Archive for September, 2022

Reading dangerously – posted 9/24/2022

September 25, 2022 9 comments

I was watching the Ken Burns documentary about America and the Holocaust and there was a deeply unsettling moment when the filmmakers showed the Nazi book burning in 1933. With Joseph Goebbels presiding, many Nazi students threw thousands of books deemed subversive, decadent or corrupt into a massive burning pyre. This was part of the effort to purify German literature from Jewish influence.

The scene made me think of a favorite quote of mine from the writer, Edwidge Danticot:

“Create dangerously, for people who read dangerously. This is what I’ve always thought it meant to be a writer.”

Danticot is like the opposite of the Nazi vision. Nazi anti-intellectualism is not compatible with intellectual freedom and any spirit of independent critical thinking and reading. Fascists and authoritarians ban books to erase history and the lived experience of people outside their control.

My love of reading started as a teen. I don’t associate it with any school. My school made us read classics and I remember reading A Tale of Two Cities and Silas Marner and enjoying them but I got turned on to reading outside school. At summer camp, I remember lying in my bunk, being mesmerized by The Caine Mutiny.

This led to my love affair with books and bookstores. It was long before Amazon and the closure of so many independent bookstores. Hanging out at bookstores was a favorite pastime. I was an inveterate bookstore browser.

Growing up in a suburb of Philadelphia, Lower Merion, my sister Lisa and I used to take the train, the Paoli Local, into downtown Philadelphia on Saturdays. We lived easy walking distance from the town train stop and it was a quick ride into Suburban Station in the city.

I don’t remember exactly how we found it but one of our regular destinations was Robin’s Bookstore, which was located close to City Hall. The store closed over 10 years ago. The owner, Larry Robin, had eclectic tastes with literature, political books and periodicals you could not find elsewhere. The store was a counterculture institution.

The poetry section had the collected poems of Kenneth Patchen and Kenneth Rexroth, two poets I came to love but whose work has now disappeared. Patchen is truly unique. He did these bizarre, cosmic drawings as part of his work. They were always interesting to contemplate and try to interpret. Patchen offered sayings like:

“No man’s life is beautiful except in hurtless work.”
“Law and order embrace on hate’s border.”
“In the love of a man and a woman is the look of God looking.”

Rexroth was an anarchist and a father of the San Francisco beat movement that included Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder. I would mention Rexroth’s poem “For Eli Jacobson” which gives a good feel for who he was.

Unusual back then, Robin’s had a large African-American history section including works by the historians Herbert Aptheker and Philip Foner. I especially remember Aptheker’s book American Negro Slave Revolts. This was history not taught in school.

In my 20’s I moved to the Boston area and discovered the Red Bookstore, which was then located near Central Square in Cambridge. That bookstore also had progressive books that were almost impossible to find in other venues. Two books I found in that store I treasure: a novel, Daughter of Earth, by Agnes Smedley and an autobiography, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, by Victor Serge. Both are beautifully written.

Daughter of Earth is a feminist classic. I recall the words near the start of the book:

“What I have written is not a work of beauty created that someone may spend an hour pleasantly; not a symphony to lift up the spirit, to release it from the dreariness of reality. It is the story of a life, written in desperation, in unhappiness.
I write of the earth on which we all, by some strange circumstance, happen to be living. I write of the joys and sorrows of the lowly. Of loneliness. Of pain. And of love.”

Little known in the United States , Victor Serge is a giant among working class writers in the twentieth century. A libertarian socialist, Serge always remained committed to the values of democracy and free expression. He fought capitalism and Stalinism. If very lucky, you might find some of his books in used bookstores.

Used bookstores have a special place in my heart. One great one is Brattleboro Books in Brattleboro, Vermont. I also would give a shout out to Tidal Wave Books in Anchorage Alaska. Tidal Wave is a huge store. There I found and bought The Collected Poems of Bertolt Brecht. His poem, To Posterity, is a favorite of mine.

As for other bookstores in my life, I would be remiss if I did not mention our own Gibson’s in Concord, City Lights in San Francisco, and Powell’s in Portland Oregon. All have been nourishing as far as discovering books I never would have seen or read otherwise. Larry Robin said this before his bookstore closed:

“With the internet, you can find exactly what you’re looking for. But what’s most important is to find what you weren’t looking for.”

Like other tastes in life, my book preferences are personal and idiosyncratic and I think it is the same for all who love books and reading. No syllabus or institution ever directed my reading. Reading is a passion to follow. As I have gotten older, I think I am more impatient about reading only what I find compelling. If I am not grabbed, I’ll put it aside.

What is strange and peculiar about our time is all the censors and busybodies who think they know better and want to direct the reading of others. Hiding behind criticizing wokeness, they want to protect young people from critical race theory or LGBTQ books.

PEN America just released a new report that shows that 1,600 book titles across 32 states were banned from public schools during the 2021-2022 school year. Most ban requests came from right wing groups with a racist or anti-gay agenda. They may not be Nazis but their role is equivalent to the Nazi book burners. If the opportunity presented itself, they probably would torch books.

Intellectual freedom is about reading books others say you can’t read. Don’t ever let anyone else tell you what you can and can’t read. Find your own way with reading. Read whatever strikes your fancy and tell censors to go to hell.

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The nation-wide abortion ban, fetal personhood and the shocking disregard for women – posted 9/18/2022

September 18, 2022 1 comment

Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade in the Dobbs decision, the direction of the anti-abortion forces has been more clearly established. Anti-abortion activists seek a national abortion ban and they also plan an all-out fight for fetal personhood.

On September 13, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R.-S.C.) and Rep. Chris Smith (R.-N.J.) introduced a bill to ban abortion nationally after 15 weeks of pregnancy with some very narrow exceptions. Since Dobbs, abortion is now illegal or severely restricted in 16 states, eviscerating the right of abortion access for over 21 million women. In another 9 states, bans are blocked by court order. Graham’s bill would allow states with more restrictive abortion laws to keep their more restrictive laws in place.

It is not an exaggeration to say that for broad swaths of America, especially the South and Plains states, access to abortion, a right previously constitutionally guaranteed for 50 years, is gone.

In Rhode Island, anti-abortion advocates have filed a petition asking the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that zygotes, embryos, and fetuses are “persons”, having due process and equal protection rights under the 14th Amendment. Their goal is to establish fetal personhood, something the Roe court rejected. To move the case forward, the petitioners need four Supreme Court justices to agree to hear it. Given the present composition of the Court, that seems entirely possible.

Both the Graham abortion ban and the Rhode Island case indicate that anti-abortion forces are not satisfied leaving the matter of abortion to the states. They seek a nation-wide ban. The goal is to restrict and then eliminate abortion in the blue states, not just the states that are already hostile to abortion rights. The combination of the ban and then the court case are a one-two punch. The ban is a first step to the ultimate goal – no abortion access at all anywhere in America.

What is most horrifying about these efforts is the shocking disregard for women they reflect. The fetus is conceived of as more important and worthy than the woman. The rights of the woman become secondary to the fetus. The anti-abortion forces are giving an insensate clump of cells, a potential life, superior status to a living, breathing woman.

The sexism embodied in this effort is profound. This is about control and power over women to force them into a subservient subclass where their reproductive autonomy is extinguished. It is turning back the clock on women’s rights to a time before women’s liberation when male supremacy reigned as the norm. In this fundamentally religious vision, the husband is the head of the household and the wife is the subordinate.

I don’t believe the harm currently being visited on pregnant women has been sufficiently appreciated Fetal protection laws have been already criminalizing pregnant women’s behavior. Since protecting the fetus becomes primary, women are seen as a danger to their fetuses. After all, if abortion is murder, women who desire abortions are considered potential murderers.

Writing in the Guardian, Moira Donegan has just described how a 23 year old, six week pregnant Alabama woman, Ashley Banks, was kept in jail for 3 months, without a trial, for allegedly endangering her fetus. Her crime: smoking marijuana two days before she was stopped by a policeman. She was not allowed to post bail or go free. She was imprisoned (imprisoned!) to protect her pregnancy.

The state of Alabama determined that she had to remain in state custody in jail or in a residential drug program. The drug program rejected her because she was only a casual pot user, so she stayed in jail. Banks bled while she was in jail and had no access to medical care. The logic of the state incarcerating someone to protect their fetus in what is typically a dirty and violent place is twisted.

The National Advocates for Pregnant Women have documented 1,700 instances of women being arrested, prosecuted, convicted, detained or forced to undergo medical interventions that would not have occurred but for their status as pregnant people whose rights state actors assumed could be subordinated in the interests of fetal protection.

Women who experience stillbirth, miscarriages, falling down stairs, using drugs, being in a physical fight, or being shot are getting prosecuted because of the alleged harm to the fetus. Invariably, the women getting prosecuted are poor and they are disproportionately people of color.

It should be clear by now that the pro-life movement is inaccurately labelled. They are not pro-life. They are a forced birth movement. They are stealing the freedom of women to protect fetuses. Where are these pro-lifers after children are born? Who is going to care for all the children and what steps are being taken to address their quality of life once born?

You see precious little written about the huge monkey wrench an abortion ban would throw into the economic circumstances of women. Women of child-bearing age would have much less control of their lives.

There is a monumental hypocrisy underlying fetal personhood. The United States suffers from an under-acknowledged epidemic of child abuse and neglect. So many American children never have a chance in this life because of the traumas inflicted upon them by parents, foster parents and care-takers. And it is not simply parental failure. There is a failure of our broader society to care and to take effective action to minimize the abuse and neglect. We fail to measure that harm.

In 2021, over 400,000 children were in foster care. A small percentage, only 4%, were in pre-adoptive households. While there are many great foster parents, it must be pointed out that foster care is often not a safe haven. Many children report abuse in foster care and experience mental health problems at unprecedented rates. Many foster children carry major depression and PTSD diagnoses.

The pro-lifers who want to force births are seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. A futurist might predict the likely result – an utterly over-stretched foster care system inhabited by a flood of unwanted and unloved children.

The Republican Party bears huge responsibility for the end of Roe. Republican candidates are now back-pedaling hoping that voters forget their role in stripping away reproductive rights from the female half of the population. Voters must not forget and voters must make them pay this November. We must take them at their word – they are not done in taking away rights.

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We need a peace movement now – posted 9/11/2022

September 11, 2022 4 comments

In my lifetime, I have experienced three peace movements. There was the enormous anti-Vietnam War peace movement, the international nuclear freeze movement in the 1980’s and the smaller movement that opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

What is worrisome about our own time is that there is not a comparable peace movement even though a hot war danger remains high. Both Ukraine and the situation with China raise the spectre of possible nuclear war.

At least in the 1980’s masses of people were afraid of nuclear war. Now it seems like people simply assume it won’t happen. Our time lacks forceful voices emphasizing diplomacy, negotiation and peace-making. Neither political party appears to see or address the increased militarism and war risk.

This is probably not surprising considering the history of empires. Like the British Empire and other colonial empires before it, the American empire wants a unipolar world where it calls the shots. After the Soviet Union disintegrated, the United States sought to establish global political and military dominance.

Instead of a peace dividend after the Cold War, power to control world affairs has been the agenda of our political elite, whether Republican or Democratic. Like 19th century imperialists, our leaders remain stuck in old ways of thinking. It is like lessons are never learned from past wars. Vietnam and Iraq don’t register or even cause pause. We have a need for an enemy and it is on to the next war.

Not enough leaders of major powers take seriously the reality of looming climate catastrophe and how it requires change. The science could not be clearer. Carbon dioxide emissions are the leading source of greenhouse gases which are responsible for global warming. Combustion of fossil fuels is primarily behind the emissions.

If we do not trigger an immediate decline in such combustion, the results will be nightmarish. They are already quite evident. Take your pick: the devastating floods in Pakistan, the heatwaves in China, Europe and California. And the raging forest fires in the western U.S.. Superstorms and flooding are in our future.

Even though the Inflation Reduction Act passed Congress and it has laudable climate provisions, action on climate ranks behind military needs among almost all American leaders. In 2020 the United States spent an estimated $778 billion on its military. That represents almost 40% of the world’s military expenditures even though the U.S. composes 4.25% of the world’s population.

In a bi-partisan way, we throw many billions of dollars into the war in Ukraine. Our military leaders want to weaken Russia. They still see it as an enemy, even not being communist. There is precious little talk of a negotiated settlement in Ukraine although there must be such a settlement.

I oppose the Russian invasion and I think there should be an immediate withdrawal of all Russian troops from Ukraine. But the narrative that western powers are blameless is simple-minded. As Jeffrey Sachs has persuasively argued “the real history starts with the Western promise to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not enlarge to the East”. That was followed by four waves of NATO aggrandizement.

The war needs to end. No one wants to think about it but the threat of nuclear war remains too high. The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukaine, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, has come under fire. Shelling by either side could lead to a Chernobyl. If the war continues to go badly for Russia, would a desperate Putin play the nuclear card? Probably not, but speculation is not that reassuring.

Similarly, the U.S. should not be escalating tensions with China. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan was ill-advised and unnecessarily provocative. Tensions with China must be de-escalated.

China and the U.S. are the world’s largest carbon emitters. Last year, U.S. Climate Evoy John Kerry and China Special Envoy for Climate Change Xie Zhenhua issued a joint statement to strengthen the Paris Agreement by adopting long-term strategies aimed at net-zero greenhouse gas emissions to keep the world’s temperature below 2 degrees Celsius, with the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees.

After Pelosi’s visit, China broke off climate talks and launched large scale military drills. The foolishness of scuttling U.S.-China climate talks should be obvious but hawkishness appears to be in vogue. And unfortunately that is not an accident.

Powerful economic forces, our military-industrial complex and particularly weapons manufacturers, want war expenditures to always remain high. They always want to modernize weapons systems regardless of whether it is nukes, fighter planes or battleships. It is fundamentally about profit. As Randolph Bourne said over 100 years ago: “War is the health of the state’.

A new peace movement is needed to challenge our misguided priorities of military dominance and empire-building. America still maintains 750 foreign military bases spread across 80 nations. Our military is the world’s largest oil consumer and causes more greenhouse gas emissions than 140 nations combined. What good will an American empire be if the world is not habitable for our children and grandchildren? War should not be taking precedence over climate.

In the 21st century, there is a need for a new definition of national security which would make the climate emergency and prevention of nuclear war our highest priorities.

Hamilton Nolan has written:

“We are like the drivers of a car accelerating toward a brick wall, unwilling to take our foot off the gas pedal and hit the brakes, because we don’t want to disturb the passengers in the back seat.”

As the old saying goes, there is no way to peace, peace is the way.

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In praise of anti-fascists – posted 9/3/2022

September 3, 2022 1 comment

Part of the Donald Trump playbook is the creation of enemies to rail against. Trump created the bogeyman of Antifa. When you step back and think about it, Antifa was a bizarre choice. Some people who identify with Antifa live in Portland, Oregon but they are not even an organization. They are mostly an exaggerated fantasy but for Trump they have played the role of foil.

I am not saying Antifa doesn’t exist. Obviously there are millions who identify with anti-fascism. But Antifa is more an image inhabiting fevered minds than much of a reality.

The word “Antifa” is an abbreviation for anti-fascist. What is strange is that before Trump tagged Antifa, anti-fascists were the incarnation of a noble tradition. Trump dragged anti-fascists down through his looking glass and distorted any sense of history.

The obvious needs to be stated: anti-fascists fought and defeated the German and Italian fascists in World War 2 and saved democracy in America and elsewhere. These anti-fascists were the British, American and Russian militaries. Whatever the internal differences among the allies, they all contributed to the defeat of European fascism.

So how did it come to be that anti-fascists became the bad guys? Trump has consistently associated anti-fascists with riots against the police. In Trump World, anti-fascists were enemies of his peculiar version of law and order. Also, I would offer that Trump has embraced fascists. Think Bolsanaro, Orban, Duterte and Erdogan. Trump has cozied up to the Proud Boys and Q’Anon and has now promised to pardon the criminal seditionists who attacked the Capitol on January 6.

History illustrates the illogic of Trump’s anti-fascist antipathy. American anti-fascists recognized the danger Nazi Germany represented to the world. To understand, I would go back to the little-remembered Spanish Civil War in the years before World War 2. In the 1930’s, America was isolationist and trying to remain neutral, a posture which served Nazi interests.

While they were sometimes called “premature anti-fascists”, the American opponents of fascism in the mid-1930’s had the most clear-eyed vision and understanding of Nazi barbarism. In 1936-1939, 2,800 young Americans volunteered to fight for the Spanish Republic against fascist General Francisco Franco who was financially supported by Hitler and Mussolini.

The Spanish Civil War stirred the conscience of anti-fascists from all over the world. Over 40,000 anti-fascists from over fifty countries volunteered to fight in Spain. They became the International Brigades. The war came about when monarchists, large landowners and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church rebelled against the democratically elected Spanish Republican government.

The Americans who went to Spain organized themselves into the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. They reflected a wide swath of views on the Left but they were all united by an anti-fascist commitment. The Brigade was the first fully integrated United States army.

The Lincoln Brigade was tremendously idealistic and self-sacrificing. They were poorly supplied in food, water and weapons. Of the 2,800 Americans who fought in Spain, an estimated 750 died there.

When faced with his mother’s disapproval of his decision to fight in Spain, an American Jewish volunteer, Hy Katz, said this:

“This is a case where sons must go against their mother’s wishes for the sake of their mothers themselves. So I took up arms against the persecutors of my people – the Jews – and my class – the Oppressed. Are these traits which you admire so much in a Prophet Jeremiah or a Judas Maccabeus bad when your son exhibits them?”

Probably the best book about the Spanish Civil War is George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Inside the story of the battle against fascism was the effort for social revolution in Spain. Orwell wrote as a soldier for the Republic and a partisan. In spite of the horrors of the war he experienced (he himself got shot), Orwell wrote:

“Curiously enough the whole experience has left me with not less but more belief in the decency of human beings.”

Before Franco’s victory, Spain provided a glimpse of what a more egalitarian society could look like.

I would suggest that the Spanish Civil War history connects directly to our time. The same battle between democracy and fascism is going on now. Like the Spanish fascists, MAGA Republicans reject a fair, democratic election they lost.

Beyond all particulars, the central question voters face this fall is whether America will remain a constitutional republic or whether it will degenerate into authoritarianism. And that is not hyperbole.

MAGA Republicans threaten both voting rights and election oversight. It is not an accident they have targeted Secretary of State races in battleground states. The Washington Post has reported that 54 of 87 Republican candidates running for positions with power over the way elections are certified in battleground states have falsely claimed the 2020 election was fraudulent. If such people are elected, they would have power to monkey with procedures and results. Winners could become losers.

Trump and his MAGA Republican supporters do not believe in the continued existence of American democracy and the rule of law. The January 6 coup attempt was consistent with the fascist resort to violence when unable to win electorally. Unable to accept losing, Trump will always say elections are corrupt and illegitimate.

In the fall election and beyond, we need a united front of all Democrats, progressives, independents, conservatives and anti-Trump Republicans to protect our constitutional republic. Saving democracy and preventing a slide into fascism is the most important issue out there. We must do better than the Spanish Republic did.

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