May 29, 2005
Revolution #004, May 29, 2005, posted at revcom.us
The political establishment of the United States is gripped by a raw and escalating struggle over power at the very heights of the empire.
A collision course has been set by the rightwing Republican forces that now dominate the Congress and the White House.
As we go to press, the public showdown is now set for the Senate floor on Tuesday May 24.
The Senate is scheduled to vote on ending their debate over Bush's nomination of Priscilla Owen for a federal judgeship.
If the Republicans don't get the 60 votes they currently need to "end debate", their leadership has announced they will simply change the Senate rules and forbid filibusters over judicial nominees, and then move on to confirm Judge Owen.
On the surface, these events may not appear all that earth-shaking. Many people don't see the impact this fight could have on their lives and hopes. Most people have no idea what a filibuster is.
And for this moment at least, this struggle still appears to be going through the traditional channels of political business-as-usual. This intense infighting is mainly taking place deep in the bowels of the U.S. power structure—where little packs of U.S. Senators scurry from secret meeting to secret meeting, stopping occasionally to posture and sound-bite in front of TV cameras. To put it crudely: None of this has the outward look of a coup d'etat. There are no tanks in the street, there have not been arrests or assassinations of opponents.
However, despite these appearances, this country is in the midst of a historic power grab that could have consequences as far-reaching as any coup d'etat.
"Now comes the revolution. If you don't implement a conservative agenda now, when do you?"
Richard Viguerie, founding leader of the Christian right, election eve 2005
In many ways, this is the moment that the Religious Right has been waiting and working for over decades. With high level support and funding, they have painstakingly increased their power throughout the Republican Party and at all levels of the state apparatus—including the military. In 2000, their leader George Bush took over the White House. And they now dominate both houses of the Congress.
In other words, key levers of power are there in their hands.
And at the same time, they are tremendously dissatisfied with what they have accomplished with that power so far. They want much, much more. They intend to make changes that are so sweeping and deep that there is no "going back"—so that their vision dominates the U.S. and their domination is permanent.
They want to drastically change what people are allowed to say, think and do. They want to force Christian fundamentalism to the center of society—as the standard for law, behavior, and morality. They want school children indoctrinated in their anti-science beliefs about Creationism and miracles, and they want teachers forced to lead their students in Christian prayer. They want biblical standards of punishment and behavior to become the law of the land— with all the horrors this would mean (including the severe punishment of children, the escalation of executions and the ominous demonization of gay people).
To impose their backward vision of family and submissive sex roles, they want to prevent women from controlling their own reproduction—including by criminalizing abortion and even birth control. And, they are in a frenzy to impose a sweeping censorship over anything they consider indecent and subversive—most cultural expressions of overt sexuality, revolutionary politics, anti-religious satire, teenage rebelliousness and much more.
This push for a Christian-fundamentalist police state has brought the issue of federal judges to center stage— because it has long been clear that to fully carry out their chilling vision they will need to make sweeping changes in the existing legal standards of the U.S.
Many federal court rulings over decades objectively represent legal obstacles to the Christian-fascist plans for the society and culture.
The federal courts have enforced a separation of church and state. They have stopped organized prayer in schools. And they have put limits on the government's power to censor both sexual and political matters. The Supreme Court has ruled that there is a constitutional "right to privacy"—and on that basis has knocked down state laws that criminalized birth control, abortion and gay sexual acts. Major Court decisions have ruled that advocating communist revolution or burning the U.S. flag should be considered forms of speech that are protected from criminal prosecution.
These are current standards of U.S. law that the Christian right has been determined to overthrow.
For decades, extreme right-wing political forces tried to make constitutional changes piecemeal. In the Civil Rights days they called for impeaching the Warren Supreme Court that upheld desegregation. Since then, their successors have tried to pass a long series of amendments to reverse significant parts of the Bill of Rights—amendments to allow religious indoctrination in public schools, to ban abortion, to ban flag burning, to ban gay marriage, and so on. Though these efforts revved up their political movement, they never got enacted.
Now, with the heights of power in their hands, a whole different strategy presents itself. Rev. Rick Scarborough, leader of a large network of "Patriot Pastors," recently said: "It takes two-thirds of Congress, the President's signature, and three-fourths of the states to change the Constitution—or one judge." ( Newsweek , May 16):
In short: Instead of slowly rewriting what the Constitution says, they intend to pack the top court and then announce a change in what the Constitution means.
At the very time when Republicans dominate both the White House and Congress, there will be two, three, or perhaps even four vacancies on the U.S. Supreme Court over the next couple years. Seeing this opportunity, they are moving with a "now or never" intensity. They are determined to use their overall power to step-by- step bulldoze any legal and political obstacles to their recasting of the Supreme Court—and then of many of society's most basic rules.
It needs to be pointed out, again and again, just how extreme this whole plan and vision is.
The current Supreme Court (which the Religious Right hates so much) is, in fact, a very conservative institution that loyally serves this whole oppressive system.
This is the same Supreme Court that helped carry out the virtual coup d'etat that put George Bush into power! On a day-to-day basis, this Supreme Court enforces modern capitalism—upholding and arbitrating the rules of capitalist property. This is a court that has allowed the round-up of immigrants without trial, that okayed unprecedented new police surveillance, and allowed the U.S. torture camps at Baghram Airforce base, in Afghanistan, and Guantánamo in Cuba.
And yet, after all that, when evangelist Pat Robertson gets on ABC's This Week (May1), he rages that the federal judges and the cultural changes they have allowed over a hundred years are a more serious threat to the U.S. than "bearded terrorists who fly into buildings." It shows the harsh war-like mentality of fascists straining for final victory.
So what, then, is this showdown in the Senate over?
The vast majority of Bush's new court nominations have been approved by Congress—often with very little debate or opposition. So far Congress has approved 204 of Bush's court nominees, 34 of them judges for the important Appeals Courts (just below the Supreme Court).
However the Senate Democrats have used the traditional Senate procedure called "filibuster" to stall the nomination of seven of the most extreme court nominations. And this is being treated as completely intolerable by the Senate's Republican majority.
Here is how that filibuster procedure works. On the Senate floor, it takes a majority of Senators (i.e., 51 votes) to approve a judge. However, under the Senate's traditional rules, a minority of Senators can insist on continuing the debate —thereby delaying any vote. Delaying a vote this way is called a filibuster. Filibusters have historically been a way to prevent a Senate majority from having their way, by stalling and by rallying public opinion. And often it has been used for reactionary purposes—as when Southern Dixiecrat senators filibustered on and on against civil rights bills in the 1960s.
According to the Senate's rules, it takes a "super-majority" to end a debate. This means that the Republicans need 60 votes to end the debate over their seven stalled judges.
This is what has frustrated the Republican leadership and the Christian-fascist right. The White House sent up those ugly right-wing judicial nominees to the Senate long ago, and the Senate Republicans have a 51 vote majority to approve them, but they don't have the 60 votes needed to end the debate.
And so, under the current rules, the Democratic minority in the Senate can stall the appointment of any particular nominee—virtually forever.
You might wonder: only 7 stalled out of 204? What's the big deal?
But for the top Republicans, getting their most extreme appointees confirmed is exactly the point!
The forces represented by George Bush, Bill Frist and Tom DeLay have no intention of getting this far in the game, and then accepting a Supreme Court freshly staffed with old-school "moderate Republicans" that essentially accept the current framework of the status quo! They don't want a future Supreme Court to look essentially like the current Supreme Court.
The whole point of their strategy now is to pack the next Supreme Court with a much more extreme new majority that will actually reverse major legal precedents and overturn established interpretation of what the U.S. Constitution means.
The Christian fascists are perfectly aware that any Supreme Court nominee that serves their purposes would certainly face a filibuster by a sizable chunk of the Senate. And so, they produced the present aggressive power play: They intend to simply abolish the Senate rule that allows filibusters for judicial nominees.
Current Senate rules require 67 votes to change the rules. But the Senate Republicans intend to simply bypass that rule too. They have dreamed up the "nuclear option" where Dick Cheney (who, as Vice President, presides over the Senate) will announce that the decision to abolish judicial filibusters can be made with a simple 51 vote majority.
This is a raw gangster move: If the Democratic opposition uses its traditional right to stall Bush's seven most extreme nominees, the Republican majority in the Senate and Cheney have announced they will simply change the rules and take away that power.
And you can almost hear them say: "Whaddaya gonna do about it?"
Harry Reid, leader of the Senate Democrats, offered a humiliating compromise weeks ago—promising to approve four of the stalled seven judges, and (according to one report) even secretly promising not to filibuster George Bush's first nominee for the Supreme Court.
But this slavish offer was arrogantly turned down by Republican Senate leader Bill Frist.
Since then feverish attempts to forge some kind of "compromise" have fizzled—the White House and Republicans are determined to strip the Democrats of any power to stall a judicial nominee, and they think they have the power to do it. And they seem prepared to weather any fallout.
As we go to press, it is still unclear what exactly will go down on May 24 and afterwards. But no matter what, a profound change is happening in the political life and norms of the U.S. government. Those holding supreme power in the Congress and White House are making an unprecedented power grab—with the obvious intention of wrenching the Supreme Court and then the whole society onto an extreme, new and sinister course.
They have ruthlessly shown their hand. They are mercilessly tearing that existing fabric of official establishment politics in ways that even have significant sections of the Republican Party blinking in disbelief.
Conservative columnist David Brooks warned that Frist is leading the Senate "into this bloody unknown." Republican Senator Arlen Spector publicly frets that events are stampeding toward "the abyss." There is open talk that this nuclear option may "destroy the Senate as an institution." No matter how these events turn out, their actions are threatening to pull apart the "center"—and important ways that state power has traditionally been exercised and justified.
These are important and ominous developments, even for the many millions of people who have no stake in this whole political and economic system. On one hand, the future demanded by these Christian fascists would be a horror for humanity, and the successful achievement of their plans would make the struggle for justice and liberation all that much harder. And, on the other hand, the very fact that official politics is lurching in such unpredictable and reckless ways to the right has the potential to stir millions of people to throw themselves into the political fray, and potentially raises profound new questions among them about what future we need to be fighting for together.
Harry Reid, leader of the Senate Democrats, said on the floor of the Senate: "If Republicans roll back our rights in this chamber, there will be no check on their power. The radical, right wing will be free to pursue any agenda they want. And not just on judges. Their power will be unchecked on Supreme Court nominees, the president's nominees in general and legislation like Social Security privatization."
This statement captures the intentions of the Republican Right with a bluntness rarely seen in Congress. The "nuclear option" of Bill Frist and Dick Cheney is intended to brush aside any official obstacles to their agenda—and, yes, their plans obviously do not stop at picking judges, or even the new Supreme Court.
But it is worth looking closely and critically at Reid's opening sentence: "If Republicans roll back our rights in this chamber, there will be no check on their power."
For one thing, Reid and his Democrats have proven to be little of a real "check on their power"!
They have responded to the steady advance of the Christian fascists in the most cowardly and stupid ways imaginable—with endless offers of compromise, with promises of collaboration, with weak and quickly spurned appeals to moderation. And they have too often promoted, among the people, a naãve disbelief that all this is really happening, and a dangerous, intolerable paralysis as events move around us.
The same cannot (unfortunately) be said for the forces of the extreme right. Their movement is highly focused, financed and motivated. The most extreme, ignorant and fundamentalist sections of the population have been riled up and mobilized for exactly this fight. They are actively directed by their leadership, which now sits entrenched in the very heights of power.
There does truly need to be a "check on their power"—and more. And yet where is it? Where are the defiant cities filled with protest.and the campuses shut down in defiance...and the whole political climate where these swine are mocked and hounded wherever they move? It is not there yet, it is glaringly, maddenly missing.
And yet, isn't the potential and possibility obvious?
Though all these events, there has been mounting horror and even real fear over the rise of Christian fascism— among millions of people—and with it often a sputtering fury over the stand and response of the Democratic Party. There is, as Bob Avakian points out in this issue of our newspaper, a very stark "disconnect" between these people and the Democrats they have so often voted for.
It is past time to break out of the paralyzing framework of official bourgeois politics—to lose the illusions that "everything will swing back to normal like a pendulum" or that these fascists will be beaten back into their holes by politics-as-usual.
People need to be mobilized in their millions to actually fight those in power, and consciously prepare to wrench that power from their hands. And it is exactly the right time to fight to bring forward a new liberating and revolutionary vision of a whole different future—to contest boldly with the fascists in the spotlight.
Events are moving quickly. These high-level power plays will not run on forever without reaching some decisive resolutions.
In a very important sense, the outcome of it all is not yet decided. And yet, at the same time, important victories will almost certainly be won by the Christian fascists if a powerful political earthquake is not organized, and if key sections of the people are not brought into determined struggle in a whole new way.
These words are meant to sound the alarm —to provoke sleepless nights and tireless days, creative actions and defiant visions.
by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA
Revolution #004, May 29, 2005, posted at revcom.us
Let's look again at this pyramid of power that I have spoken to before. In that piece on "The Pyramid of Power and the Struggle to Turn This Whole Thing Upside Down," I made the point that:
"At the top of this pyramid are the people that rule this society.. Here's the pyramid and here are the Republicans over here (on the right) with their shit going down to the right-wing social base of religious maniacs and fundamentalist fools.. On the other hand here are the Democrats at the top of this pyramid (on the so-called `left'), Who are the people that they try to appeal to—not that the Democrats represent their interests, but who are the people that the Democrats try to appeal to at the base, on the other side of the pyramid, so to speak? All the people who stand for progressive kinds of things, all the people who are oppressed in this society. For the Democrats, a big part of their role is to keep all those people confined within the bourgeois, the mainstream electoral process.and to get them back into it when they have drifted away from—or broke out of— that framework."1
Well, we can also conceive of this as a pyramid made up of two ladders that are leaning against each other at the top; and the centrifugal forces at the bottom, pulling away from the center, can cause it to collapse. In that kind of context and in that kind of way, you can see how the question arises very acutely: the center—can it hold?
The polarization in the ruling class of the U.S. now is between centrist mainstream imperialist thought and program, on the one end, and, on the other end, fascist thought and program—all ultimately serving the same imperialist system. Yes, there are gradations. Yes, there are forces in between, and there are forces, especially among the broader population, that don't fit into that configuration at all fundamentally, and others that we have to rupture out of it. But if you think of this pyramid analysis, this is basically what's at the top of the pyramid, what's represented on either side of the apex of this pyramid, to put it that way—that's what it is: mainstream imperialist thought and program, on the one side, and fascist thought and program on the other side, all rooted in and ultimately serving the same imperialist system.
And all this is increasingly moving to the right. That's why you had such a (to use their phrase) "disconnect" in this election between the Democratic Party leadership and the "mass base" of people who voted for the Democrats. Even at the Democratic Party convention in 2004, there was this huge gap and difference between the sentiments of the people there, who are Democratic Party lower level functionaries by and large—between their sentiments about key issues like Iraq, which were overwhelmingly to get out of Iraq for basically good reasons—and what was being articulated from the stage and by the candidate Kerry himself. And that great difference ran right to the election. This was a little bit like the phenomenon I spoke to, in terms of the 2002 mid-term election, where people poured out into the streets, largely as a result of the fact that they were desperate to have some way to oppose the Iraq war and the Democrats refused to give it to them. Well, this time around, in the 2004 Presidential election, the Democrats refused to give it to them again, but many people still went and very consciously voted—this was not an apathetic populace in this election, including among the basic masses. Yes, some people didn't vote, but this was a very politically charged and, on a certain level, politically aware populace on both sides of the polarization as it took shape around the election. And many people poured into voting, including a huge number of people who voted for Kerry who were saying, "yes, Kerry is no good," but wanting desperately to get Bush out—and not for bad reasons overwhelmingly. The way that took expression is not what we want or need, but what was finding expression in that was something we definitely must unite with and do unite with, even though we have to divert it and lead it somewhere else.
So there was this very stark "disconnect" between these people and the Democrats they voted for. However, one of the things that does happen—and you could see this also through the electoral process—is something I observed in one of those short comments I made just before the election, which was printed in the RW 2, where I said that if you try to make the Democrats be what they are not and never will be, you will end up being more like what the Democrats actually are. And you could see that dynamic at work in the 2004 election too. Some people started adopting Kerry's terms for criticizing Bush, even though they don't agree with those terms. If you step back, do you agree that the point is that Bush is an inefficient commander-in-chief in Iraq? Is that your critique of what's happening? For millions and millions of people the answer is clearly: No. But you still find people getting drawn into those terms.
So, on the one hand, this polarization is obviously not what we need. On the other hand, there is potential in it, in terms of the fundamental question of whether the center can hold—and what will happen if it doesn't hold. It's not at all guaranteed that if it doesn't hold there will be a positive outcome, from the point of view of everything we're about and are striving for, and seeking to lead masses of people to achieve. It's not at all guaranteed that if the center, in its present form, doesn't hold things will come out positively—it could all come out extremely negatively. In fact, right now that's the greater likelihood—and that's what got many people paralyzed with fear, frankly. And we have to do something about that too, through our work—ideological and political, and yes, ultimately organizational work on the basis of ideological and political line.
All the turmoil that's going on in society reflects in a fundamental way our analysis that this is a period where the world is marked by a major transition with the potential for great upheaval—a period transition which began with the dissolution, or collapse, of the Soviet Union and its empire at the beginning of the 1990s. More and more we are seeing this borne out. This is opposed to the sort of classical "Third International" analysis of "the crisis of imperialism," attributing everything U.S. imperialism is doing in the world to the depth of crisis it's enmeshed in.3 That's not to say that there aren't dire conditions for masses of people and real political and other crises in large parts of the world, but "Third International" notions of "crisis of imperialism" is not the way to understand the actual dynamics at work. The program that's embodied in that National Security document of 20024 the program that is represented by, as one book puts it, The Rise of the Vulcans , with Cheney and Rumsfeld and the rest, is not a program arising in response to a deepening crisis that's gone on for three decades in more or less the same form—this would hardly account for "minor events" like the dissolution of the Soviet empire!5 Instead, what is going on in the world manifests itself as an expression of this period of major transition with the potential for great upheaval— upheaval which we're obviously already seeing.
But there is a real question being posed: This is the Newt Gingrich point6—his own version of "the center cannot hold." We've seen this in the Clinton impeachment crisis, in the 2000 election, and in a different form through the recent election and things bound up with it. The way in which the ruling class has been able to hold this society together and rule it, and been able to have its larger interests prevail over lesser partisan disputes, is already fraying to a significant degree. There are underlying material reasons for this, some of which is spoken to in Preaching From a Pulpit of Bones 7[as well as in the "Right-Wing Conspiracy" piece8: There are significant changes in the economy—both the U.S. and world economy—particularly as this has been unleashed by the fall of the Soviet empire, there is the heightening globalization. There are the accompanying and corresponding changes inside the U.S., particularly in terms of both the necessity and opportunity to do away with the New Deal9 consensus and the Great Society programs10.
One of the things that is said in Notes on Political Economy is that when a legitimacy crisis occurs, when the "glue" that holds society together begins to come undone, and there is an attempt to forge a new ruling consensus, then it is acutely posed whether that attempt to forge a new ruling consensus (a new "social glue," so to speak) is going to hold and work. That's a very relevant point now and a very relevant thing to dig into more deeply in terms of all this.
So we do have these very acute contradictions in society and within the ruling class, which are not entirely under the control of anyone. We are not dealing with "a committee of the ruling class"—all sitting there turning political faucets off and on. There are people seeking to do that, political operatives like the Carl Roves, or whatever, but that is not the fundamental dynamic that is going on. There are different forces in the fray, within the ruling class and more broadly in society, and this is putting a tremendous pressure on the coherence of the center as it has existed and as they're now seeking to reforge it through a lot of struggle. There is not one uniform group seeking to do this, but through struggle there's an attempt to reforge a center and a ruling consensus, in the context of this period of major transition with the potential for great upheaval.
In "GO&GS" ( Great Objectives and Grand Strategy )11 I quoted Edward Luttwak's book Turbo Capitalism , speaking not so much to the religious fundamentalist aspect of what the ruling class is doing now but to the general punitive aspect of the U.S. culture at this time. And Luttwak actually says something rather striking. He says that the American form is less virulent, but there's a similarity with what occurred in Nazi Germany, where there is a non-economic expression of revenge for ultimately economic factors. This relates to the phenomenon Luttwak is referring to with the metaphor of turbo capitalism—the fast pace of life, the insecurity that is brought with it. Yes, many people have been making a lot of money, particularly in the '90s, but they don't have the job security, they don't have the life security they feel they had before. I have also quoted this other book, on suburbanization, Fortress America , where the authors talk about people retreating into suburban enclaves— trying to pull the drawbridge up around themselves [BA laughs]. There is actual instability and uncertainty and chaos and volatility, and there is also manufactured fear, which is something Michael Moore brought out in his movie Bowling for Columbine . There is both real and manufactured fear and bases for fear. But Luttwak's point about the non-economic expression of revenge for fundamentally or ultimately economic developments is a very significant part of the whole picture that we have to understand—and move to transform.
2. These comments, under the heading "Food for Thought While Agonizing Over Bush and Everything He Stands For," appeared in Revolutionary Worker #1254 (Oct. 10, 2004) and is available online at revcom.us.
3. The "Third International" refers to the Communist International (or Comintern), which was founded by Lenin shortly after the victory of the Russian Revolution. But especially during the time when it was led by Stalin, from the mid-1920s until it was dissolved at the time of World War 2, the Comintern was increasingly marked by a mechanical approach to analyzing the world situation, which essentially saw capitalism as caught in a continuing crisis that was always worsening or about to worsen. For more on this, see the book America in Decline by Raymond Lotta (Banner Press, 1984) and the RCP's Notes on Political Economy: Our Analysis of the 1980s, Issues of Methodology, and the Current Situation (RCP Publications, 2000).
6. A reference to this is in a previous excerpt, "The Coming Civil War and Repolarization for Revolution in the Present Era," which appeared in RW #1274, April 10, 2005. In that excerpt Bob Avakian says: "In speaking to `a coming civil war' I am `drawing inspiration' from Newt Gingrich (the prominent Republican politician who was formerly the Speaker of the House of Representatives), who has made the observation that what's happening now in the electoral arena and the broader things that it reflects in U.S. society is analogous to what was going on in the U.S. in the 1840s and the 1850s, and that this isn't something that will—I'm paraphrasing, but this is the essence—this isn't something that will go away. It will only be decided when one side or the other wins out."
8." The Truth About Right-Wing Conspiracy.And Why Clinton and the Democrats Are No Answer" was reprinted in RW #1255 (Oct. 17, 2004) and is available online at revcom.us.
9. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal program was enacted in the 1930s to save U.S. capitalism in the depths of the depression by carrying out a series of reforms. Among them was the enactment of Social Security, unemployment insurance, and laws legalizing trade unions and creating the modern system of collective bargaining. The New Deal formed the basis for a modern "social compact" or "consensus" where working people were led to accept the framework of capitalism in exchange for a promise of a social net that softened the extremes of the system.
10. President Lyndon Baines Johnson's Great Society programs were enacted in the midst of the upheavals of the 1960s. It was a series of domestic reform initiatives including civil rights legislation, creation of medicaid/medicare government health insurance and general talk of a "war on poverty."
11. Excerpts from Great Objectives & Grand Strategy appeared in the RW from November 2001 to March 2002 and are online at revcom.us.
by our correspondent in the SF Bay Area
Revolution #004, May 29, 2005, posted at revcom.us
Berkeley is where Bob Avakian grew up and became a revolutionary. On May 6, over 250 people attended a book-launching event in Berkeley for Bob Avakian's new memoir, From Ike to Mao and Beyond: My Journey from Mainstream America to Revolutionary Communist. The book launching was held at King Middle School, the junior high (then named Garfield) that Avakian had attended.
This wasn't just a book release. It was a revolutionary conversation among diverse groups of people—from college professors to youth in housing projects, from poets and artists to Latino immigrants.
People very broadly are agonizing about the future. Are we living in a "New Rome" whose rulers are waging endless war to dominate the people of the world? Will the future be dictated by a fundamentalist-Christian, all-American version of the Taliban? Is there another alternative—a way out of this madness?
In such times, Bob Avakian's memoir can strike a chord with millions. And in some important ways through the building for the book launching and the event itself, Bob Avakian and his voice and vision have started to become a reference point in and a vital part of the debate in this area about the future.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X opened my eyes to a whole new way of looking at the world when I first read it. Malcolm's uncompromising stand, his principles, and his life experiences challenged me and changed my life — and the lives of millions of others. This is what I think about when I think about the kind of impact that Bob Avakian's memoir can and needs to have today.
The event was organized by the Bay Area Bob Avakian Promo Committee, a group of people in the Bay Area working to bring about greater awareness of Avakian and his works, focusing especially on the promotion of the memoir right now.
Organizers reached out broadly to find the varied ways that this book can connect with different sectors of society and invite them into the process. People welcomed the opportunity to contribute and participate.
A group of honorary co-hosts—who feel in different ways that having a society-wide conversation about Bob Avakian's memoir, and Avakian himself, is important—came together. The co-hosts included Lawrence Ferlinghetti, internationally known poet, publisher, and owner of City Lights Bookstore; actor Peter Coyote; author and activist Julia Butterfly Hill; veteran activist Yuri Kochiyama; Barbara Lubin of the Middle East Children's Alliance; former political prisoner (San Quentin 6) Luis "Bato" Talamantez; hip hop artist and popular Refa One; UC Berkeley African American Studies Professor Ula Y. Taylor; social activist Richard Aoki; SF State Professor of International Relations Dwight Simpson; attorney Bob Bloom; Michael Rossman, an activist and archivist from the Free Speech Movement; the spoken word crew Chico Speaks Out; veterans of the Black Panther Party, and others.
The honorary hosts took up many different responsibilities for the book launching - helping publicize it, working to plan the content, participating in the readings and in other ways.
"I think that Bob Avakian has taken the whole idea and conception of communism to another level — he's revived the communist project, if you will, going beyond Marx, Lenin and Mao in some really important ways," said Lenny Wolff, who wrote the memoir's preface, in a San Francisco Chronicle article about the event. "At the same time, there's a lot of other folks who are not communist but who are also trying to help him get heard because, from their own varied viewpoints, they think this is someone whose story and ideas and critical stance are extremely timely."
A sound truck decorated with posters advertising the memoir went through the proletarian neighborhoods of West Berkeley and West Oakland to bring news of the book launching. A revolutionary activist who was out with the sound truck described the scene:
"In West Oakland on a Sunday morning, Black people coming out of churches give their thumbs up to the message they are hearing from the truck about a revolutionary leader who is connecting with the people. Kids in their bikes follow the sound truck around on a kind of festival atmosphere through the neighborhood.
"A middle class woman in West Berkeley comes running out of her house and gets tickets for the celebration. She says, `I just heard the voice of a Black man on a loudspeaker talking about revolution and I had to come out and see what this was all about! I haven't heard this in years!'
"In this same neighborhood an older Black man says, `Sure, I know a little about Bob Avakian. More than you can probably guess. I haven't forgotten those revolutionary times.' He invites us into his house and shows us a whole collection of art and photos from the '60s, the Black Panthers, the Cultural Revolution in China. `I knew Huey and David Hilliard and I've heard some about Bob Avakian over the years. I definitely want to check this out.' He buys a memoir and invites people to come back."
At Berkeley High teachers have been reading the memoir and introducing it to their students, who in turn helped publicize and videotape the book launching. Joe Veale—spokesperson for the Los Angeles Branch of the RCP, a former Black Panther, and a graduate of Berkeley High—spoke in assemblies to 1000 students about Bob Avakian.
A very significant development was the publication in the San Francisco Chronicle of an honest, substantial, and insightful article by Rick DelVecchio, reviewing the memoir and announcing the book-launching event. (Available online at sfgate.com).
"Berkeley-bred Avakian's new memoir, From Ike to Mao and Beyond , leaves a breathtaking impression," DelVecchio wrote. "Having deepened and purified his convictions over 40 years of personal and political struggle, Avakian sounds a high, sustained cry for complete social transformation almost as if he were the trumpet of Lenin himself."
Of Avakian's approach to Marxism, DelVecchio wrote, "His non-dogmatic communism tolerates contradiction, welcomes dissent and demands the participation of artists and intellectuals in creating a classless society. `Marxism is not a scripture, it's not a religious dogma,' Avakian writes. `It's a scientific approach to reality.'"
The Chronicle article made many more people aware of the memoir and its significance—and touched off attacks by reactionaries (see sidebar).
An enthusiastic review of the book also appeared in the Laney Tower , the school newspaper of Laney Community College. "At times I laughed at some of the tangential yet interesting stories Avakian would occasionally delve into, while at other times my eyebrows would be locked in a furrow as I read about the mire of America's capitalistic politics," the Tower reviewer wrote. "This book comes with my highest recommendations to aspiring activists or anyone who, like Avakian, holds no respect for unearned and unwarranted authority. It is a wonderful memoir for anyone who enjoys reading diverse perspectives on history. Enjoy."
A lengthy excerpt from the book, about how Avakian met and worked with the Black Panthers, ran in The Bayview newspaper, the largest Black newspaper in the Bay Area. A review of the memoir appeared in the Berkeley High School Yellow Jacket. The Berkeley Historical Society newsletter also ran an excerpt from the book.
The event itself was an ambitious multimedia production. Readings from the book by local actors and cultural figures composed the core of the event. These were augmented by historical and descriptive video footage, including of Avakian speaking at a Black Panther rally in the late 1960s and appearing on the nationally televised late night talk show, "The Tomorrow Show," in the late 1970s with host Tom Snyder. Music by two DJs punctuated the readings and intensified the videos, bringing in another element that helped situate Avakian's life in the changing culture that helped change him - from do-wop to jazz to reggae to hip hop. The hallway outside the auditorium was lined with video, photo, and text installations, and people could write messages to Bob Avakian in a guest book. The whole event brought to life different aspects of the memoir and conveyed a sense of the "journey from mainstream America to revolutionary communist."
In the audience were people very new to politics as well as veteran political activists. People came who knew Avakian from back in school (even elementary school) and who were part of some of the things that shaped him—like the Free Speech Movement, the Black Panther Party, the Tournament of Champions, and friends of the Avakian family.
Laura, who came with her daughter, told me:
"I was curious, especially since I started reading the book, about his whole line of thought and reasoning, his vision of what the world could be and what his vision of the Party going forward is, which is different than I thought it would be. You live in this society and you get all this bullshit [about communism] thrown at you so you begin to believe it. And you don't really know what's true or not true until you have a person who's leading the Party speak for himself. And that's how you can get to the truth or at least closer to the truth. To be truthful I don't really know too much about communism but I certainly don't like what we live in."
A Latino man who came from a small town in southern Mexico and had been with the Zapatistas said that he had discovered Bob Avakian at a Revolution Books store.
"Ever since I was a little kid I was told that communism is dead. But I found out about Bob Avakian and I started reading his stuff. And I thought, this guy is really talking the truth and he's fighting against the system. This is the leader that we need. This is what I am looking for. I'm going to be along his way and following his words."
He said he thought that the Zapatista leader Marcos and Avakian where both revolutionaries but that
"Marcos and the Zapatistas were fighting just locally, for Mexico, for indigenous people. But for Avakian it is global, for the world in general. We are fighting for everybody, without respect to religion, language, skin color or whatever. He's fighting for everybody, for rights, for freedom and against imperialism. That's what I like about him."
The program began with the word "Imagine" projected on the screen, followed by a film clip of Bob Avakian from the Revolution DVD, challenging us to imagine a new world.
Kriss Worthington, a Berkeley City Councilperson, took the stage to declare, "Welcome to the People's Republic of Berkeley. It is fitting and proper that.the program began with the words of Bob Avakian, whose vision and message is what has shaped this evening's program."
Before the program I had a chance to talk with Worthington about why he was part of inviting people to the event. "This is Berkeley and there are a lot of people here who believe in revolution, or communism or socialism of one brand or another. Bob Avakian is a powerful voice and an advocate, and it's important to acknowledge his role and his new publication," he said.
I was happy to see that one of my favorite parts of the memoir—an account of the Tournament of Champions high school basketball playoffs in the Bay Area—was among the selected readings. Avakian's love of sports, particularly basketball, and how this opened up a whole different world and was a door for connecting with many different people, is a major theme of the book.
After the event I talked with Michael Lange who read from that section during the program. Lange is an educator and actor who has performed around the country as Malcolm X, bringing Malcolm's speeches to life for thousands of people.
"Here is a man who is talking about his childhood, who grew up in Berkeley and is a revolutionary and that is a powerful thing," Lange said. "I needed to find out who Bob Avakian is. I've heard his name in different parts of the country when I was doing Malcolm X. It's the most amazing thing."
Performing as Malcolm X around the country has given Lange an acute awareness of the importance of protecting our revolutionary leaders.
"I'm at the podium, I'm recreating verbatim three of Malcolm's most important speeches and I'm looking out and seeing the audience and I see what they feel.. I'm looking at faces that say, how come we didn't know how to protect him? And it's the same way with Bob. How are we going to protect him? The powers that be want to eliminate that thinking of revolution, the changing of government."
Personal reflections, by a family minister and by a man who worked politically with Avakian as a proletarian youth in Richmond, gave meaningful and intimate glimpses into this very interesting life.
I really liked the statement from the guy from Richmond who had met Bob Avakian back in 1969-1970. This was when Avakian had moved from Berkeley to Richmond to do political organizing among the proletariat, and the statement was written by someone who had been a young man of 19 working with the Brown Berets.
"I began to talk to Bob which allowed me to begin to have a broader outlook on things. I remember Bob coming out to my house talking to my dad. He met the family and had supper with us.. Once when he came over my house my mom started yelling at me and my dad. Bob asked, `What's up?' I told him that we had worked on the car and then we tracked dirt into the house. Bob said, `Well you know she does have a reason to get mad since she has to clean up after you.'. He helped me understand that what we were up against is bigger than just the police, although they are part of it; that it is this capitalist society. If we are going to be able to change things then we have to be able to know what it is that has to be changed. When I went to school I didn't know how to read very well til I started to read things like the Red Book and we would talk about things, and then I started to like to read."
Chico Speaks Out - a nationally known poetry slam team from California's Central Valley—performed several pieces as part of this celebration of the memoir's launching.
A highlight of the program was a conversation between Quetzal Ceja, associate editor of Insight Press (the publisher of Bob Avakian's memoir), and Joe Veale. They talked about how one of the unique things about the memoir is that it reveals a "from-the-inside" picture of what it is like to forge and lead a communist party. Veale brought out the confusion that he and other people felt at the end of the 1960s and how Avakian identified and tackled the key political and ideological questions of the day. They also talked about the role that Avakian played following the death of Mao and the capitalist coup in China. And they discussed the urgency of defending Bob Avakian today.
Travis Morales, long-time follower of Bob Avakian who was asked by the Party to speak on what is special and unique about Avakian, presented a concentrated picture of what is meant by "and Beyond" in the memoir's title. He said that what he finds most inspiring about Bob Avakian is his "fierce determination, combined with a very non-dogmatic method, all guided by a vision for humanity, to get beyond the madness surrounding us and to get to a whole different world, to communism."
"Avakian's re-envisioning of socialism," Morales said, "demands doing better than anything the world has seen in unleashing the creativity of the people, celebrating diversity, and not just tolerating but welcoming dissent and the interrogation by others."
At the end of the program a young woman actor read from the final chapter of the book where Avakian writes about what sustains him as a revolutionary. As I left the program his words and her reading resonated in my head, tying together many of the strands of the evening:
"If you have had a chance to see the world as it actually is, there are profoundly different roads you can take with your life. You can just get into the dog-eat-dog, and most likely get swallowed up by that while trying to get ahead in it. You can put your snout into the trough and try to scarf up as much as you can, while scrambling desperately to get more than others. Or you can try to do something that would change the whole direction of society and the whole way the world is. When you put those things along side each other which one has any meaning, which one really contributes anything worthwhile? Your life is going to be about something - or it's going to be about nothing. And there is nothing greater your life can be about than contributing whatever you can to the revolutionary transformation of society and the world, to put an end to all systems and relations of oppression and exploitation and all the unnecessary suffering and destruction that goes along with them. I have learned that more deeply through all the twists and turns and even the great setbacks, as well as the great achievements of the communist revolution so far, in what are really still its early stages historically."
(Thanks to the many people who assisted in writing this article.)
Revolution #004, May 29, 2005, posted at revcom.us
Rick Del Vecchio's review of Bob Avakian's memoir in the San Francisco Chronicle had a big impact in the Bay Area, letting tens of thousands know about the book and about the significance and drama of Bob Avakian's life. But there were some who were very upset that such a review had appeared in a mainstream newspaper.
"SF Chronicle Digs Communism" was the title on an item on the Little Green Footballs web log—as if the Chronicle had suddenly turned pro-communist because it published a favorable review of a book by a communist revolutionary. This blog, known as LGF, is not some fringe operation (though it certainly is rabidly reactionary—it calls Rachel Corrie, the internationalist peace activist who was crushed by an Israeli army bulldozer while protesting the destruction of a Palestinian home, "Rachel Pancake"). Run by California web designer Charles Johnson, LGF was voted "Best International Blog" in an poll by the Washington Post in November 2004. And it was one of main forces that behind the right-wing offensive that led to the ouster of CBS News anchor Dan Rather after a controversy over a new story about Bush's National Guard record during the Vietnam War.
Similar attack pieces appeared in the website of the Cal Patriot , which publishes a right-wing newspaper at UC Berkeley, and the (so-called) American Thinker . These Internet postings aimed to mobilize their right-wing base in a email and letter campaign against the Chronicle and DelVecchio—and to threaten others in the media. Such threats are part of these times—when the President's spokesman tells those in the media to "watch what you say" and when journalists and academics are coming under serious fire for not blindly towing the ever-more-radically-conservative line.
Marc Cooper, a writer for the social-democratic weekly The Nation , has joined these right-wing publications in their attack. On his blog, Cooper posted a name-calling, low-level, substance-less attack on Del Vecchio (calling him a "dope") and on Bob Avakian (calling him a "head-case," a "cult- leader," and a "whackjob"). Cooper's online articler ends with this suggestion: "Fire the guy at the Chronicle and hire this civilian." (Cooper was referring to someone who wrote a review attacking Avakian's memoir on amazon.com.) Discussion on this topic on Cooper's blog site was directed at anyone who has publicly recommended that others read Avakian's memoir, including Cornell West and Howard Zinn, who had written blurbs that appear on the book jacket.
Writing in her online blog, Sunsara Taylor responded to Cooper:
"Why should people who write the kind of low-level ad-hominim attacks Cooper did here have any credibility among progressive people? Cooper himself can't answer the substance in what Avakian has to say and he doesn't want anyone else to even look into it.
"Cooper assails Rick DelVecchio for his `yawning ignorance of the subject about which he so blithely writes.' The trouble with this argument is that DelVecchio clearly did read From Ike to Mao and Beyond and demonstrates an accurate, sweeping and even poetic grasp of its contents, while Cooper demonstrates nothing but prideful and glaring ignorance of the book's contents..
"Cooper's snide, proof-texting, uncritical approach not only prevents people from learning anything new about the world, it also conforms to the `unthinkingness' of the times being demanded by those with the power. He is aligning himself with aggressive measures to cleanse the discourse in America of everything oppositional and revolutionary."
In a widely distributed e-mail, several of the honorary hosts of the Berkeley book launching wrote: "These attacks require a sharp rebuke. We cannot let mobilization of their minions bombarding the Chronicle with emails and letters attacking the review and the reporter who wrote it [to go on] without a strong, effective response."
Revolution #004, May 29, 2005, posted at revcom.us
PEN World Voices: the New York Festival of International Literature
"Literature is a loose cannon. This is a very good thing."
—Salman Rushdie, April 17, at the PEN World Voices festival
In 1989 author Salman Rushdie was condemned to death by Ayatollah Khomeini, then the head of Iran's fundamentalist Islamic Republic. Khomeini accused Rushdie of committing blasphemy against Islam in his acclaimed novel The Satanic Verses.
Flash forward to 2005. Rushdie is now the president of the literary organization PEN America Center. And, ironically, an American ayatollah now sits in the White House. A powerful religious fundamentalist movement—of the Christian kind—threatens to turn this country into a theocracy. Rushdie recently said, "It has perhaps never been more important for the world's voices to be heard in America, never more important for the world's ideas and dreams to be known and thought about and discussed, never more important for a global dialogue to be fostered. Yet one has the sense of things shutting down, of barriers being erected, of that dialogue being stifled precisely when we should be doing our best to amplify it. The Cold War is over, but a stranger war has begun."
In these dangerous times of a "stranger war," Rushdie took the courageous step of launching PEN World Voices: the New York Festival of International Literature, a week-long series of readings and discussions showcasing literature and ideas from around the globe. PEN American Center describes itself as "an association of writers working to advance literature, defend free expression, and foster international literary fellowship." It is part of PEN International, which was founded in 1921.
For this festival, 125 writers from 45 countries converged on New York City from April 16-22 to, in Rushdie's words, "highlight the international nature of literature and the way in which it crosses frontiers." The idea of this festival—bringing writers from all over the globe to the U.S., right now—was an ambitious and bold call to gather writers who stand with the people of the world and dream of something better. It was an invitation to discuss some of the important issues that come with being a writer in a world like this.
The last PEN Festival was held in NYC 20 years ago. Convened by Norman Mailer, that Festival brought together authors from around the world during Reagan's presidency at the height of the Cold War. Among the participants were Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish; Nicaraguan author Omar Cabezas, who was a Sandinista; and writers Kurt Vonnegut and Susan Sontag from the U.S.
One of the key events of this year's festival was an evening of readings titled "The Power of the Pen: Does Writing Change Anything?" Among the writers participating were Margaret Atwood, Nuruddin Farah, Jonathan Franzen, Ha Jin, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Antonio Muñoz Molina, Shan Sa, Wole Soyinka, and Salman Rushdie.
The event dealt in part with the role of the writer in a culture; their ability to tell people's stories, and what that means for eradicating injustice. It also spoke to the need for and significance of writers —fiction and non-fiction—being able to take those stories across borders, especially in today's world. In an interview with the New York Press , Rushdie said, "If you look at the success of books like The Kite Runner and Reading Lolita in Tehran , it's almost as if what people are getting from the news media isn't enough. It doesn't give you the means to fully understand what's going on in the greater world. Iranian writers, Iraqi writers, Afghani writers, are giving readers something they can't get from any other source."
The festival showed that the need for literature right now to connect people to each other and to help people understand the world is immense. Speaking to this question and the role of intellectuals, Rushdie, as part of the "Power of the Pen" panel, said:
"The old idea of the intellectual as the one who speaks truth to power is still an idea worth holding on to. Tyrants fear the truth of books because it's a truth that's in hock to nobody; it's a single artist's unfettered vision of the world. They fear it even more because it's incomplete, because the act of reading completes it, so that the book's truth is slightly different in each reader's different inner world, and these are the true revolutions of literature, these invisible, intimate communions of strangers, these tiny revolutions inside each reader's imagination; and the enemies of the imagination, politburos, ayatollahs, all the different goon squads of gods and power, want to shut these revolutions down, and can't. Not even the author of a book can know exactly what effect his book will have, but good books do have effects, and some of these effects are powerful, and all of them, thank goodness, are impossible to predict in advance."
Other panels in the festival included " Don Quixote at 400: A Tribute," "Africa and the World: The Writer's Role"; "Czeslaw Milosz and the Conscience of Literature"; "Writers and Iraq"; and "Crossing Borders: Universal Themes in Children's Literature."
Audio excerpts from the Festival are available online at PEN American Center's website: pen.org/wv_media_library.html.
by Araby Carlier
Revolution #004, May 29, 2005, posted at revcom.us
I jubilantly attended "PEN World Voices: The New York Festival of International Literature," in New York City, April 16-22. I was on the edge of my seat to hear the voices of Fadhil al-Azzawi, Azar Nafisi, Salman Rushdie, and Ngugi wa Thiong'o.
At the same time, I felt so honored to be introduced to writers whose names I did not recognize, authors whose home countries I have never read about outside of newspapers. All week, libraries, schools, museums, and bars were packed for discussions, panels, and interviews with dozens of writers from around the world. In this commentary, I drop a lot of names and titles to turn you on to literature and authors you may not have heard of. This is an invitation to investigate.
Three books in high school snapped my eyes open to the rest of the world: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, The Stranger by Albert Camus, and The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. The reality in these novels pushed me beyond my borders. In the past year, I have taken to consulting maps almost daily. I seek out the countries and cities where my books are taking me. Three or four books usually occupy my thoughts all at once. And as I check out the distance between St. Petersburg and Puerto Rico, I wonder if Dostoevsky ever read The Arabian Nights , and I know his contemporary Tolstoy did.
Across the country, history departments are dwindling, and history courses are increasingly not a mandatory part of the curriculum at many liberal arts colleges. A student's knowledge of the past is increasingly found in works of fiction. Where would students be without novels from around the world? V.S. Naipul and Staceyann Chin taught me of the vast South Asian and Chinese Diaspora throughout Africa and the Caribbean. Julia Alvarez guided me through the Dominican Republic. The senselessness of World War I is nightmarishly clear in my mind because of Sebastien Japrisot and Erich Maria Remarque.
In a piece on Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez, Salman Rushdie said that there is "something that literature needs to recognize all the time: Reality is not realistic. This is something we're all beginning to recognize. Have you noticed how weird things are lately?"1 Technology has brought people closer than ever but, at the same time, the imperial stabs the U.S. has inflicted on the rest of the world have driven us further apart. The view of the planet and its people from within the U.S.—as taught to us—is not realistic.
I told a friend that Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace was so fascinating because I didn't know anything about pre-revolutionary Russia. My friend replied that when he begins a work of fiction and it mentions an event he doesn't know, he usually puts down the novel and grabs a history text. I'm all about the history texts, but putting down the novel I don't recommend.
Grabbing a history book to emphasize a novel is a fantastic idea. Remember though, that while a novel won't necessarily present a linear timeline of events, a work of fiction will infuse history with the vibrant humanity it is often stripped of.
We always hear how desensitized we are to the violence and brutality surrounding and sometimes even infiltrating our own lives. Falling in love with the characters so affectionately created for us by the writers I have mentioned and more is one antidote for curing us.
"Writing and Catastrophe" was a panel of writers at the PEN Festival who cover real-life natural and man-made disasters. The event included Svetlana Alexievich (Ukraine), who has written several books on the Chernobyl disaster, the most recent being the upcoming Voices from Chernobyl ; Francois Bizot (France) who recently published his memoir, The Gate,detailing his time as a captive of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia; Carolin Emcke (Germany), a reporter at the German newspaper Der Spiegel ; Philip Gourevitch (USA), author of We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda ; Ryszard Kapuscinski (Poland), whose four decades of reporting brought him close to Che Guevara, Salvador Allende, and Patrice Lumumba; Elena Poniatowska (Mexico via France) whose publications include Massacre in Mexico and Nothing, Nobody: The Voices of the Earthquake.
The rapid pace at which natural disasters and horrific massacres take place combined with the brief flash of media allotted these stories, push the voices of victims into the background. Catastrophic events often become "retrospective stories" and "anniversaries," said Philip Gourevitch. The story fades from our view, but the avalanche of violence being perpetrated on the people does not end.
Carolin Emcke covers human rights violations and war crimes in Lebanon, Colombia, Nicaragua, Kashmir, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. In her presentation, she described how victims of violence lose their language and ability to completely describe the trauma they have experienced. One's loss of language is a result of losing their trust in the world, of being part of a community, which is required for a people to share language and communication.
Gourevitch asked the audience to think about the words used to describe genocide: "unimaginable, unspeakable, and unthinkable." These are "the words by which the press gives you permission to forget about and ignore things." Part of the writer's challenge in documenting catastrophe is to collect the pieces of personal narratives from the people struggling to regain their language. The reporter assembles the individuals' stories as well as reaches between the narratives to discover what people are unable to describe.
The writers were asked if the subjects they wrote about made it more difficult for them to enjoy the beauty in the world. In response, Elena Poniatowska, the author of Massacre in Mexico , beamed and delightedly exclaimed that she had never considered a question like that because before she could, the people of Mexico were out and running in the streets again and she had to join them. Poniatowska never gets very far in contemplating her personal life because "suddenly the Mexicans arrive, they take over, and things happen, like the earthquakes, or revolutions, or killings, and then you can't be in your house writing about how you feel or you can't stay there. You have to go out and see what's happening and speak." Missing the action of the masses would dampen Poniatowska's spirits more than she would ever allow their oppression to sink her determination.
As she smiled, a spark in Poniatowska's eye reflected her confidence in the capability of the masses. Her lifetime of work following the lead of the people in the streets is her evidence.
This reminded me of a section from Bob Avakian's "The Revolutionary Potential of the Masses and the Responsibility of the Vanguard" (in Revolutionary Worker #1270): "I hate the way the masses of people suffer, but I don't feel sorry for them. They have the potential to remake the world, and we have to struggle like hell with them to get them to see that and to get them to rise to that. We shouldn't aim for anything less. Why should we think they are capable of anything less?" Avakian and Poniatowska share a respect for the great leaps the people take in changing the direction of politics at a given moment.
The victims of violence demand that the writer "confirm that, `no, what you are enduring is not right, it's wrong,'" said Emcke, and it brings the people back into the global community they had been isolated from. Writing creates "a we that is sort of a normative we, a moral we, a we that is bigger than the realities of the war zone."
Emcke pointed out, as she writes from the war zone, the people there are not naãve enough to believe that her words will alert the global community to mobilize and bring an end to their suffering. The truth alone will not restore humanity.
Throughout the PEN Festival I was constantly amazed by the writers I heard, and I felt fortunate to have access to them. At the same time I felt cheated that in all my years of reading I had not come across many of their works. Upon closer investigation I found out why. Of all the works published in the U.S. each year, not just works of fiction but nonfiction, textbooks, instruction manuals—about 5% are translated from another language into English for American consumption.
I heard this statistic and thought, Damn , what are we missing?
Writer Khaled Hosseini was born in Afghanistan and as a young adult his family moved from Kabul to Paris, and finally to California. The success of his first book, The Kite Runner,is attributed to curiosity, word- of-mouth, and the support of local book clubs. These factors combined with Hosseini's tremendous talent as a writer and the immense beauty of his novel have carried The Kite Runner into over 50 languages and 1.4 million copies printed in the U.S.
I wonder who would be reading The Kite Runner if Hosseini's family had remained in Kabul and he had written the book in Farsi or Pashtun. Major publishing houses are not translating and publishing the latest works by young Afghani novelists. Or Iraqi novelists, or Filipino novelists, or Chilean novelists, or Serbian novelists.
A theme that was revisited over and over at the Festival was the truth carried in works of fiction, and often the imagination applicable to interpreting nonfiction for a global audience. "Facts can be abused, facts can be distorted, facts can be misunderstood...both fiction and non-fiction will be judged by whether they're truthful," said Gourevitch.
The American Literary Translators Association reports only 13 books have been translated from Arabic since 2001. When I saw the number 13 a cold stone landed in my stomach next to the frozen boulder I choked down while watching the U.S. military rain thousands upon thousands of tons of bombs over Iraq in the last decade and a half.
There is truth coming from writers in Iraq, from writers all over the world. Living in the U.S., we have to fight to discover the narratives and dreams of people writing from other parts of the planet so that their experiences are not simply "unimaginable, unspeakable, and unthinkable" because, said Gourevitch, "What are writers here to do except to imagine, speak, and think?"
by Philip Watts
Revolution #004, May 29, 2005, posted at revcom.us
A major controversy erupted when the May 9 issue of Newsweek magazine reported an allegation that U.S. military guards had flushed a Koran down a toilet in front of Muslim prisoners at Guantánamo. After Newsweek said that it was retracting the report because of questions raised about its source, the magazine was blamed not only for the widespread anti-U.S. demonstrations and riots that broke out across Afghanistan and other Muslim countries, but also for the "damaged" U.S. image abroad.
The article in question starts off, "Investigators probing interrogation abuses at the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay have confirmed some infractions alleged in internal FBI e-mails that surfaced late last year. Among the previously unreported cases, sources tell NEWSWEEK : interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Qur'an down a toilet and led a detainee around with a collar and dog leash.."
Harsh criticism and more has been aimed at Newsweek by Bush administration officials. After Newsweek was essentially forced to retract the story, the White House demanded that the magazine do public relations to mend the "damaged U.S. image." Yes, you heard right: everything was going so well for the U.S. image around the world—until Newsweek came out with the story about the Koran and the U.S. guards at Guantánamo—and then.well, all hell broke loose.
The real outrage is that Newsweek was forced to retract a story that's essentially true!
A recent Washington Post article points out that a former Muslim chaplain at Guantánamo, James Yee, "asserted that guards' mishandling and mistreatment of detainees' Korans led the prisoners to launch a hunger strike in March 2002."
Scores of former detainees have made statements indicating that along with the physical torture at the hand of U.S. guards at Guantánamo, the prisoners also often had their religious beliefs and cultural sensibilities ridiculed and debased.
According to the same Washington Post article, Addallah Tabarak told a Moroccan newspaper that he saw guards throw Korans in the toilet. He also talked about being terrorized by police dogs in his cell. Another detainee, Aryat Vahitov, told Russian television, "They tore the Koran to pieces in front of us, threw it into the toilet."
Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, interviewed some former detainees. He points out that interrogation techniques at Guantánamo were approved by Rumsfeld and that these techniques were all about religious abuse, including the shaving and stripping of Muslims.
Erik Saar, a former Arabic translator for interrogators at Guantánamo, recently published a book which highlight some techniques used by the U.S. military on Muslim detainees. In one case a woman officer, during an interrogation, reached her hand into her pants to bring out what looked like menstrual blood and smeared it on a Muslim prisoner's face. The man didn't know it was really red ink, and he wasn't allowed to wash his face. Interrogators knew that this act would be psychological torture for the Muslim detainee because of his religious beliefs.
The International Committee of the Red Cross issued a report documenting abuse of detainees' Korans by U.S. military guards. The report was presented to Pentagon several times. A Red Cross spokesperson said about charges around the U.S. military's treatment of the Koran, "We researched them and found they were very credible allegations."
What makes all this even more outrageous is that the U.S. authorities are jumping on Newsweek while they have been and still are torturing detainees at Guantánamo as documented by the Red Cross. For the Bushites and their defenders, torture is not at issue here—the real problem is that the story got out and caused all kinds controversy for the U.S.
High-level U.S. officials have especially attacked Newsweek for its use of an "anonymous source" for its report. This charge is unbelievable. For one thing this "anonymous source" is a U.S. government official. And it was only after the story was blamed for the protests in Afghanistan and elsewhere that the source changed his tune and went back on the information he gave to Newsweek .
But more importantly, consider the fact that one of the major justifications of Bush & Co. for the U.S. war in Iraq was "intelligence" from "an anonymous source" by the name of "Curveball" about "mobile weapons labs" carrying "WMD's." But as everyone knows, these and other charges by the Bush regime about Iraqi WMDs were nothing but lies that helped justify a U.S. war for empire which has cost over Iraqi 100,000 lives and counting.
The real furor should be over the fact that the government is continually lying and feeding misinformation to the people.
Obviously the Neo-con war planners, who had the Iraq war mapped out over ten years ago, didn't mind that the mainstream media swallowed the lies that justified the war on Iraq—lies that in many cases were fed directly to the media by the Bush administration itself.
It's also ridiculous how the Bush administration has been complaining that the Newsweek report has done big harm to the U.S. image in the Muslim world. White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said at a briefing, "The image of the United States abroad has been damaged; there is lasting damage to our image because of this report."
The image of the United States suffered lasting damaged because of a two-paragraph report in Newsweek ? How about the criminal wars for empire—the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan based on lies? How about the well-documented systematic torture and murder of prisoners, from Guantánamo to Abu Ghraib to the Bagram detention facility in Afghanistan? How about the brutal treatment of the Iraqi people who are called "haji's" by U.S. troops? How about the shameless arrogance with which all this is done?
Maybe some reporter should ask Scott McClellan what these crimes of empire have done for the "image" of the U.S. In reality, this isn't a "damaged image"—this is the ugly face of U.S. imperialism.
More than just complaining of the damaged U.S. image, the Bush administration has stepped to Newsweek in that godfatherly fashion of theirs—demanding not only a retraction, but also that Newsweek do a public relations campaign for the U.S. Bush administration. Authorities are using the Newsweek incident to paint a picture of an "untrustworthy lying liberal media" and further tighten control over the media more generally.
In his typically mafia-like way, Donald Rumsfeld commented on the Newsweek incident: "People need to be very careful about what they say, just as they need to be careful about what they do." One Bush adviser told the New York Times , "There is a feeling that there is no check on what you guys do."
Similar threats against and attacks on the "liberal media" were whipped up by right-wing forces last year around CBS news anchor Dan Rather. After questions were raised about some facts in Rather's piece on 60 Minutes investigating George W. Bush's National Guard service record during the Vietnam War, a furor developed and Rather was forced to step down as CBS's long-time evening news anchor.
Both the Newsweek article and the Rather report were essentially true, but came under frenzied attack that were based on technicalities. With both stories the Bush administration has turned reality upside down—obscuring the larger picture and using the opportunity to cow the media into even tighter obedience to the official line. For Bush and his gang, the only thing the media should report is what's good for the interests of U.S. imperialism—and in particular what's good for this present administration—regardless of what's the truth.
Revolution #004, May 29, 2005, posted at revcom.us
In May a dangerous federal law was tacked quietly onto a spending bill for the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and for tsunami relief. The REAL ID Act, which requires states to comply by May 2008, will turn state driver's licenses effectively into a national ID card—making it much easier for the government to keep and use information on millions of people. And it will force undocumented immigrants further into the shadows.
The law was passed and signed by President Bush despite opposition from hundreds of immigrants rights groups, as well as civil libertarians, state legislatures, and even many of the senators and members of Congress who voted for the spending bill.
Under the current legal system, the federal government cannot tell states how to issue drivers' licenses. But with the Real ID Act, if state licenses do not meet the strict federal requirements, those licenses will be useless—people who have them could not fly, apply for passports, or enter federal buildings requiring "valid" ID (so much for "states' rights").
If this law takes full effect (it is expected to be challenged by state and court cases) people applying for driver's licenses will have to show a birth certificate, a Social Security number, proof of citizenship or legal residence, and proof of "physical address." No state currently has all of these requirements. In addition, the documentation must be verified by the agency that issued them—akin to a mini background check by the DMV.
The government will have mouse-click access to information about where people live, their citizenship status, and where they were born—along with all the original documents. All this in turn is linked to other government databases. This amounts to a ready pool of information that could be called up to target people for interrogation, monitoring, or round-ups in a qualitatively higher way than has ever existed within the U.S.—and possibly anywhere in the world.
The bill requires licenses to have "common machine-readable technology"—which means that stores, banks, and airlines may increasingly demand to scan the card, resulting in your license holding information about your activities, purchases, and travel. Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU's Technology and Liberty program, told CNet: "It's going to be not just a national ID card but a national database." The Electronic Frontier Foundation said that the Act "paves the way for the federal government to force every state to put radio-frequency identification [RFID] chips into their ID cards"— which means that your license itself could be used to track your movements and your location.
Under this law, anyone applying for a license is subject to having a background check against law enforcement databases— meaning that if an applicant has an arrest warrant, going to the DMV could end up in a trip to jail. Alabama, which already runs such background checks, brags that it has arrested 5,000 people yearly with this policy.
With the stroke of a pen this law also eliminates the ability for undocumented workers to get a driver's license in the U.S. People would not be able to obtain a license unless they can prove they have citizenship or "legal" permission to be in the U.S. But there is an entire category of immigrants who often have to wait years for the Department of Homeland Security to formalize their legal status—asylum seekers, people who have run into some snag in their citizenship application, immigrants who came here on one kind of visa and are now applying for another. Applicants for a license might have their information checked against a national immigration database. So, for example, someone whose green card has expired but who hasn't gotten their citizenship yet could get deported when they visit the DMV.
Some states might start issuing "driving certificates" for undocumented immigrants, like those currently issued in Tennessee and Utah. A spokesperson for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights told Revolution that these certificates are like having a "scarlet letter" on your driver's license. In Tennessee, the certificates are not valid for anything but driving, and anyone who has one is branded immediately as a "non-citizen." Immigrants have complained of unfair treatment as soon as they showed this ID at a bank or to a cop. Such "second tier" licenses could also provide the government with a quickly accessible database of "non-citizens."
The law's sponsor declared that the law would make people safer from "terrorist" attacks. But in reality, the REAL ID Act gives this government radically new Big-Brother-power over many millions of people.