folk call special congressional sessions to intervene in the case of one brain-damaged woman and contentedly watch millions scramble for health care amid a collapsed system...

As it happens, me and my immediate family have been scrambling for health care recently. I lost my gig last year. No way for me to protect my wife and 10 year old without the Affordable Care Act. Serious biz for me and millions of others benefiting from Medicaid expansion. Forgive an ad hominem, but is it possible your own status as a longtime prof who's had healthcare guaranteed forever lies behind your exceptionally flat response to Obama's landmark legislation? The terms of your argument seem to require you to dismiss ACA, yet it’s undeniable: the biggest add-on to the Safety Net since the Social Security Act of 1965.

ACA surely undercuts your equation of Obama with Clinton(s). Obama once sought to distinguish himself from Bill Clinton’s minimalism by saying he wasn't interested in becoming president to do school uniforms. He wouldn't gloat about that today, but he's lived up to his promise to go BIG. He doesn’t deserve all the credit for hanging in when ACA was on the ropes. But it took guts to resist Rahm Emanuel’s advice to scale back ACA after Dems lost that Massachusetts senate race (and their filibuster-proof majority) in early 2010. Wouldn't a cautious Clinton have rolled with Rahm? Obama, by contrast, pressed on. (You ever read his moving speech on Martin Luther King Day in 2010 right before Scott Brown won in Massachusetts? Obama's churchy channeling of King on a doomy night when he sensed Brown was headed for victory might mean more down the line than those jokey Jeremiads about Popeyes chicken that give you heartburn.)

Leftists outraged Obama didn't preside over enactment of single payer or public option seem to allow (in the end) he got all there was to get out of a Congress with DINOs like Max Baucus. Would you argue nothing should’ve been done for the 30,000,000 uninsured until there's a workers' movement in America strong enough to make America Canada? Maybe that's in the cards, but it seems folks like me and my wife and 10 year old should be grateful to Obama in the meantime.

There's a hole in the heart of your piece here. I know you've given years of your life to an honorable effort to establish a Labor Party in America. It strikes me your case against Obama would be more...honorable if you addressed your own failures as an organizer. Isn't it less than large-minded not to notice the local pol cum slick Harvard grad you watched emerge in Chicago back in the day has done a helluva lot more for everyday people than Labor Partiers like you (and me—hey, I paid LP dues!)? While you’re snarky about those who joined Obama's "movement” perhaps you have more in common with them than you suspect. You might pick up on Jedediah Purdy rethinking (in First) his Obama-inspired faith political transformation could come from "the rhetoric and the sentiment:" "you have to be fighting for things—concrete things—and the poetry and the feeling grow up around them." Purdy also sounds like you when he talks up the need for "institutional development." But his learning curve doesn't get him so twisted he pisses on Obama from a great height or denies ACA is a "major moral achievement."

New believers in the need to organize around "concrete things" might note the success of campaigns against Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and for gay marriage. Progress on gay rights, though, seems beneath your radar which only detects class-based redistributionist politics. You don’t mention end games of Don't Ask Don't Tell or DOMA (which undo your Clinton=Obama equation since those policies date back to the Clinton era). Yet the President’s anti-discrimination interventions are not…nothing. In the fullness of time universal Civil Rights may even prove foundational for the pursuit of economic justice. I'm reminded just now how a working class hero—a First contributor and comrade of yours—mocked recent advances by gays: So the Wall Street bond trader gets to marry his boyfriend. It's a fine goof on forms of gay millennialism that sound like money. OTOH there are lots of gays in the working class. (Occurs to me you and your comrade might re-read Last Exit to Brooklyn.) And to come back to the non-trivial saga of Don't Ask Don't Tell, the Department of Defense is not only larger than any financial services company; it's the biggest employer in America.

Though our army will get smaller (if Putin doesn’t kill Obama’s vibe) due in part to our president’s singular approach to foreign policy. The difference he once cited (per the quote you contemn in your piece: “a president who still has a grandmother living in a hut on the shores of Lake Victoria and has a sister who’s half-Indonesian, married to a Chinese-Canadian”) made a difference from the jump. Consider how Obama broke with the American Foreign Policy Establishment’s consensual wisdom in his Cairo speech—that great refusal of thin internationalism of diplomats and pundits “who when they say, ‘Egypt this,’ ‘Israel that,’ ‘America this’ really refer to about 50 people in each of those countries.”[1] Obama’s speech may not have inspired the Arab Awakening but it’s part of the prologue. If Obama hadn’t beaten Hillary, America might not be negotiating with Iran right now. (You’ll recall Obama took heat back in the 2008 campaign for saying he’d talk with our enemies there.) Without Obama’s worldly, inside-Out instinct, we might still be propping up Mubarak. And we wouldn't have led from behind to change Qaddafi’s regime. (Have you read Michael Lewis’s account of how that went down? He reveals how Obama pushed past nada options offered up by European allies, the Pentagon and his Cabinet. Lewis describes meetings where Obama subverted “status structures,” looking for input from staffers beneath the principals and generals in the Situation Room. With those subalterns’ help he made policy that prevented a mass atrocity in Benghazi and eventually liberated Libya.)

Your notion Obama’s just another drone-loving drone of Imperial America reminds me of Cornel West's recent demagogic turn at the Newark Memorial service for Amiri Baraka. West talked smack about Biden’s recent trip to Sharon’s funeral in Israel, hyping up memories of black-Jewish tension. Obama’s more-progressive-than-thou hater got what he wanted: reactionary shouts and murmurs. But the truth Obama is a bete noire to AIPAC and Netanyahu marches on. No guarantees Obama will overcome powers-that-Bibi but surely you shouldn’t go West since you've been committed to the Palestinian cause for decades. I'm reminded of Martin King's line: "we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends."

I may be more attuned to your silences than many of your readers. When you write: “Obama was able to win the presidency only because the changes his election supposedly signified had already taken place.”—I’m struck by the absence of any reference to your own failed projections on this front. In the “cold light” after Super Tuesday in 2008, you found it “difficult to believe [Obama] could become president.” Your (new?) faith in demography as destiny seems like another way to avoid a nod to Obama’s… unbelievable achievement. Didn’t Paul Berman nail that?

I find myself thinking this election is the most inspiring event in American history...Big successes in the American past have been accompanied by a small, unobstrusive asterisk, which leads your eye to the bottom of the page, where you find the extra clause, which says: “Democracy is fine and good for most people, and yet, for various unfortunate reasons, one part of the American population is hereby excluded.” The asterisk has meant that America is living a lie. Even at America’s grandest moments. But no longer! Not on this one point, anyway. The election just now is the first large event in American history that can be recorded without an asterisk.

I shouldn’t complain too much at your uninspired take on Obama’s election, given you’ve been one of the most penetrating critics of Afro-American identity politics ever since you published The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon (1986). Maybe it’s best for the Next Left if you stay outside Obama’s Big Tent, punching class-conscious holes in diversity-first politics. There are other heads, though, who managed to keep hard class structures in mind while being fully alive to Obama’s sweet leap forward. In an interview that amounted to his final testament, the late Lawrence Goodwyn interrupted an urgent disquisition on American history to tell a Texas tale that brought home how “marginal non-bankers like you, me, and U.S. Presidents are.” But Goodwyn still argued Obama was a president for the Ages: “Those aren’t softballs Obama’s every card-carrying white supremacist in the Republican Party knows.” A line that reminds me how the late Amiri Baraka cut to the race when confronted with (what he called) “soi disant” radicals unimpressed by Obama’s win in 2008: “First of all the election of Obama has done more to bring some aspect of equality to the society than reams of pseudo-leftist posturing.”

Baraka grasped complexities of Obama’s role as an anti-racist exemplar, chiding those who trashed the candidate’s careful approach to a “black agenda”: “He’s not running to be president of the NAACP!” This black Marxist also saw Obama was something other than a tribune of the working class. It occurs to me a passage from Baraka’s unillusioned report on the 1988 Democratic Convention (which is a soulful complement to your critique of Jesse Jackson’s politics) defines a horizon that’s beyond Obama’s emotional and political reach. Baraka preserved the immortal litany for the Rainbow’s working class in Jesse’s great ’88 Convention speech—“Most working people are not on welfare. They work hard every day that they can. They sweep the streets. They work. They catch the early bus. They work. They pick up the garbage. They work. They feed our children in school. They work. They take care of other people’s children and cannot take care of their own...” Baraka’s invaluable historical record reminds us Obama lacks Jesse’s capacity to get mighty real about lives on the margin. One can be moved—even exalted—by Obama’s rhetoric and accomplishments without pretending he’s realized the democratic promise of Jesse’s Rainbow Coalition. The double truth of it is: Obama’s “movement” got over the rainbow without sublating it.

But I don’t want to diminish Obama’s victory. So let me do my own historicizing thing by placing a couple graphs in Baraka’s essay on the Rainbow side by side with a passage from a report in the New York Review of Books that captures the flavor of an Obama rally during the last triumphal stages of the 2008 campaign. (I had an occasion to cite those same graphs last month—sorry if I seem stuck on them.) Here’s Baraka:

Jesse was blowing hard and pretty, like a rhythm blade cut through most of us. “We didn’t eat turkey on three o’clock on Thanksgiving day, because Momma was off cooking someone else’s turkey. We’d play football to pass the time till momma came home. Around six we would meet her at the bottom of the hill carrying back Du Carcass.”

...In the transcript of the speech that has now been changed to “leftovers.” But he and we who heard know what he said and what he meant. That indeed this merriment was much like a holiday, and yes there were those of us down here who weren’t involved in the real business, we were just the marginalia the bubbles rising off the heady brew. We wanted to eat now, but all we were gonna get was Du Carcass, some leftovers. The white men and quite a few white women had already...

Twenty years on, as Obama spoke to his base at a rally in Chicago’s Vernon Park (per that NYRB report from the 2008 Campaign trail), the crowd wasn’t looking at leftovers; they were anticipating just deserts:

When Obama launched into his story with “Because I love pie,” a woman out in that sea of cheering, laughing people shouted back, “I'll make you pie, baby!”...The laughter rose and you could hear not only the women but the deep laughter of the men taking delight in the double entendre that was not only about the women and their laughing, teasing offers and about their pie that that lanky confident smiling young man knew how to eat and enjoy and judge, but even more now, amazingly, as people came one by one to recognize, about something else. To those people gathered in Vernon Park that bright sun-drenched morning, it was an even more titillating and more pleasurable double entendre, for it was most clearly about something they'd never had but hoped and dreamed of having and now had begun to believe they were within the shortest of short distances of finally tasting.

Middle-class Afro-Americans and folk closer to the grassroots were on the verge together. But your bloodless analysis leaves them out of “Nothing Left.” And this elision seems tactical rather than forgetful since you make space for “indulged upper middle class Children of the Corn” and Slavo Zizek’s bloviation—“Obama’s victory is a sign of history in the triple Kantian sense of sigmun rememorativum, demonstratum, prognosticum.” Your, um, reason for citing Zizek’s shtick (“not usually a faddish enthusiast”—huh?) seems irreal. It’s hard not to think he’s there as an easy target—your argument’s Jerry Quarry. If you really care to follow public intellectuals who serve as interlocutors between Obama and his base, you might try Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Atlantic blog. (I bet Obama surfs it.) Thanks in part to Coates’ call and response with his “horde” of respondents, he’s become something close to an organic intellectual for the black nation. Coates’ blog isn’t an Obama echo chamber—Coates has called out the president (most famously during the Sherrod episode and most recently for indulging in the black-on-black auto-critique that enrages you too). But his vigorous popularizations of scholarship about slavery, the civil war and government policies implemented since the New Deal that amounted to affirmative action for white people remind me of an insight of Norman Mailer's (cited recently by Aram Saroyan in Door to the River, Essays and Reviews from the 1960s into the Digital Age):

I knew that I as an American...looked upon the president as one of the centers of our dream life. And it seemed to me that a lot of history is made in this country by the way that people react to their dream life. In other words, shifts in public opinion come out of many elements that are not available to the historians. One of them is whether the president of the United States gives people energy in their inner lives, their dream lives, their unspoken lives. Or whether he takes it from them.

Those American dreamers Mailer invokes above weren’t just white folks. (Amiri Baraka once recalled how FDR was one of his two childhood heroes; the other being Joe Louis.) But no-one has to buy into jive about a unitary “Black Community” to grasp why Afro-Americans might be particularly juiced by an Obama Effect. Contra Matt Taibbi (who saw Obama back in 2008 as a “human cipher, a man without race, ideology, geographic allegiances, or indeed sharp edges of any kind”), you’re surely right Obama “is not without race; he embodies it...” Though that’s not all there is to his persona. And it won’t do for you to insist his politics amount to a triumph of “image and identity over content.” That’s belied by his “obstinate will to do better” (to lift Kolakowski’s definition of democracy). Do you really mean to imply Obama is another David—“Anyone-for-tennis?”—Dinkins? Or worse—the lazy taker-in-chief of right-wing nightmares?

When it comes to the president’s approach to liberal governance, I think you trip on something real when you quote Taibbi’s assertion Obama aims “for the middle of the middle of the middle.” Holding the Center: In Defense of Political Trimming by Eugene Goodheart focuses on this aspect of Obama’s politics. Like you, Goodheart means to place Obama in history, but Holding the Center takes in a larger span of the past than “Nothing Left.” It’s a short book, but it’s not thin. Grounded in the best liberals have thought and done, Goodheart’s essay collection ranges across the past couple of centuries to illuminate Obama’s leadership style.

Goodheart’s term “trimming” is a word with a heavy negative valence in my house (right down there with hopefully, that term beloved by do nothings). But he rescues trimming from traductions that made it synonymous with C.Y.A. He recovers the original (nautical) meaning, treating it as a term of art for sincere efforts to steer the ship of state straight. Goodheart allows there are moments when political trimmers are out of time. (His book ends with a brief appendix on the struggle over how to respond to the Nazi threat between Churchill and an English trimmer, Lord Halifax, whose temporizing instincts “did not serve him or his country well.”) But Goodheart has revived a political tradition that should inform our imagiNation right here, right now.

The trimmer tries to find common ground between extremes not fore sake of compromise but because reason does not have a single location on the political spectrum. The great modern philosophical avatars of trimming are Alexis de Tocqueville, John Stewart Mill, Mathew Arnold and Walter Bagehot, and in our own time Isaiah Berlin and Lionel Trilling…The historian Jacques Barzun speaks of Bagehot’s “double vision,” which perfectly expresses the visual character of trimming. “In any conflict of persons or ideas he was always able to see that neither side was perverse or stupid, but had reasons for militancy; and he entered not only into these reasons, but also the feelings attached. This is a rare gift, especially when it does not lead to shilly-shallying in the double-viewer’s own course of action. Bagehot could always state the reasons for his choice with the utmost clarity.” In politics, the principled trimmers are, surprisingly, Lincoln, less surprisingly FDR, and in our present moment, Barack Obama.[2]

Goodheart appreciates our president’s readiness to receive light from minds who don’t share his politics. You have a darker view, arguing Obama’s trimming is marked by his “reflexive disposition to cater to his right.” But that’s not the only spot on the political spectrum where Obama looks for illumination. The former community organizer also gets lit when his base is on fire. His comments on the Trayvon Martin verdict come to mind here. And that, in turn, reminds me Tavis Smiley sniped that Obama’s speech on the verdict was “weak” since the president “did not walk to the podium for an impromptu address to the nation. He was pushed to that podium.” Smiley is one of those critics who wail on Obama for “leading from behind.” What he fails to grasp is that leading from behind is a pretty good definition of the democratic project.

Cf. Frederick Douglass’s “Oration on the Memory of Abraham Lincoln” (posted now in the archives of this site) where Douglass acknowledged frustrations felt by abolitionists during the first years of the civil war when Lincoln avoided offending pro-slavery constituencies in border states that had stayed in the Union. But Douglass’s final judgment on “the white man’s president” confirms trimming may lead to transcendent moral achievements:

Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.

Tavis Smiley’s ally Cornel West—btw, why aren’t you afraid West is calling from inside your house?!— once projected he’d be a friendly but astringent critic of the president, playing the role of Frederick Douglass to Obama’s Lincoln. West is no Douglass. But the link between “principled trimmers” Lincoln and Obama seems solid.

It’s all up there on the screen in last year’s movie Lincoln as screenwriter Tony Kushner noted in a recent interview. Kushner keeps coming back to the Left’s negativity about Obama which had an “enormous impact” on the film. Kushner’s clarity about the Left’s “impatience” makes your claim Obama’s race has largely “insulated him from sharp criticism from the left through the five years of his presidency” seem tendentious:

[T]here were people blogging furiously that he betrayed us when they heard that Rick Warren was going to be speaking at the first inauguration, that it was already over. And then Tim Geithner, Larry Summers—I mean it was one thing after another, just bad news, bad news, bad news, and then of course, everything that he did was wrong...

Kushner recalls all the carping you skip over in “Nothing Left” but he shares your diagnosis of the Left’s fantasts:

The left is eternally grappling with dreams of revolution that at this point have very little connection to any plausible, actual historical eventuality…There’s an underlying faith, or fantasy maybe, in an immediate, instantaneous and maybe necessarily violent break between the bad old world and the good new world that will come...It’s messianism in another form…

But the problem’s sort of lovely to have no control over actual, on the ground events, because then you don’t have to compromise; you can always speak from a position of clarity and purity because you don’t have to worry about the consequences of your actions, and you’re also not limited by law. But I mean we didn’t elect a king, we elected a president, and I think an astonishingly effective, in fact a great president.

Kushner’s screenplay for the film about that other great president focuses on governing—and legislative—process. Its attempt to dramatize ways and means of principled trimmers like Lincoln (and the more radical Thaddeus Stevens) makes for an estimable work of pop entertainment. Though as I’ve suggested elsewhere, Lincoln’s takes on democratic process seem less compelling than similar scenes in The Great Society, Alexander Harrington’s recent play about “the unquiet Presidency” of LBJ—a work that’s also marked by its provenance in the Obama era.[3]

The best scenes in Lincoln aren’t those that focus on political process, but ones that fuse “Spielberg’s interest in children’s imaginative worlds and Kushner’s homosocial perspective” (to quote critic John Demetry). When Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln hoists onto his back his sleeping child Tad (Gulliver McGrath) his acting is charged with a manly sensitivity that calls to mind Day-Lewis’s first star turn as a gay skinhead in My Beautiful Laundrette. It probes (per Demetry) “the mystery of compassion and charisma” behind personal-is-political capital.[4]

Demetry’s insight is worthy of the great (gay) cultural critic George Trow’s investigations of presidential “aesthetics” in My Pilgrim’s Progress. (Born into a family of stone Roosevelt Democrats, Trow’s journey began as a young teen when he found himself unable to resist the magnetism of that “guy of guys,” Ike Eisenhower.)

A politics of charisma isn’t your meat. But in these days of Putin’s outrages, perhaps you’ll agree it’s lucky Obama’s homie cool appeals more to Americans than the hot bluster of John McCain or Rudy Giuliani. Did you catch Rudy’s Putin envy? (“Putin decides what he wants to do, and he does it in half a day…That's what you call a leader. President Obama, he's got to think about it.”) Bad actor Rudy was driven batty by the president’s improvisations during the Syria crisis: “...five or six days...thinking and thinking and thinking.” I had a different, positive response to that drama of “Man Thinking” on a high wire.

The apple don’t fall far from the tree on that front. Back when John Kennedy was killed my pop wrote a piece suggesting the assassination might be a heavy blow to mind in America since Kennedy was one of those rare figures in public life with the reflective inclinations to bridge gaps between thinkers and doers. [It’s online here:]

I was too young to dig Kennedy’s lucidity and we should all be wary of persona-mongering praise of pols. Still, when Obama leaves office it’s going to be Cold Turkey for me whoever comes next. Is it likely we’ll have another president in my lifetime with a mind as surprising as Obama’s? I’m sure I’m not alone in looking forward to the book he’ll write about his time in office. It should be on another level than most presidential memoirs. Though I know you’re skeptical of Obama’s books. You call them “performances.” Okay. But that doesn’t mean they’re not acts of imagination. I don’t believe it’s necessary at this late date to talk up Dreams From My Father(or take it down, Obama himself has noted it’s 50 pages too long—sharper criticism than you offer in “Nothing Left”). The Audacity of Hope is a lesser thing. But there’s that opening where the young Senator “enters the Capitol through the basement” and goes on a walk that evokes history made in the Senate chamber before zeroing in on the absence of vital debate there today: “In the world’s greatest deliberative body, nobody is listening.” I’ll take it over Goodfellows' Copa scene.

My responsiveness to Obama’s imagination may seem immaterialist to you. But “grub-first, then ethics” economism isn’t enough to dig forward movements of mind in our time or comprehend all the profound problems that still beset our politics. Recall how Obama invoked lives torn apart by gun violence in his 2012 SOTU, insisting: “They deserve a vote”—it wasn’t Wall Street that kept them from getting one. And it’s not finance capital that’s put the kibosh on Immigration Reform. You cite anti-racist politics as “dangerous” because of “the likelihood we will find ourselves with no critical politics other than a dessicated leftism capable only of counting, parsing, hand-wringing, administering and making up ‘Just So’ stories about dispossession and exploitation recast in evocative but politically sterile language of disparity and diversity.” That’s a mouthful which hints you’re talking yourself into a frazzle; it’s not as if B.S. versions of diversity are keeping American workers from getting it together. Local union organizing may be purer than any sort of national politics in a neo-liberal context, but there’s nothing worrisome about would-be immigration reformers who pressure Anglos freaked by “the browning of America.”

Authentic anti-racist voices shouldn’t get your vanguard up as a glance at a recent post at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog underscores. Coates interviewed Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis—the black teenager from Atlanta murdered in Florida because he and his friends were playing their music too loud for one Michael Dunn. Ms. McBath allowed she was:

disheartened that as far as we've come it doesn't matter that we have a black president. It doesn't matter how educated we’ve become. It doesn’t matter because there still is an issue of race in this country. No, we have not really arrived. If something like this can happen, we have not arrived. And I ask myself, ‘At what point are we going to get there?' And I have no answer. And I want to be able to answer.

Coates had brought his son to the interview with Ms. McBath and she addressed her final comment to this youngster:

"You exist," she told him. "You matter. You have value. You have every right to wear your hoodie, to play your music as loud as you want. You have every right to be you. And no one should deter you from being you. You have to be you. And you can never be afraid of being you."

Is it possible your politics are too far North of Ms. McBath’s? I’ll leave you with Southern Liberal Lawrence Goodwyn’s last word on the state of the nation in these tender years:

America is just discovering itself. One hundred and fifty years [after the Civil War] we're still discovering who we are…[P]eople took the election of Obama—was it a Republican stalwart who said it mockingly?: “Well, they'll call it a post-racial society now.” —...and thought maybe we'd made a huge step forward. Well, we did make a step forward, but we made a step sideways and a step backward and a step inward most of all...


1 This line is from Hans Koning’s A New Yorker in Egypt.

2 Goodheart’s line on Lincoln leaves me a little shame-faced at my own bloody-mindedness. A couple months back I smiled to myself when the subject of Lincoln’s legacy came up and Dror Moreh, director of the Israeli documentary, The Gatekeepers, turned tables on an American interviewer:

Moreh: The biggest threat to Israel’s security is those far right wing extremists. This is the biggest threat to Israel’s security. Who is the most renowned American president? I’m asking you now.
Director Talk: Lincoln.
Moreh: Why?
Director Talk: Because he brought the people together.
Moreh: And what did he do in order to do that?
Director Talk: Compromise?
Moreh: Civil war. He made civil war because he felt that at one point in its history, a country cannot yield to something that is so brutally and honestly immoral…

As you’ll recall, I sent you that Q&A since I figured you’d dig it. Yet that interviewer—and Goodheart—aren’t wrong to uphold the importance of Lincoln’s unifying compromises. They have Frederick Douglass as well as many modern historians in their corner.

3 There are lively scenes of parliamentary process in Amazing Grace (2005)—a movie about the abolition of slavery in England. Though any commendation of that film must come with a caveat since it passed on the opportunity to dramatize more grassrootsy forms of politicking pioneered by Thomas Clarkson, the great organizer behind Britain’s abolition movement.

4 Demetry refuses to credit Obama with such political capital. Everyone has his reasons.

nation Benj DeMott 2014-04-07T01:37:51-05:00
Does the Past Repeat Itself? I have been reading the first volume of Churchill’s history of World War II, The Gathering Storm. How can one not be impressed with his relentless, hawkish criticism of the appeasing Chamberlain and the weak-kneed continental powers that were disarming while German was arming in the 1930s? Is there a lesson for today? Republican critics of the Obama Administration such as John McCain and Lindsay Graham seem to think so. The bloody civil war in Syria, the uprising in Egypt and its repression by the army, the chaos in Libya, the Russian takeover in the Crimea all are laid to the alleged feckless behavior of Obama, seen by McCain and others of his ilk incapable of acting with the necessary determination and force. If only the president had acted forcefully… When we look to the past for lessons, we assume that the past repeats itself. Sometimes it does, at other times it doesn’t. Wisdom depends on our capacity to make the discrimination. I think in the present circumstances there are no lessons to be learnt from the past, certainly not from the interregnum between the two world wars. Germany of the 1930s was a nation, an organized power on which the Allies who had defeated it in World War I could focus and contend with. Churchill was right to warn his country and other Western nations about the asymmetry of Western disarmament and German armament. It may have been possible to nip Germany’s rise to power in the early 1930s in the bud. What you have now is something completely different: disorganized sectarian power groups, often, though not always, terrorists, scattered throughout the world, elusive as to location, and possessed of an inexhaustible source of human power, able to reconstitute themselves no matter how hard and successfully they are attacked. An organized military power can retaliate and provisionally contain the actions of these groups, but the groups will only defeat themselves through exhaustion, and such a prospect is not on the horizon.

These groups may join the spontaneous street actions of people with democratic aspirations against autocratic governments. We have the examples of events in Egypt and Syria. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood, hardly democratic in outlook, but better organized than other groups, joined those who initiated the successful struggle against the dictatorial Hosni Mubarak, and took power after an election. In Syria the popular movement against the autocratic Bashar Al Assad has found itself beset by outside terrorist groups that were able to infiltrate through porous borders. As of this writing, Assad remains in power, but should he lose power we may have another version of the Egyptian situation, chaotic fighting between rival groups (a failed state), if not, as in the case of Egypt, a return to an army supported dictatorship. Widespread street action by people in autocratic countries united in opposition to tyranny becomes fragmented, if not during the struggle, almost certainly when the regime is removed and “the people” have the responsibility of ruling. Organized groups within the opposition often tyrannical in character take over, provoking a countermove from the army associated with the regime that was overthrown, as was the case with Egypt. “The street” may not be powerful enough to achieve power but it is strong enough to create the conditions of chaos, massive destruction and death, as in the case of Syria. Not that “the street” is directly responsible for destruction and chaos; violence mostly comes from those in power who try to put down the generally peaceful protesters. By now, however, those engaged in protest should have the responsibility of knowing the limits of their own power and to foresee the consequences when deciding to use it.

The same is true for the United States and European nations when they are called upon to intervene militarily to end civil war or defeat terrorism or help the cause of democracy. The chances are that their entry into the internal conflicts of other countries will only exacerbate the chaos and destruction. To return to the question I raised at the outset: nothing in the pre-WWII experience is a precedent for what should or could be done now. Churchill was not addressing civil war in other countries, but the threat, which materialized, of Germany’s conquest of countries allied with Britain and ultimately of Britain itself. To intervene or not to intervene, that is the question. To his domestic adversaries on foreign policy like Senator McCain affecting Churchillian strength and determination, Obama seems feckless and weak. But the reality is the opposite. It takes an extraordinary exercise of intelligence and will to resist provocation to act when action might lead to consequences far worse than the present circumstances. Think, for instance, of the “bold” decision to invade Iraq. In general the answer to the question of whether to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries should be “no.” What to do in the case of genocide, what happened in Rwanda and something close to which is happening in Syria? Provide humanitarian help and even military assistance with the hope that things will not be made worse.

* * *

The German annexation of the Sudentenland led to World War II. Is history repeating itself in the Russian takeover of Crimea? Like Hitler, who claimed to be defending the interests of the German population in what was Czech territory, Putin presents himself as the protector of the majority ethnic Russians in Ukrainian territory. Hitler of course did not stop with the Sudentenland. It is not clear what Putin will do next, though there is apprehension that he may want to extend his role as protector of ethnic Russians in other Baltic countries (Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) that were part of the Soviet Union. The radical difference between Hitler and Putin, however, is that there isn’t the slightest evidence in Putin’s rhetoric and behavior of world conquering ambition. In fact, there is a segment of the left (and at least one pundit on the right, Pat Buchanan) that makes the case for the legitimacy of Putin’s moves in Ukraine.

Stephen Cohen, an expert on Russia, wrote an article for Reuters, entitled “The Demonization of Putin,” a defense of Russia’s aggressive behavior toward Ukraine. Cohen is the husband of Katrina Van Heuvel, the publisher of The Nation, so it should not have come as a surprise that the article was reprinted in The Nation. The surprise, however, was to find a defense of Putin in a left liberal journal; or should it have been a surprise? Cohen’s argument when reduced to its essentials is that Ukraine has been traditionally in the Russian orbit, that NATO and the European Union have hubristically extended their ambition to the Russian border, and that American indignation about Russian aggression is in bad faith, given its own adventures in countries far from its borders when it felt its national interests to be in jeopardy. (A distinction needs to be made, which Cohen fails to make: The European Union has not sent troops into Ukraine; the overthrow of President Yanukovich, a Russian sympathizer, was the result of massive demonstrations by Ukrainians wanting to join the European Union.) There is merit in the criticism that NATO, a military alliance, has tried to reach into countries traditionally part of the Russian sphere of influence. What NATO has not done, however, is send in troops to enforce its ambition. It is true that The United States has never abandoned its commitment to the Monroe Doctrine, for instance, in its vigilance about Soviet influence in countries in the Western Hemisphere. Consider our behavior toward the Soviet presence in Cuba and even now when the Soviet Union has disappeared. Would an American government allow an anti-American revolution in Mexico? Answer: It depends on which Administration is in control. There is also merit in the argument that Yanukovich for all his corruptness was duly elected and in effect deposed by mass action on the street—a questionable way of changing governments. Moreover, Crimea and indeed the Eastern part of Ukraine have a majority of ethnic Russians who may prefer an association with Russia rather than with the European Union. In which case, their agitation for autonomy or even secession from Ukraine and association with Russia is as legitimate as the action of the protesters in western Ukraine, who overthrew Yanukovich. But that argument is a diversion from the fact that the principle of self-determination and non-intervention, which Putin himself rhetorically upholds where his own interests are concerned, has been violated by Russian military intervention in the Crimea. The European Union and NATO did not directly intervene in Ukraine. As his policy toward Chechnya shows, Putin is very selective in his support of ethnic self-determination, supporting it only where it serves Russian national interests. Russian intervention in Ukraine might be justified if there was credible evidence of ethnic cleansing, violence and torture of ethnic Russians, but there is no such evidence. Indeed, supporters of Crimean autonomy or annexation of Crimea by Russia were free to demonstrate in the streets without reprisal from Ukrainian authorities and even more strikingly free to administer a referendum calling for autonomy or annexation by Russia.

What is surprising is the ease with which a left liberal journal like The Nation can so easily accommodate an argument based on realpolitik. Its usual way is to take the high moral ground and denounce Western imperialism and colonialism. The US may have disqualified itself as an agent of indignation over Russian aggression, having acted as it did without provocation in Iraq, for example. But why should the moral failure of the US justify Russian aggressiveness? Understanding the reasons for Putin acting as he did should not translate into a justification for the action. Could it be that we are witnessing a return of the politically repressed: the old left liberal sympathy for the Soviet Union, the disintegration of which, in Putin’s words, was the greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century. Cohen’s ire should be directed toward the blowhard rants of men like Senators McCain and Graham for strong action against Russia (what that means beyond what the Obama Administration proposes in the way of sanctions is unclear), but not toward the president and the secretary of state both of whom have shown nothing of the imperial/interventionist mind set Cohen condemns. Let us say that the United States would behave aggressively toward an anti-American revolution in Mexico on its border in the way the Russians have conducted themselves toward Ukraine and earlier toward Georgia, countries on the Russian border. Would not the Nation raise Cain about American behavior? American governments are perfectly capable of applying double standards and acting in bad faith, but so apparently are its critics from the left. Bad behavior in the past by the United States does not justify bad behavior by Russia.

The United States and the European Union have no alternative but to impose sanctions against Russia. It does not follow, however, that the West act on a false analogy between Putin and Hitler, which would entail a rupture of relations between Russia and the West that would make further negotiation impossible. It would be wrong to draw a lesson from Churchill’s warnings about Hitler. Pace the war hawks, Obama must exercise restraint. He needs to keep open the invitation to negotiate about the future of Ukraine and other interests such as the fates of Syria and Iran.

Cohen is not an outlier in the stance he takes; he is not alone. In an article supporting Cohen’s view of the Ukrainian situation (“The Cold War That Threatens Democracy, March 17, 2014), Tom Hayden acknowledges Putin’s “illegal occupation of Crimea,” but his real target is the “growing US pattern of ignoring democratic outcomes where they are inconvenient.” It is true that Yanukovich, Russia’s ally, was democratically elected and brought down by mass action in the street and not through the electoral process. Hayden analogizes the action to the actions of Republican mobs that put George W. Bush in office, despite Gore’s victory in the popular vote and probably in the electoral college if the Florida vote were properly counted. (Would he extend his condemnation of mass protest against Yanukovich and mob action in favor of Bush to the mass protests in Syria, Tunisia, and Libya—indeed, all mass action that potentially or actually overturns autocratic rule everywhere. And if not, why not?) Hayden takes no account of the grievances of those who demonstrated against Yanukovich and of the lethal violence his security forces committed against them. He views the protest as the work of “pro fascist militias based in western Ukraine, who demanded an alliance with their friends in Europe and NATO.” There was an extreme rightist, even fascist, element in the street demonstrations, but Hayden offers no evidence that it constituted the whole or majority of the protesters. Moreover, there is the irresponsible insinuation that Europe and NATO are friendly to pro fascist militias. It is hard not to hear echoes of the old Soviet sympathizing left lumping together all adversaries as social fascists. Hayden even dismisses the Western view of Putin as autocrat, likening him to Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, whom he apparently regards as unautocratic victims of US imperialism. (America does not have clean hands in their treatment of Cuba and Venezuela, but neither are the hands of Castro and Chavez clean.) The Obama pivot to Asia, from this perspective, is little more than an aggressive entry into the Chinese sphere of influence. Greater democracy will come to both Russia and China if the US lays off on it aggressive democratic rhetoric, a view that resembles the justifying explanation offered by the old left for Stalin’s iron rule: the Soviet Union needed to protect itself against capitalist encirclement. (Where is the evidence that Putin harbors democratic aspirations that American bullying prevents him from realizing?) It is not as if there is no truth in the Cohen/Hayden/Nation view of American behavior. It is that it is so one-sided and so lacking in nuance that whatever truth it possesses is distorted or obscured.

Hayden spreads his net wide. Here for instance is his reading of the Egyptian situation. “Nothing that President Morsi did as president justified the violent coup by Egyptian generals in 2013. That coup was fervently desired by Israel and Saudi Arabia, whose pressure made Obama succumb” [to what?]. Yes, the military coup has turned out to be a disaster for the prospect of Egyptian democracy. But Hayden’s formulation of events obscures the mass demonstrations in Cairo and elsewhere by secularists and liberals, young and old, as what by most objective accounts (yes, objectivity is still possible) was the incompetent and oppressive regime of Mohamed Morsi. This is not to justify the actions of the Egyptian army; it is to describe more accurately the character of the Egyptian revolution against Mubarak and its aftermath. Turning to Venezuela, Hayden is right to point out the sorry record of Chavez’s opponents, but Chavez had shown himself capable of leading a coup and of behaving autocratically when in power. One might infer from Hayden’s characterization of the West that capitalism is its exclusively defining feature. Capitalism, however, is not the only thing that characterizes the West; there is also Western democracy. Nor is Western capitalism a unitary phenomenon that Hayden makes it out to be; it has many variants in the United States and Europe with benign as well as malign attributes. Consider the differences among the United States, France, England, the Netherlands, Belgium and the Scandinavian countries. It is hardly accurate or fair to describe Obama’s foreign policy as a “new cold war policy,” given every instinct in his Administration to prevent war from breaking out and not intervening in places where even some on the Left believe he should intervene, as in Syria.

What is most troubling in the views of Cohen, Hayden and those readers of The Nation who follow them is the failure to see a political and moral difference between Ukraine in the Russian orbit and the European orbit. Ukraine under the regimes of Yanukovich and his adversary Julia Tymoshenko was politically corrupt. It is doubtful that genuine democratic reform would occur if Ukraine remains within the Russian orbit. Genuine reform is required if Ukraine were permitted to join the European Union. There is no coercion from the European Union to join. Ukraine is free (or should be free) to decide whether it wants to be part of the European Union. And in order to join the Union Ukraine must fulfill its obligations of reform of its own free will. Cohen and Hayden seem completely indifferent to the difference.

Putin is not Hitler. He is the Tsar redivivus bent on restoring the sphere of influence beyond Russia’s borders that was diminished when the Soviet Union disintegrated. Though it is likely that sanctions imposed on Russia and aid to Ukraine will not force a withdrawal of the Russians from the Crimea, sanctions might discourage further Russian action in Eastern Ukraine and elsewhere in the Baltics. Putin, who is not irrational or crazy as some have made him out to be, knows that Russia will pay a price economically and politically for his behavior. He is fully capable of calculating costs and benefits. It is of course possible that he may feel provoked and emboldened to move beyond Crimea, knowing that NATO is neither willing nor prepared to directly confront Russia militarily. The US and Europe, nevertheless, have a moral obligation to denounce the annexation of Crimea and punish it through sanctions. What Obama and the Europeans should not do is draw red lines, the crossing of which would necessarily entail military action against Russia. It is impossible to predict the outcome of what appears to be the current strategy of the West, sanctions, financial aid for the struggling Ukrainian economy, perhaps military assistance, and negotiation with Russia, but they offer the best prospect for avoiding the unthinkable, world war.

world Eugene Goodheart 2014-04-06T22:01:56-05:00
Alarums and Excursions: Pundits, Putin and Crimea Putin’s seizure of Crimea produced no agreement on the nature of a prudent response, but it did prompt a remarkable number of historical analogies and putative lessons. On the interventionist side analogies to Hitler were initially pretty common—some of the first, predictably enough, were to Munich, followed by a few to the Anschluss. These kicked off a round of post-Iraq scorn for analogies to the 1930s, which are nowadays widely abused as the obsessions of people for whom it is always 1938. This time the scorn was a little eerie, because parts of the analogy actually militated against intervention: in Crimea, as had been the case with both the Anschluss and the Sudetenland, the principle of self-determination argued against military intervention in defense of what was widely assumed to be a legal but unjust status quo. We’ll never know what percentage of the Crimean population supported annexation, for the plebiscite was taken under military occupation and threat of paramilitary violence. Still, relatively few people assumed union with Russia wouldn’t have won a majority in an honest poll.

It cannot be pleasant to echo Chamberlain, and insist that a just cause was marred only by rash and ugly means; it is surely more gratifying to note that Putin isn’t Hitler—after all, no-one suspects the man of meditating an Endlösung. Presumably because acquiescing in aggression as long as it doesn’t end in gas chambers seems an extreme version of defining deviance down, more prudent anti-alarmists prefer to note that whereas Hitler, having overturned the Versailles borders, seemed to come within an ace of conquering Europe, Putin will not be comparably situated on the strength of having seized the Crimea, and in any case Crimea was a limited goal, even an own goal, since Putin had at a stroke removed a couple of million Russophone voters from the previously more evenly divided electorate of Ukraine. The analogies to the ‘30s, despite the scorn they provoked, might have been presented by the anti-alarmists as examples of the proverbial curate’s egg: they were good in parts.

The anti-alarmist argument wore just a little bit thinner once Putin seemed on the verge of seizing the eastern half of Ukraine, then, perhaps, the Western half—that last by analogy the Czech rump in the wake of the Munich accords—and next, some people not unreasonably speculated, annexing the already-occupied Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. For the last few days, though, it has looked as if Putin may stop, having pocketed only Crimea, although his diplomats are now demanding the conversion of Ukraine into a weak federal state. If this diktat succeeds a sufficiently loose federal arrangement may serve as preface to annexation via plebiscite of the south and east, but then again, maybe not, in which case the alarmists will probably be rebuked for Russophobic hysteria. After all, even if Putin annexes the whole of Ukraine plus a few parts of other people’s countries in the Caucuses, he will not thus attain the military strength to roll over NATO.

So for any number of reasons, Putin’s not Hitler. Since the current rules governing respectable opinion-mongering oblige anyone making an analogy to the ‘30s to remind readers that the writer understands that Putin is not Hitler, such reassurance should henceforth be understood. Concealed within this admirably sane Putin-no-Hitler rule lurks one small oddity: people who insist that admitting Ukraine to NATO would have been and remains grossly provocative mean that Putin might respond to Ukrainian NATO membership with an invasion. On this view Putin cannot be deterred by the risk of war that successfully deterred both Stalin and Khrushchev from taking Berlin. A Putin willing to risk war with NATO to take Kiev, certain that his enemies will always back down, suggests not history’s generally cautious Stalin but the madly optimistic Hitler. People who think Putin can be deterred by a sufficiently strong response may not be the ones who are stuck in the ‘30s.

If Putin stops at Crimea, knocking all the analogies off the opinion pages, it will be hard to argue that he’ll have stopped because of anything the United States or NATO or the UN has done or threatened to do; he’ll have stopped only because he chose to stop. After all, when Putin massed forces on the borders of eastern Ukraine,
both ‘senior officials’ and the President speaking in his own name pointed out that the United States would under no circumstances fight to defend the independence of Ukraine. Promising to do nothing, come what may, is rarely the most effective form of deterrence.

So what could have restrained Putin? Surely not economic sanctions so feeble that even the statesmen imposing them felt compelled to apologize for their fecklessness within a day of announcing them. Did an emerging international consensus check him? Unlikely, for there's not even a consensus within the EU, or within NATO, or within any of the NATO member states. A lot of people actually seemed pleased to see the Americans so cowed that we would not even bluster with any real energy, and a prominent view among many commentators, more than a few of them American and British, was that having invaded Iraq and intervened in Kosovo we were necessarily barred from invoking either international law or any sort of moral argument at all. This view required refusing any self-serving attempts to distinguish between mass killings of Albanians in Kosovo[1], Saddam’s serial aggression and repression that had almost certainly killed more than a million followed by a decade-long violation of an armistice, and some Ukrainian demonstrators who hadn’t killed any Russians at all, but while this degree of intellectual purity, moral ferocity and (on the NATO side) fearless self-criticism no doubt gratified those who gave voice to it, it is unlikely to have deterred Putin.

Was it the UN, so venerated by those who decried previous American deprecation of its supreme and unique authority in legitimizing force? The Security Council dramatized only the supremely obvious fact that the UN is perfectly useless in checking the aggression of any power with a veto, which should make the five states now facing Chinese territorial threats and provocations take notice. A fair number of UN and EU enthusiasts have long deprecated absolutist notions of sovereignty, and it looks as if they have a point, since dictating revisions of one’s neighbors’ constitutional arrangements while deploying armored divisions on their borders is clearly not sovereignty as we have previously known it. So the precedent set by the UN was important insofar as it was potentially disastrous, and if an asserted right to annex territory inhabited by anyone speaking Russian prevails, it may soon matter that the Baltic states also contain a fair number of ethnic Russians. No fear, the anti-alarmists insist, the Baltics are in NATO, but some of the ones who so insist have also argued that allowing the Baltic states into NATO had been rash, as it had been rash to even contemplate letting Ukraine in, or looking like one might let Ukraine into the EU. In some quarters—and not just the Guardian opinion page—inviting Ukraine into a free trade area seemed the near-equivalent of inviting Ukraine into the Anti-Comintern Pact.

From the Ukrainian point of view it must seem hard to believe that anything could have been much more rash than staying out of NATO, but the anti-alarmists are remarkably quiet about the Ukrainian point of view. They do not seem to think that Ukraine, or Lithuania, or a few other UN member states, are truly sovereign—after all, they are so close to Russia. Proximity, it seems, is now to be nine tenths of the law, an attitude that may alarm Mexico and Canada, and should certainly alarm Lebanon, Qatar, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, etc., if the people articulating this doctrine decide it applies anywhere outside Eastern Europe. Anti-alarmists have begun to remember that the Russians not inaccurately called this area the near-abroad—19th century Europeans would have spoken instead about legitimate spheres of influence—and for people seeking a reason to do nothing there suddenly seemed to be something in the phrase. Seeing people who normally and even noisily expound an absolutist version of national sovereignty—at least when fulminating about the invasion of Iraq, or American or Israeli drone attacks—mutate into proud neo-realists admittedly has some comic value, but the merriment is off-set by the fact that following invasions and annexations cartography dictates that the 'near-abroad' will necessarily move west and south.

It will be interesting to see whether these new and remarkably phlegmatic realists begin to remember that much of Poland, and all of the Baltics, were also long part of the Russian state, and well within what it historically claimed as its sphere of influence. As for NATO, the neo-neo-realist non-alarmists, many of them recent exponents of the supremacy of law and the obsolescence of military power, might have recalled de Gaulle’s dictum that ‘treaties are like young girls—they last while they last’—but if they did, they neglected to quote it, perhaps for reasons of contemporary taste. Had they done so, they’d have had some pretty strong evidence, for if treaties, along with other international laws, are eternal and insuperable barriers, the Russians annexation of Crimea would not be widely described as irreversible.

If nothing we’ve done made Putin stop, what might one day lure him on, if not this year than the next? Restoring bits of the former Russian imperium and catering to irredentism have apparently been very popular, and little else about Putin’s rule has been strikingly successful. There used to be a shorthand phrase for that tactic of pandering to national chauvinism and a sense of unjust defeat and historical grievance that ex-Communist politicians discovered in the 1990s—it was called playing the red/brown card. The red/brown card is not always trump—Milošević‎ clearly played it a few times too often—but as long as it takes tricks there is a good chance the card will be played at need. Since we have made the tactic look flawless, it is hard to see why Putin should disdain to do thrice what he has done twice, and even harder to see why others similarly situated will not be tempted to do the same. After all, if a decaying, corrupt, largely incompetent and aging petro-state can get away with aggressive paleo-imperialism, why not men who feel history is suddenly on their side? It is probably not on Russia’s western border where the worst consequences may be felt, rather to her south and above all to her east, in territories Russia does not consider its near-abroad, but which states that believe themselves rising powers consider theirs.

People who long swore by international law made not only unconvincing but also apparently unconvinced neo-realists. Some of them insisted that while Ukraine’s recovery of Crimea was impossible, and the territorial integrity of what remained of Ukraine perhaps doubtful, military power was still obsolete—at least American power was—and although effective economic sanctions were pronounced impossible, or at least untimely, the value of international law somehow remained otherwise undiminished, for the same papers editorializing on the impossibility of recovering Crimea simultaneously editorialized about the international laws that inevitably doomed other injustices (e.g. Israeli settlements, the activities of the NSA, etc.). So law remained supreme, except where it wasn’t. Asserting the supremacy of law while disdaining all the means of its enforcement is a common but nonetheless strange pairing of beliefs. The insistence that the treaties creating and expanding NATO remain a real barrier to Russian expansion is an imperfectly persuasive argument, for NATO has given no unmistakable signs that it is preparing to honor its obligations to its own member states. Half a dozen F-16s look unlikely to tip the military calculus against the Russians, and an American President who despite serial breaches of lines incarnadine will not (however feebly) intervene against a weak state, even to interrupt the murder of 150,000 people, does not look an absolutely sure bet to risk Chicago for Kaunas.

None of this proves that the analogies to the 1930s may have some bite after all, and it would be particularly unfair to call the NATO states appeasers. After all, none of the historical appeasers insisted on arming Hitler after he’d annexed first Austria and then the Czech rump, but the $1.7 billion arms deal France made after the invasion of Georgia remains on track in the wake of the invasion of Crimea, as does the German provision of state of the art brigade level training facilities, and Britain has sold something like $600 million of military equipment to Russia since the 2008 invasion of Georgia. So this particular and much-heard analogy to the reviled appeasers really won’t do: after all, the appeasers vigorously rearmed through much of the ‘30s, while the NATO states continue to cut their military budgets.

Still, the anti-alarmists and neo-realists had some other arguments. After all, we surely need the Russians to pressure the Iranians to abandon the goal of nuclear weapons—if Paris was worth a mass, keeping Iran pre-nuclear is surely worth Simferopol. The problem is that Ukraine gave up 1500 nuclear weapons in return for guaranteed borders, and two decades later possessed neither the weapons nor the borders, and for a couple of weeks, at least, looked as if it might lose nationhood. Putin’s effortless seizure of Crimea means that any Iranian who proposed entrusting whatever are imagined to be the country’s vital interests to anything short of a nuclear arsenal now looks a fool, and soon South Koreans, Japanese, Saudis and maybe Taiwanese may react similarly.

If the consensus view on Crimea means anything, it means that breaking a treaty is no sure path to provoking effective American retaliation. Since Chinese intentions on its maritime frontiers are at best unclear, with the possibilities genuinely alarming, it would be very strange to assume that the Chinese are not watching events in and around Ukraine with great interest—after all, if NATO, of which the Americans are the heart, will not defend a European democracy from forcible annexations, how likely are we to defend reefs, rocks, islets—and in the long run, islands—much further away? Keeping ’em guessing has never been the safest policy, but giving possible adversaries good grounds to guess that the Americans are extremely unlikely to fight is less safe yet, in fact as unsafe as it gets, since it may not be true. While some wars are caused by powers unwittingly threatening their adversaries—this is part of the case against bolstering Ukraine—other wars were caused by powers who unwittingly conveyed a determination not to fight for something they would in fact fight for. The last century was unhappily rich in wars of that second sort—the list includes both World Wars, Korea, the first Iraq War, and the American role in the Yugoslav succession wars.

So one last coda to the use of historical analogies in the polemics over Crimea: it would be unjust to leave the impression that the alarmists have had anything like a monopoly on analogies to the Second World War, for some of the people who scorn the idea of in any way assisting Ukraine against a second Russian invasion, or of seriously attempting to reverse the first one, are also fond of such analogies. A few days ago the New York Times quoted one expert who shared the widespread certainty that there is nothing much to be done: "The Germans lost World War II in the Ukraine,” said George Friedman, chairman of Stratfor, a strategic risk analysis company. “You’re fighting on the Russian doorstep with limited resources in the place that’s been a graveyard of other military ambitions.” And had the Russians in fact lost World War II in the Ukraine, which they didn’t—Stalingrad was not in Ukraine, nor was Kursk, the graveyard of the last German offensive in the East, nor Minsk, the goal of the greatest and most crushing Allied offensive against Germany, nor Moscow, in front of which Germany probably lost its war in 1941—and had the Germans possessed our 5000 nuclear weapons, and if we omit the consideration that this time the Ukrainians would be on our side, as would, possibly, the Germans, and had anyone in fact been urging a war with Russia in Ukraine, Mr. Friedman’s historical lesson might have been invaluable. Unhappily, the Times has had plenty of company when ferreting out very feeble arguments to bolster the case that nothing at all can be done for the Ukrainians.

1 Editorial Note: This refers to the massacre by Serbian forces of 45 Kosovo Albanians in the village of Račak in central Kosovo, which was a major factor in NATO deciding to use force against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

world Fredric Smoler 2014-04-06T21:17:00-05:00
Song For My Father The author is a physician and priest who has been working in Haiti for a generation, running hospitals and social programs in Port au Prince as well as a Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos orphanage on the outskirts of the capital. Fr. Frechette is the author of The God of Rough Places, the Lord of Burnt Men and First has often posted his stories from the depths of poverty in Haiti.

When his father died last month, Fr. Frechette felt under an "obligation, which was also a privilege" to speak clearly about what his father had "learned by a long and full life, by illness, and by accepting death as his teacher." Here is Fr. Frechette's attempt to express his father's earned wisdom.

My mother was buried four years to the day before my father. She was everything to dad, and four long years without her taught him this first lesson, which was key to the meaning of his life.

A popular song from the 60’s goes this way:

Once there was a boy and girl, the boy said “I love you so!”
The girl said “I’ll never leave you!”
They grew older, and loved each other, and that’s the way love goes.

For him, this is the whole story of his life, Meeting and marrying my mother was his destiny, and was a calling, a vocation. Fidelity to this calling would bring fulfillment. And this is where love should lead you, and me. It’s what love is for. Love is a vocation.

It starts with magic, the arrow of Cupid. It seems like fantasy, like a fairy tale.

But love cannot stay magical and still survive. It has to take on a mystical dimension. It has to become part of a story that God is writing underneath, a deep story that widens love in an ever-expanding circle that grows far beyond the bonds of the two lovers. The mystical aspect becomes a scaffold, so that love is preserved in great distress, trouble and trials—when sometimes it doesn’t even look or feel like love at all. Love is an ever-growing procession. When cultivated and protected, it becomes strong and enduring.

The procession of love becomes real as a family grows with sincere devotedness, including an ever-widening circle of friends, and achieving, even if slowly, a concern for and embrace of the whole world, the stranger, and even the enemy.

I remember as a young child of 5 or 6 years old, sitting in the tender hold of dad’s strong arms while watching the new invention called television. There was no end to amusing programs, but there was also a new phenomenon that started with TV.

Newsreels from the Second World War found their way to the TV screen, a war which had ended only a decade before, and for the first time Americans saw what war looked like. All previous wars in all of history had only been visible to the soldier. Now, as a 6 year old American, I was getting to know war.

But I got to know if from the secure, strong and loving embrace of someone who seemed bigger and stronger than war.

Later, when your dad puts you down, and you walk through your tens, twenties, thirties, forties and beyond, you walk into that world of war. As a missionary priest and physician, I came to know massive destruction first hand—from violence, from unmitigated poverty, and from powerful forces of nature.

The “magical” feeling of the embrace of strong tender arms, gives way to the every-growing, stronger but invisible embrace of many friends, and strangers united in prayer. This love makes real and palpable the loving arms of Providence. Love generates a procession of strength, ever stronger, ever outward. As is the case with love, sometimes it doesn’t look like strength or feel like strength, but it is.

With this inner assurance, you find remarkable strength to face and manage the world the way it is, with its glories and its agonies.

We must never miss the chance to be strong and tender arms for the weak and vulnerable.

My father never spoke to us much of his life for almost 83 years. But he did a lot of speaking after that, during his long grief as a widower. We learned his thoughts and reactions spanning decades. He reminisced of being born into the great American depression and growing up in a world at war. We learned how many times his family was evicted from houses where they could no longer pay rent. How he worked in tobacco fields as a boy to bring a small income to the family, and how he had to send $23 of the $25 he earned while in the armed forces home to support his brothers and sisters. These stresses influenced his personality and habits and decisions. Some reminiscing was full of comical and heroic stories about family members, especially his father and mother, and also about the confusions and secrets never grasped or illuminated. These were silent forces that worked in destructive ways on him and his clan.

Old memories invoked old resentments, and strong judgments. My father started seeing himself as a prisoner of these judgments. Blaming his elders for their dysfunctions and imperfections enabled him to scapegoat them—deflecting attention from his own anxieties and inadequacies.

Looking back on his own life errors, he started to realize there was no book to go by, no secret code explaining how to handle life’s dilemmas and decisions. He realized his own shortcomings came down to this: there was no book to go by.

Then he was able to see that it was the same for the next generations. There was no book for them either. In fact, there has never been a book. To acknowledge dissatisfactions was ok, but to blame and resent could bring no resolution. He began to grasp:

If we are going to blame upwards to our parents we have to accept blame from downwards, from our children.

He understood that almost all resentments are mutual and not one-sided, and that to resent also invites resentment, and that the best way through life is to lay resentments down, seeking understanding, resolution, harmony.

He understood we all have bad periods of our life we would rather forget. The bad parts of the story cannot be the measure of our life. He understood God holds us to the best of ourselves, not the worse. But that God can do this only if we do the same: hold each other to the best that we have and are. Jesus said the measure we use to measure others will be the same one that measures us.

My father was a tough, private, imposing man, until he started to enter old age. He was well-named, since Leo is Latin for Lion, and that he was. As he aged, he mellowed quite a bit. In his grief as a widower, he mellowed even more. But he was never NOT a Lion, even to the very end. The beautiful thing about being led by God’s spirit, is you get to stay you. You keep your personality.

God was working within my father during his long last suffering, to help him understand his relationships, his purpose, and the depths of his being. And this showed through in many ways. In Christian teaching, this is how we recognize the gifts of the Holy Spirit. They show through. People notice the changes, even if your personality keeps its rough edges.

Dad’s private ways and aloofness gave way to grief counseling. He was so often in the cemetery at my mother’s grave, that he got to know all the daily visitors. Some with very recently buried dead and some whose daily visits spanned ten or twenty years. He felt their sorrow, chatted with them, promised his prayers. People looked for him on days he missed, and commented on how comforting he was. He would tell stories of their tragedies and pain.

Dad visited me in Haiti even when he could hardly walk. His shock and sorrow at the many people stuck in tent cities long after the earthquake made him a stronger advocate, and he started sending personal thanks to donors.

When he got cancer, Merkel Cell Carcinoma, he would joke about how rare that disease was and the attention he was getting from medical professionals who had never even seen it. He said his destiny was to follow my mother out of this world the same way she left it, with cancer. He would follow her every step, and catch up with her.

His strong arms were changing. The right arm was becoming swollen, mottled and rotten from the cancer. The left arm became weak and thin, since the right stole all nutrition to feed the tumors. With a failing embrace, he was now held tightly by the loving bonds he had created, and by the great gift of the arms of Providence.

And so, as a dying man, dad talked and joked. He prayed, read spiritual books, received friends, and reminisced. He said many times he was not afraid to die, and he was ready. In spite of occasional bouts of roaring, anyone who visited him remarked on how peaceful, strong and determined he was, and grateful to God for his life, his family, and his friends. Dad wished he understood at a much younger age what he understood now. Family, friends, rich relationships with other people, concern for our world and the most vulnerable within it, discovery of our purpose and living it out, and living from the depths of our prayer—these are the values of life to treasure.

For those of us who are healthy, and have much of life’s work still ahead of us, the last days were not easy. Only those who have done so understand what happens inside of you when you look into the dying eyes of your father, as you try to comfort him, to help in his last agony. The help we could give him was to stand with him as a family and surround him with love and prayer, his favorite prayer, the Mass. This must have been pleasing to him. As we all placed our hands on his cancer-ridden body during the Lord’s Prayer, he started passing to the other life, and was gone by the final blessing, leaving his blessing, rather, with us. We don’t need to wait until we are 83 years old to ask God to help us appreciate our relationships, live out our life’s purpose, and grow in self knowledge.

On January 17, 2014, the morning of the day that my father died, as I went out to greet the sunrise with a hot coffee. The full January moon was setting across the barren cornfields of our home, behind the barren branches of trees that seemed so cold and forlorn. A full, pale moon, sitting on the western horizon, clear and crisp against the winter sky. This January moon is called the “full wolf,” by the Farmers Almanac. I would call it the full lion. The lion in winter. My father died like a Lion in winter. The first nation peoples called this moon the “old man.” And so it seemed to me, his death was announced this way by the morning sky: a life that spanned the full four seasons , and traversed the long expanse of the sky, to set on barrenness and cold, yet full of hope for the springtime. As it sets, the sun also rises right behind. A new Leo is born today, or maybe a Leona. And that’s the way love goes.

The new Leo, the new Leona, and you and I, will be blessed to end our lives so fulfilled, so peacefully, so strong.

I started with a secular song. I will close with a Biblical one, from the book of Ruth:

Wherever you go, I will go.
Wherever you live, so shall I live.
Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God too.

Wherever you die, I will die.
And there will I be buried beside you.
We will be together forever,
And our love will be the gift of our lives.

January 21, 2014
Wethersfield CT

world Fr. Rick Frechette CP 2014-02-12T02:02:15-05:00
The MLA: Singled Out for a Double Standard In early January, the Delegate Assembly of the Modern Language Association Convention—perhaps the largest and most influential academic gathering in the humanities—passed, 60-53, a resolution urging its members to "contest" restrictions on the freedom of travel for American students and faculty members of Palestinian descent to universities in the West Bank. Another resolution, urging solidarity with scholars supporting boycott, divestment, and sanctions, against Israel, was not brought to the floor, but referred to Executive Committee for discussion. The issues were aired at a tense session entitled, with cheerful understatement, "Academic Boycotts: A Conversation About Israel and Palestine."

Much had been made of the title of the session. In an age of shrinking attention spans, and in the wake of the boycott resolution passed by the American Studies Association, the appearance of the word "boycott" and "Israel" in the same title triggered cries of foul before any "conversation" could begin. Critics raged against the panel's composition, since all panelists had previously voiced varying degrees of support for boycotting Israeli universities or enterprises.

“The United States, Great Britain, France, Canada, and Australia, not to mention Western-leaning nations in the Middle East, such as UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia (which regularly partner with Western universities), all deny entry to individuals, for any number of reasons”--so wrote the leaders of Hillel International and the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC), Eric Fingerhut and Jacob Baime. "It’s a savvy and deeply hypocritical opening gambit," wrote Max Eden in the Weekly Standard. "Never mind that visa screening is routine in every nation, Western or otherwise, or that every Middle Eastern country except Egypt and Jordan refuse to admit anyone carrying an Israeli passport." At the session itself, one woman asked: "Why aren't we boycotting China?"

Now, MLA panels, like those at all academic conferences, are typically initiated by groups of scholars who have a compelling interest (or ax to grind). Every once and while, political subjects of interest to the academic community per se may be included. Conference organizers tend to give members a good deal of latitude here, since panelists have their say and then submit to the wisdom of the crowd. Nevertheless, the outgoing president of the MLA, Professor Marianne Hirsch of Columbia University, was inundated with complaints and attacks. She and the conference organizers were accused of taking an anti-Semitic turn. As with much in the Middle East conflict, preemptive strikes were thought merely defensive.

Last week, Professor Hirsch responded in an eloquent "Viewpoint" article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, reviewing the affair and pleading for simple fairness:

The MLA was not considering a boycott resolution. Nonetheless, the emails I received were written as if a boycott resolution were not only under consideration but had already passed... The messages that poured in from individuals and groups like Hillel and the Israel on Campus Coalition persisted in mischaracterizing, exaggerating, and distorting both the session and the resolution. 'Shame on MLA for the hate and anti-Semitism,' one email read.

Hirsch goes on:

Many demanded 'balance.' But academic conference sessions are not talk-show debates; speakers explore a topic, raise questions, and advance nuanced conclusions. Disagreement can be voiced during the discussion period. Critics have claimed that academic boycotts violate academic freedom and the open exchange of ideas. Yet the vehemence of the opposition, the hyperbolic fliers that were distributed condemning boycotts, and the portrayal of the session as a foregone conclusion, in fact blocked the open conversation that we in the U.S. academy need to nurture and protect...

If we could discuss the constellation of issues to which that term applies, we could also put into historical perspective the call to boycott by Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and non-Jews. We could sort out how limited the practical effects of a boycott of institutions rather than individuals by scholarly associations like the ASA would be. We could sort out the ethics and politics of boycott as symbolic action. And we could explore alternative means of expressing solidarity with Palestinian colleagues, means that might be less divisive.

Marianne Hirsch is a close friend of Sidra's and mine. Hirsch is the daughter of holocaust survivors, and a prolific writer (at times, with her husband, the historian Leo Spitzer) about, among other things, what can be salvaged from the culture of the holocaust's ghosts. That she, of all people, has had to endure charges of anti-Jewish sentiment for presiding over a conference in which the morality (efficacy, etc.) of academic boycotts are debated--indeed, where the only resolution passed condemned restrictions on the movement of scholars—seems a little surreal.

But the real issue here is whether MLA critics are right to complain that, simply because the session took place, the MLA was singling-out Israel for actions other countries take as well. Is it right to have a session on Israel and Palestine and not, say, China? The implication is clear, and we hear it routinely. Why focus on Israel when other countries are so much worse? Isn't this a double standard?

And the answer (which we need to hear more often) is: No—this is a single standard; the question is whether Israelis really wish to be judged by it. When Chris Christie is caught using the powers of the state to muscle political opponents, you don't expect him to say, My God, why pick on me when Egypt's General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is so much worse? You expect him to know he belongs to a world-historical club. You expect him to feel the shame.

The standard is usually called "Western" (as Fingerhut, Baime and Eden suggest) but given where Athens sits in relation to Jerusalem, Israelis might think of it as Northeastern. For we are speaking about affiliation to a world of liberal-democratic states, what the Israeli orthodox-right rightly calls Hellenism. Most Israelis want to be thought a part of this world: democratic individualism, free enterprise, equality before the law, protected religious and sexual liberty, racial and ethnic tolerance. (Israeli universities are bastions of its Hebrew version.)

Israelis expect to mingle and compete in the West like citizens of the world. They expect to be visited and invested in like Western states. They expect to be integrated into global markets with free trade agreements. They expect to be defended by NATO states and peace-keepers as custodians of democratic values. They cannot violate their terms and then plead that tyrannies—typically shunned or merely tolerated for tactical reasons—are worse.

No other Western state is conducting an occupation, nor is Israel's occupation of Palestine modeled on, say, the US occupation of Germany after WWII. Clearly, the reason why members of the MLA question whether Israel grants appropriate entry to the West Bank of American-Palestinians is two-fold. First, they question whether Israel is permitting the cultural and economic development of Palestine, which depends on the freedom of movement Palestinians lack. But, second, they are probing to see whether Israelis are really committed to liberal-democratic standards.

Professor Hirsch knows where she and the MLA stand. Israeli leaders, too, must choose. There is room in the world for non-democratic states. But membership has it privileges.

culturewatch Bernard Avishai 2014-02-12T00:45:20-05:00
Beat Better, Beat Worse Meltzer sent this piece, written a couple years back, in response to First's Call for remembrances of Amiri Baraka. It ends with a reflection on Baraka's music writing. You'll find that excerpt in our Baraka tribute. But the rest of this piece is echt Meltzer as well so here's the whole enchilada.

Since the release of Allen Ginsberg's deluxe, oversized Photographs in 1991, there has been a steady flow of coffee table offerings by and about authors of the Beat Generation, including Jack Kerouac's posthumous Some of the Dharma in '97, The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats in '99, Matt Theado's The Beats: A Literary Reference in '01, Fernanda Pivano's Beat & Pieces in '05, and Chris Felver's Beat in '07.

Given the proclivities of the marketplace, many more such whatsems are to be expected, a dicey outcome to say the least. From where I sit, Beat as literature and lore, text and tale—as simple a pleasure as watching rain fall, or a cat cleaning itself—is oddly served by packagings so lush, hightone, padded with surplus. Regardless of whatever "wider accord" might be sprinkled in the process on the Beat oeuvre, context is squandered, human scale is lost, and genuinely interesting real lives are pampered to the flashpoint of celebrity glitz.

And now, dig it: a coffee-tabler that attempts the above, fails, and pratfalls in the opposite direction, playing to a perennial cliche—that, far from elegant, things Beat are indeed SHABBY. The Beats: A Graphic History is as shabby as a Wal-Mart in Dubuque.

Written principally by Harvey Pekar, Mr. Graphic Splendor himself, and edited by some Ivy League academic, it contains more factual errors than any prior Beat book of comparable length. At the celebrated Six Gallery reading of 1955, for inst, Gary Snyder read "A Berry Feast," not "The Berry Piece." Kenneth Rexroth collaborated with Charles Mingus not during WW2, but in 1958. Amiri Baraka attended Howard, not Harvard, University. Philip Whalen returned to the U.S. in '71, not the '90s, was ordained as a Buddhist monk in the Bay Area, not Japan, and died in 2002—he certainly wasn't alive (as alleged) at the time of publication. (Etcetera.) Doesn't anyone fact-check anymore?

As if such hokum weren't enough, the graphics really pile on the embarrassment. To artist Ed Piskor, the faces of three main players are variations on the same generic mug. Kerouac is a blandly handsome boyish male, something like Jimmy Connors. Ginsberg is more or less that plus glasses, and later a beard. (On page 38, it's Jack, inexplicably, who has specs.) William Burroughs is a rougher version of same, with crow's feet and fedora.

Joan Vollmer, Burroughs' darkhaired wife, is changed to a blonde. Naomi Ginsberg, Allen's mother, is Bette Midler with an Afro. The cover image of Michael McClure is basically that of guitarist Bob Weir. Robert Duncan, famously cross-eyed, is rendered un-crossed, a lookalike (by turns) for Jerry Brown, Keanu Reeves, and Andy Kaufman. John Clellon Holmes, the biggest square of the bunch, is pictured as a hepcat.

Even when copping direct from photos, you have to know what you're doing, and Piskor is often clueless. Working from an iconic shot of Herbert Huncke, shirtless, on Burroughs' Texas farm, he substitutes Burroughs' face for Huncke's. Summer McClintock, meanwhile, appropriating pics of Charlie Parker, seems oblivious to the fact that she's placed the saxophonist alongside himself, a sideman in his own group. (What a cheesy, pointless book.)

For two decades-plus, from Kerouac's death, in 1969, to that of his third wife Stella, a huge horde of Jack's unpublished papers was withheld from publication. Owing to his widow's contempt for the print media, it was not until '92, with Pomes All Sizes appearing in City Lights' Pocket Poets series, that the Kerouac estate, i.e., Stella's profit-driven brother, began authorizing the release of Jack's writings and ephemera. While some titles have been little more than deadman's kitsch, others have been authentic treasures, literary grails minor to middling. Kerouac at Bat: Fantasy Sports and the King of the Beats is a bit of both.

Drawn from materials in the New York Public Library's Kerouac archive, curated and critiqued by Isaac Gewirtz, this quirky tome documents Jack's fascination with a fantasy baseball game he developed in his teens and continued to tinker with until the last years of his life. Imaginary players like Wino Love, Gus Texas, and Go-Go Golian were assigned to such teams as the Pittsburgh Plymouths and Washington Chryslers, who played 40-game seasons, the outcomes of which were determined by dice rolls, card stats, and whatnot—overseen by the strategic presence of Jack as skipper to all sides. Details were entered on scorecards, supplemented by post-game chatter: "PIE TIBBS, Pittsburgh's mighty hitter, will get $55,000 next season, according to rumors from Senator-Colonel Nick Levitt Farr's front office."

There's even an exchange of letters concerning a possible trade for Joe DiMaggio, in which Jack (as "manager" of the Detroit franchise) is rudely rebuffed: "I would not let go of DiMaggio for those stumblebums if you threw in the city hall, library, B&M carshop, and the Ford M.C. of Dt."

Most of this stuff is terrific, enlivened by what Beat surrealist Philip Lamantia would call a sense of "the Marvelous," and I find too many of Gewirtz's speculations stodgy and inapt. "In 1958," he writes, "Kerouac changed the names of his baseball teams from those of autombiles to colors, perhaps because the latter seemed less juvenile." But Jack hardly made such distinctions. If there's anything we should know by now, it's that he never quite "rose above" the juvenile component of his essential innocence. At its most hopped-up, such juvenilia was if anything AT ONE with his beatific vision.

As fate would have it, I didn't read On the Road as a teenager—didn't read any Kerouac, in fact, till I was 35 or 36. The first writing I encountered by someone I would later recognize as Beat was a series of jazz pieces in Down Beat by LeRoi Jones, as Amiri Baraka was then known. In a mag serving mainly as a tepid trade sheet that routinely shilled for the likes of Stan Getz and Oscar Peterson, Jones's bold, passionate support for firebreathers like John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor stood in high contrast. With diamond-eyed focus, he championed these musicians NOT as "iconoclastic" contenders, contentious blips on the mainstream jazz radar, but as full-fledged, fully-formed artists whose musical agendas were seminal and necessary. (At 17, I hadn't read anything that so viscerally spoke to me, and surely it was Jones's model that enabled me to truck in music-crit myself in the years that followed.)

In the half-century since then, as author of volumes spanning the genres of poetry, fiction, drama, and cultural criticism, Jones/Baraka has established himself as Beat's only quadruple threat, and today he is probably the most important of the dozen or so Actual Beats still living. Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music, his fourth music book, is a collection of essays, profiles and reviews which have seen the light in the 22 years since the last one (The Music). Virtually everything here is as lively and compelling as his strongest work of the past, and a trio of takes on Albert Ayler (pages 241-260) are together, I would argue, the most incisive, definitive, magical, TRUE portrait of a jazzman and his music—of any era—ever writ. (Believe it.)

culturewatch Richard Meltzer 2014-02-12T00:01:55-05:00
P.C. on the Right Our educational system has been a site of contention between the left and the right, between conservatives and liberals. It is fair to say that major institutions of higher learning have been the intellectual property of the left in recent decades. Their besetting sin is political correctness, a disposition to view a range of issues such as race and gender from a moralizing left political perspective. Disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences, in particular the humanities, now tend to be oriented toward present and future, the intellectual and artistic traditions of the past given short shrift. There is much more to say on the subject, and I have said it in previous writing. What interests me here is the conservative critical response to left political correctness. On the negative side, conservatives have a case, particularly when they experience intimidation in expressing their views or when their political orientation is a mark against their chances of being hired for a position in the academy or when the curriculum and its syllabi are skewed to represent one side of the political spectrum. There are, of course, institutions, generally small colleges, that are conservative in orientation. What do they have on offer? I have been a recipient of publications from Hillsdale College, a conservatively oriented college, in which lectures delivered at the institution are printed in abbreviated versions. The president of the college, Larry P. Arnn, delivered a lecture titled, “A Rebirth of Liberty and Learning,” in which he contrasts the traditional core curriculum of the college with “the turn taken by modern education” as exemplified by the Teacher’s Guide for Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition, published in 1961 by the College Board—the influential organization that, among other things, administers the SAT exam.” What he finds deplorable is the following. “[O]bjectivity” and “factuality” have lost their preeminence. Instruction has become ‘less a matter of transmittal of an objective and culturally sanctioned body of knowledge,’ and more a matter of helping individuals learn to construct their own realities…Contemporary educators no doubt hope students will shape values and ethical systems as they engage in…interactions [within a cultural community] acquiring principles that will help them live in a mad, mad world” (emphasis added by Arnn)).

Arnn is right to challenge the dismissal of “objectivity” and “factuality” as well as the facile and silly formulation about students constructing their own realities and shaping values and ethical systems in a mad, mad world. He is also right to challenge the view that the main purpose of higher education is career preparation. But what he has to offer as an alternative is a narrow and rigid ideological version of a core education. His answer to radical skepticism about “objectivity” and “factuality” is not a counter affirmation of the terms, but rather an affirmation of “absolute truths” via a take down of the following passage from President Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope: “Implicit in [the Constitution’s] structure, in the very idea of ordered liberty, was a rejection of absolute truth, the infallibility of any idea or ideology or theology or ‘ism,’ any tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations in a single unalterable course…” (emphasis added by Arnn). It is embarrassing to have to point out to the president of an institution of higher learning that absolute truth and objectivity are not synonyms. Science, which exalts objectivity, resists all claims to absolute truth precisely for the reason that Obama provides. No idea or theory or philosophy is infallible. To make the claim for the infallibility and absoluteness of a truth is to petrify thought and lead to intellectual tyranny. No one has the right in a democracy to lock the future into his or her version of what the future should be. Here are the compatible views of Jefferson and Hamilton, who disagreed about many things, of the Constitution. Jefferson: “Can one generation bind another, and all others, in succession forever? I think not…A generation may bind itself as long as its majority continues in life; when that has disappeared, another majority is in place, holds all the rights and powers their predecessors once held, and may change their laws and institutions to suit themselves. Nothing then is unchangeable but the inherent and inalienable rights of man.” According to the distinguished historian Clinton Rossiter, “From time to time Hamilton could not resist the temptation, so natural to the insider, to buttress constitutional argument with a knowing reference to ‘intent’ of the Framers. For the most part, however, he felt that each generation of Americans should shape the clauses of the Constitution to its own needs, rather than try to read the thoughts of men who had passed from the scene—and whose thoughts, in any case, had been tentative or ill-formed about many crucial words in that charter.”

Conservatives embrace the Constitution as a prized possession and accuse liberals of infidelity to its principles. So one would expect of academic conservatives scrupulosity in their interpretation and understanding of the document. “How,” Arnn asks in rhetorical astonishment,” did Obama come to believe something so foreign to America’s heritage as the idea that in the name of liberty we must reject absolute truths?” Let us put aside the insidious aspersion that Obama is a foreigner (with a forged birth certificate?). The answer is simple. Nowhere in the Constitution, which affirms freedom of speech and, one assumes, of thought as well, is there any affirmation of absolute truth. The charter was a strenuous exercise in compromise, for instance, between those who wanted a strong central executive and those who advocated states rights. Where they agreed was precisely in allowing for an open, alterable future when they allowed for amendments to the Constitution. I am surprised that Arnn would assert that “the Constitution receives its authority from the Declaration of Independence,” (and its embrace of the principle of equality) in the light of Justice Antonin Scalia”s rebuke, delivered in a lecture, “A Matter of Interpretation,” at Princeton University, to those who hold the view. “If you want aspirations, you can read the Declaration of Independence, with its pronouncements that ‘all men are created equal’ with ‘inalienable rights’ that include ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’…There is no such philosophizing in our Constitution, which unlike the Declaration of Independence…is a practical and pragmatic charter of government.” Though my sympathies are with Arnn on this issue, I believe that Scalia is closer to an understanding of the relationship between the two documents. (Frankly, I doubt that Arnn grasps the egalitarian implications of what he is saying about the authority of the Declaration of Independence.) What I find most distressing is Arnn’s presumption that he has knowledge of the Constitution superior to that of Obama when it is clearly not the case. It is doubly distressing in the realization that the source of the presumption is a person who believes in absolute truth and his possession of it. A core education that necessarily includes a study of the Western tradition from let’s say Plato and Homer to the present will include contending ideas, theories and imaginative conceptions each of which can hardly claim to be an absolute truth. Where is the absolute truth between Voltaire and Rousseau, between Hume and Kant, between Hegel and Kierkegaard or between Jefferson and Hamilton?

A significant portion of Arnn’s lecture is devoted to an attack on Obamacare for the inordinate length of the Act, which is invidiously contrasted with the elegant brevity of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Northwest Ordinance and the Homestead Act. Brevity may be a virtue in prose, but it may also be a source of confusion and puzzlement in a legal document—as in the Second Amendment of the Constitution in which it is by no means clear to whom the right to bear arms refers. More detail would have been salutary. In any event, not a word in Arnn’s diatribe about what the Affordable Health Act hopes to accomplish: the insurance of the uninsured. Not a word about an alternative from his side, economically and elegantly phrased. Not a word, because a concern with the uninsured is not on the conservative agenda. In other publications that I have received from Hillsdale College, a reprinted lecture disingenuously complains about the taxes imposed by the federal government as a “burden upon the workingman.” Nothing said about the low tax burden on the super rich. Another lecture has as its target the regulations of the financial system by Dodd-Frank, placing almost exclusive blame for the housing crisis and the financial meltdown in 2007 on the government supported agencies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, for their lending practices. Nothing said about the practices of the large private banks.

The lectures are supposed to give us a glimpse of the kind of core, i.e. dogmatically conservative, education students will receive at the college, an education remote from the disinterested pursuit of the best that has been thought and said, which used to be the ideal of a liberal education. The students submitted to the Hillsdale curriculum will emerge as politically correct as those who emerge from the other side of the political spectrum—only with a different content.

culturewatch Eugene Goodheart 2014-01-30T23:14:15-05:00