Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Anti-American Art: Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot...

Here's a Cultural-Revolution-era Chinese poster showing a messenger, probably one of the Chinese "volunteers," bravely carrying a parcel through the battlelines, apparently defying a cowering crowd of wounded American GIs. Millions of Chinese turned the tide of the Korean war, rescuing the North from the American counteroffensive: it was de facto war between the new People's Republic of China and the U.S.A., and Korea was the battlefield. The Koreans and Chinese have been best buds ever since, even though their respective allegedly socialist ideologies have substantially diverged.

Or are they actually best buds? Among the speculations in the wake of the recent Wikileaks release of thousands of diplomatic cables are suggestions that elements of the Chinese government might be predisposed to allow the reunification of Korea under South Korean governance. I have to say I'm not sure I buy it. I don't think China feels responsibility for the DPRK regime: clearly the two countries do not share much actual political agreement, but that's not exactly the point. And while South Korea (and the U.S.) might be important trading partners for China's new world economic ambitions, I don't see China switching sides. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Chinese lost their lives in the Korean war.

More likely to me would be something akin to the Vietnamese invasion of Kampuchea in 1979 to kick out former ally Pol Pot. I could see the Chinese acting to replace Kim Jong Il's (or his son's) regime with one more docile.

Monday, November 29, 2010

When you turn on the lights...

...the cockroaches scatter. Congrats to Wikileaks for their bravery in releasing thousands and thousands of secret government espionage cables! It's official: the governments of the world are allied with each other against the people of the world.

Among the revelations: the conservative Arab monarchies all want the U.S. to attack Iran. American diplomats are all spies. The Fatah leadership of the Palestinian Authority and the Egyptian government gave their tacit assent to the genocidal Israeli attack on Gaza two years ago. The government believes its Afghan puppet, Hamid Karzai, is deranged, yet continues to funnel billions of dollars through him. U.S. foreign policy is basically slaved to Israeli policy. Looking good, America!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Anti-American Art: Promises Promises

It's another sabre-rattling entry in our Anti-Americana series courtesy of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. "Let's Wipe Out the US Invaders Forever" is what this poster reads, as the people's righteous rifle butt smooshes the tiny (except for their noses) U.S. army soldiers and their errant nuke. Though this poster is several years old, the map and the island below it seem like an almost prescient depiction of the current situation...I wonder what the Korean says on the island. I wonder if it's supposed to be Yeonpyeong, which is after all in vaguely disputed waters.

War between North Korea and South Korea or the U.S. would not be a good thing. Frankly, the American decision to send an aircraft carrier to the region, displeasing China, to engage in massive military maneuvers just off the coast of North Korea seems like a really really stupid idea.

Let me take this moment to recommend a post at Brother Peacemaker's blog, "Questions for a Docile Population." Brother describes two populations brainwashed to believe everything their government tells them. One of these peoples is the North Korean. You go figure out the second.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

History IS Absolving Him

"If Mr. Kennedy does not like socialism, well we do not like imperialism! We do not like capitalism! We have as much right to protest over the existence of an imperialist-capitalist regime 90 miles from our coast as he feels he has to protect over the existence of a socialist regime 90 miles from his coast. Now then, we would not think of protesting over that, because that is the business of the people of the United States. It would be absurd for us to try to tell the people of the United States what system of government they must have, for in that case we would be considering that the United States is not a sovereign nation and that we have rights over the domestic life of the United States."

"Rights do not come from size. Right does not come from one country being bigger than another. That does not matter. we have only limited territory, a small nation, but our right is as respectable as that of any country, regardless of its size. It does not occur to us to tell the people of the United States what system of government they must have. Therefore it is absurd for Mr. Kennedy to take it into his head to tell us what kind of government he wants us to have here. That is absurd. It occurs to Mr. Kennedy to do that only because he does not have a clear concept of international law or sovereignty. Who had those notions before Kennedy? Hitler and Mussolini!"

--Fidel Castro, May 2, 1961

A few days ago was the anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. My blogfriend Casey put up a very nostalgic post featuring the cover art to the Kennedy-era comedy album "The First Family." Casey reminds us that everyone who is old enough remembers that moment in time in November of 1963. It turns out this time of year is also the anniversary of Fidel Castro's 1956 voyage from Mexico to Cuba on the boat Granma that initiated the guerrilla struggle that lead him to victory. And it's also the the anniversary of Fidel declaring the Cuban revolution to be socialist in character in 1961.

It's funny to me, living through as many decades as I have, what happens to the icons of the past over time. Of course Mr. Castro is still alive; Mr. Kennedy was not that lucky. And while every good American is supposed to have a special reverence for the beloved JFK along with a mocking hatred of the dictator Castro, the longer I live the more these two switch places in my own personal hall of heroism.

I know how much hope JFK held for my parents: young, supposedly progressive, handsome, a Catholic like my mom and unlike the long line of presidents before him, brave, and the (pyrrhic) defeater of the evil Nixon. And in the end he brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, laid the basis for the Vietnam War, and foisted the CIA on various of the world's peoples. In addition to the trifling complaint of running the White House with a less than decorous reputation a la Bill Clinton decades later.

Castro became to me a stereotype: I confess to having readily dismissed him as a Stalinist dictator. The long speeches, well, I never bothered to read them. And Cuba in the 1970s was not a good place to be gay: with the Mariel boatlift at the end of that decade the tales of arbitrary imprisonment and state-sanctioned bigotry were horrifying. And yet it is Fidel who made the remarkable confession to the Mexican newspaper La Jornada that the mistreatment of gays by the revolution was "a great injustice" and that "if anyone is responsible, it's me. I'm not going to place the blame on others."

I've begun to go back over some of those long, long speeches. And you know what? I would rather read Fidel telling truths few others managed to so concisely present than JFK talking about asking what you can do for your country. Fidel is brilliant, witty, and to the point. His analysis of imperialism is spot on and righteous. And in this day and age of the U.S. continuing to act like a bully on the world stage, it's more relevant than ever.

In 1953 Fidel made a historic speech before a court in Cuba before being sentenced to prison for subversion (he was released early). It's known as the "History Will Absolve Me" speech, and at great length he blasts the Batista dictatorship for injustice and corruption, and lays out a vision of social change based on Cuba's history of revolution. He closed with these famous words:

"I know that imprisonment will be harder for me than it has ever been for anyone, filled with cowardly threats and hideous cruelty. But I do not fear prison, as I do not fear the fury of the miserable tyrant who took the lives of 70 of my comrades. Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me."

It remains to be seen how Cuba's revolution will survive the next fifty years. But it's hard to imagine Fidel's legacy not surviving. In a time when so many noble words from the past turned out so hollow, I find so many of Fidel Castro's words remain principled, and inspiring. History is indeed absolving him.

(The top photo is a postcard of Fidel Castro looking incredibly sexy in 1963. The middle photo is Fidel meeting with Malcolm X in Harlem in Sept. 1960. Bottom photograph is Fidel Castro appearing on Nicaraguan TV; photographed by me in Managua, 1986)

Friday, November 26, 2010

Anti-American Art: Occidental Geometry

This is from a mural in the Islamic Republic of Iran. I found it on a picasa stream of Iranian murals linked at the fascinating Spanish-language blog "Murales Politicos/Political Murals" which collects photos of political wall art from around the world. Among the murals documented are left-wing, right-wing and nationalist murals from Spain, Latin America, Palestine, and many other places. This one, date unknown but probably more or less current, shows the outline of a pistol filled in with the colors of the American flag against traditional Islamic/Persian geometric forms. It's ludicrous, really, that such fear and fervor has been whipped up in the United States about Iran. Regardless of its often-repressive brand of state power backed by religion, its less than perfect democracy, and its leader prone to making bombastic generalizations, Iran is a small country compared to the United States: a small country with the most powerful military machine in the world kicking around at its gates. Who, exactly, is the bigger threat to peace in the middle east, the U.S. or Iran? The historical record seems pretty clear.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Dear Indians, Sorry 'bout That!

Every American child knows the story of the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving. Having fled Europe in a quest for religious freedom, thanks to the friendly Indian Squanto and his tribe, the Pilgrims survived their first winter in their new home back in 1620. Squanto already spoke English! It's kind of like in the Bible how Adam and Eve are supposed to be the first people created by God and then all of a sudden other unexplained people start popping up. A wise person might question the general narrative. Well you soon learn that Squanto learned English from...being captured and enslaved by previous English "visitors." So yes, the earliest interactions of the English and the native population of what they called New England was not the sharing of food and farming techniques, but the random enslavement of the locals. What kind of people come to a new land, rip people away from their families, and turn them into forced-labor slaves?

Here's the thing. The land of New England was not empty wilderness. It already had residents; it didn't need new ones. Tribes like the Wampanoag and Pequot lived across the region, farming and hunting. Not gathering berries in the forest, growing crops. Growing crops, agriculture, implies something quite different about native American society and civilization than the simple-minded Thanksgiving myth suggests.

I recommend an article on a leftist blog "Frontlines of Revolutionary Struggle" that details the relationship of the Pilgrims and other English colonialists in early New England. It's called Native Blood: The Myth of Thanksgiving. It recounts the Pequot War in the mid/late 1630s in which the English settlers exterminated the Pequot tribe from Connecticut. It quotes William Bradford, Governor of Plymouth, on the destruction of the Pequot town Misistuck (Mystic): “Those that escaped the fire were slain with the sword; some hewed to pieces, others run through with their rapiers, so that they were quickly dispatched and very few escaped. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire…horrible was the stink and scent thereof, but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them.” Wikipedia quotes participant in that massacre John Mason, "Thus did the Lord judge among the Heathen, filling [Mystic] with dead Bodies." The Pequots captured by the English were, yes, sold into slavery and shipped to Bermuda.

So in fifteen years the English settlers went from accepting the food aid and survival help of the Indians to repaying this debt by committing genocide against them. The Indians were in the way of the English; the new world was empty wilderness only because the Indians were not considered real people; they were ungodly heathens, little better than wild animals.

It's nice to gather with friends and family and give thanks for the blessings and bounties of life. A traditional or not-so-traditional Thanksgiving meal is a great way to connect with the memory of one's ancestors and mark the rhythms of the turning of the seasons. And hey it's a day off work! But along with the thanks offered up to God, to each other, to life, maybe we should be offering up apologies as well.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Anti-American Art: Victorious North Korea

In honor of yesterday's shelling of Yeonpyeong Island by the army of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, here's a stamp from North Korea ca. 1993 commemorating the "40th Anniversary of Victory in the Great Liberation War." That's father of the nation Kim Il Sung standing in the wreckage of Pyongyang "on the evening of the day of victory in the war" in 1953, his advisors already rushing up to him with plans to rebuild, watching celebratory fireworks. Click on the image to see this panoramic painting in its full glory.

As for yesterday's military confrontation, as of this writing the shelling hasn't resumed, and most of the Western media is of course suggesting the North Korean attack was unbridled aggression. Which it may have been. Or not. The NY Times does report, "The attack on Yeonpyeong came as 70,000 South Korean troops were beginning an annual nationwide military drill called Safeguarding the Nation. The exercise has been sharply criticized by Pyongyang as “simulating an invasion of the North” and “a means to provoke a war.” The official North Korean news agency said in a brief statement on Tuesday night that the South “recklessly fired into our sea area.”

Thank goodness for our independent media. (That's sarcasm, by the way.) With the earlier sinking of the South Korean warship the Cheonan, the media has assured us that it was the work of the dastardly North Koreans, a cry for help from the deranged family dictatorship of the Kims. So what's next? At the risk of courting conspiracy theory territory, let's take a brief history lesson. (Let me add that while I'm not actually a fan of what appears to be a dictatorship in North Korea, I do think the North Koreans have every right to defend themselves against American provocation. A just peace would be better.)

* Remember the Maine! The FoxNews of its day egged the U.S. into war with Spain after the USS Maine exploded in Havana, Cuba in 1898. While the explosion was blamed on the evil Spanish empire, no cause or claim was found, and one investigation years afterward suggested the Maine exploded because of an onboard coal fire.

* The Tonkin Gulf Resolution. From President Johnson's 1964 speech: "Last night I announced to the American people that the North Vietnamese regime had conducted further deliberate attacks against U.S. naval vessels operating in international waters, and I had therefore directed air action against gunboats and supporting facilities used in these hostile operations. This air action has now been carried out with substantial damage to the boats and facilities....America keeps her word. Here as elsewhere, we must and shall honor our commitments.... In recent months, the actions of the North Vietnamese regime have become steadily more threatening...As President of the United States I have concluded that I should now ask the Congress, on its part, to join in affirming the national determination that all such attacks will be met, and that the United States will continue in its basic policy of assisting the free nations of the area to defend their freedom. As I have repeatedly made clear, the United States intends no rashness, and seeks no wider war." Shortly thereafter, the US Congress gave authority to Johnson to begin the Vietnam War. And oh wait, there was no actual North Vietnamese attack on a US ship in the Gulf of Tonkin. The media failed to question the official accounts and urged Americans to back Johnson and Congress's resolve to punish the Vietnamese.

* From Answers.com: "Although war is a time of hardships and usually poverty, World War 2 had many positive effects for America. One point of prosper was economy. Some said that the Second World War put an end to the Great Depression." So since the current small wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have done nothing but drain the U.S. economy, how 'bout a really big war with China to make things right? China has nukes but doesn't have anything like the old Soviet Union's array of ICBMs. It could be the perfect solution!

Stay tuned...

P.S. See my earlier post here for an example of how the NY Times chooses to promote unsubstantiated claims about North Korean "aggression."

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Getting Ready for Thanksgiving?

To get you in the Thanksgiving mood, here's an oldie but goodie. Two years ago, after she lost the vice presidential election but before she quit the governorship, Sarah Palin was interviewed at a turkey farm while turkeys are seen being slaughtered in the background. And no, turkey farm is not a euphemism for the Palin house. Mercifully, if inexplicably, somebody has added a KC & The Sunshine Band track to this video which blunts the horrible gobbling of the doomed turkeys, I mean, of Quitter Palin. I don't blame you if you turn the sound down. Though you'll miss the discussion of "government programs on the chopping block" just as a turkey is stuffed down the head-chopping chute.

Watch this and then go read Frank Rich's NYT OpEd piece where he pretty much says she could be our next President. Happy thanksgiving!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Anti-American Art: Redirected Flights

It's a little cartoonish to begin with, and poorly printed at that, but this wartime stamp from the Democratic Republic of Vietnam is part of a series marking their military successes against the U.S. and its puppet regime in the south in the period 1966-1967. This particular one marks the 1800th American aircraft shot down by the Vietnamese defenses. The scene of mortarman with the burning wreckage of Air Force and Navy aircraft leads me to believe the illustration is another depiction of the attack on Bienhoa airfield. In any case shooting down American airplanes where they didn't belong was a regular feature of North Vietnamese postage stamps. Seems like the Vietnamese had an effective way of dealing with terrorist aviation.

Click on the image to see it larger.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The White American Dreamworld

Years ago I had a conversation with my boss at the time: he was an Italian-American guy from Jersey, a small business owner, and probably in his late fifties to my late twenties. He was telling me about the Amos and Andy tapes he listened to in his car stereo. I expressed some shock; Frank kept a pretty diverse crew employed at his two offices. "Oh yeah," he said. "They're so funny! I don't care what people say. You can learn so much about black people from Amos and Andy!" He said this without a trace of irony. Amos and Andy, of course, were characters played by white actors in blackface.

It seems like many white people in this country live in a strange dreamworld of delusion and resentment when it comes to race, when it comes to black people. This has never been clearer two years into the term of America's first African-American President. There's a really interesting column in this weekend's New York Times from liberal (and African-American) columnist Charles Blow, whose weekly OpEd piece looks at how various statistics reflect American political realities. In this column, Blow reports a survey that shows that 62% of self-identified white "tea partiers" believe that "today discimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities." The number drops slightly to 56% of white Republicans, 52% of conservatives, and 50% of people over 65. The number stays high for people with less education and for white Christians. An optimist could look at the total average number and see that 54% of people disagree with this statement. But that's still a huge number of well, completely clueless angry white people with a giant chip on their shoulder. In my opinion a giant Barack Obama-Al Sharpton sized chip on their shoulder.

Sarah Palin, as vocally outspoken leader of the teabaggers, has frequently alluded to the elitism and privilege of the Obamas in office. She would never use these words but it's always obvious that the unspoken point of reference between Palin and her worshipful audience is that the President is some kind of "uppity ni**er" and his mere presence someplace that a black man should know better than to try to be is proof that he used devious (and shifty!) means to get there. Palin and her followers love to deride Obama for his use of a teleprompter. This attack is seemingly nonsensical given Obama's clear ability to handle himself and words even when they're unscripted, but what they are really doing is suggesting that Obama is some kind of trained monkey who would clearly be unable to mouth large and complicated words and topics if they weren't being spoon fed to him.

Given that American electoral politics is by and large the field of rich people, the frequently used charge of "elitism" against Democrats and Obama by teabaggers and Republicans is fascinating. Although they will happily paint the Obamas as spend-crazy, witness teabagger accusations against Michelle Obama's trip to Spain and Sarah Palin's insane suggestion that the President's recent Asia trip would cost 200 million dollars a day, what they seem to be saying by using the term "elitist" doesn't seem to be suggesting membership in a moneyed aristocracy but rather in some kind of rarified club of...educated people who think they're too good for the rest of us. Or, President Obama is clearly not like what they believe black people to be, so therefore he must be some kind of freakish privileged alien.

The overall disrespect offered to Obama by the newly-victorious and somewhat cocky Republicans in congress seems to me colored, if you will, by their completely unspoken but completely obvious issue with Obama's race. I wish I could remember what work of African-American fiction this is reminiscent of, but the story of a young black man trying to get ahead while white society constantly moves the goalposts is grimly familiar. Say what you will about Obama's moderate policies, whether or not they're Republican-lite as many left and liberal commentators have come to believe, the Republicans have more interest in humiliating and defeating the President than in getting him to adopt their own political program and agenda.

There's a whole narrative of resentment among many white people that finds particular expression in the teabagger movement. ACORN being behind both vote fraud and the mortgage crisis, an outsized outrage over the New Black Panther Party sectlet, the blank check of support given to police accused of violent atrocity against innocent and unarmed people, the derision of living African-American spokespeople (like Al Sharpton) as nothing but media whores, and the need to paint Obama as alien other...and the suggestion that white people are the new victims of racism: these are nothing but a feverish delusion rooted in white racism.

(Image from an unknown film of African-American actor Lincoln Perry better known as the simpering stereotype "Stepin Fetchit.")

Friday, November 19, 2010

Anti-American Art: When Wars Were Cold

Here's a cold-war era Soviet cartoon, I'm guessing ca. 1960. That's a giant Soviet Warrior wielding an enormous nuclear missile and a massive shield labelled "Warsaw Pact." Funny that he's supposed to look modern and menacing when he's decked out like a medieval knight and his hat is a cross between a Russian knight's helm and an early Red Army cloth hat. Anyway he's facing down a pint-sized chubby American with a puny little nuclear missile, riding a funny mule/missile headed hybrid labelled "NATO." Six years of Russian study and I don't remember what "Nadezhny Strazh" means, there on the bottom.

Somehow the world survived that nightmarish confrontation without nukes actually being used after the opening shot laid across the Soviet Union's bow by the United States in 1945. (You know, by the "good guys.")

See, there IS a God.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A War Resister's Plea

What does it mean to be committed to peace, to be fully committed to resisting the folly of war? I found an amazing document. It's an article written by my father, Peter Horst, during the time he was fighting the draft as a conscientious objector in the late 1950s. Frustratingly missing the first two pages and an unknown number of concluding pages, it details the basis for his refusal of military service. It seems to date from late 1956 or 1957, written either right before or during his chosen alternative civilian service with the American Friends Service Committee.

He believed that what he called "Brotherly Love" could be elevated to the moral principle of religion, and that this devotion to living out what might be to some an abstraction was to him a call to refuse actions that violated his beliefs. The first part of the document I found is a measured theological defense of what he called the religion of brotherly love. He cites Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism without suggesting that his beliefs were the doctrines of any single faith. But what I'd like to present here is a section toward the end on the reasoning behind rejecting, behind resisting, violence and war.

I know that he defended his conscientious objection for years and years in the courts; I assume that this document was written to support his legal case by codifying his position. I find the document not only personally inspiring but tremendously relevant. In discussions on The Cahokian and elsewhere on the meaning of war in a historical sense and on confronting the challenges of today's wars in an absolute real sense, I find much here that validates my own beliefs. And above all, at a time when the military's proscriptions against gays may finally end with the possible repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT), this document reinforces my view of why as important as it is to struggle against discrimination, struggling against militarism and war should be a moral imperative that leads justice-seeking people to reject the military itself. Here is an extended excerpt:

by Peter Horst

I believe that one must love one's enemies, and that by so doing they will cease to be enemies, since Love begets Love. If a person in a situation of violence attempts to use Love as his weapon, and fails, I believe it is the fault of imperfect use, not the fault of the weapon. In the case of an individual citizen in a nation committed to the use of violence, it is possible that he might never face the enemy to test that weapon, especially in this age of long-range electronic and atomic weapons. But to regard the belief as worthless, simply because other weapons are in official use, would show a lack of faith in the true worth of Love.

Military weapons, unlike the religious belief of Love, have been tried, and proved worthless by the number of wars to end wars in this century alone. But Love has converted enmity to Love in many cases: Christ's crucifixion, Gandhi's crusade in India, countless individual cases of the use of non-violent defense, have all proved that Love is a power excelling hatred.

Committed to Brotherly Love, I must therefore refuse to kill. I believe an army is organized in direct opposition to my religious values, and promotes only hatred and violence. Therefore I must refuse to participate in any military activity. It is foolish to think that an army can make room for Love of enemy. Even though there are non-combatant positions open in an army, they only further the military cause; therefore I refuse to accept any military position.

My belief in the power of Love is such that, when ordered to act in opposition to it, I must refuse. I do not deny allegience to the state, but because I believe there is nothing superior to Love, and that nothing of value cancome from contradicting it, my duty to it takes precedence over any other.

This is true not only in a situation where the state makes a demand upon me, but in any case where a course of action is demanded that violates my belief. To cite the traditional case, if my wife were attacked by a maniac, or any person bereft of reason and therefore unable to be dealt with reasonably, I would not take his life in defense. I would be willing to use a minimum of non-violent force to restrain him, realizing that he could then be dealt with therapeutically. If he were dead, there would be no dealing with him at all. In this instance, there is no reason to assume I must assent to war. In war, one does not not forgive, but murders his trespasser, and his family and friends as well; the victor then imposes his own order upon the vanquished.

In case of attack by a sane person, or an army, I would use no force beyond the reasonable power of Love. I am fully aware that my practice and knowledge in this is limited, and that I would therefore be liable to injury or death. I accept this as necessary, until the art of Love is fully perfected. Because violence is so dangerous, I do not think there is any excuse for using it. Neither self-defense nor defense of loved ones is sufficient cause for violating the rule of Love. If I were to deny my religion and make an exception in some instance by returning violence for violence, there would be that much less chance for the ultimate worth of my belief to be shown.

There can be no world peace and security without loving forgiveness, and will never be as long as men consider anything more valuable than Brotherly Love. I do not believe the practice of this can be put off into the future, until some less 'dangerous' time. I believe the danger of violence far outweighs the danger of placing one's defense in the practice, even though not perfected, of Love.

I have shown that my religion rests on a loving and peaceful attitude in myself. It may be worthwhile to show a few of the resulting reasons why and how I believe in non-violence.

A strong reason stems from World War II. I believe that a man is, and must be, personally responsible for what he does. The Allied governments expressed this same belief when they initiated the Nurenburg trials for war criminals. They announced that each soldier and citizen was personally responsible for carrying out orders later defined as criminal and atrocious. It is thus impossible for a person to subordinate the demands of his individual conscience to those of the collective state, since he himself, and not the majority of citizens, must answer for every life he takes, every order he follows that results in what the victors can later define as a "war crime." My conscience makes it impossible for me to accept the responsibility for what a soldier must do; therefore I must refuse to be a soldier.

Every war is one of defense, and both sides claim to be defending. Hitler said so, Tojo said so, and we said so. Israel said so and launched an attack
[in 1956 --ish]; Egypt said so and fought back; England said so and joined in, along with France whose purpose was also "defense." A country uses the weapons it believes in and has on hand; thus it is likely that this country may be forced to resort for defense to the atomic weapons she has specialized in. In contradiction of this, I will defend myself only as far as Love will allow. If necessary, I would prefer to die for a cause I hold equally as high as that held by whoever chooses to bomb me, or whoever choose to go to war for whatever country he calls his own. I will not violate my religion by seeking to destroy my enemy, or by helping those of my own country whose different belief leads them to bear arms.

I am not willing to be defended, or to defend anyone else, by a series of Nagasakis and Hiroshimas. Aside from being contradictory to Brotherly Love, the price to be paid in such cases makes defense worthless. Some have called our past dropping of the A-bomb, and the possibility that we might drop a bigger one in the future, the lesser of two evils. The greater evil is supposed to be the occupation and plundering of our land by the enemy, and the death of some of our own people. My religion teaches different values. All men are to be loved equally. It is not a lesser evil to kill a Russian than for a Russian to kill an American. Human lives, not nationalities, are involved. If an A-bomb were dropped on Detroit, it would only compound the evil and destruction to retaliate in kind. The only way to diminish the evil is to forgive, and to cultivate Love.

(The above graphic is the logo of the venerable War Resister's League, a pacifist organization founded in 1923. I don't believe my father was affiliated with that group but he did work with the Central Committee of Conscientious Objectors.)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Good War?

I'm slowly reading the late Howard Zinn's epic A People's History of the United States. It's such clear thinking; an amazing book. A loss not to have him around any longer. I'm amazed in chapter after chapter at how clearly he identifies the established historical myths about American history and then harpoons them with a reordering of the facts and a change in perspective from that of the rulers to that of the people.

This couldn't be clearer in his description of World War Two. Even many who think of themselves as radicals and pacifists wind up giving that war some kind of pass. It was the defeat of fascism! It was done to save the Jews from genocide! The U.S. was attacked!

Here are some excerpts from the People's History that put that war in context:

"For the United States to step forward as a defender of helpless countries matched its image in American high school history textbooks, but not its record in world affairs.... What seemed clear at the time was that the United states was a democracy with certain liberties, while Germany was a dictatorship persecuting its Jewish minority, imprisoning dissidents, whatever their religion, while proclaiming the supremacy of the Nordic 'race.' However, blacks, looking at anti-Semitism in Germany might not see their own situation in the U.S. as much different. And the United States had done little about Hitler's policies of persecution.....It was not Hitler's attacks on the Jews that brought the United States into World War II, ant more than the enslavement of 4 million blacks brought Civil War in 1861...It was the Japanese attack on a link in the American Pacific Empire that did it....

"Was the war war being fought to establish that Hitler was wrong in his ideas of white Nordic supremacy over 'inferior' races? The United States armed forces were segregated by race. When troops were jammed on the Queen Mary in early 1945 to go to combat duty in the European theater, the blacks were stowed down in the depths of the ship near the engine room, as far as possible from the fresh air of the deck, in a bizarre reminder of the slave voyages of old. The Red Cross, with government approval, separated the blood donations of black and white....

"The war not only put the United States in a position to dominate much of the world; it created conditions for effective control at home. The unemployment, the economic distress, and the consequent turmoil that had marked the thirties, only partly relieved by New Deal measures, had been pacified, overcome by the greater turmoil of the war."

That's key sentences in something like ten pages. The whole thing is really required reading, especially today as we find ourselves repeating so much that happened in the 1930s, without, thus far, the class struggle.

(Photo of the Nazi extermination camp Auschwitz at Oswiecim, Poland, taken by me in 1976)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Anti-American Art: Out Out Damned Spot

This is from a photo of a sign at a protest of Israel's 2009 attack on Gaza, archived at the Palestine Poster Project. Under the headline "Is This Peace? Whitewashing War Crimes" that's a caricature of an Israeli soldier washing his bloody hands under a spigot with the colors of the American flag. To the right are grisly photos of dead children killed by the Israeli assault. Israel's state of the art military is heavily bankrolled by the U.S. taxpayer, and Israel's brutal apartheid repression of the Palestinian population happens with the look-the-other-way acquiescence of the American government. For news and insightful analysis of the conflict in the Middle East I strongly recommend the Mondoweiss website.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Next stop....53

In honor of my birthday, here's an ancient historical photo from the last century. That's me and my parents getting off a train in 1961 or so; I'm not sure where. I was a big boy...dad is carrying me and my mom has his briefcase. A cigarette is dangling from his mouth. Oddly this is probably the only picture I have of the three of us together; most of my childhood photos, and there were never many of them, disappeared after my parents divorced in one of our many moves. They split when I was 9 or 10, and we never stayed in one apartment or house more than three years and usually much less; my father lived in six different states over the next ten years. This photo was probably taken by my grandmother.

Happy birthday me!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Proletariata Obsolescens: My Pocket Pal

I suppose it's a cliche to marvel at modern technology, but at least for somebody my age it's just hard not to. This is my copy of the Pocket Pal. As you can see from the scribbling on it I inherited it from Joe Cammilleri, one of a handful of old-timer graphic production people I worked with who made it to new technology. (He dropped dead at a family picnic in the late 1980s; he was in his sixties. Everybody at the type shop we worked at went to his wake.) Anyway the Pocket Pal was a treasured possession back in the day. Published by the International Paper Company, it was a pocket-sized book that was sort of a how-to bible of old-school graphic arts. It explained how everything worked, and had some basic charts and descriptions that were key to understanding any job or process somewhere along the graphic arts production chain. First published in 1934, mine is the snazzy 12th edition, hot off the presses in 1981.

I got my first job in graphic art in 1981, when I moved from Chicago to New York to be the Art Director of The Revolutionary Socialist League's newspaper, The Torch/La Antorcha. The guy who had put the paper together for years--he went by the name Lee but he was a veteran of the old S.D.S. named Morgan Spector--had learned a bit of the real newspaper craft as a youth working in California. He was tired and wanted to move on. Lee explained to me the basics of typography and layout. We could have used a Pocket Pal: even if our technology was pretty basic, we were only a few steps into post-mechanical production and there was stuff I wish we had known. The Pocket Pal details moveable type (above), linecasting and monotype even these were pretty much obsolete in the U.S. by 1981.

We had an early phototypesetting system, the CompuGraphic Comp One. It had a one- line memory, and a primitive one-line illuminated dot-matrix readout instead of any kind of video screen. It was very basic typesetting; there were a handful of codes you had to learn. Once you pressed the "return" key, there was no going back, the wheels inside the magic box spun and exposed photographic paper from a very bright bulb through a film strip. If you wanted to change the size of the type or the font, you had to open the machine and change the font film strip. When all of a manuscript had been re-typeset onto a galley, you had to remove the film cannister and put it in a special photographic processor. Out came a galley of type ready to be cut up and pasted up...and of course that's how the newspaper itself was actually laid out, with a razorblade, a waxer, a T-square, and a wonderful wooden easel. There was another similar machine called a headliner that generated display type. On special occasions we'd break out the presstype. In a couple years the technology improved to be more computerized: you entered the coded galleys of type onto a more standard computer screen and everything was recorded onto a giant floppy disk. The CompuGraphic Editwriter seemed like a miracle. An expensive miracle.

While the name is now dated, sounding like a bit of a medical issue, when VDT's hit typesetting it seemed like a miracle. That's Video Display Terminal. They displayed horrible bluish white or green letters against black, and they weren't even slightly WYSIWYG. You had to memorize a library of coding to generate a good paragraph of type. The Pocket Pal explains how all this works, with a precision of language and description that is admirable. It's all up to the ghost in the machine with today's digital publishing world, but not so back then. At my last typesetting job toward the end of the 1980s there was a person whose job it was to simply mark up the kerning between every single letter of type that we generated: she sat there with her schaedler rule measuring the number of points to be added or subtracted between every letter to make the type look "massaged."

Typesetting was a real old-fashioned trade. While it was unionized for big newspapers and the like, small nonunion type shops were all over the place. It was a great job for people who had other things going on in their lives. You could quit your job one day and choose from a page of them in the classified ads the next day to find more work immediately. You had to know what you were doing, though, so the hourly rate was pretty good. I learned and worked two different systems over the years, and even though the machines are completely obsolete, I think the old-school craft I learned from my coworkers has served me well in the digital world.

There's only a small bit of still relevant information in my Pocket Pal. Technology has steamrolled on. If you read between its lines, you realize a whole layer of working class craftspeople has been made obsolete and disappeared. As much as I love the miracle of graphic design on a Mac computer--InDesign and Adobe Photoshop are incredible tools--it's weird to think of how much skill and craft has been completely replaced by machines. And as much as I love the freedom of creative expression on the internet--like this blog--I wonder what we have traded up for when people's sense of class solidarity seems to have all but disappeared.

At least I'm certified as a punchtape telex operator for life!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Anti-American Art: Buddies

My limited knowledge of Chinese tells me that this Cultural Revolution era poster is exalting the friendship of the peoples of three nations against their common enemy. I'm not sure who the third friend to the Chinese & Vietnamese people is. I'm guessing Laos? Anyway who these inseparable buddies are not letting into their club is revealed in the lower right of the image: that's an American GI's helmet and the indistinct but identifiable wreckage of an American airplane in flames. These guys sure do look like they're fans at a sporting event instead of participants in a battle, but what the heck. Fortunately they don't let people take AK47's into the stands of ball games.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Today in Cautionary Tales...

This has been floating around the internet for years; it makes me laugh. Every single time I see it. Please think of the kittens.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Happy Cannon Fodder Day!

I almost forgot what day it was. In honor of Veteran's Day, aka Cannon Fodder Day, here's pop singer Scott Walker's devastating "Hero of the War" from 1969.

He's a hero of the war
All the neighborhood is talkin' 'bout your son
Mrs. Reiley get his medals
Hand them 'round to everyone
Show his gun to all the children in the street
It's too bad he can't shake hands or move his feet

He's a hero of the war
You can see his picture in the local news
Mrs. Reiley seems the girl next door is nowhere to be found
Once you couldn't keep that boy from hangin' 'round
Never mind dear, you're with your mum once more

He's a hero of the war
Like his dad he gave his life the war before
It was tragic how you almost died of pain when he was born
With no husband there beside you through it all
Ring the bell if you get hungry or you fall

You're a hero of the war
Why those teardrops on your cheek? it's so absurd
Feelin' empty it's the emptiness of heroes like your son
And what made him leave his mother for a gun
Driven forward driven back and nothing more

He's a hero of the war

War: resist it. Don't enlist.

54, La Rana

I'm too old for Kermit! Yesterday I noticed several facebook friends marked the 41st birthday of the seminal children's television program Sesame Street. Of course I know who Kermit is, who Bert and Ernie are, who Miss Piggy is. But I was already almost 11 when Sesame Street came out, and frankly I don't think I noticed. That was for little kids. I do remember loving The Electric Company, a PBS franchise that must have tapped my age group more appropriately, but if I have some sentimentality for the teevee of my childhood and youth, I have none at all for Sesame Street. Zilch.

We didn't have a television when I was very young, even though my father worked in the advertising business (very Mad Men, actually). I think it was a form of rebellion on his part. I think we got one about 1963, because I'm pretty sure I remember seeing at least the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination on it. We didn't get a color teevee until way into the 1970s.

There was children's programming that felt mind-numbing and false: Romper Room, Captain Kangaroo, Bozo the Clown. The time I got to actually attend a taping of Bozo the Clown disillusioned me for years: the studio audience sat practically in another room and we had to pretend we could see what was being taped and clap enthusiastically when asked; it was torturously unpleasant, but a useful lesson for life. I loved Saturday morning cartoons: Astro Boy and all that other weird out-of-synch puppetry and animation so mysteriously from Japan. Underdog was a favorite; so droll and witty.

And while I know that Kermit is legendary, and "It's Not Easy Being Green" is a great song (look for the Lena Horne version!), he doesn't move me. A coworker at my old job gave me stuffed Bert and Ernie dolls to decorate a shelf in my office; you could tell this was a significant "remember these eternal icons of childhood fun?" moment for her. I can hear the Bert and Ernie voices in my head, but it's a memory of an adult time not a treasured echo of being a kid. Many times in my adulthood I've tried to track down some childhood experience to try to recapture a flash of remembered magic, sometimes quite successfully. But sorry, Bert, Ernie, I'm glad you've become gay icons, but you don't mean anything to me either! And I've never seen "The Muppet Movie."

Back in the pond, giant green frog.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Anti-American Art: Glee

My friend Jon of "Poetry is for Assholes" blog found these on youtube. They're North Vietnamese propaganda films from 1967 or 1968. That's the "War Song of Vietnamese Women" above and "War Song of Vietnamese Soldiers" below. I don't speak Vietnamese so I can only guess what these folks are singing about against the jaunty accordion and the background war scenes. You can probably guess also. The women's video focuses on ground defenses against the American attack. There's a sort of pumpkin-headed booby trap among others.

The men's video focuses on defenses against the brutal American air assault, with footage switching perspectives from the B52s dropping bombs to scenes of anti-aircraft teams and bomb-damaged buildings, all with a rousing martial chorus.

It's nice to have human faces and sounds for the Vietnamese who so heroically fought off the greatest military machine ever known. Meanwhile, war criminal John McCain won reelection to the U.S. senate to continue to inflict his militarist terrorist policies on the American people and its modern victims in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Modupue Baba!

Today is the fourteenth anniversary of my initiation into Santeria as a priest of Obatala Yeku-Yeku.

I don't perform many of the proper rituals of the religion; I have no godchildren; I'm not marking my birthday with the typical celebration. Not because I don't love Obatala, or the religion which so informs my inner world, I do. I will refresh my orisha shrine, and offer some fruit. And then go to work in the regular world, carrying a secret flame inside my head. I'll light a candle for them in the evening. Play some orisha music. And another day will pass. Another day that I thank Obatala for explaining me, for blessing me with his identity, his ways, his ori, his aché. I thank Obatala for my sense of identity, for a sense of completion, for a sense of destiny. I thank Obatala for bringing me closer to God; for seeing all the connections in the Universe, all the spirit and energy and life. I thank Obatala for wisdom and knowledge, and for all my quirks and eccentricities as well as for my intelligence and creativity. I thank Obatala for love and my family and my home and my job and my health too, these things are all wonderful and important. I thank the people in my life who helped me get here: my godfather and elders in the religion as well as my ancestors and parents and friends. I thank Obatala for teaching me that religion isn't for show; it doesn't make me any better, or more or less human than anybody else, it just deepens my experience of the mysteries of life. Most of them joyful. Some of them sad. A few of them frightening. And even some of them dull and dreary. But all of them worth it, sewn together in a tapestry with rough white thread.

This day is not really any different than any others. It's my lucky day; like yesterday, like tomorrow. I get to be who I am.

Thank God for that. Thank Obatala.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Mami Wata Loves You

This is one of my favorite syncretic images, the woman who has mastered the snakes. I've had this posctcard for years: Wikipedia's entry for Mami Wata says this image dates from pre-war Europe. That wikipedia entry is full of detail about the deity Mami Wata, but it could kind of be shortened to say "powerful archetypal image that means a lot of contradictory things to whoever sees it." Mami Wata can be connected to the Yoruba ocean orisha Yemaya, a true "mother of the waters." But she can also be connected to a host of other syncretic folk deities that have combined with the myths of Africa, Latin America and the U.S. suggesting some powerful symbolic resonance. If you go to Botanicas in New York City you can find this image transformed into a plaster statue; sometimes with a baby in its lap sometimes without. That's Santa Marta la Dominadora, St. Martha the Dominator, and she'll protect your family and help you get your man back or help you take control of an unruly life. And there's the connection to the loa of Haitian vodoun Damballah, the snake god who reveals the mysteries of the universe travelling deep underground and yet encircles the world above us to bind reality together. To me the image is suggestive of Marie Laveaux, the patroness of New Orleans voodoo. And yet all these identities snatched from disparate religions and traditions reveal something about the nature of religion itself: it's a doorway to perception, a way of explaining and categorizing the human experience of spirit. But the thing it explains and categorizes is universal, powerful beyond description. You can't really take a picture of God, and yet, meditate on a cheap prayercard image like this and, well, there it is.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

The Rights of the People

I can't decide if this is the ultimate in subversive kitsch or a kind of authoritarian countersubversion. It's the decidedly un-hip pop group The 5th Dimension singing the American Declaration of Independence set to gloriously baroque pop music. Unfortunately, this is just a music track not an actual performance. But I've counted this as a guilty pleasure probably since it came out in 1970. On the one hand it's sort of an "Up With People" Rockwellian populist co-optation, something the entire family could smile warmly to as it aired on some television variety show without question. On the other hand, it's the fucking declaration of independence turned into a sort of glossy soul showtune, and the lines they choose to make the most memorable sound practically insurrectionary. Which I suppose it was. With hooks and harmony. I was reminded of it last night and tracked it down to youtube. I believe the original album track segued into "A Change Is Gonna Come."

I'm reading Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States," which I strongly recommend to anyone who has the whitewash of childhood education too freshly coating their brains or to people like me so long from the school books the facts need a little freshening up. If an accurate teaching of American history proves anything, it's that American mythology needs to be approached with a questioning mind open to subversion. Who better than a soul group even your mother could love to start asking the right questions?

Can you surry? Do you picnic?

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Friday, November 05, 2010

I Was a Teenage Trotskyite Spy

I was reminded in the comments to yesterday's post of an experience I had as a very young adult.

I've written here before about how when I got to college in 1976 I made some questionable choices. I had witnessed so much revolutionary social change up close in my young life, I couldn't believe that the student revolution was over. The Vietnam war had ended the year before, and I mean really ended with the expulsion of the last Americans and the destruction of their despotic puppet regime. My mother worked in academia and for a dozen years she had brought home tales of radical students running about from protest to protest and occupying administration buildings. During the 1968 Democratic Convention our living room was filled with bloodied students and staff taking refuge from Mayor Daley's police riot in the park.

I fancied myself a leftist and the minute I got settled in my dorm I went looking for the revolution. There was some kind of student organization orientation, and I remember carefully visiting all the radical student group tables. There was the Young Socialist Alliance, the Spartacus Youth League, what I think was then called the Revolutionary Student Brigade, and a handful of others. I bought a few newspapers, a couple pamphlets on world struggles with exciting evocative covers, and exchanged phone numbers with a few student organizers clearly eager to get started recruiting fresh meat from the incoming class. This was at University of Chicago on Chicago's south side: it had a history of radical activism going way back. And everybody knew that UC alum Bernardine Dohrn was then leader of the Weather Underground and actually organizing from underground, on the run from the Feds. I hadn't paid so much attention to the fact that UofC was also home to the infamous Chicago Boys, the murderous economists led by Milton Friedman trying out their crackpot freemarket economic theories on the backs of Chileans freshly subdued by a CIA-supported coup d'etat. The sad truth was that the UofC was actually more a hotbed of rightwing activism by then than left.

Anyway I met a guy named San from the Sparts. He was a really smart guy who really knew his stuff, could argue esoteric political points aggressively like nobody's business. He had a little bit of a crazy eye, which made him very intense, and although his tendency to argue until his lips were literally flecked with foaming spittle concerned me, he was very persuasive. I actually liked him quite a bit. I was fascinated by Trotskyism, even though I thought of myself as a bit of a Maoist. It seemed so noir, sort of dangerously romantic, evoking both courage and tragedy in its losing struggle against the current of Stalinism. My knowledge of Marxism-Leninism was very superficial, and it wasn't hard for San to convince me that Stalinism and Maoism had spent as much time, energy and blood preventing social change as engendering it.

I was what was called in Spartacist lingo a "contact." Which meant a sort of potentially recruitable interested person. San was quickly assigned to try to recruit me, another freshman and classmate named David (this is a different David, by the way, than I have referred to elsewhere in this blog), and a graduate student named Larry. All of us had expressed interest in the SYL and were deemed to be serious enough to be recruited.

The Sparts had -- well actually have, they're still around and their MO seems unchanged as near as I can tell now decades away from contact with them -- a bit of an obsession with other groups on the left. They called them "OROs," or "ostensibly revolutionary organizations," and somehow believed that the key to their own success was in harassing other left groups and showing them up to be not as authentically Marxist as themselves. They hoped to defeat the organizing efforts of their competitors, and I suppose, hoped to pick up survivors from the presumed wreckage of people disillusioned in the politics or practices of these competing sects. Something about the obscurata of all these sects fascinated me: like a stamp collection or a forgotten shelf in the library the self-perpetuated hair-splitting differences of various left parties, all tiny and all self-important, was endlessly amusing. Though I never developed the hectoring polemical verbal finesse of a good Spart, I was for a brief moment enthralled by it.

Anyway as I confessed before I eventually became a member of the Spartacus Youth League, and though it was such a formative time in my life that it seems like I hung around them for decades, I did so for almost exactly two years before moving up and out. Right about the time I felt like I was ready to sign up with them, I remember San took me aside.

There were two main Maoist parties in the U.S., both led by former members of different SDS factions. One of them, the October League, led by Michael Klonsky, was about to rebrand itself as the Communist Party Marxist-Leninist. This was big news because the CP (M-L) was also reputed to be winning official recognition from the Chinese Communist Party. Mao had just died, and while the brakes had been put on the Cultural Revolution, the People's Republic had not yet gone on the "capitalist road." When that happened the other big Maoist sect -- the Revolutionary Communist Party -- broke with China. A third one became loyal to Albania's Enver Hoxha but that's a story too pathetic to even try to recall. But the CP (M-L) was set to become what it hoped would be the pro-Chinese equivalent of the old school pro-Soviet Communist Party. That never really happened, but for a moment in the seventies it seemed, at least to them, feasible. And the CP(M-L)'s founding congress was going to be held right there in Chicago. And it was most definitely not a public event.

San told me the Spartacist League wanted to observe that congress, and of course, roundly hated by the Maoists, there was no way that was actually gonna happen. (Back then when Maoists saw Trotskyists they usually started spontaneously chanting "Ice pick! Ice pick!" in reference to the weapon agents of Stalin used to assassinate Trotsky in Mexico in 1940). He knew that I had talked to all of the different left groups, and well knew of my tentatively abandoned fascination with Mao.

He asked me if I would talk to the October League activist I had met and ask if I, an innocent, unaffiliated and open-minded individual, could get an invitation to the CP (M-L) congress. He asked me to be a spy! In his (and my!) defense I don't believe there was anything disruptive intended. Nor do I believe that there was anything fishy in a, how shall I say this, government-influenced way. I think they just wanted a first-hand report of an important competitor's event. I, of course, said absolutely. That's what teenagers do, and I was 18. I don't remember her name but I went up to one of the Maoists I had met. "Hey I hear you're having a founding congress. I would love to attend!"

I remember raised eyebrows. Her response was guarded. I reminded her of how I was interested in Chairman Mao and her organization. "Maybe," she said. Skeptically, she exchanged phone numbers with me. She'd get back to me. I reported back to San, and he presumably went back to the Spart leaders and said the groundwork had been laid. I vaguely remember that this was all the very week leading up to the Congress. I remember feeling flushed with excitement. Nervous at my white lies, but I really wanted to see a Maoist party congress!

The night before the event I got a disappointing phone call. "We've made a policy decision," she said. "We're only inviting party members." I was so disappointed! And relieved. Who knows what happened at that Congress. I surely read about it in their newspaper, but the world has forgotten what happened there as surely as it has forgotten the long-gone October League and its long-gone successor the Communist Party USA (Marxist-Leninist). Ironically, though my undercover career was abortive, when the competing Maoist group the RCP split in two the next year, a disguntled RCP member apparently dropped off a stack of documents with the Sparts for maximum impact: the leftist world learned of that factional crisis from the screaming headline on the Spartacist newspaper Workers Vanguard, "RCP SPLITS!" followed up with excruciating detail.

Anyway within a couple weeks I joined the SYL at the same time as my classmate David. We would set up a literature table in some commons area on the UofC campus a couple times a week. I was a terrible leftist newspaper salesman but I dutifully made the attempt every time I was so assigned. One day I heard a familiar female voice behind me. "Comrade!" I knew that voice; I was so busted. The blood rushed to my cheeks. "Comrade, Chairman Mao teaches us to be open and above board!" I turned and sure enough, it was my skeptical Maoist. She had a look on her face I have never forgotten, a knowing, contemptuous smirk colored with "I-knew-it" amusement that turned me into a puddle on the ground, wishing in my mind's mortified eye I could disappear the Spart newspapers I was feebly hawking. She turned and walked away. I had just proved that Trotskyites are spies. And so ended my brief but glorious career as a secret agent.

The top graphic is the cover of the transcripts of one of the Moscow Show trials, conducted by Stalin in the Soviet Union in the 1930s to eliminate all left-wing opposition to his rule. I snagged it from the fascinating web magazine The Art Bin which republished them as an artistic inquiry. They're chilling reading...I used to own a couple. The Soviet government and international Communists were proud of these trials and you used to be able to easily find the thick trial transcripts bound into hardcover books at second-hand shops. The Trotskyists and fellow oppositionists all confessed to terrible crimes which had been completely invented by the Stalinist prosecutors, who were themselves purged in later show trials. Among the charges levelled against the Trotskyists was spying. Oh my sense of humor. The second graphic is a random Mao poster from cultural revolution era China.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Anti-American Art: I Am The Manchurian Candidate

It's the armed peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America rising up against American imperialism again, in super-saturated colors and, well, some pretty imaginative "native dress." It's a Chinese cultural revolution poster from the 1960s, and I actually once owned this poster; I bought it as a young teen in the early 1970s, though my poster ended up ripped and ragged and didn't survive my youth.

We lived for a few years in Evanston, the first suburb just north of Chicago. The transition from Chicago to Evanston isn't really noticeable; the visual shift to suburb starts to happen part way through Evanston towards Skokie. It was not ranch houses and perfect lawns. Anyway the first actual house we lived in was right by Northwestern University, and in a row of shops nearby was the Peking Book House. It was a Chinese government propaganda outlet; I'm not sure how it operated since this was right before the post-Nixon normalization of relations and the lifting of the trade embargoes. In the days when any Chinese immigrant was presumed to be a refugee from Communism, Mr. Chen and his shop clearly bucked that trend. He had a huge selection of Chinese posters, pamphlets and books, plus Mao buttons and a whole rack of blue or green Mao jackets with matching caps. He had a wall of Little Red Books --the Quotations of Mao Zedong -- in shiny vinyl sleeves in dozens and dozens of languages. I imagine his intended audience was the very international student body of Northwestern and the associated student radical milieu (the Vietnam war was most definitely still on, remember). Though I don't actually recall seeing anyone else in his shop on my frequent visits. (Crazily a google search reveals that the shop and Mr. Chen are still around thirty-odd years later).

You may ask what kind of teenage boy spends his allowance on Mao buttons and revolutionary anti-American posters. Well, the kind who grows up to write a blog like this one! I bought 10-inch LP recordings of Revolutionary Peking Operas -- Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy now replaced by CDs is something I still enjoy listening to. I bought a couple little red books, and frankly the English version is mostly as indecipherable as the Lao version I used to own.

So put this idealized, racially questionable, boldly illustrated poster into the column of highly effective propaganda vehicles. Here I am some latter-day Manchurian candidate, reactivated by the hidden clues first exposed to my tender young brain.

But enough about me. Look at this poster....keep looking. Go ahead, click on it and see it larger. Pay attention to the sound of my voice.... See the pretty bright colors. See yourself in the poster... Feel the righteous wrath of the people around you... You are getting sleepy... you're drifting off into the poster. When I snap my fingers you will awaken and you will be resolutely determined to smash U.S. imperialism...


Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Taking the country back....to the 1850s

Writing this before midnight on election night, it seems that while several key teabagger politicians have been defeated, many many teabagger candidates won their elections. Republicans are now set to control the US House of Representatives, and the Democratic margin of control of the US senate is now paper-thin. Will professional liar John "Pumpkinhead" Boehner be Nancy Pelosi's replacement? Or will the "tea party" challenge him for house leadership?

While laughing-stock candidates like Delaware's anti-masturbation activist and teen Satanist Christine O'Donnell and stone-cold racist and bestiality fan Carl Paladino were defeated, others like "Ayn" Rand Paul and Marco "Gusano" Rubio coasted easily to victory.

The next two years will be, how to put this...interesting. The ultra-right marches on. Caveat emptor, Amerikkka.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Election Day: Vote Against the Tea Party

Today is election day, 2010. Midway through President Obama's first term, the Democrats who swept to power only two years ago are widely expected to be savaged. While control of the US Senate is less in doubt, control of the House of Representatives is expected by most to pass to the Republicans. In local elections across the country, Republicans are expected to do well in gubernatorial races and local state house races, which could spell problems for the upcoming legislative sessions that will reapportion congressional voting disticts according to the recent US census. That census has population moving south: a number of northern states are set to lose representatives in favor of states like Florida and Texas. Republican gerrymandering of election districts could result in permanent damage to the allegedly representative nature of the House. (Interestingly a number of Republicans and teabaggers have come out against the constitutional amendent that provided for direct election of US senators; apparently across the board the right wing hates both Democrats and Democracy.)

I'm voting for the Working Families Party line here in New York State. The WFP is a progressive, independent party in the state with its own platform and basis of unity. In truth most of the candidates on the WFP line are also the Democratic Party candidates, though in the city council district I used to live in here in Brooklyn the WFP ran a candidate against the Democrats; a candidate who also happened to win. I think the WFP model is a useful one for this day and age: it allows people to the left of the Democratic center to organize around our own values, while passing electoral votes to the Democrats to defeat right-wing candidates that, frankly, need defeating.

This voting for the WFP line means voting for some candidates, like gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo, who are not particularly progressive. Indeed while Cuomo has taken a number of progressive positions (marriage equality among them), he promises to be a nightmare for organized labor, and here WFP has been forced into a corner to make a deal with the devil. According to NY State Law, third parties maintain their ballot line by getting a certain number of votes in state-wide contests. Thus WFP needed to endorse Cuomo to preserve its ballot status. Unfortunately running a candidate to the left of Cuomo would only be a losing symbolic gesture--and there are others already making that gesture. Fortunately voting for Cuomo does mean the probable defeat of our local teabagger candidate, the angry racist and anti-gay bigot Carl Paladino.

The WFP has also endorsed two US Senate candidates, Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer. Gillibrand has been trying hard to impress liberals with her bonafides; in general I find her candidacy no more or less offensive than any other liberal Democrat. Charles Schumer is, unfortunately, deeply tied to the Israel lobby. He among the most hawkishly pro-Israel members of government...if Harry Reid is defeated by his racist opponent Sharon Angle, it's likely that Schumer will be up for the job of Democratic Senate Leader. Democratic performance in the Senate has left much to be desired this past season, as right-wing Dems hold a pivotal balance of power. However, given that the Senate will be controlled by either Republicans, newly juiced up with ultra-rightwing teabagger candidates, or by Democrats, at least paying lip service to some causes important to me, I believe that preventing a teabagger takeover of Congress is worthwhile. The Senate remains a den of thieves: its members are largely racist, warmongering, anti-gay, and anti-working class. But that's the job description of capitalism: My vote is against giving the far right legislative control. I wish a victory for the Democrats would imply that a progressive agenda had a snowball's chance in Washington. I don't think it does.

The election of Obama two years ago was a moment of hope. I mean that sincerely: for all of his failings, both the ones we knew about in advance and the ones that took us by surprise, something important happened. I believe that for a moment, the good guys won. And by good guys I don't mean the Democratic machine, and I don't think I even mean Obama himself. Obama is likable, gives a damned good speech, and....is, well, the President of the U.S. in all its contradictory glory and awfulness; he does terrible things; that's what Presidents do. It saddens me that Americans proved to be so politically unsophisticated creatures with such short memories; that the independent streak that Obama capitalized on has now turned on him with a bunch of dangerously crazy and ultra-rightwing candidates set to win their contests. I don't know, ultimately, who's going to win the war for America's consciousness: the progressive aspirations of the left or the fear and hatred and anger of the right.

It's so important to continue to dream of what could be possible: to organize for justice, for peace, for liberation, for economic justice, for a new collective reality. But sometimes you gotta look down in the gutter and pick a side, even if that means voting for a bunch of sell-out Democrats. It could most definitely get worse before it gets better. And if voting is ultimately not how transformational political change will be made it seems foolish to sit out the electoral game.

I've read leftists pissed off at Obama saying they won't vote for Democrats. I think that's, well, stupid. These leftists accuse people like me of playing the "fear card" by invoking the teabaggers, by invoking the threat of a Sarah Palin presidency as a manipulative cover for supporting Democrats. And my answer to that is that Sarah Palin should scare the fuck out of you. John Boehner? Mitch McConnell? Mainstream republicans who scare the crap out of me. And they are positively liberal compared to the teabag lynch mob coming up from behind. So yes, it is appropriate to play the fear card. They are a real threat. These elections, and the next ones, and the ones after that until there is some fundamental paroxysm in electoral politics, will not be won by a progressive third party. These elections will be won by Democrats or by Republicans. That's not the way it should be, but it is the way it is. Organizing in groups like the WFP is an important step in the right direction, but the bottom line remains that compromised victory in a deeply compromised country is about the best we can expect.

So get out there and vote...against the "tea party" takeover.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Anti-American Art: The Devil in the Details

Above is a souvenir sheet of stamps issued for the 1970 Congress of the Workers Party of Korea, the same august body that just met to annoint a probable successor to the ailing Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader of the People's Democratic Republic of Korea. Back in 1970, North Korea was run by Kim Jong Il's dad, Kim Il Sung; it will be interested to see if Kim Jong Il's son Kim Jong Un actually assumes power. Anyway that's Kim Il Sung in the upper left; the other stamps have themes of agricultural and industrial development, military readiness, scientific advancement, and of course the requisite anti-American sentiment, of the "take that" variety.

Note the logo of the WPK: instead of the hammer and sickle logo of traditional Communism, they've designed a clever hammer, brush and scythe design, adding the writing brush of the intellectual and student to the proletarian hammer and the peasant farm implements.

In the middle on the right is the relevant stamp celebrating the South Korean uprising against dictatorship of 1961 that the North hoped would lead to reunification. On this enlargement of that stamp you can see the armed Korean workers spearing an American soldier while government buildings burn in the background and the American flag lies shredded below.

But wait, there's more! The stamp on the lower right shows another American soldier "taking that!" from an international guerrilla army of Chinese, Vietnamese, Cuban, African and apparently European revolutionaries. But oops! There's a mistake. Comrade stamp designer accidently spelled "US" backwards, "SU." Fearing that the Soviet Union, then bankrolling Korea's development and defense, would take offense at the apparently subversive misspelling, as soon as the error was spotted the North Korean government recalled the sheets of stamps, detached the offending lower right one, and then re-released the redacted survivors. The full sheet shown here and this detail is a rare peek at the full sheet almost never seen. Stamp collectors in Korea and abroad only got the strangely incomplete sheet. One hates to think about what happened to comrade stamp designer...