Thursday, April 29, 2010

What to do, what to do

If I had my druthers, if I could close my eyes and spin three times and land on the precise right spot, I'd find myself in Jerusalem, Nablus, Ramallah and Bethlehem--the occupied West Bank--for the Palestine Festival of Literature. PalFest 2010 gets under way on Saturday, May 1.

Last year the Israeli occupying army shut down the festival, or tried, unsuccessfully, for participants simply moved to another venue and carried on. This year festival organizers are no doubt prepared for anything as they "assert the power of culture over the culture of power."

Of course I can't be there. But there's a mighty good place to be here on May 1. I refer, naturally, to the May Day March for Worker and Immigrant Rights, an action that has taken on added urgency in light of the fascistic anti-immigrant law newly enacted in Arizona. I hope everyone who possibly can joins us in rallying and marching for multinational unity against the racist terror. If you're in the New York area, come to Union Square at 12 noon. There are similar rallies taking place in most major cities, so please find your way there too. There is after all a time for reading and writing, and a time to put on our marching shoes. May Day is for marching.

First, though, tomorrow night, if I can push myself, I'm planning to go hear the climatologist Dr. James Hansen along with environmental journalist Heather Rogers whose new book Green Gone Wrong: How Our Economy Is Undermining the Environmental Revolution might be worth a read. Neither is a revolutionary or advocates revolutionary action on climate change, although both as I understand it do see how extremely urgent the crisis is, so I'll be interested to hear how they confront this contradiction if indeed they do.

So that's what I wish I were doing and what I will be doing in the coming days. What I won't be doing is rush to the blah-fest currently taking place here in New York, the annual floating-in-cash-and-expensive-as-crap bloat known as the PEN World Voices Festival. Let me back up, because I didn't mean to sound that snide. I just leafed through this year's program, and look, it's not horrid. In fact there are some worthy offerings, including new work by Arab playwrights, a talk by Sherman Alexie on "the artistic, political and economic responsibilities of writers in the digital age," etc. It's not that it's monochrome, either, for it does includes some writers of color and from a number of countries. It's just that, on balance, it does not in fact offer anything close to what its title advertises: the voices of the world. Which would be the voices of workers and the oppressed. PEN is a construct of the bourgeois literary establishment devoted to promoting bourgeois literary values. It will never provide a platform for a revolutionary literary voice; in fact it often propagandizes against such voices, for instance those in Cuba. So while the glit-lit crowd wines, dines and opines, let's the rest of us march -- and write -- and organize -- in solidarity with the real world's voices, especially those of our sisters and brothers in Arizona. On May Day 2010.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Arizona boycott takes a literary turn

As the movement to beat back the racist fascist Arizona law SB1070 picks up steam and the second boycott of that state (first time around it was because Arizona refused to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Day as an official holiday) builds, we're starting to see some action from literary corners.

Today the great novelist Tayari Jones published a letter she sent to the Pima Summer Writers Conference in Tucson, at which she'd been scheduled to appear this year. In the letter she canceled the engagement to protest the Arizona law and support the boycott. Read it on her blog. It's beautiful.

Meanwhile, in a development that reminds me of the creation and explosive growth of the website Poets Against the War in the days just before the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, hundreds of people, soon to be thousands, I'd bet, have signed on to a new Facebook group called Poets Responding to SB 1070. New poems are being added pretty steadily. There is some powerful work up there. If you're on Facebook, you ought to join this group. If you're a poet, how about writing something for them?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Got my hot little hands on ...

... three shiny books and I'm excited! I've been carefully conserving the bookstore gift certificates I got over the holidays -- yes, four months ago, and I still have a good chunk of them left, how's that for discipline? -- so last week I bit into one of them and ordered some books online. Three of them arrived today and I'm excited about each. Each comes highly recommended, and they couldn't be timelier, none of them.

187 Reasons Mexicanos Can't Cross the Border: Undocuments 1971-2007 by Juan Felipe Herrera. This is a collection of poetry, memoir, and unclassifiable work. Check this out, from the description from the back cover: " A sustained manifesto of resistance and affirmation, this hybrid collection of texts tells the story of what it's like to live outlaw and Brown in the United States." Hello, Arizona? I believe he's talking to you!

Palestine's Children: Returning to Haifa & Other Stories by Ghassan Kanafani. I've wanted to read Kanafani's work for some time. I've heard it's wonderful. Kanafani was a beloved leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine who was assassinated in Beirut by the Mossad, the Israeli death-square secret police, in 1972. It's an exciting prospect to read fiction whose writer said, "Politics and the novel are an indivisible case." Yes! Can't wait to get to this.

Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. This is a memoir of growing up poor in Oklahoma "from the Dust Bowl days to the end of the Eisenhower era" by a radical left activist and historian. A comrade of mine read this and recommended it to me some years ago and I'm happy to finally have it in my hot little hands.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A corrective, on China

There are so many novels published in this country that portray the 30 or so years after the 1949 Chinese Revolution, and especially the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of the mid-1960s to early 1970s, as a time of unparalleled horror and inhumanity that it's practically an industry in itself. A sub-industry within the larger U.S. publishing industry, devoted to convincing people -- and then re-convincing and re-convincing because these sort of Big Lies must needs be pounded into people's heads again and again -- that the effort to build socialism in China was a foul and nefarious project. That Mao Zedong was a murderous monster on the order of Adolf Hitler. And that Chinese communism was a particular enemy of the arts, of thought, of humanism.

It's all hogwash, as is its counterpart the mini-industry of novels that slander the Cuban Revolution, as well as literary propaganda against the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, a sorry little sub-genre that seems to be lately emerging. But it's highly effective hogwash. How could it not be? Its purveyors have a monopoly on readers' attention. No contrary argument -- no stories of the glorious accomplishments of the Revolution -- has a chance of publication. It's funny how the U.S. bourgeois literary establishment's ironclad rule that art can't be political, that quality fiction must not serve a political agenda, is suspended in these cases. Turns out it's ironclad only as regards revolutionary literature.

I've made this complaint before. But here's something new: a book that cuts through the fakery and provides factual truth about the Revolution, -- as well as about its literary and intellectual detractors, their background, class allegiance, and animosity to the working class.

The book is The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy by Minqi Li, which I'm currently reading. Professor Li considers the revolution in China to be by now completely undone, utterly overtaken by capitalism, a view I don't share, but I do share his optimism about the inevitable worldwide move toward socialism. And I do share, in fact I find quite exhilarating given the paucity of such information and analysis available in books published in this country, his take on the greatness of the Chinese Revolution and all it accomplished. Furthermore, in the first section of this book, which is as far as I've read so far, he presents an extremely astute unpacking of the class character of the opposition to the Revolution, opposition that, especially in the realm of the arts, cloaks itself in nice words like "democracy" and "freedom" and so on but that is actually, insidiously, and demonstrably on the side of inequality, exploitation and oppression -- that is, capitalism -- not least because its own class interests are definitively on that side.

Li is of the generation of Chinese students who were swept up in, and he himself did take direct part in, the so-called pro-democracy movement of the late 1980s that culminated in the events at Tiananmen Square. He spent some years in prison. Unlike most of his cohort who continued along the pro-capitalist road after 1989, Li decided to study Marxism, and was won over to the cause of working-class revolution. During his prison time he read most if not all of the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and others. He read all three volumes of Capital three times! Ever since, he has made a deep study of the actual, concrete history of China during and after the Mao years. It's so refreshing, such a corrective to the corrosive outpouring of untruth to which we've been subjected for over 20 years now, to read his commentary on the events of the late 1980s in China. He calls out the crap about "democracy" and clarifies that that word was and remains a subterfuge covering the real goal, which is free-market capitalism. The only "freedom" sought, he explains, was and is the freedom to exploit workers in the drive for capital accumulation.

His characterization of the Cultural Revolution and of its opponents, including the student generation of which he was a part, is a particular contribution. For example, one of the supposedly wretched crimes of the Cultural Revolution, a charge leveled repeatedly in fiction and non, is how professionals and intellectuals were made to leave their university or other urban lives and go into the countryside to work with the mass of agricultural workers. Yes, they were uprooted from their cushy positions and, horror of horrors, moved to where they might do some actual good. An excerpt from Li:
Mao Zedong critically observed that the Ministry of Public Health only worked for "fifteen percent of the total population" in the cities and it should be renamed as "the Ministry of Urban Gentlemen's Health." Mao pointed out that medical examination procedures and treatment used by hospitals were not appropriate for the countryside and that the training of doctors was designed to serve primarily the urban elites. ...

During the Cultural Revolution, the entire national health care system was radically decentralized. Urban hospitals and medical schools established clinics and local teaching institutes in the rural communes. Mobile medical teams were dispatched to the countryside. ...

Before the Cultural Revolution, the education system was based on formal exams and conventional grading systems, with the aim of training students for professional careers that would serve the interests of the urban elites. During the Cultural Revolution, primary schools were extended to even the most remote rural areas and primary and secondary school enrollment surged. Peasants were given a greater say in selecting teachers and teaching materials. Tuition fees, entrance exams, and age limits were abolished. Spare-time and work-study education programs were set up. The basic idea was to combine education with productive labor, to relate learning to students' real life, and to direct education toward local conditions and local needs. University students were admitted only after having completed years of productive labor and were required to return to work in their home areas after graduation, so that university education would not become a path for careerist students seeking to join the elite class.
If, like me, you've suspected that these U.S.-published and highly celebrated novelists with their sad tales about the horrors of the Cultural Revolution in fact come from or are the descendants of the old privileged classes in China who just hated the effort to lift the workers and peasants and bring about equality, it turns out you're right. Here is Li on the class character and background of these counterrevolutionary intellectual/artistic/literary critics, specifically including those who left China for the West. And remember, he himself was part of this current, as he acknowledges.
In the 1980s, the word "intellectual" broadly referred to anyone who had gone through higher education in China, including university teachers, engineers, doctors, writers, artists, and university students, who were to become China's emerging urban middle class. Traditionally, intellectuals were a privileged social group in China. Their material privileges were significantly reduced (though not completely eliminated) during the period of Revolutionary China. Most Chinese intellectuals in the 1980s were from families that had been capitalists or landlords before the Revolution. Their resentment against the Revolution (especially the Cultural Revolution) was strong and they often did not hide their contempt and hatred for ordinary workers and peasants.

The intellectuals favored the growth of market relations. They hoped to have greater material privileges with greater degrees of social and economic inequality. They also hoped that through greater integration into the global capitalist market, they would have better opportunities to emigrate to the core states [of world capitalism, e.g., Europe and the U.S.] or to earn higher incomes by working for transnational corporations, so that their incomes and living standards could approach their counterparts in the core states. Toward the late 1980s, many of them openly called for full-scale privatization and a free-market capitalist system.

While the intellectuals and the ruling elites shared the broad objective of transition to capitalism, there was no agreement on how political power and the economic benefits of capitalist transition were to be divided between them. The intellectuals were dissatisfied with the fact that as wealth was gradually concentrated in the hands of bureaucratic capitalists and private entrepeneurs, they did not have a share of this newly accumulated capitalist wealth. Many of them complained that their income did not grow more rapidly than that for the urban workers.

All of these were behind the intellectuals' call for "freedom and democracy." In effect, the Chinese urban middle class was demanding a bigger share of the power and wealth as China moved toward capitalism. Some intellectuals explicitly called for "neo-authoritarianism," citing Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea as models, that is, they advocated a capitalist model that would be repressive toward the working class but could secure "property rights" for capitalists and "civil liberty" for intellectuals.
There's more, just wanted to offer this taste. And this reminder, also confirmed in Li's book: there is a building Left movement in China today. We hear little to nothing about it in this country, inundated as we are instead with laments for the bosses' and landlords' losses during the high period of the Revolution. It is there, though, and it is on the rise, coinciding with the final crisis of capitalism now under way worldwide.

Friday, April 23, 2010

And the winner is: Nazi-inspired fashion!

There is a TV show that epitomizes much of what's wrong with this oh so fucked up culture. It is so so wrong in so many ways. It is called Project Runway and one of my dirty little secrets is that I watch it. Even though I keep telling myself never again, I keep coming back, cringing, cursing, averting my eyes, yet as ineluctably drawn to it as is Michael Kors to his tanning bed. And so yes, last night I watched the finale. And what I want to ask is this.

How can it be that one of the three finalists said his collection was inspired by "German and Russian military uniforms from the 1940s"? And that no one batted an eye at the fact that, to take him at his word, at least half of his inspiration came from the fucking Nazis?!? He's all like, "Well yeah they were fascists and carried out a genocide that killed like a gazillion people and I guess they were kind of really mean, but wow did they ever dress cool! Like check out their amazing sense of style! And that's all that really matters, isn't it?"

He seemed equally clueless about the bizarre contradiction that by claiming he was also and somehow at the same time inspired by the opposite -- the uniforms of the heroes of World War II, the soldiers who defeated the Nazis, those of the Soviet Union -- he trivialized the immense sacrifice of the USSR and the over 20 million of its people who died in that cause.

Well who cares anyhow. All that matters is fashion, right?

So there it was. A Nazi-inspired designer strutting his Nazi-inspired designs down the fabulous runway at the fabulous Mercedes Benz (yeah, I know, you gotta love the irony) Fashion Week in fabulous Bryant Park. And there they were, apparently undisturbed. You've got your Teutonic ice queen "supermodel," whatever that means, Heidi Klum, hosting the show, she whose granddads perhaps wore some of those cool cool Nazi uniforms. You've got your judge, fashion designer Michael Kors, some of whose relatives some of Heidi's likely helped wipe out. You've got your Tim Gunn, who wouldn't have lasted a hot minute at the hands of those well-dressed SSers. And none of them seems to have been troubled in the least.

In fact, they picked this guy as the winner. So there you have it. Project Runway hearts Nazis.

I know this entire posting contradicts what I wrote yesterday about plans to tighten up the direction of this blog, but sometimes a girl's got to do what a girl's got to do.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Linking vs. thinking

I'm having a quasi-existential ... crisis is too strong a word ... moment, let's call it a quasi-existential moment of reconsideration about my reading-writing-blogging life. Mostly the blogging part. Or that's the only part I care to comment on here. I had a whole list of links that I was going to post here next time I got a chance but instead I just dumped them all. One or two of them had some slight literary aspect but nothing of much import, and nothing about which I have anything unique to say. The others were all newsy, current-eventsy: the Zionist attempt to ban a pro-Palestinian LGBT group from marching in this year's Pride parade in Toronto, the stupendously appallingly racist anti-immigrant law just passed in Arizona as well as the furious organizing against it, more on the world climate change conference in which 20,000 people took part this week in Cochabamba, Bolivia. All of which I'd gleaned from other websites at any of which you can find better, fuller information than I'd offer here. Get a grip, I told myself as I tried to muster up a blog post consisting of these links and accompanying brief commentary. This is not the purpose of this blog.

This blog is supposed to address questions about literature and the class struggle. The former, literature merely, this writer said this blah blah blah that writer wrote that blah blah blah and all such petty-bourgeois blather, well, it's available on many other sites. The latter, the great project of the revolutionary overturn of the racist, oppressive, exploitive system that is destroying the planet, well, I subscribe to it with all my heart and soul and I take part in it to the best of my ability, but there are many fine places to read about it and, more to the point, many urgent ways to join it. There's one particular aspect of the socialist movement that is or should be the purview of this blog, and that's the literary angle. A small corner. I want to occupy it better, if it's worth occupying at all.

My proposal is to regroup. Rethink. And then return refreshed and with, I hope, a more focused approach. Who knows what this will mean in practice. Maybe not much. Fewer postings, probably. More rants, perhaps. I'd also like to do some more interviews, offer up a guest blogger or two. Whatever shape it takes I will try to keep Read Red in shape. To the point. The point being rumination about books, reading, writing and fighting for change. Less linking and more thinking.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Writers for Mumia

The struggle to save the life of and free political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, the revolutionary writer imprisoned on death row in Pennsylvania for nearly 30 years now, is at a critical juncture. Since the most recent court ruling against him, the state could move to set an execution date at any time. The last time they tried that, back in the 1990s, his supporters thronged to Philadelphia for a mass demonstration whose anger and energy convinced the racist cops and prosecutors to back off.

The next step in the struggle at this point is to go to Washington, D.C., this coming Monday, April 26. At a news conference and rally, Mumia's supporters will demand that the Justice Department open a civil rights investigation into the case.

Two days before the D.C. actions, this Saturday, April 24, is Mumia's birthday. Here in New York City, there will be a gathering of writers, poets, musicians and activists to wish him long life and share our words, our art, our energy and our organizing ideas for continuing this long fight that will not end until our brother is free. I'm happy to say that I'll be taking part. I'll read a poem or two. Possibly, if it's not too long, the middle one of these three that were published six years ago in the Mississippi Review, because it has to do with Mumia. I'll bring along a couple of others in case there's time. Which there probably won't be. Look at the lineup! The event is sponsored by the National Writers Union along with the New York Coalition to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal, and it takes place at St. Mary's Church in Harlem, site of many peace-and-justice events and home church of Rev. Luis Barrios, a great friend to all who fight for a better world. I'm really looking forward to it.

If you're not familiar with Mumia's case, or you are but want to learn more, you might want to head over to to order some of his books.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Save the libraries, and the planet

Library gashers: In January I noted that NYC Mayor Bloomberg's vicious budget-cutting plan would result in many branches of the Queens library system being closed on Saturdays. Turns out it's worse than that. According to a piece in the Queens Courier, a little neighborhood tabloid I picked up at the supermarket Saturday, "the proposed budget cuts of $14.1 million would drastically cut the service hours of Queens Public Libraries, in addition to the loss of 350 jobs." Twenty-four branch libraries would be closed four days a week! Another 24 branches would be closed five days a week! This just sickens the gut, does it not? Billionaire Bloomberg gashes city services sitting pretty in his Upper East Side townhouse. You can sign a petition to save the Queens Library here. Nothing wrong with that. But oh my dear sisters and brothers, it's going to take a lot more than petitions to start beating back all these attacks -- on public education, on abortion rights, on immigrants and more -- all these attacks on our class. Pretty soon now. Any time now. Folks are going to start really fighting back.

Mother Earth rescuers: Sooner than the big-business befoulers of the planet might expect, in fact, on the climate change front. Like right about now. This afternoon saw the opening session of the World People's Conference on Climate Change & the Rights of Mother Earth, in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Called and convened by Bolivian President Evo Morales as a counterweight and corrective to the dismal failure at Copenhagen last year where the U.S. sabotaged any and all attempts at moving the world toward real action to save the environment, the Cochabamba gathering brings together real representatives of the world's working class, peasants, and oppressed peoples. There is great hope that a real working plan for concrete mass action might emerge. My comrade and lover Teresa Gutierrez is there. If by any chance she posts any photos I'll pop them up here.

I may not be too terribly lit-oriented in my postings this week as there's other stuff worth attending to. I will get back to books, and my on-again-off-again mosey around questions of their political worth, soon.

Warsaw, Gaza, BDS & Gil Scott-Heron

Today is the 67th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. For people like me, Jews of the post-war generation who grew up in the shadow of the Nazi holocaust and never heard that there had been any armed Jewish resistance to the European fascists' genocide campaign except for this one instance, the April 1943 battle by the last survivors inside the ghetto holds special resonance. Of course I now know what I didn't know as a kid, that there was widespread, hard-fought resistance, and that most of it was led by communist partisans. Still, the heroism of the Warsaw fighters stands as a proud moment in my people's history.

What a contrast to the present-day shame, the stain on my people's name: the Zionist apartheid state of Israel. Today, those who support the right of national self-determination, those who stand with the oppressed, those who oppose racism and occupation, stand with the Palestinian people. Especially the people of Gaza, today's Warsaw Ghetto. I'm glad that more and more of those who stand with Palestine are Jews, as more and more break away from the grip of Zionism, which is a racist, reactionary ideology that has nothing in common with the Jewish people's history of righteous struggle for justice and against oppression.

I've noticed this development again lately in connection with BDS, the growing worldwide movement for Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions against Israel. More and more of those signing on are Jews. I saw an example of this in the last few days, after it was announced that beloved, politically radical musician Gil Scott-Heron has scheduled a concert for next month in Tel Aviv. Veterans of the anti-apartheid movement that built up around the struggle in South Africa in the 1970s and 80s, in which Gil Scott-Heron was very active himself, have expressed dismay. Supporters of the BDS movement have issued public appeals to the musician to cancel the concert. And on Facebook, a slew of postings, from Palestinians, from people of African descent, and also from many people with Jewish names, express decades-long love and respect for him and ask him to please support the BDS movement against Israeli apartheid and not play in Israel. The musician has a series of concerts set for this week in England, and activists with tickets plan to hold up Palestinian flags and placards asking him to cancel the Tel Aviv gig.

Anyone can leave a comment on Gil Scott-Heron's website. If you do, I'd urge that your message be conveyed with the utmost respect for this wonderful artist who has contributed so much over the years. The hope is that he can be won over to see what an error a Tel Aviv concert would be.

Update: A welcome development: although it's not definitively confirmed yet, it appears that Gil Scott-Heron has canceled his Tel Aviv concert.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Ngugi in New York

So yes, I was there last night when Ngugi wa Thiong'o read here in NYC. I'm awfully glad I was. Partly just to see him and hear his voice, mostly to hear what he had to say.

Ngugi read several short excerpts from his new memoir Dreams in a Time of War. Before, during and after these readings he made related comments. When I say "related" I mean it in the sense of a world view that takes in everything and sees all the connections. His remarks were dazzlingly wide ranging and erudite. They made me want to go look up a million things to delve deeper into his references. They also made me want to sit quietly and think about the profound issues he addressed.

Most of all, he addressed colonialism. Its roots, its extent, its varied manifestations in Africa and elsewhere. Especially its effects on the consciousness of the colonizer and the colonized. Its effects on the mind. Its effects on language. Its role in education. He discussed how British colonialism tried to wipe out his native language Gikuyu, and linked it to how they outlawed the Welsh language, which reminded him of how the 16th-century English poet Edmund Spenser who wrote The Faerie Queene was a colonizer in Ireland and worked to suppress the Irish language.

Ngugi also shared some thoughts on the struggle, on perseverance and optimism, that I found inspiring. He said that when you are beaten down you have to stand back up. No matter how many times you are struck down, you must arise again. This was clearly meant in the broad sense about the fight, any fight for justice and liberation. But it came from someone who has experienced this literally, this kicking and beating and this getting back up. That gave it great impact, spoken as it was in his quiet voice. As was this point that he also made: Anger is necessary. Anger is good. Anger is righteous. Anger must be coupled with hope. Anger must be paired with a belief that victory is possible.

There was much more but these random highlights will have to do. I didn't take notes because if I had I wouldn't have been able to pay close attention, and he was for the most part so soft-spoken that I would have missed too much if I wasn't paying close attention. As a result, I can't offer direct quotes, which is a shame because there were several really sharp formulations. Nor did I get his autograph in my copy of Wizard of the Crow, or a picture with him. I could have -- he was going to do all that after the program ended -- but it would have meant standing in a long line and staying much later before even starting the long slog home to Queens, so I sadly decided to forgo it. As it is I got home very late and as a result my mind is even more befogged than usual. But I'm clear on this: I want to read more of his work. It is a gift to the international class struggle.

Which reminds me to thank again Tony Christini of Mainstay Press for introducing me to this important author.

And yesterday here in NYC

Apparently some Tea Party grouping had the nerve to make a Tax Day appearance in Manhattan last night outside the main post office at 33rd Street, and somehow, even though they only heard about it minutes before, a fair number of people got over there to provide a left counter-force. They did a good job from what I hear, and were boosted by non-stop support from passersby and motorists. I didn't know any of this was happening, which to be honest I'm kind of relieved at, because last night I was at Judson Memorial Church to see and hear Ngugi wa Thiong'o, and if I'd known there was a call to mobilize against the racist rightists I'd have felt compelled to go do that instead.

I'll blog about the Ngugi event soon. For now, a couple of shots from last night.

This second one shows my comrade Fred Goldstein, author of the essential book Low-Wage Capitalism, calling Lou Dobbs a "racist demagogue."

(Photos by John Catalinotto)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Yesterday in Boston

"As Palin opened her vitriol, the people on the move chanted, "Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Palin, Tea Party Go away" while fending off punches, kicks, body blocks and other violence. ... Palin appeared dumbfounded, standing there for the longest time speechless and wide-eyed in front of the corporate media, perhaps gazing over the horizon to see Russia."

Read more here.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

But first, an astonishment & a caution

An astonishment is what I was calling it 300 pages from the end, and now that I've finished reading Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen I'm sticking to my guns. Guns? Guns and guts and killing must be in the front of my brain at the moment, because this novel is steeped in them, in dirt and death, which is not usually a good thing by my lights. Except in this case it is. Because it is displayed in the service of truth. Matthiessen serves up great gobs of truth in Shadow Country, most of it exceedingly ugly. As it has to be. For this country is an awful place, with an awful history, built on the most awful deeds. The worst extremes of racism, the traffic in human beings, chattel slavery, lynchings and all manner of despicable violence, Klan terrorism, Jim Crow, the genocide of the indigenous inhabitants, the utter subjugation of women, rape, misogyny. The most vile, unrestrained despoilation of the land, water, flora and fauna; the killing off in swift fashion of entire populations of species of birds and fish and trees; the draining, cutting, paving, stripping. Every awfulness, every crime, every deed that sickens and disgusts you as you read, all of it was integral to the advancement of U.S. capitalism. And none of it was ever considered a crime if it was committed by or on behalf of a capitalist and resulted in the further enrichment of the capitalist class.

All this happened in a terrible land called Florida. Of course it happened throughout this country with only slight local variation, but this story takes place primarily in southwest Florida, in the late 19th and early 20th century. Astonishment: an astonishing achievement, this laying bare of the rot on which this country rests.

There are lots of other impressive aspects to Shadow Country. Literarily, stylistically, it is a wild ride, wildly realized. The narrative grabs you and won't let go. I've described it above in broad terms because I believe that this is a book of grand ambition that is really "about" large, important issues and ideas, about history, about racism, about greed, about the destruction of the natural environment in the service of capitalism--but at the same time, there is a real story here, grippingly told, the story of one E.J. Watson, an actual figure in Everglades history known variously as a scoundrel, outlaw, killer, developer, farmer, sugar cane trader and so on. In Matthiessen's telling, Watson is at once less mythic than the figure of local legend and more complex. He is anything but a hero. He does despicable deeds, speaks despicable words. But he doesn't do exactly what everyone else says he does, and this is one of the novel's accomplishments, to place the twisty, twisted path of Watson's life in context. Watson's real story, as Matthiessen fictionalizes it, is not better, braver, truer, more virtuous than the tales that come to be told and believed about him. But the real story has many more dimensions, which come clear as the context is ever more fully explored in the course of the book's nearly 900 pages.

There are a myriad of literary wonders. There are three sections, with Watson's story each time retold from a different angle. First, a sort of Greek chorus of alternating voices, each telling his or her own version Rashomon-like; this first section,which literally begins with a bang as a mob of shooters kills Watson, is about 200 pages, and it's disorienting and confusing but worth wading through. Next, in a rich, moving, and constantly surprising central section, one of Watson's sons tries to piece together a clearer vision of his father. Finally, the story is told in the main character's own voice, right up to the seconds after he's shot as his life ends. There are nearly endless surprises, on nearly every page.

However, let me say this to anyone considering reading Shadow Country: this is a book full of terrible words. The most terrible word, the n word, is repeated many many times, so I must make this clear and warn anyone reading this. The novel is laced with violent racist acts and racist language, so please take this into account in deciding whether to read it. It's very hard to take. Anyone who doesn't want to subject herself/himself to this should not.

I think this may be the first novel I've ever read through to the end that is this replete with such racist language. The reason I kept going was that it seemed to me that it is used in the service of truth. This is what it was like, Matthiessen seems to be saying, look at this, think about it, face it. There are actually many passages where the characters, white and Black and Native, talk about the words, which words to use, why, why not--the national question, relations between and among them, is not something they ignore or can ignore, not when it is a matter of life and death, a matter of profit and loss, property and poverty. It is everywhere in this novel, the matter of nationality, color, race, it is interwoven in everyone's lives, in every question of relations and love, work and wages. As it was, as it is.

This is one rough trip. For me, I think it was right to take it.

But can't books ...

What can books do? How can books advance the working-class struggle? Or can they? Do they ever? Have they ever? Back to my ongoing albeit reprehensibly inconsistent grapple with these questions.

Last week I talked about what books can't do. I said, basically, that no book can substitute for lived experience, a union strike being the clearest example. You can read Victor Hugo's great 19th century novel Germinal, about a coal miners' strike in France, or you can read Denise Giardina's Storming Heaven about a struggle by coal miners in 1920s West Virginia -- and you should, these are great books, you can and should read these and any other novels about strikes, not that there are very many -- and it might affect you deeply. But reading a novel about a strike can never revolutionize your consciousness the way actually being on strike can.

The same goes for any issue, any struggle. As the dearly missed Marvin and Tammi sang so long ago in Motown, there's nothing like the real thing.

OK then. I've made the record. I don't live in the clouds, I don't ascribe some crazy-ass magical power to books, I don't substitute reading for the real world. Having said that, though, the rest of what I want to say is on the flip side: the case for what books can do. Fiction in particular.

Because I do believe that novels and stories can help change the world. There, I've said it. A book can help raise consciousness, help move people to action, help spread the word about this inequity or that battle. Fiction can contribute, then. Contribute to the cause. I really think this is true.

How? Which books? By whom? About what? These will be the next spots on my meander.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Between the links

Before I recommence my current round of ruminating about books and revolution, here are some worthwhile links.

The brilliant Kenyan author Ngugi Wa Thiong'o will be in NYC for a rare appearance next Thursday. The event is apparently a benefit for Revolution Books, the retail outlet of the Revolutionary Communist Party. I am, to say the least, not a fan of the RCP. But neither am I a bitter, rigid sectarian, which is what I'd have to be to pass up this chance to see and hear the great Ngugi. You can bet I'll be there. With my copy of Wizard of the Crow in hopes of getting Comrade Ngugi to sign it. Can't wait!

If you're in Austin on Monday, you might want to swing by the Ransom Center where they'll be screening the documentary Peter Matthiessen: No Boundaries. This caught my eye because Matthiessen is of course the author of In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, a great work in solidarity with the struggles of the Indigenous nations of North America and in particular with political prisoner Leonard Peltier, and also because I'm currently reading his novel Shadow Country. Most likely I'll blog about the novel once I've finished. At this point, with about 300 pages to go, all I can think to call this book is an astonishment.

From astonishment to disappointment: Margaret Atwood has accepted a literary prize from the apartheid state of Israel and seems set on going there to receive it. She thus spurns international appeals that she honor the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement. Here is a letter to her from Palestine.

The murderers of Massey Energy must pay for their crimes, which are only the latest in a centuries-long rampage of profit-taking at the cost of workers' lives. I used to write a weekly column called "On the Picket Line" about strikes, workers and the labor movement for Workers World newspaper. Through most of the 1980s and 90s, I reported on and took part in solidarity for as many worker actions as I could. In the course of this work I learned a lot about the hard life and awful suffering that the working class of coal country endures. And about what tough, fighting people they are. This latest atrocity at the Upper Big Branch mine has set me to thinking about the 1989 Pittston coal strike and the wonderful sisters and brothers of that struggle who I got to meet. Especially the sisters, Catherine Tompa and the others who formed themselves into a group called the Daughters of Mother Jones and were key leaders in the fight. I just googled Catherine and found that she died a few years back. If she were alive, I know she'd be on the front lines once again demanding justice this time around.

Finally, this from Cuba. The latest tactic in imperialism's never-ending war against the Cuban revolution came with the recent propaganda attack from the European Union. Now, in a letter from Kenia Serrano Puig, president of the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples, fondly known as ICAP to all who've traveled there, comes an appeal to speak out in defense of the island nation and its right to self-determination. "We are asking our friends, the same ones who have demonstrated to us their irreducible solidarity for so many years in the most difficult of circumstances," to sign a statement of solidarity by artists and intellectuals. Initial signers include Danny Glover, Rafael Cancel Miranda and many others. For more information, to read the statement and, I hope, to sign it yourself as I just did, go here.

Welcome to #49

As those of you who've found your way here via this link know, this blog has been listed as one of the presumably top "50 Places to Find Literary Criticism Online" at Online University Lowdown. I don't know anything about the site, and I haven't had a chance to review the list they've posted so I can't vouch for it, but it's good to be included. Even if I barely squeaked in, at 49th.

For new visitors to Read Red, welcome. Spend some time here. Read old posts. Review the list of books I've written about, favorably if I've read them, hopefully if I want to. See if anything I say makes sense to you. If it does, come back. I usually post several times a week. About books, about the literary world, about publishing news, about the arts in general, and about how all this connects to a revolutionary Marxist approach to reading, writing, and fighting for a better world. Sometimes my life makes an appearance here too.

If I'm doing things right, you'll find quite a different take on literary matters here than at other sites you might check out. To my knowledge, this blog is unique. I don't know of any other English-language site where an active participant in the working-class struggle--a communist activist who is also a reader who is also a writer--addresses questions of literary culture. What I write here is informed by my world view as a Marxist-Leninist, a partisan for the international movement to overturn the capitalist system and replace it with a society based on liberation and equality: socialism.

What you'll find here, then, is, frequently, dissent from the standard version. Rants. Outrage. Also cheers. Celebration. New information. About books and writers ignored or discounted by the bourgeois literary establishment. About events, political-activist and/or literary-cultural. And, yes, literary criticism and analysis--but written from a class-conscious rather than an academic angle.

If any of this interests you, stick around. At the moment I'm in the midst of an ongoing muse about the uses of literature in service of the class struggle. That's what I'll get back to shortly.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

What books can't do

Revolution runs on the engine of action. Revolution is not, as Mao reminded us, a tea party. It is not a talk shop. It is also not a reading room.

But it does require revolutionary consciousness. How is consciousness changed?

Consciousness changes in various ways and at varied tempos, now in slow increments and now at high velocity. However, the main and most important location for changing consciousness is the living struggle. Being determines consciousness, and there's nothing like finding your hungry, tired, sweaty self thrust toward the flashpoint of the class struggle for finding your sluggish, confused, intimidated mind refreshed and revived, your eyes whose vision had been blinkered suddenly opened wide. If you've ever been on strike, as I have three times, you have no doubt experienced this phenomenon firsthand. As Lenin wrote, a strike is a microcosm of revolution, a school or training ground. On the picket line it's a beautiful thing to watch workers who had days or weeks before been stolid, sullen, fatalistic, settled, seem to wake up, look around, understand. There's a nearly audible click as a new perception of reality comes into play.

Thirty years ago this coming summer, I was one of the leaders of a six-week strike of public transportation workers in Ann Arbor, Michigan. One of the great moments of that very difficult struggle came on a morning early in the walkout when the top management tried to drive in to the HQ through our picket lines. They had all come together in one car hoping to shoot through and get in to their offices. The strikers blocked their car. Surrounded it. Grabbed it, shook and rocked it, waving picket signs, chanting our demands, while inside the bosses froze in terror. Remember, no cell phones back then. They couldn't call for help. It was just us and them, and at least in my memory little to no police presence, and the bosses were convinced, you could see it in their faces, that we were about to smash the windshield, reach in and grab them, beat them bloody or worse. For some reason we did not. We contented ourselves with a nonviolent display of our power. Our superior numbers. Our rage. It sure was fun scaring the bosses, but in my opinion the most important effect of that excellent confrontation was to be seen not on their faces but on those of the strikers. They shone with determination, strength and class pride.

Our potential as workers, as the people who make everything run and can bring everything to a halt as we literally had by refusing to drive or service the buses, had suddenly that summer day come clear for us all. Not as theory. In action.

There's not a book in the world that can match a week on strike for the power to shift a worker's mind, enlarge a worker's understanding. What use, then, are books? Especially those of a fictional persuasion?

To be continued.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Back to the question at hand

Upton Sinclair famously said about the success, the impact, of his 1906 novel The Jungle that he'd been aiming for people's hearts and he hit their stomachs instead. Sinclair, who for most of his life considered himself a socialist, would live over 60 more years, to age 90. He would write more than 90 books, both fiction and non-fiction. He would run for governor of California in 1934 as a Democrat and nearly win, defeated ultimately only after the business establishment bankrolled a dirty red-scare campaign against him. He would remain an activist fighting for progressive change all his long life. Yet he is known for The Jungle. And The Jungle is known not for its depiction of the horrors of wage slavery, which was Sinclair's intent, but rather as a muckraking polemic against the excesses and unsanitary conditions of the meatpacking industry. The book is credited with giving rise to a movement to clean up and regulate food production, leading eventually to a slew of laws and the creation of the Food and Drug Administration.

So ever since, The Jungle has stood as a sort of cautionary tale to writers hoping to craft fiction in the service of left politics. There's no point even engaging with meaty questions about how to write such fiction, how to get to readers in a way that touches their hearts, opens their minds, raises their consciousness about the foundational inequity of capitalist society and the need for revolutionary change and how to make such change--it's futile to bother wrestling with any of this, we're told, because the fate of The Jungle shows that even fiction written with this explicit intent will inevitably miss the mark. If it doesn't simply fall flat--which of course is what we're promised is the preordained fate of 99 percent of political fiction since the first rule of bourgeois aesthetics is that art cannot be political--if somehow it finds a readership and, even more miraculous, somebody thinks it's a halfway decent book, it will be misread, misunderstood, received as anything but the call to arms its poor misguided author thought she/he wrote.

Why even bother? Give us family dysfunction. Give us slick, satiric comedy. Give us irony. Cynicism. Despair. Give us individual tragedy, personal redemption. Because this is what people want to read. This is how they'll read your story even if it's not the story you thought you wrote. Otherwise they won't read your story at all. Because nobody wants to be preached at. No one picks up a novel to be told it's time to change the world.

This is pure cant, in my opinion. It's a rule, a dogma--a bourgeois rule, bourgeois dogma concocted out of whole cloth and recited as if it's merely a statement of natural law. Who says? The arbiters of bourgeois ideology say. Who are they? Why, everyone whose say gets a hearing in this country whose arts are more fully under the thumb of the capitalist ruling class than they are just about anywhere else.

Dump it. Discount it. It's noxious. You've breathed it in, sure, we all have, it's everywhere. Now clear it out of your system. Spit it out. Detoxify your mind and spirit. Open yourself to the possibility that literature can take another road. Which road, exactly? How far can it go? How fast? These are questions I've raised before and, though it took me too unconscionably long to take them up again, I'm now ready to give it a shot. I've been thinking about some specific books that have had a big impact politically--or might--or could--or didn't--and why not--and the more general questions thinking about these specific books raise, questions about the potential for revolutionary literature. I'll get to these thoughts and questions next.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Tra-la! It's Spring!

Everyone everywhere else in the country will probably want to clobber me for the New-York-centrism of this, but I gotta say it: I don't think anyone welcomes the coming of springtime with the joy and fervor of New Yorkers. Why would it be otherwise? We live in the most cityish city in the U.S. We don't have the hardest winters, not by a longshot, but a case can be made that winter here is hardest to endure for the way it combines with, well, everything else about living here, to sap the spirit. Especially toward the end.

But then.

But then we find we have traversed the long slog that is March and we have come out the other side. And suddenly I have blossoms gentling me outside my Manhattan office window.
And suddenly the masses pour into the out of doors, jumping for joy, practically, with the sheer relief of the thing. Great gobs of humanity jostling each other for every inch of park space, sidewalk, every open window, every tiny patch of what passes here for yards and gardens.

And suddenly mushrooms trumpet forth underneath a tree in my Queens neighborhood. I had to leave the cigarette butts in the picture, for they are just as much a part of the scene. Ma Nature, stubborn gal, goes about her business as best she can against the odds.
The planet staggers. The damage mounts. For today, though, we sing. Tra-la! It's Spring!

I'm heading out now to spend the rest of my lunch hour touring tulip sites.

UPDATE: What did I tell you?And yes, the tulips are here! (Two weeks earlier than last year, but I'm trying not to think about what that means.)

The Book of Grace

Boy, do I got cul-chah or what? Two theater outings in two weeks, after a long drought away from the boards. This is more like it!

Last night, having nabbed last-minute cheap tickets just a few days before its run closes, Teresa and I saw The Book of Grace at the Public Theater. This is Suzan-Lori Parks' latest play. It is intense.

The writing is marvelous, and comprises several dimensions. There are at various points clever wordplay, ideas and ideologies playing off each other, deep drama, startling humor. Three terrific actors, one of whom, recent Julliard graduate Amari Cheatom, I guarantee we will be hearing more from.

The play is on its most obvious level a family tragedy, but the personal links with the political in sometimes obvious and sometimes less clearcut ways. The setting is a Texas border town. One of the characters is a Border Patrol cop. Parks takes us where we need to go.

Not necessarily always as far as I'd have liked, politically speaking. There are points in the play, especially in a monologue by Cheatom's character Buddy/Snake, where some strong statements are made that bring out the broader context for the family drama, but then this veers off away from the larger platform of social-cultural analysis and back onto the smaller personal-psychological stage. This leeched a bit of the impact out of it for me, but the character study remained powerful enough to make this overall a provocative, stirring evening of theater. In fact, I must dissent from the reviews in which bourgeois drama critics have taken Parks to task for what they see as her jamming her characters into boxes as archetypes rather than creating fully fleshed out real human beings. I can't believe these guys saw the same play I did. The characters are fully wrought, beautifully so. Whereas I wish Parks had taken the politics a little further, these critics can't bear that there are politics in the play at all, and concoct a specious criticism with which to scold her for the crime of acknowledging the world. Don't listen to them, Ms. Parks!

An unexpected added treat: after the play, there was a "talkback" with the playwright. We stayed for this and I'm especially glad we did because I found her comments on the background and process of writing this play really interesting. Particularly because I've been thinking lately about trying my hand at drama. It has always seemed a mysterious if not impossible form to assay, but something has been shifting, clicking, inside my artsy-fartsy little head and I'm starting to wonder whether I shouldn't try to get up the nerve to make an attempt.