Monday, March 28, 2011

When a pointless read is done

Last week I picked up T. Coraghessan Boyle's newest novel, When the Killing's Done, at the library. While it was an adequate diversion for a couple of reading days, mostly it reminded me of why I'd never tried another of his many novels after having read one of his first almost 20 years ago. That book, The Road to Wellville, has to do with the founder of Kellogg's cereal company and of that industry around the turn of the last century. I'm not from Battle Creek but I am from Michigan, and partly because of that the novel piqued my interest, and kept it well enough to read the whole thing through. But I remember it left me with a hollow feeling. I remember feeling as if I had been entertained a bit, not nearly as much as the performer had intended with all his pratfalls and slapstick. I remember feeling that I had just taken a meaningless trip along the surface of something, never dipping underneath to anyplace deep or meaningful.

And so it was again with this latest read. Boyle is an adequate crafter of sentences, and of plot. But his characters are flat. What passes for internal monologue in a book all of whose chapters are written in close-third-person narrative is more like cartoon-balloon "thoughts" than the multidimensional many-layered consciousness through which real humans move and which more interesting writers convey. Nor do we get any meaningful sense of the main characters' motivations. No light shines to let us see beyond the membrane of glibness that wraps all speech and action.

Boyle is a master surface skimmer, and if it's possible this applies even more to the novel's themes than its characters. The story is about a clash between, on the one hand, scientists and conservationists working to defend, restore and maintain endangered species and the eco-balance of a fragile island environment and, on the other hand, animal-rights activists who oppose any such intervention when it entails killing animals of invasive species. The topic intrigued me, it's part of why I checked out the book. Believe me when I tell you I know absolutely nothing more about it after finishing the novel than I did a week ago. I certainly don't know anything at all about the history of these issues, the various movements and how they developed and what class forces they represent, not from this novel that supposedly drops the reader right in the midst of it all. Even without all that, without much information or history or context, I'd have settled for some level of insight into the complexities, confoundments, confusions, the knots and gnarls inherent in this sort of clash of commitments. I didn't get that either. For a writer all of whose books are tagged to some historical or current event or personage—in recent years you've got Kinsey and his sex researchers, you've got the immigration issue, you've got Frank Lloyd Wright and his circle—Boyle seems to have remarkably little to say.

His writing reminded me of no one else as much as Stephen King. Truthfully, though, King's books are more socially conscious than this, and if King's writing doesn't sparkle any shinier, at least his stories do make you feel something, care about somebody.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The haunting

Today, on the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 workers, I'd wanted to post the opening scene of the 1996 movie I'm Not Rappaport. The scene recreates the November 1909 mass meeting of shirtwaist factory workers at the Great Hall of Cooper Union where the all-male union leadership tried to clamp down the surging demand for struggle, only to be overwhelmed by it when the militant Clara Lemlich rushed the stage and, in Yiddish, called for a strike. That was the start of the Uprising of the 20,000. Unfortunately, try as I might, I can't seem to manage to get the video to post here. So if you're interested in watching the scene, follow this link.

Lemlich herself worked at many sweatshops. She'd no sooner be hired than she'd start organizing, and the bosses would fire her. That happened to her at the Triangle, which is why she was no longer working there on March 25, 1911.

Judging by the police barricades set up for blocks, a big crowd is expected for today's commemoration of the Triangle fire centenary. Indeed, from earlier this morning there've been reminders everywhere. As I emerged from the subway at Union Square this morning, I saw people gathering with some kind of shirtwaist imagery, presumably each shirtwaist to honor one of the dead, and they'll be marching in to the ceremony. The sidewalks around the area are chalked up with reminders of the anniversary, ephemeral memorials to the 146. The ceremony itself will feature music, speakers, tolling bells. All this is good. All this is right. To honor. To remember. What is not right is, among other things, the speakers' list. It includes many politicians, chief among them the richest person in New York City and current assailant against the teachers' union and all NYC workers, AKA the mayor, billionaire Michael Bloomberg. How dare he desecrate the memory of my sisters who his brothers the sweatshop bosses murdered! I don't know whether New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is speaking but I'm guessing he is too--and if possible this might be even more of an affront than Bloomberg's presence, as (the Democrat) Cuomo is currently engaged in a self-declared effort to crush the unions in this state.

And so on. Still, thousands of workers will also come, and their presence will lend heartfelt meaning to what would otherwise be a frustratingly hollow commemoration without concrete connection to the real legacy of Clara Lemlich, the shirtwaist workers, and the ghosts of the Triangle. I'll go too, on my lunch hour, to distribute fliers about the May 1 rally for worker and immigrant rights. For me, though, thinking about the Triangle fire is not unique to today. I work not 20 steps away from the building that housed that sweatshop. Every work day I walk past that corner, every work day I walk down the street that on that day 100 years ago was littered with the bodies of women who'd leapt to their deaths, every single day I think about them, and this has been the case for most of the last 30 years. You might say I'm haunted by the Triangle sisters. There's a plaque there, and frequently tourist groups stop and view it, and I often have to tamp down the impulse to harangue them with a rant about the real meaning of that event, which is not about fire laws contrary to the plaque's focus but is about the class struggle. Well I have succumbed to the urge once or twice and let loose a no doubt crazy sounding harangue. I won't today. Today I'll stand and pay my respects and pass out leaflets and listen to the bells and resist succumbing to some maudlin haunted sentimental bilge and instead look to the living struggle, from Egypt to Palestine to the Philippines to Wisconsin, the living struggle that every day avenges these sisters' deaths by capitalism.

Yesterday after work I headed downtown and got there in time to march from City Hall to Wall Street with thousands of students and union members in the "State of Emergency Protest-Day of Rage Against the Cuts." Tomorrow I'll attend an International Working Women's Month event in Harlem. My own activism is extremely limited lately, shamefully so, but when I can make it to activities I do, even if it's just to add another living body to the mass. Which also helps me shake off the haunting. For today, and every day, what the ghosts of the 146--Lizzie Adler, Becky Ostrovsky, Golda Schpunt, Isabella Tortorelli and the rest--cry out for is not ceremonies, not class collaboration. They cry out for justice, which is revolution.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Poetic Injustice

I've been looking forward to reading the new poetry collection Poetic Injustice-Writings on Resistance & Palestine by Remi Kanazi, a young Palestinian-American poet and activist. Come next payday I'll order it.

I've heard Remi's work several times when he's performed his poetry at rallies in solidarity with Palestine but, bummer, I couldn't make it to his big book release event earlier this month uptown, which featured, along with him, an amazing lineup.

It's not just coincidence that I'm thinking again about how much I want to get this book into my hands. Today the criminal apartheid state of Israel carried out a renewed murderous bombing attack on a civilian area of Gaza. At least 10 Palestinians were killed. While the U.S. launches missiles against the sovereign African nation of Libya, riveting much of the world's attention on, and rage against, this latest outbreak of brazen imperialist war, Washington's Tel Aviv pets take the opportunity with no one looking their way to launch another round of their own killing.

Yesterday I ran up to Times Square after work and caught the tail end of a protest demonstration against the war on Libya. Then today we hear of this latest bit of dirty work by the Zionist state.

I am not of the poetry-can-save-the-world party. I am of the we-must-make-revolution-to-save-the-world party. But I do think poetry (and fiction) can help buoy and strengthen the revolution makers, and also help draw new fighters toward the revolutionary path by contributing to the awakening of consciousness. My sense is that Poetic Injustice is this sort of literature. I'm looking forward to finding some quiet afternoon to sit with it and hear its truths.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Grapes of Wrath

In the latest in my occasional turn toward books I'd somehow never gotten to before, I just read The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. This is a flawed book, more politically flawed than I realized as I was reading it. More on that, criticism from the left, in a minute. First a word on criticism from the right.

I've often come across references to The Grapes of Wrath in various writings by esteemed literary critics. They generally condemn the book as bad literature. Poorly written, bombastic didacticism. The consensus seems to be that this book is a cartoonish exercise in blatant communistic propaganda, contrived, sentimental, manipulative, designed to trick the reader into sympathizing with the poor downtrodden workers and to support union drives and strikes.

As I expected I would, upon finally reading the book myself I find this position absurd. Blatant propaganda? I'll say—by the bourgeoisie's literary experts, who always condemn any work of fiction that depicts capitalist exploitation, engenders sympathy for its victims, sides with the struggle against it. What a crazy reach it is for any critic to pan it, for it's beautifully written, in some places soaringly achingly stirringly beautiful. There are stunningly lyrical passages, there is an intense propulsive narrative drive, there are finely wrought characterizations. Most of all there is a powerful, deeply effective portrayal of human suffering and, at the same time, of courage and dignity and solidarity . It's this latter aspect, the fact that the novel sides with the poor and suffering masses, that incurs the wrath and enmity of the commentators, for this is the highest literary sin.

So much for the criticism from the right. Wrong wrong wrong as always. What of the left?

I was aware as I read, especially as the story developed and the ever more suffering Joad family moved along on its journey of hope and horror, that there was a narrow, even distorted, emphasis in this portrayal of the Dust Bowl migration from Oklahoma and surrounding states to California during the Great Depression. The focus is entirely on the Joads and their like: white former landowners and sharecroppers forced off their land and driven West in search of jobs. Nowhere in the tale, not on the road and in the stopping-off places along the way nor in the camps, Hoovervilles and orchards of California, do we see anyone except the Joads' cohort. No Mexicans—in the Southwest and California! No African Americans, an oppressed nation that was in fact in the midst of its own Great Migration, a major wing of it from the South to California, at exactly this same time. No, in this novel just about everyone's white. Just about everyone has endured the same tragedy of losing the small stakes of land that they'd held for several generations. And all these white former farmers are competing only with each other for the same jobs in the growing fields. I knew this was by no means a complete picture but I guess I sort of thought well, this is a snapshot of one particular part of what was going on, there were after all plenty of families like the Joads and so this is their story, one specific aspect of the broader overall story. I noted, too, some places where Steinbeck seems to go out of his way to take account of the national question. For example, several times he has a character note that a family ancestor had stolen the farmland from its Native inhabitants. Likewise, he points out that California itself is stolen, from Mexico. The characters use racist language a few times; it makes them look bad and I sort of assumed this was Steinbeck's intent.

I gave him too much credit, as it turns out. A quick skim of some left commentary reveals that there was a racist strain to Steinbeck's ideology, that he created white Dust Bowl migrant literary heroes in part because he saw them as superior to the Asian and Mexican agricultural work force that was already in place and that had been long engaged in unionization struggles. He saw the new white arrivals as replacing the workers of color, and this, the triumph of white labor—not of labor as a whole, of the multinational united working class—was what he looked toward.

Oh crap. How can we call this a novel of the working class when its author purposely omitted the most oppressed quarters of the class from his vision of the proper direction of the class struggle? Is it possible for a work of fiction to embody contradiction, to have both strengths and weaknesses, to be in some ways a contribution and in some ways backward? At least one critique I recently read allows no such wiggle room, going so far as to liken The Grapes of Wrath to Gone with the Wind. The latter is an out-and-out paean to the slaveocracy, penned in homage to the pro-KKK movie Birth of a Nation; does Steinbeck's novel similarly serve as an explicit tribute to white labor as against Black, Latino and Asian labor?

I imagine there is also a body of feminist critique of this novel. I can easily guess what the charges would be, and that I'd probably agree with them. And yet. The character of Ma Joad, hedged in to the most traditional sex role as she is, hit me hard. Her indomitable will to survive, her strength—and she is by far the strongest character in the story, her compassion but also her capacity for violent confrontation.

A masterpiece of class-struggle fiction? A historically inaccurate racist sexist literary lie? A lot to think about, a lot to learn.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Rape, reporting, & race

Yesterday the New York Times ran an appalling story about a gang rape in east Texas that left me sickened and shaken. The victim was an 11-year-old girl. There were, according to the Times report, 18 rapists. Eighteen! They included some star high-school athletes as well as some sons of locally prominent families. At least one of them videotaped the assault with his cell phone, and the video was shown around by the bragging rapists, and that's how the crime eventually came to light and they were brought to justice.

These facts weren't the only appalling thing about the Times piece. The story itself descended into the worst despicably sexist terms in its characterization of the child who was so terribly brutalized and defiled. The newspaper found it necessary to comment that she was known in the neighborhood for wearing inappropriately mature clothes and makeup, and for hanging out in the wrong places. Yes that's right—the report implies that this 11-year-old child was a slut, she was asking for it, she deserved to be destroyed. This aspect of the report was picked up quickly by a number of commentators, who have denounced the Times for its disgusting blame-the-victim insinuations.

But there's another aspect I want to raise. Because after my first read and my first reaction, which was rage and horror, I cooled down a little and started to think, started wondering. I referred above to "facts"—but I know better than to rely on the bourgeois press for the truth. I used the phrase "brought to justice"—but I know there is no justice under capitalism, and especially not in rape cases, not for the victims of sex assault, nor for the young men who might be arrested and charged whether they did it or not. Yes, I'm talking about race: what I started wondering most of all was just who these 18 alleged rapists were. So I did a quick search and found some other, earlier, local articles about this case.

Almost immediately, a series of mug shots appeared on my screen. Young African American men. The victim's picture of course isn't available but I'm guessing that she too is Black because if she were white we'd have heard much more about this case much sooner; quite possibly we'd have heard about a lynching. As it is, knowing that all the alleged rapists are Black makes this a story not only about what we Marxists call the woman question, but also about the national question.

Now reread this from the Times piece: "The video led the police to an abandoned trailer, more evidence and, eventually, to a roundup over the last month of 18 young men and teenage boys." A roundup of African American youths.

The rape of this child was a heinous crime. It's almost impossible for me to believe that this roundup by the Cleveland, Texas, police, a force made up overwhelmingly of white men, is not another crime—a  racist crime; that is, that some of those arrested are innocent, picked up for the crime of being young Black men. And that they'll be railroaded into prison where they'll join so many other young Black men locked up for the crime of being poor and oppressed. So now there will be two crimes, that against the child and that against those who had nothing to do with it but were rounded up.

This is not the Glen Ridge rape. That case was beautifully analyzed in the 1997 book Our Guys by Bernard Lefkowitz, which I read and highly recommend. In 1989 in Glen Ridge, an affluent white New Jersey suburb, a bunch of star athletes gang-raped a mentally challenged girl--and almost the whole community united to defend and protect them. The victim and her family were made pariahs. The rapists were treated as heroes or, at worst, good guys who made a minor mistake. Not one of them ever served serious time.

Here, in contrast, we have cops rounding up Black youths. If there have been confessions, we have the likelihood that they were coerced. That some of them might be false confessions. That some of those rounded up didn't do it. This is the United States of America. There is no way that justice will be done. (Nor do I think that any trials, convictions and imprisonments of those who actually did commit the rape will constitute justice, for none of that will address or redress any of what's wrong with this society, any of the real causes of these crimes.)

Don't get me wrong--I remain enraged and shaken about the unspeakable crime that was committed. I can't stop thinking about the 11-year-old girl and how she'll manage to survive on into adulthood. If she'll manage to survive. Both the brutal misogyny of the crime and the sexist reporting of it make me want to scream and shout. But I won't join the rush to judgment against those accused. Because when Black men are accused of rape, especially in a case like this when so many are accused at once, and in small-town Texas no less, you can be assured that racism too is involved.

There is a long history of Black men being made into poster images for rape, whether the victim is Black or white, and of rape charges being used to justify racist violence and scapegoating. This goes back to slavery times and then the Klan and Jim Crow with the terrible lynch law era. Then there was the Scottsboro case. And more recently, the case of the Central Park jogger, for which the NYPD rounded up a bunch of Black youths who were demonized and caricatured as, basically, animals who had carried out what the media called a "wilding"--and who, despite their protestations of innocence were tried, convicted and imprisoned only to be exonerated years later after losing most of their youth to prison.

I recently read Jeffrey B. Perry's excellent book on Hubert Harrison, the first of a projected two-part biography of this great Black radical of early 20th-century Harlem. In the book Perry repeatedly returns to the lodestar of Harrison's political life: the principle (and practical necessity) that fighting racism must be paramount, that as long as white supremacy reigns there can be no class unity. A socialist revolutionary must always remember this. The Cleveland, Texas, rape case is the latest reminder.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

It's International Women's Day

And I don't have time to mark it in any meaningful way. Damn. Let me do this instead. Let me hail my sisters in the thick of the still ongoing Egyptian revolution. And my Filipina sisters of Gabriela. My Colombian sisters fighting the death squads. My sisters in the Basque country. My sisters in the Iraqi and Afghan resistance. My Palestinian sisters. I hail the women who, around the world, lead the class struggle--including, right here at home, the schoolteachers and other public employees of Wisconsin who've been showing the way forward for the U.S. labor movement.

Happy International Women's Day. Down with the patriarchy! Kick the ass of the ruling class!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Whose Center is it?

One evening in 1981, or maybe it was 1982, I attended a meeting in a falling-apart former NYC public-school building on 13th Street in Manhattan. At this meeting, 15 or 20 activists began organizing a protest against a series of racist offenses against Black gay men at Blues, a bar in the Times Square area. The protest, which took place a few days later, was great, a big angry march and a wonderful expression of LGBT anti-racist unity.

The building where we'd met would later become New York City's LGBT Center. Now, all these years later, it's a big, beautiful, well-financed hub for all manner of social, political, and every and any other kind of gathering imaginable by and for our community.

Except Palestinians, apparently. Or their allies in the struggle against Israeli apartheid. Solidarity is no longer welcome at what once was a center of unity.

In mid-February, in a breathtaking and shocking accommodation with a small cohort of rabid racist Zionists, LGBT Center Executive Director Glenda Testone unilaterally canceled an event that had been scheduled to take place at the Center this Saturday, March 5, to mark Israeli Apartheid Week. She did so without any consultation with the event's sponsors, the group Siege Busters, although this group has met regularly at the Center, and with the bizarre excuse that the planned meeting would somehow violate the Center as a "safe space."

Safe for whom? For a handful of racists, apparently, those who would deny access to Palestinians and who apparently wield inordinate power.

The response has been rage and outrage. Letters, calls, and a petition that's now garnered thousands of signatures. Lots of Jewish LGBT people, myself of course included, have joined this chorus, whose initiators include novelist Sarah Schulman and professor and writer Judith Butler.

I have not yet heard what the next steps in the response to this outrage by the Center will be. But this is not the Center we started to create that night 30 years ago with the Blues bar protest. This must not stand.

For more information, check here and here and here. And sign the petition demanding that the Center reverse its exclusionary decision here.

UPDATE: Tomorrow, March 5, from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., there will be a demonstration to protest the LGBT Center's ban on anti-occupation queer meetings and activists. I'll see you there, in front of the Center, 208 West 13th Street, just west of Seventh Avenue.