Join Our Mailing List

Bookmark and Share

  Home > News > Additional Stories

This coffee table book is not ashamed of its 43 abortion stories

1 in 4 women in the U.S. will have an abortion in their lifetime.      Slideshow Icon 2 slides
Enlarge Icon
1 in 4 women in the U.S. will have an abortion in their lifetime.
Credit: Amelia Bonow
By Brie Ripley

Amelia Bonow, a Seattle bartender, wanted to talk about her abortion.

In September 2015, she posted on Facebook: “Like a year ago I had an abortion at the Planned Parenthood on Madison Ave, and I remember this experience with a near inexpressible level of gratitude."

Her friend, the writer Lindy West, shared her post on Twitter, hashtagged it #ShoutYourAbortion, and a movement was born.

People who had abortions and who supported abortions cropped up across social media channels to share their stories with the SYA hashtag. 

That energy online quickly transformed into creative energy across all disciplines, from button making to tattoos, even couture fashion, which will be showcased in SYA's forthcoming, self-titled book. It's co-edited by Bonow and Emily Nokes; it includes a foreword by West.

The bright, zine-inspired collection presents as a coffee table book — but instead of innocuous fare, it holds the taboo: essays by people detailing their abortions.

But Bonow’s campaign did not charge forward without criticism. After SYA launched, The New Yorker wrote a mostly positive piece that included this line: "For some observers, the tweets, videos, and even the conversations between Bonow and her friends might suggest a certain amount of privilege."

The piece noted that Bonow lives "in a city where access to abortion is plentiful and where most of the population shares their political views about it."

The book responds to this early skepticism by showcasing people across the U.S. from many backgrounds. They're old, young, middle-aged, married and unmarried, with and without children, transgender, and non-binary. Some are celebrities.

While each one of their stories is unique, none of them are sorry. That is, perhaps, the binding theme throughout this collection. Medical care providers echo this sentiment in the book too, detailing their commitment to providing safe, legal abortions.

We spoke with Bonow to learn about the unapologetic stories and abortion art in the book, and to discuss the new wave of abortion stories being told online right now.

Lindy West (left) and Alana Edmondson, Lindy West and Shannon Perry (right) modeling abortion couture designed by Mark Mitchell.      Slideshow Icon 2 slides
Enlarge Icon

Why are you making abortion fashion?

We can’t have abortion rights without learning to talk about abortion. Why shouldn’t we talk about it with our clothes?

Right after SYA blew up in the media back in September 2015, we had a button making party as a way to celebrate and keep the momentum going. My friend Michael made me a shirt to wear to the party that said “Everyone Knows I Had An Abortion,” which was kind of a joke about my situation but also just very true at that point! Other people started Sharpie-ing and puff-painting their own shirts, and we almost immediately started selling various stuff like this on our website. 

Wearing a piece of clothing that tells the world that you had an abortion — or that you support people who have abortions — causes an undeniable ripple effect. You send a message to every single person you see that it is possible to have an abortion without hating yourself for it and taking that self-hatred to the grave.

Read an essay from the forthcoming Shout Your Abortion anthology by writer Kirsten West Savali, republished with permission

Why glamorize abortion? Amelia Bonow explains that it's perceived by      Slideshow Icon 2 slides
Enlarge Icon

What do you say to people who are pro-choice but don't believe t-shirts or other forms of jewelry, accessories or clothing is the right way to communicate on the topic of abortion?

The expectation of silence around abortion isn’t just interpersonal, it’s cultural. Collectively, we need art to help us get comfortable with the reality of complex issues like abortion—it’s easy to act like something isn’t happening when it’s not happening in films, on television, in music.

I think we should be making and engaging with all sorts of creative work about abortion, and of course fashion is part of that. It has been since the beginning. The way I see it, the conversation about abortion is starting to percolate to the surface in all kinds of ways, and stuff like abortion positive t-shirts are a part of the overall change.

It might seem too radical for some people; that’s fine, we will keep doing it until it’s not considered radical. Culture doesn’t just stay in a perpetual state of shock about things like this. We evolve. Seeing your first abortion dress is going to shock you like your first gay pride parade is going to shock you. 

Shout Your Abortion projections cover the Trump Building on Wall Street in NYC for the 44th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. These visuals were projected and facilitated by NYC activist crew The Illuminators.
Enlarge Icon
Shout Your Abortion projections cover the Trump Building on Wall Street in NYC for the 44th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. These visuals were projected and facilitated by NYC activist crew The Illuminators.
Credit: Fagan Kuuhnmuennch

For the 44th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, SYA in collaboration with NYC activist crew The Illuminators projected portraits of women who have had abortions along with positive abortion messaging on the Trump Building on Wall Street in New York City. What’s the goal behind art and activism like this?  

Increased visibility in all contexts. Regardless of who you are, where you live, your politics, your faith, you know people who have had abortions. Our culture is all warped about abortion because the anti-choice movement has made abortion seem like a bad thing that bad people do, instead of a normal thing that normal people do. SYA is simply empowering people to tell the truth about their lives. That specific installation was one of hundreds of similar actions we’ve done, putting our faces and stories in a huge range of public spaces. People who have abortions are everywhere, and stuff like this forces them to think about that.

When Justice Kennedy announced his retirement, former editor-in-chief of Glamour and Self magazines Cindi Leave wrote an op-ed for The New York Times titled “Let’s Talk About My Abortion (and Yours).”

Have you noticed more everyday people talking about their abortions online?

SYA's initial explosion was a very organic, massive response to the attacks on Planned Parenthood. I think Kavanaugh’s potential appointment has catalyzed another huge wave of online abortion disclosures because it has awakened a similar level of desperation, fear, indignation, and helplessness.

In the days after Leive’s piece was published, I saw a huge uptick in people shouting their abortions on Twitter, specifically saying, "We need to do this again." There was also an incredible piece in Slate, where five staff writers shared their stories. I think that people have a much more intuitive understanding of why SYA needs to exist in the wake of #MeToo. We can’t fight for a better reality when we are not acknowledging the current one, and our silence is being leveraged against us.

When SYA first happened, there was a lot of discussion about the ability to speak being the product of privilege, which of course it is. I was very hesitant to frame shouting somebody's abortion as a political, moral, or feminist imperative. Today, I see a lot more people like Ms. Leive essentially saying, "I don’t necessarily want to talk about this, but I don’t think we have the luxury of silence any longer."

And while the last thing I want is for SYA to be the source of any sort of external pressure, and I totally respect any given person’s choice to be silent, I do think it’s relevant to point out that pervasive silence is damaging and we are all on the hook for it. I mean, imagine if the government was trying to ban pacemakers and no one would admit that they had a pacemaker. 

How did making this book broaden your perspective on telling abortion stories? 

The book includes 43 abortion stories from people all over the country. Photographer Elizabeth Rudge traveled to five states to meet people, listen to their stories, and shoot their portraits while they chatted. The result is monumental.

Some stories are hilarious, some are heartbreaking. There is a lot of pain. So many of us have experienced sexual violence, rape, abuse. But there’s so much heart in these stories. I cannot believe how much capacity human beings have for resiliency. I also don’t think resiliency is something we can access without processing the things that hurt us.

Read more: I don't regret my abortion. But I wish there had been another way

I’ve spent a lot of time with these stories and working with these people and flipping through this section—I’m so proud of us. We look proud; we should be! We should be proud of surviving all the things we’ve survived, and for choosing to love ourselves.

Justice Kennedy announced his retirement just as we were finishing this book. Now, as I look through the stories in the book, I immediately think about where people are from. Which of these people is living in a state where abortion might be illegal this time next year, where people who do what they did may be prosecuted. Our contributors from Texas, from Tennessee? They knew it might go down like this and they chose to shout about all of it anyway. I can’t think of anything more inspiring than that. 

Shout Your Abortion will be released November 1, 2018.

Correction, 5:27 p.m. September 14: The original version of this story did not mention the inclusion of abortion stories from people who identify as transgender and non-binary.

Collectively, we need art to help us get comfortable with the reality of complex issues like abortion—it’s easy to act like something isn’t happening when it’s not happening in films, on television, in music.

Buy Shout Your Abortion now | Buy Shout Your Abortion eBook now | Back to Amelia Bonow's Editor Page | Back to Emily Noke's Editor Page 

Antifascism, Sports, Sobriety in 19 Best Books to Understand Fascism and How It Works

By Lorraine Berry

The fascist obsession with the body was succinctly described by Susan Sontag in her essay, “Fascinating Fascism,” in which she criticized the rehabilitation of Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. In her propaganda film, Olympiad, her record of the 1936 Olympics, Riefenstahl focused on the physical perfection of the athletes, which leads Sontag to write, “Fascist art displays a utopian aesthetics—that of physical perfection. Painters and sculptors under the Nazis often depicted the nude, but they were forbidden to show any bodily imperfections. Their nudes look like pictures in male health magazines: pinups which are both sanctimoniously asexual and (in a technical sense) pornographic, for they have the perfection of a fantasy.” Klaus Theweleit also addressed fascist attitudes toward the body.

Julius Deutsch was an Austrian Marxist who opposed the spread of fascism. He organized workers in Austria into proletarian militias. Because he understood the “physicality” of the Nazis, he emphasized physical health and strength among those who were to fight them. He organized sports programs for Austrian workers that would give them the physical skills to resist German fighters. Wehrsport  combined cross-country running, shooting sports, martial arts, and other types of physical training as part of its “paramilitary sport.” He also prescribed “healthful” practices, such as abstaining from alcohol, as part of a program that would build up each individual’s stamina and strength, since the battles ahead would be “exhausting.” Deutsch’s objection to the more traditional sports — soccer, for instance — is that young men watched  those sports, going to the stadiums to watch other men play but not benefitting from the exercise themselves. Deutsch’s programs took parts of the fascist program of health and strength and re-wrote it for the benefit of workers who would battle Nazis in the streets.

Buy book now | Download e-book now | Back to Gabriel Kuhn's homepage

Kropotkin Reviewed by Eve Ottenberg

By Eve Ottenberg
August 2018

Anarchists have a bad reputation. Historically they are associated with terrorism, bomb-throwing, assassinations and the wild utopianism of a life without government, in chaos. Admittedly, over the course of centuries, some anarchists have fit this description. More recently, the word “anarchist” conjures images of the black bloc – black-clad rioters in balaclavas, smashing windows, car windshields and pitching rocks at police. In short, to many, anarchism means lunatic violence. But like most stereotypes, the anarchist one is misleading; applied to Proudhon, Bakunin or Kropotkin – three notable anarchist thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – these stereotypes are simply piffle, as a new book by Brian Morris, “Kropotkin, the Politics of Community,” amply demonstrates.

Right from the start, Morris is at pains to distinguish between anarchist communists and socialists. But distinctions between founding a federation of autonomous communities or a workers’ state seem remote and secondary in these dark, reactionary times, in which an evil, thieving, global capitalist empire rules the world and through its environmental rape threatens the future of life on earth. What Kropotkin would call an empire of brigands has seized planetary control. In his day, at the time of the 1871 Paris Commune, there was hope. Now we have despair. But despair can be put to good use; with lucidity about where this global, fossil-fuel capitalism leads – to the grave – despair can invigorate the struggle for any socialist alternative.

At the turn of the twentieth century, people like Kropotkin, Lenin and Trotsky had good reason to believe that capitalism was dying and would soon be replaced by a more humane socialism. That belief led to a successful workers’ revolution in Russia, the first ever in human history. Others followed. Before the Russian revolution was betrayed by Stalin, people could hope for progress, that rapacious, thieving capitalism would yield to social ownership of social goods, that history was not merely the repetitive struggle, reenacted in each generation, between decency and solidarity on the one hand and the arrogant dominion of a minority of kleptocrats on the other. That hope is gone for now. There is nothing left at the moment but struggle.

If Kropotkin could see us now, he would doubtless advise us to promote trade unions, worker cooperatives, environmental activist groups and, especially in the global south, to aid the equitable distribution of land to poor farmers. He would have more suggestions than that, because he had learned from history. “The clan, the village community, the guild, the free medieval city,” Morris writes, “were all institutions, Kropotkin argues, by means of which the common people resisted the encroachments of brigands, conquerors and other power-seeking minorities.”

Kropotkin argued that mutual aid and altruistic sociability inhered in mammalian biology – in contrast to those who argued that what drove early humanity was a Hobbesian war of all against all. As Morris recounts, Kropotkin published articles on mutual aid to counter “struggle for existence” and “survival of the fittest” dogma. Hence Kropotkin’s “vision of a new society that is based on mutual support and voluntary cooperation, not on coercive authority, hierarchy and exploitation.” But how to bring such a society about? Kropotkin considered anarchist bombings futile: “a structure based on centuries of history cannot be destroyed by a few kilos of explosives.” According to Morris, “like the Marxists, Kropotkin always repudiated terrorism as a political strategy.” Though he argued for a massive social uprising to overthrow capitalism and the representative government that served it, and that, he insisted, always served it, he criticized the Russian revolution, mainly because of the Bolshevik role.

In 1919, Morris writes, Kropotkin, old and frail, met with Lenin, then at the height of his power. Kropotkin had returned to his country, Russia, the land of socialist revolution, and by meeting with Lenin, presumably hoped to influence the revolution’s course. Lenin did not take him seriously, Morris reports. Lenin, with his idea of the socialist state, must have regarded Kropotkin’s vision of a stateless federation of communes, cooperatives and mutual aid societies as quaint. Unfortunately, by the end of the next decade, the workers’ state had been hijacked, and in 1991, its remnants finally frayed to nothing. So maybe it’s time to dust off these anarchist writings that blend individualism and communism and reconsider what Proudhon, Bakunin and Kropotkin had to say.

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to Brian Morris's Author Page

Girl Gangs, Biker Boys, and Real Cool Cats on Popculture Shelf

By Alex Ebert
Popculture Shelf
August 12th, 2018

The existence and the origins of pulp fiction books are both well-documented and naturally before there was a market for those products, there was a demand for it. Girl Gangs, Biker Boys, however, starts not at the beginning of this genre, but dives deep into the phenomenon of the pulp books that dealt with subcultures and youth cultures. Those books that on their respective covers promised crime, passion, sex, violence and maybe a hint on why those vices were found in just that teenage environment.

Naturally, the audience those cheap publications wooed for at the newsstand were mostly adults of the much older generation, tying to come to terms with the shocking and unpardonable behavior of the current generation of teenagers; thereby satisfying their appetite for a little action, voyeurism and erotic suspense. Since many of the works dealt with the rage „of the day,” i.e. the contemporary subcultures, traditionally posing a threat to those who live in the midst of society and those who were almost haunted by the “real-life and authentic” stories of the young ones.

„It‘s an old story now that successions of youth subcultures, each more bad-mannered and unruly than the one before, provided one of the most durable panic refrains of postwar public life in the west. Ad hoc alliances of tabloid journalists, social workers and media commentators eagerly identified and sensationalised each emerging type. In the late 1940s, early 1950s it was juvenile delinquents, of course. Then came beatniks. And bikers. Gays and lesbians. Hard-dope fiends. Later on, hippies and countercultural types, mods, rockers, surfers, skinheads, youthful revolutionaries. Trippers, potheads ad ravers. Rock musicians and groupies….Often the group in question was represented in faux anthropological terms as a kind of tribe, obviously…..”

The list of pulp titles mentioned in Girl Gangs, Biker Boys and those with a review and short synopsis is very long. It includes Drummer (Richard Carlile, 1971), A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich (Alice Childress, 1973), Acid Temple Ball (Mary Sativa, 1969), Odd Girl Out (Ann Bannon, 1957) and The Leather Boys (Gillian Freeman, 1961) among many others. Numerous were written under a nom de plume by journalists or writers trying to earn a fast buck (those titles were generally rather good). Then there were pulps of terrible quality that simply copied other authors’ plots and added fantasy sociological expressions, sex cults, drug abuse and all kinds of horror that would ensure the books’ success. If the title failed, it would not be a great economic loss for the publisher, as expenses for authors, paper and print were very low and a similar book could be produced quickly.

The majority of those pulps is long out of print. Others were reprinted, and some served as inspiration for commercially successful movies, often produced many years later, such as Up the Junction (1966), The Beat Generation (1959), The Outsiders (1968), The Warriors (1965), Go Ask Alice (1971) and numerous biker movies of the 1970s.

A fine study of pulp’s greatest moments, focusing on juvenile crime, youth culture and subculture fashions in the US, England and Australia. Editors Ian McIntyre and Andrew Nette masterfully arranged the 400+ book cover reproductions (many originals that today are rare collector’s items) and some 70 interviews with pulp authors.

The twenty contributors – among them David Rife, Bill Osgerby, Mike Stax and Alwyn W. Turner – in seven chapters enlarge on juvenile delinquents, 1960s beats, hippies and drug cults, pulp fiction music novels, motorcycle gangs, 1960s British youthsploitation novels and the rise of the teen novel in the 1970s. Not to forget the use of dyed paper, that gives the over sized paperback that extra pulp look. Very informative and entertaining, this volume makes you want to keep your eyes open on your next visit to the flea market or garage sale.

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to Iain McIntyre's Author Page | Back to Andrew Nette's Author Page

On the Fly on The Screaming Toilet

By Clint Weiler
Screaming Toilet

August 13th, 2018

From the 1870s until the Second World War, millions of Americans left their homes to board freight trains that would carry them vast distances, sometimes to waiting work, often to points unknown. Congregating in skid rows, socializing around campfires, and bringing in the nation's crops, these drifters were set apart from conformist America by a lifestyle possessing its own haunts, vocabulary, and cultural, sexual, and ethical standards. Alternately derided and lionized for their footloose ways and nonconformity, hoboes played a crucial and largely neglected role in the creation of not only America's infrastructure, industry, and agriculture but also its culture, politics, and music.
The first anthology of its kind, On the Fly! brings forth the lost voices of Hobohemia. Dozens of stories, poems, songs, stories, and articles produced by hoboes are brought together to create an insider history of the subculture's rise and fall. Adrenaline-charged tales of train hopping, scams, and political agitation are combined with humorous and satirical songs, razor sharp reportage and unique insights into the lives of the women and men who crisscrossed America in search of survival and adventure.
From iconic figures such as labor martyr Joe Hill and socialist novelist Jack London through to pioneering blues and country musicians, and little known correspondents for the likes of the Hobo News, the authors and songwriters contained in On the Fly! run the full gamut of Hobohemia's wide cultural and geographical embrace. With little of the original memoirs, literature, and verse remaining in print, this collection, aided by a glossary of hobo vernacular and numerous illustrations and photos, provides a comprehensive and entertaining guide to the life and times of a uniquely American icon. Read on to enter a world where hoboes, tramps, radicals, and bums gather in jungles, flop houses, and boxcars; where gandy dancers, bindlestiffs, and timber beasts roam the rails once more.

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to Iain McIntyre's Author Page

Maroon Comix: A Review

by Michael Novick
Anti-Racist Action LA

This fascinating book, based primarily on the writings of political prisoner Russell Maroon Shoats (#AF-3855, SCI Dallas, 1000 Follies Rd. Drawer K, Dallas PA 18612-0286), examines the history of slavery and liberation, particularly the form of resistance known as “maroons” — escapees from slavery, or territories liberated from slavery by rebellion, such as Haiti — in the US, the Caribbean and South America by applying the techniques of graphic novels to sometimes dense political tracts and analysis, increasing their appeal, accessibility and imbuing them with the spirit of a new Black arts movement as well as the cultural creativity and many-sidedness of the maroons themselves.

Sections include a short “Initiation” to the concept of the maroons, and pieces on “Slavery and Liberation”, Modern Maroons, and most challenging perhaps, Shoats’s manifesto “The Dragon or the Hydra?” counterposing centralized and hierarchical liberation movements or struggles, –the dragon — too often sold out by their own leadership, with the more decentralized, horizontal and variegated “maroon” struggles — the hydra, which grows many new heads when decapitated.

This is of course an issue in contention not only in the Black liberation movement, and among former Black Panthers and Black Liberation Army members like Shoats or their latter-day successors, but in many movements and contexts. Consider the contrast between the recent essentially anti-electoral presidential campaign of the Zapatista-influenced Marichuy and the much more traditional, and finally successful, campaign of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who will take office as president of Mexico in December with a strong legislative and gubernatorial cadre of MORENA partisans who ran with him.

As the piece acknowledges, it may be faulty to identify all virtue with the autonomous communities of the Maroons. “In Jamaica, the British tried to make treaties with the maroons, to get them to stop welcoming escapees into their towns. Some maroons were even recruited to hunt down escaped slaves.” While Shoats see the decentralized structure of the maroons as an asset, so that “if one [leader] was bought off, others continued the struggle,” it seems clear that autonomy or decentralization in itself is not a safeguard against cooptation, nor do maroon zones or liberated areas necessarily threaten the entire edifice of empire and slavery.

A stronger element of the same piece, however, is the definition of a “mosaic” — a Movement of Oppressed Sectors Acting In Concert. Each group (women, New Afrikan and Pan-Afrikan peoples, Puerto Ricans, anarchists, Chican@s and Mexicans, Asians, LGBTQ people, etc) “retains its integrity, has its own culture and autonomy, but we are united because we share one economy, one ecology, and one planet. we must work together for our survival and our freedom.” This segues naturally into two final sections, “Modern Maroons” and an extensive bibliography of suggested additional readings of more traditional texts about maroons historically and currently and analyses of the system and of approaches to overturning and replacing it. The book has some of the appeal of “Addicted to War,” but is much more variegated in artistic styles and types of content, including a series of biographies and full page portraits of a large number of exemplars of the maroon spirit the book promotes, such as Haitians Ezili Dantor, Cecile Fatiman and Dutty Boukman, Queen Mother Moore, and the Black Liberation Army. Those introduced to the material thereby will find a wealth additional reading and study, as mentioned, in Saul’s bibliographic “Maroon Library,” (with thanks expressed to Matt Meyer and Richard Price).

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to Quincy Saul's Author Page

The American Sea of Deception

By Paul Street
August 5th, 2018

On the list of presidential liars: Shortly after being told of the 9/11 attacks of 2001, George W. Bush confers with administration members at a Florida school he was visiting. Months later, he would lie to the American people as he sought to justify an invasion of Iraq partly on the basis of the attacks. (The U.S. National Archives)

Paul Street’s column will appear in Truthdig each Sunday through Aug. 12. Its regular schedule will resume when Truthdig columnist Chris Hedges returns from vacation.

Four days ago, The Washington Post reported that the epic pathological liar Donald Trump made 4,229 false statements during his first 558 days as United States president. Trump spoke or tweeted falsely, on average, an astonishing 7.6 times per day during that time.

We have no historical database of presidential untruth on which to rely to make detailed comparisons, but it is certain that Trump’s rate of falsehood is beyond anything ever seen in the White House. Armed with Twitter and a mad and malignantly narcissistic penchant for twisting facts and truth in accord with his own ever-shifting sense of what serves his interests and hurts his perceived foes, this monstrosity is gaslighting the last flickering embers of civic democracy at a velocity that would make Goebbels green with envy.

Keeping up with Trump’s erroneous and duplicitous statements is exhausting work, hazardous to one’s own sanity. Just as depressing as Trump’s serial fabrication and invention is the apparent willingness of tens of millions of ostensibly decent and honest ordinary Americans to tolerate, dismiss or even believe the endless stream of nonsense and bullshit. 

Still, if much of the populace has become inured to presidential lying and misstatement, it’s hardly all the current president’s fault.

Deception and misstatement are “as American as Cherry Pie” (to quote H. Rap Brown on violence)—though here perhaps I should say “as American as George Washington’s childhood cherry tree fable.”

While we’ve never seen anything on Trump’s psychotic scale, the problem of U.S. presidential deception goes way back in American history.

Eager for a back-door pretext to enter the war against German fascism (a good thing in the opinion of many), for example, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt lied to Congress and the American people when he claimed that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was “unprovoked” by the U.S. and a complete “surprise” to the U.S. military.

President Dwight Eisenhower flatly lied to the American people and the world when he denied the existence of American U-2 spy plane flights over Russia.

President John F. Kennedy lied about the supposed missile gap between the United States and the Soviet Union. And Kennedy lied when he claimed that the United States sought democracy in Latin America, Southeast Asia and around the world.

President Lyndon Johnson lied on Aug. 4, 1965, when he claimed that North Vietnam attacked U.S. Navy destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. This provided a false pretext for a massive escalation of the U.S. war on Vietnam, resulting in the deaths of more than 50,000 U.S. military personnel and millions of Southeast Asians.

Regarding Vietnam, Daniel Ellsberg recalled 17 years ago that his 1971 release of the Pentagon Papers exposed U.S. military and intelligence documents “proving that the government had long lied to the country. Indeed, the papers revealed a policy of concealment and quite deliberate deception from the Truman administration onward. … A generation of presidents,” Ellsberg noted, “chose to conceal from Congress and the public what the real policy was. …”

President Richard Nixon lied about wanting peace in Vietnam (his agent, Henry Kissinger, actively undermined a peace accord with Hanoi before the 1968 election) and about respecting the neutrality of Cambodia. He lied through secrecy and omission about the criminal and fateful U.S. bombing of Cambodia—a far bigger crime than the burglarizing of the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate complex, about which he of course famously lied.

The serial fabricator Ronald Reagan made a special address to the nation in which he lied by saying, “We did not—repeat—we did not trade weapons or anything else [to Iran] for hostages, nor will we.”

President George H.W. Bush falsely claimed on at least five occasions in the run-up to the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War that Iraqi forces, after invading Kuwait, had pulled babies from incubators and left them to die.

President Bill Clinton shamelessly lied about his White House sexual shenanigans with Monica Lewinsky. He falsely claimed to be upholding international law and to be opposing genocide when he bombed Serbia for more than two months in early 1999.

The serial liar George W. Bush and his administration infamously, openly and elaborately lied about Saddam Hussein’s alleged Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” and about Iraq’s purported links to al Qaida and the 9/11 jetliner attacks. After the WMD fabrication was exposed, Bush falsely claimed to have invaded Iraq to spread liberty and democracy.

Bill Clinton (subject of a useful Christopher Hitchens book titled “No One Left to Lie To”) and Barack Obama were both silver-tongued corporate-neoliberal Wall Street and Pentagon Democrats who falsely claimed to be progressive friends of working people and the poor. President Obama lied repeatedly, as when he falsely claimed that he would have his Department of Justice investigate and prosecute abusive lenders for cheating and defrauding ordinary homeowners. Obama misrepresented the facts badly when he repeatedly claimed (in what PolitiFact determined to be “The Lie of the Year” in 2013) that, under his Affordable Care Act, “If Americans like their doctor, they will keep their doctor. And if you like your insurance plan, you will keep it.”

In a grotesque lie early in his presidency, Obama’s White House claimed that the carnage caused by its bombing of the Afghan village of Bola Boluk (where dozens of children were blown to pieces by U.S. ordnance) had really been inflicted by “Taliban grenades.”

But presidential lies are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to an American political, media, intellectual and educational culture that has long been drenched in a vast sea of fable, deception, ideological selection and flat-out propagandistic falsification. The biggest and most relevant lies of our time don’t just issue from the mouths, press releases and now, sadly, Twitter feeds of presidents. They are major historical and societal myths and grand narratives of broad falsehood widely shared across the major party spectrum by “responsible” and “respectable” authorities in politics, business, education, literature, religion, media and public affairs.

I recently asked a dozen or so online associates and friends for their top five nominations under the category of the Big Lies of Our Time in the United States. We came up with fully 50 great national fairy tales and untruths (one for each U.S. state). Here are my nominations for the Top 10 Big National Lies:

 1. We live in a democracy. This core myth cries out for demolition with special urgency at present thanks to constant media and political class repetition of the claim that Russia “undermined our democracy” during the 2016 presidential election. I have written at length against this claim so many times that it has become difficult to do so again without excessive self-repetition. Here are just three among a large number of reports and commentaries in which I have carefully explained why the U.S. is a corporate and imperial plutocracy and even an oligarchy, not a democracy:

“Time Is Running Out: Who Will Protect Our Wrecked Democracy From the American Oligarchy?” CounterPunch, March 21, 2018

American Money, Not Russia, Put Trump in the White House: Reflections on a Recent Report,” CounterPunch, March 30, 2018

Who Will Protect U.S. Election Integrity From American Oligarchs?” Truthdig, April 18, 2018

Putin’s War on America Is Nothing Compared With America’s War on Democracy,” Truthdig, July 22, 2018

Also see my book “They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy” (2014).

 2. Capitalism is about democracy. No, it isn’t—and one need not be an anti-capitalist “radical” like myself to know better. My old copy of Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary defines capitalism as “the economic system in which all or most of the means of production and distribution … are privately owned and operated for profit, originally under fully competitive conditions: it has been generally characterized by a tendency toward concentration of wealth and, [in] its latter phase, by the growth of great corporations, increased government controls, etc.”

There’s nothing—nada, zero, zip—about popular self-rule (democracy) in that definition. And there shouldn’t be. “Democracy and capitalism have very different beliefs about the proper distribution of power,” liberal economist Lester Thurow noted in the mid-1990s: “One [democracy] believes in a completely equal distribution of political power, ‘one man, one vote,’ while the other [capitalism] believes that it is the duty of the economically fit to drive the unfit out of business and into extinction. … To put it in its starkest form, capitalism is perfectly compatible with slavery. Democracy is not.” More than being compatible with slavery and incompatible with democracy, U.S. capitalism arose largely on the basis of black slavery in the cotton-growing states (as historian Edward Baptist has shown in his prize-winning study “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism”) and is, in fact, quite militantly opposed to democracy.

“We must make our choice,” onetime Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis is reputed to have said or written: “We may have democracy in this country, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.” This statement was unintentionally but fundamentally anti-capitalist. Consistent with the dictionary definition presented above, the brilliant French economist Thomas Piketty has shown that capitalism has always been inexorably pulled toward the concentration of wealth into ever fewer hands.

 3. Capitalism is about the free market. Nope, it’s about the rich seizing control of the state and using it to make themselves richer and to thereby—since wealth is power and pull—deepen their grip on politics and policy. The profits system is so dependent on, and enmeshed with, governmental protection, subsidy and giveaways that one might even question the accuracy of calling it capitalism. (For elaboration, please see my recent Truthdig essay “Our ‘Rentier Capitalism’ Is One More Nail in Earth’s Coffin”). It is at the very least state capitalism, and always has been. A truly “free market,” that is fully laissez-faire capitalism, has never actually existed. At the same time, state-capitalist market forces in all forms, including their most government-free ones, have always brought widely different levels of freedom and un-freedom (including even literal slavery) for people depending on what class they belong to and how many resources they bring to influence and profit from market processes.

4. Big business and its political agents are freedom-loving libertarians who hate “big government.” False. They only hate big government that’s not under their control and doesn’t serve their interests. The contemporary capitalist elite and its many agents and servants hate only what the left French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “the left hand of the state”—the parts of the public sector that serve the social and democratic needs of the non-affluent majority. They want to starve and crush those branches of government that reflect past popular victories in struggles for social justice and democracy. But the portions of the state that serve the opulent minority and dole out punishment for the poor are not the subject of their ire. The regressive and repressive “right hand of the state,” comprising the big sections of “big government” that distribute wealth upward and attack those who resist empire and inequality, is not its enemy. It grows in accordance with the slashing of left-handed social protections, as the increased insecurity that results drives ever more disadvantaged people into the clutches of the military and the criminal injustice system.

5. The United States is a great land of liberty. Really? It depends on what part of the class-race structure you inhabit. With a massive and highly militarized police and prosecutorial state that has used the so-called war on drugs and related cooked crime crazes as pretexts for racially hyper-disparate mass arrest and imprisonment, the U.S. is home to the highest rate of mass incarceration in the world (and in world history). Social movements are regularly infiltrated, surveilled and crushed by the high-tech U.S. police state.

Hundreds of millions of U.S. citizens depend on employers not just for their incomes but also for their and their families’ health insurance, something that militates strongly against their willingness to speak freely within or beyond the workplace.

Americans suffer the longest working hours in the “developed” (rich nation) world; they spend inordinate and crippling amounts of time under the despotic supervision of bosses and lack the time and energy and information to participate meaningfully in the nation’s supposed “democracy.”

Freedom to do what one wants with one’s life depends on the possession of money and wealth, which is more unevenly distributed and harshly concentrated in the U.S. than in any other wealthy capitalist nation. Liberty is certainly enjoyed in great proportions by the top 10th of the upper U.S. 1 percent, which owns as much wealth as the nation’s bottom 90 percent. Liberty is far less prevalent among the 57 percent of Americans who, as CNBC reported last fall, have less than $1,000 in savings; 39 percent have no savings at all. Last January, the same network reported that more than a third (36 percent) of Americans would have to go into debt to pay for a major unexpected expense like a trip to the hospital or a car repair.

Wall Street chieftains who threw millions of Americans out of work and destroyed billions of dollars in savings through their reckless and often criminal practices have escaped prosecution while the nation’s jails and prisons are loaded with disproportionately black, Latino and poor people serving long terms for comparative small-time drug offenses. In a report titled “The Price of Justice,” The Nation reported last year that “roughly 500,000 people are in jails across the country simply because they are poor”—that is, because they can’t make bail payments or pay fines and/or court fees.

In the words of the title of one report on the poverty and bail jail problem, “Freedom Isn’t Free.”

 6. The United States is a great monument to classlessness. No, it isn’t. The U.S. is a great monument to savage class inequality, marked by an extreme concentration of wealth in ever fewer hands (Louis Brandeis’ death knell for democracy) and the lowest rates of upward mobility from the lower and working classes into the middle and upper classes in the “advanced” world. Three absurdly wealthy Americans (Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates) now possess among them as much wealth as the poorest half of the United States. As one of those three, Buffett, noted 12 years ago: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” As wealth and income congeal ever upward in New Gilded Age America, even the professional middle class now experiences ubiquitous “precariousness,” lost security and status, and downward mobility. As the cultural theorist Lynn Parramore writes in a recent review of journalist Alissa Quart’s new book, “Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America”:

Today, with their incomes flat or falling, [young middle-class] Americans scramble to maintain a semblance of what their parents enjoyed. They are moving from being dominant to being dominated. From acting to acted upon. Trained to be educators, lawyers, librarians, and accountants, they do work they can’t stand to support families they rarely see. … Their new reality: You will not do as well as your parents. Life is a struggle to keep up. Even if you achieve something, you will live in fear of losing it. America is not your land: it belongs to the ultra-rich. …

They are somebodies turning into nobodies … the Chicago adjunct professor with the disabled child who makes less than $24,000 a year; and the California business reporter who once focused on the financial hardships of others and now faces unemployment herself. … Uber-driving teachers and law school grads reviewing documents for $20 an hour—or less. Ivy Leaguers who live on food stamps. … Their labor has sputtered into sporadic contingency: they make do with short-term contracts or shift work. … Once upon a time, only the working poor took second jobs to stay afloat. Now the Middle Precariat has joined them. … Deep down, they know that they probably can’t pass down the cultural and social class they once took for granted.

It sounds like something out of, well, Marx.

 7. Hard work and individual brilliance is the key to individual wealth, and the lack of such work and brains is the source of individual poverty. Nonsense. In the U.S. as across the capitalist world, private oligarchic fortunes rest on the parasitic collection of multiple forms of rent obtained through the ownership of multiple forms of inherited property and the wildly inordinate influence that the wealthy Few exercise over the oxymoronically named “capitalist democracies.” The preponderant majority of the wealth “earned” (appropriated) by the ever more obscenely opulent is produced by countless less privileged others and by a set of societal and institutional arrangements designed to serve those fortunate enough to be born into affluence. (See the brilliant left geographer Richard A. Walker’s masterful discussion of the real source of Silicon Valley’s spectacular profits in his recent book “Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area.”) Millions of Americans work absurdly long, smart and hard hours for an ever-shrinking share of total income and wealth and face economic precarity for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with their own personal effort and smarts. Rising labor productivity has not remotely been matched by rising wages or benefits in a globalized labor market structured by and for the employer class.....


Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to Richard Walker's Author Page

The Sixties: The Political and the Personal

By Ron Jacob
August 3rd, 2018

On August 7th, 1970 Jonathan Jackson took out a couple guns in the Marin County Courthouse and attempted to free members of the Soledad Brothers (revolutionary prisoners falsely accused of killing a prison guard) who were on trial in the courtroom. The defendants joined Jackson in taking the judge and others hostage, commandeering a prison van. When they tried to leave the courthouse, they were gunned down in a hail of bullets. A little more than a year later, Jonathan’s older brother, author and Black Panther George Jackson was murdered by guards in the yard at San Quentin prison, not far from where his brother was killed the year before. These two events provide a vivid glimpse at the nature of the revolutionary movement in the United States at the time. The groundswell of support for the Jacksons and those accused of helping them proves the breadth of that movement.

The attempt to free George Jackson in August 1970 occurred during a six month period in the US that began with the US military invasion of Cambodia on April 30, 1970. Those six months were a time when, according to author George Katsiaficas in his book The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968 was closer to revolution than at any other time in modern history. Katsiaficas’ text, recently revised and republished in 2018, is not a conventional leftist analysis of the period. Nor is it a liberal or conservative take.

Instead, Katsiaficas presents his idea of a phenomenon he calls the “eros effect.” Put succinctly, this phenomenon (and here I borrow Katsiaficas words)

“the eros effect refers to the transcendental qualities of social movements, to what occurs in moments of suddenly popular social upheavals which dramatically transform established social orders. As I will discuss, the eros effect occurs in moments when the basic assumptions of a society–patriotic nationalism and the authority of the government; hierarchy, the division of labor, and specialization–vanish overnight. During moments of the eros effect, popular movements not only imagine a new way of life and a different social reality but millions of people live according to transformed norms, values, and beliefs.”

In other words, when the existing social order is ruptured from top to bottom, allowing and forcing those in the society to reconsider and reformat their lives both socially and individually. Like Immanuel Wallerstein’s writing on anti-systemic movements, Katsiaficas remarks that these periods, best represented by the historical events of 1848, 1905 and 1968, differ from years when revolutionary movements took power (1776 in the Americas, 1789 in France and 1917 in Russia) in that, despite their political failure, such moments fundamentally changed the way humans perceived their relationship to authorities of all types. Family, religion, education, governments and culture are all turned upside down, examined, and even rejected. Unfortunately, the forces of reaction—those invested in maintaining power and as much of the previous order as possible—have usually come out on the top after these historical moments.

The year 1968 is both a reality and a metaphor in the book. In fact, as noted above, Katsiaficas considers 1970 to be the most revolutionary year in the United States. In other words, 1970 was the US’s 1968. It is when leftist social movements of all kinds came together officially and otherwise in a massive struggle against war, against racism and sexism, and in favor of national liberation, sexual liberation and cultural freedom. The social order was ruptured across numerous fault lines; a situation that provoked violent reaction for the authorities while simultaneously loosening cultural and other bonds that were previously considered part of everyday life.

Much of The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968 is taken up with descriptions of protests around the world. Foremost among those descriptions are the 1968 insurrection in France and the wave of revolutionary protests in the US after the April 30th invasion of Cambodia. However, equally interesting are the summaries of protests and revolts in each world region during the period. The chapter detailing these events provides the reader with a panoramic vision of the sense of revolution that was in the air. Katsiaficas creates a fast-paced, almost cinematic history of the period from 1968-1971. In the telling, he injects an analysis that reflects his experience in the streets and meeting places. It is an analysis that dogmatists might find problematic but is consistent with the leftist syndicalist take one finds in his other works.

Where George Katsiaficas’ text is a sweeping history of the period defined by the year 1968, Elaine Mokhtefi’s memoir titled Algiers, Third World Capital: Black Panthers, Freedom Fighters, Revolutionaries, is a specific story from the period. Mokhtefi was a youth peace activist in the years following the Second World War. Her position was not nearly as popular in those years as antiwar activism would become in the 1960s. After moving to France in 1951, Mokhtefi served as a translator for liberation movements and the United Nations, among others. In 1960, she became a member of the Algerian National Liberation Front at their UN office. One of the few women in that part of the organization, she ultimately became a member of the victorious revolutionary government. Her work included writing for various journals and newspapers published by the government and continuing to serve as a translator.

The story she tells in her book is one of intrigue, political and otherwise. It is also about a revolution trying to create a government equal to its ideals in the face of very powerful enemies. Mokhtefi writes as a believer in the revolution, but does not hesitate to critique some of the twists and turns it took over the years she was part of the government. Her work and travels allowed her to meet and even get to know individuals like Simone de Beauvoir, Frantz Fanon, Jomo Kenyatta and Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver.

It was when Cleaver sought asylum in Algeria after the Oakland police killed Bobby Hutton and wounded Cleaver that Mokhtefi began working with him. Her descriptions of the Panthers, their thoughts an actions while in Algeria are told in a matter-of-fact manner. She briefly discusses Timothy Leary’s stay at the Panther compound, ultimately dismissing Leary as an aging hipster and glad to see him leave. It is her discussion of how the COINTELPRO engineered split in the Black Panther party was perceived in Algeria that is considerably more interesting. Although she acknowledges that her perception was colored by her friendship with Cleaver and her unfamiliarity with politics in the United States at the time, she seems to agree with Katsiaficas that Huey Newton perceived what was Cleaver’s attempt to maintain the revolutionary edge of the Panthers as an attempt by Cleaver to wrest command of the party from Newton. Mokhtefi and Katsiaficas, are in agreement that this perception was incorrect on Newton’s part.

Regarding Katsiaficas on the topic, he covers the split briefly, arguing that Newton’s perception that Cleaver was trying to overthrow Newton was a misreading of Cleaver’s intentions. Instead, he writes that C’leaver wanted to maintain and expand the Panthers revolutionary role, not diminish it. Katsiaficas’ description of the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in Fall of 1970 seems to prove his point that Cleaver’s intent was also the will of most of the Panthers at the time. For reasons we may never know, Newton quashed any hope of such a program within three months of the agreements reached in Philadelphia.

As the world moves deeper into the twenty-first century, uncertain of what the future holds while fascists and capitalists both conspire and battle among themselves as to how best achieve maximum control, books like these two become ever more important. They provide analysis and memory of a period when hope was not just another empty word muttered by politicians; when the idea of a world guided by ideas of justice and community was not some kind of fairy tale or hippie fantasy. They also point out the unfortunate results of those moments when battles for power conspire accidentally and otherwise with the forces of repression, thereby forsaking the principles of a revolution.

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to George Katsiaficas 's Author Page

Radical groups, other activists plan counter protest for 'Unite the Right 2' rally on Aug 12 in D.C.

By Caroline Simon
USA Today
August 1st, 2018

When white nationalist groups clashed with left-wing counterprotesters last August in Charlottesville, Virginia, one woman died and several more people were injured.

This August, similarly opposed groups will converge on Washington, D.C. 

Far-left activists, including anarchists, anti-fascists (known commonly as antifa) and Black Lives Matter groups are planning a major counterdemonstration on Aug. 12 that will coincide with "Unite the Right 2," a "white civil rights" rally in Lafayette Square marking one year since the events in Charlottesville

“All of their rallies are resistance to our progress. They are not simply debates," said Makia Green, an organizer with Black Lives Matter D.C., who criticized the notion that white nationalists simply want to demonstrate their First Amendment rights. "White supremacist rallies have left a trail of blood in D.C."

Many of the activists believe extreme action is necessary to confront the white nationalist movement. Some anti-fascists, in particular, are willing to engage physically with white nationalists. 

"The rise of white nationalism and racism has reared its ugly head in ways i haven’t seen in 30 years," said Scott Crow, an author, spokesman for Agency, an anarchist media collective, and former anti-fascist organizer. "Anarchists are willing to take steps that other people aren't."

The counterprotest brings together a variety of groups and people who deeply oppose the ideals espoused last year in Charlottesville. Jen Deerinwater, who plans to protest on Aug. 12, is the executive director and founder of Crushing Colonialism, an indigenous media organization, and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

"Indigenous people have been suffering the longest," she said. “We are never going to eradicate white supremacy if we don’t eradicate colonialism."

The counterprotest will center on a rally in Freedom Plaza, blocks away from the white nationalist rally in Lafayette Square. But it's only one part of a weekend of events dubbed Shut it Down D.C.

The weekend begins with an event Aug. 10, two days before the rally, to prepare activists for confrontations with white nationalists and any possible violence. Counterprotesters say they aren't planning to work with police.

“Police are here to protect white supremacists, to protect the murderers, to protect the fascists," Green said, adding that the Aug. 10 training session will teach marshaling and de-escalation tactics so the groups can protect themselves.

The groups' refusal to work with police, in some cases, stems from a broader disapproval of government.

"The purpose is, of course, to stop the far right, but it's also to promote a kind of radical politics of the left, of direct action," said Mark Bray, a historian who has written a book about anti-fascist movements. "Part of the idea is that the police are often sympathetic to the far right or disinterested in protecting people from the far right."

Such rallies present a challenge to police because they must balance security needs with respect for people's individual rights,  said Tod Burke, a retired criminal justice professor and former Maryland police officer.

"That’s going to be the fine line that law enforcement is going to face," Burke said, noting that he expects police to protect counterprotesters even if they plan to not cooperate with law enforcement. "Do you go out there with the military image and put up a front right from the start, or do you try to de-escalate?"

Green said she expects 500 to 600 people at the Aug. 12 counterdemonstration, which is scheduled for noon to 3 p.m in Freedom Plaza, blocks away from Lafayette Square. They'll also be at the white nationalists' rally itself, which is scheduled to start at 5:30 p.m after a parade to the White House at 5 p.m. 

"Our goals are to defend D.C.," she said. "D.C. is not just the alt-right's political playground."

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to scott crow's Author Page

Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here in European Journal of The English Studies

By Katharina Motyl & Mahmoud Arghavan
European Journal of English Studies
July 16th, 2018

Shortly after the US-led invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003, the Iraqi National Library was burnt to the ground, and some fifteen thousand artefacts were looted from the National Museum of Iraq, which housed cultural treasures from the Mesopotamian, Babylonian and Persian civilisations. In the spring of 2004, the public learned that US military personnel had subjected Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison to (sexual forms of) torture and captured their humiliation in photographs. While the Abu Ghraib torture scandal made headlines in Western media for weeks, the perished Iraqi cultural treasures received far less of a media echo.

In contrast to the Western media’s selective coverage, Iraqi/Arab writers such as Philip Metres, Dunya Mikhail and Sinan Antoon are as much concerned about the destruction of Iraq’s cultural heritage as they are about the US’s violation of Iraqi bodies. In fact, their literary responses to the so-called ‘War on Terror’ understand these events as representing two sides of the same coin. They posit that the US’s establishment of its imperial presence in Iraq did more than destroy Iraqi biological life through warfare, and reduce some surviving Iraqis to the condition of bare life, that is, of ‘life exposed to death’ (Agamben, 1998: 88), through torture and abuse. Many Iraqi/Arab writers indeed perceive the destruction wrought upon Iraqi culture as particularly traumatic. Inaugurated by the US invasion, the ensuing destabi- lisation of the region has further exacerbated this situation, as evidenced by ISIS’s destruction of ancient artefacts in Mosul museum. It is not that these writers value an Assyrian vase or a rare manuscript more than a human life. Rather, they are aware that these artefacts con- stituted precious reservoirs of Iraqi self-representation and resistance. They further stress that throughout Iraq’s troubled history literature and the arts have provided the Iraqi pop- ulation with the strength and respite necessary to pull through. Yet, the Iraqi writers’ very act of continuing to write post-2003, as this essay argues, constitutes a performative survival of neocolonial necropolitics.

As will become clear in our readings, Iraqi/Arab writers portray the US invasion and occu- pation as an all-encompassing attack on Iraqi life. In line with Giorgio Agamben’s distinction between zoe (biological life) and bios (social life),1 the literary texts discussed in this essay insist that the ‘War on Terror’ has not only entailed an assault on Iraqi biological life but has signi cantly impaired Iraqi social life by destroying or failing to protect Iraq’s cultural herit- age.2 Complementing Agamben, we build upon Achille Mbembe’s work on the e ects of European colonialism on the African continent to characterise the only remaining global superpower’s onslaught on Iraqi life as neocolonial necropolitics. By employing ‘shock and awe’ tactics, the US government aimed at a ‘maximum destruction of [Iraqi] persons’ (Mbembe, 2003: 40), and subjected surviving Iraqis to ‘conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead’ (40, emphasis in original).

All texts under consideration in this essay re ect on the role literature can, or should, assume in view of the devastation caused by the ‘War on Terror’, thus grappling with the age-old dilemma of how to produce art in the face of man-made destruction, which Theodor Adorno so poignantly captures in his statement ‘Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’ (1977: 30, our translation). We begin with a discussion of Philip Metres’3 abu ghraib arias. This experimental long poem deploys various visual strategies to perform the sense of unmaking that US military personnel created in Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison by subjecting them to torture in an attempt to inscribe the US’s imperial presence into the bodies of ‘natives’ who had opposed it.

Metres’ poem highlights literature’s function to bear witness, as it gives voice to the torture victims whose su ering was silenced in the o cial investigation of the scandal or was repressed owing to its traumatic nature. In the subsequent section, we discuss select responses to the car bomb that devastated Baghdad’s al-Mutanabbi Street, the heart of Iraq’s literary and intellectual life, in March 2007. In particular, we draw attention to Dunya Mikhail’s poem ‘A half-burned page on al-Mutanabbi Street’, which ruminates on the value of writing in contexts where literature is targeted for its cultural pre-eminence as repository of knowledge or spiritual guide. By quoting from an Andalusian poet whose works survived the reconquista, Mikhail’s poem highlights the longevity of the ideas transmitted in, and the aesthetic e ects of, literature.

We follow this with a discussion of Sinan Antoon’s novel The Corpse Washer, which represents the destruction of Iraqi cultural life as an indirect conse- quence of the US invasion. The ubiquity of death in post-2003 Iraq forces Antoon’s protagonist to abandon his dream of becoming a professional sculptor and to follow in his father’s footsteps as a corpse washer.

Bearing witness to bare life: Philip Metres’ abu ghraib arias

In his long poem abu ghraib arias ( rst published in 2012), Philip Metres juxtaposes fragments from testimonies of Abu Ghraib torture victims, interviews with US soldiers on duty at Abu Ghraib prison, a Standard Operating Procedure manual for one of the detention camps at Guantánamo, the Bible and the Code of Hammurabi,4 thereby creating new webs of meaning.

The resultant textual collage, we wish to suggest, constitutes ‘ aring-up’ of truth, as Metres’ poem gives shape to that which was silenced in the course of the investigation of the torture scandal or could not be spoken, since torture victims often repress their traumatic experi- ence. Metres, in other words, visualises the unheard, thus bearing witness to the reduction of Iraqi civilians to bare life at Abu Ghraib prison, and to the second injury constituted by the silencing of the victims’ voices on the part of the US government, which redacted investi- gation reports, ostensibly for reasons of national security (Danner, 2004; McKelvey, 2007).

The most striking aspect of abu ghraib arias is the poem’s visuality. The poem is charac- terised by fragmentation; in particular, those sections that are focalised by the torture victims appear as torn pieces scattered on the page, an e ect achieved by the heavy use of omission.5 It stands to reason that the resultant blank spaces represent memory gaps; to be more speci c, victims of trauma commonly experience ‘amnesia for the speci cs of traumatic experiences but not the feelings associated with them’(van der Kolk and van der Hart, 1995: 172). The textual fragments in abu ghraib arias can thus be read as a combination of memory shreds and ‘ arings-up’ from the unconscious of the individual torture victim.6 Moreover, the device of fragmentation visually performs the sense of unmaking, that is, a sense of unravelled subjectivity and an erosion of trust in the human bond, which Elaine Scarry (1985) has identified as the key effect of torture.

Besides omission, the poem’s visual strategies include the use of cursive font, fading (grey) print and blackened passages. The cursive font is deciphered easily: it generally identi es passages taken from the Bible or the Code of Hammurabi. The blackened passages conjure up the notion of censorship, inviting the reader to contemplate what information was sup- pressed, redacted or destroyed once the events at Abu Ghraib prison became public knowl- edge and investigations began. The poem oscillates between the completely white and the completely black page, with the white spaces representing torture victims’ memory gaps caused by trauma and the black spaces representing the government’s attempt to withhold information relating to torture at Abu Ghraib. Thus the poetic fragments in abu ghraib arias constitute ‘ arings-up’ of the truth not in the sense of empirical veri ability, but in the sense of torture victims’ (self-)embodied truth.

The poem’s title, abu ghraib arias, simultaneously evokes the highbrow realm of opera, which is often regarded as the highest artistic achievement of Western civilisation, and the menial business of torture, which involves laying one’s hands on somebody and making them scream, bleed, excrete. By improbably conjoining these two notions in the poem’s title, Metres seems to suggest that civilisation and torture are in some way bound to one another, reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s observation that ‘[t]here is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism’ (1940: 7).

In Torture and the Twilight of Empire, a comparative analysis of France’s use of torture in Algeria and the US’s use of torture in Iraq, Marnia Lazreg argues that torture is a strategy imperial powers deploy when their legitimacy has come under attack; rather than being an ‘epiphenomenon of ... war’, as is often claimed, torture is used systematically to instil terror in the native population so as ‘to forestall the collapse of the empire’ (2008: 3). The following excerpt from abu ghraib arias, entitled (echo/ex/), emphasises two interrelated characteristics of the US’s use of torture at Abu Ghraib prison: rst, detainees were subjected to sexual torture, and second, civilians, including women and children, constituted the majority of detainees at the overcrowded Abu Ghraib prison.

(echo /ex/)
i saw ████ fucking a kid Behold
now i am
what i saw naked and
saw ██████████████████████████████████
the cell
on the other side
for god’s help ████████ in his ass
lift up his eyes
cu ed together
all the doors with sheets
I will go down now
sheets again on the doors the phosphoric light
dust and ash
standing under without me seeing
i was there
(Metres, 2015: 22; reproduced with kind permission of alice James Books))

According to Lazreg, the types of torture imperial powers perpetrate typically have a ‘sexual core’ (2008: 1). Most commonly, the torture victim is forced to participate in sexual acts against their will with the aim of breaking their spirit.7 This section from abu ghraib arias references the rape of a minor (‘I saw ████ fucking a kid’) and sodomisation with objects (‘the phosphoric light ... for God’s help ... in his ass’). The passage ‘Now I am ... what I saw ... naked and tied’ suggests that what this Iraqi experienced at Abu Ghraib – being subjected to sexual torture, and realising the malice of which humans are capable – was so disturbing that it changed their personality: the person still behaves as though they were reduced to bare life (‘naked’) and their spirit is permanently constrained (‘tied’). The passage ‘I was there ... without me seeing’ alludes to the hoods US military personnel often placed over detainees’ heads while subjecting them to torture, as well as to the erosion of the senses that torture victims commonly experience.

The prevalence of sexual types of torture at Abu Ghraib could be attributed to the fact that the Bush administration, the CIA and army generals believed that Arabs were particularly vulnerable to sexual humiliation. This ‘insight’ is one of the central theses of Rafael Patai’s Orientalist treatise The Arab Mind of 1973, which ‘is probably the single most popular and widely read book on ... Arabs in the US military’, according to a professor at a US military college (qtd in Whitaker, 2004: n.p.). Albrecht Koschorke argues that Arabs, who are presumed to consider sexuality a deeply private matter and to view the West as sexually depraved, were subjected to sexual tortures to show them their own animality. He sums up the American logic thus: ‘You Arabs may act bashful and religiously devout, but we’re bringing your perversity to light, and even your own bodies belie you’ (2005: 13, our translation). The photographs documenting the sexual torture of detainees, in Koschorke’s reading, were taken to produce indelible proof of that animality. Another purpose of taking these photo- graphs seems to have been ‘to blackmail those depicted with the threat that their families would see their humiliation and ... sexual shame’ (Butler, 2009: 89).

Metres’ excerpt also underlines that children were sexually abused at Abu Ghraib prison, raising the question as to why children were among the detainees, in the rst place. Faced with an increasing insurgency in the summer of 2003, US military started marching into Iraqi towns, detaining whomever they could nd in the hope of procuring information on the insurgency. As the Schlesinger Report mentions, US soldiers ‘reverted to rounding up any and all suspicious-looking persons all too often including women and children’ (qtd in Danner, 2004: 348). Moreover, photographs depicting abuse of female detainees exist; they were among the images whistle-blower Joe Darby turned over to an army investigator. According to human rights expert Steven H. Miles, who studied the government documents relating to the Abu Ghraib scandal, the sections detailing the abuse of female detainees were heavily redacted. Miles believes that the Bush administration suppressed information about the deaths of a woman and a child at Abu Ghraib prison because these deaths expose as propaganda the representation of Abu Ghraib detainees as al-Qaeda combatants:‘There’s been a move to depict the prisoners as al-Qaeda ... and it’s hard to do that if you’re talking about women and kids’ (qtd in McKelvey, 2007: 197). The fact that US soldiers raped, tortured and possibly killed Iraqi women most categorically debunks the Bush administration’s claim that freeing local women from oppression was one of the key incentives for invading Afghanistan and Iraq.

In sum, by lending voice to the Iraqi torture victims, Metres’ abu ghraib arias not only demysti es the US’s grand narrative of counterterrorism, but also ful ls a crucial literary function: bearing witness to those whose su ering went unheard. First, on the historic-factual level, the text raises awareness of the internment and torture of civilians at Abu Ghraib prison. Thus, the poem lifts the veil on actions that the Bush administration had classi ed as sus- tained counterterrorism e orts, and enables the reader to re ect upon the violence and dehumanisation that Operation Iraqi Freedom entailed, although it had allegedly been launched to bring freedom and democracy to Iraqis. Second, on the aesthetic level, abu ghraib arias solves the artist’s perennial dilemma of representing the unspeakable by deploy- ing visual strategies to approximate the unheard experiences of those Iraqis tortured at Abu Ghraib prison. This mixing of sensory registers performs the sense of unmaking to which the Iraqi torture victims were subjected, as does the text’s extreme degree of fragmentation.

‘they’ve assassinated history and knowledge’: Literary responses to the destruction of Iraqi cultural life

The devastation of Baghdad’s al-Mutanabbi Street by a car bomb on 5 March 2007 has been the subject of numerous pieces of poetry, short ction and non- ction. The explosion – a result of the factional strife that ensued after the US invasion – killed at least 26 people and destroyed most of the titles on o er by the various booksellers, including rare manuscripts (see Shahid, 2007). The attack was perceived as a crushing blow not only by Iraq’s intelligent- sia, but also by literati and scholars around the globe, some of whom organised projects in solidarity. One such project was realised by Oakland-based poets Beau Beausoleil and Deema Shehabi (2012), who convened and edited a volume entitled Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here: Poets and Writers Respond to the March 5, 2007, Bombing of Baghdad’s ‘Street of the Booksellers’.

In her essay‘Al-Mutanabbi Street’, Iraqi journalist Raya Asee recalls her reaction when rst learning of the attack: ‘they’ve assassinated history and knowledge, this time, not just people’ (2012: 126). Asee is not the only Iraqi writer who likens the devastation of the ‘Street of the Booksellers’ to the attack on Baghdad waged by Mongol leader Hulago in 1258 CE, which, according to folklore, was so violent and destroyed so many books that the Tigris rst turned red from the blood, and then black from the ink: ‘Has Hulago ... come back? Will the river turn the colour of ink again – like it did when they threw all our books and all the treasures of our history in the water!?’ (125).

From the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century CE, through colonisation by the Ottoman Empire and later the British Empire, through the establishment of the Ba’athist dictatorship in the 1970s, to the draconian UN sanctions imposed after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, the population of what is modern-day Iraq has frequently experienced violence, hardship and domination by foreign powers. Reading, writing and discussing lit- erature in the cafés on al-Mutanabbi Street provided refuge from these experiences as well as common ground for persons with diverging political ideologies: ‘I stand in the ruins of the Shabandar, the only remaining literary café in Baghdad. ... Where did all the poets, writers, journalists, retired people, liberals, Communists and even Ba’athists go? ... During sanctions, this street was our survival’ (126). In this passage, Asee highlights that there are instances in which cultural and spiritual nourishment (as provided by social life) may, in fact, secure physical survival (i.e. the continuation of biological life).

Some Iraqi writers identify the destruction of Iraqi culture and knowledge, which consti- tute sources of Iraqi self-representation and resistance, as the US occupation’s profoundest consequence. In her poem ‘The Murderer’, which was originally penned in Arabic, Bushra al-Bustani, a professor of Arabic and poet residing in Mosul, writes:

The Professor lies on the roadside.
No one dares approach her.
Her lecture planted questions in students’ eyes and persistence in their souls.
The American killed her because she said to him:
‘You won’t replace our bread with your McDonald’s,
Nor our knowledge with your post-modernism.’
(al-Bustani, 2012: 158)

This passage not only highlights that the US pro ted economically from the invasion of Iraq, which opened new markets to US products (metonymically represented by an American fast-food giant whose fare, the poet fears, will undermine Iraqi culinary customs). The poem also suggests that the occupying force sought to delegitimise Iraqi ways of knowing. The poem’s imagining a professor – who both allegorically signi es Iraqi learnedness and dis- seminates her awareness of the aforementioned issues to students – as deliberately assas- sinated by Americans, paints the US occupation in a totalitarian light. In pointing to the economic interests behind the occupation and its debasing of local customs, al-Bustani clearly casts the US as an imperial presence, albeit while deploying an unfortunate overgen- eralisation (‘the American’).

Dunya Mikhail’s (2012) poem ‘A half-burned page on al-Mutanabbi Street’8 shares al-Bustani’s concern whether Iraqi knowledge will survive the occupation, but arrives at a decidedly more optimistic conclusion. Mikhail’s poem visually performs books’ and bodies’ having been torn apart and ‘scattered’ (l. 6, 10) by the car bomb. It constitutes a poetological rumination on the value of literature and the legitimacy of reading the world symbolically – that is, for meaning – in light of events which prima facie lend credence to the nihilist philosophical position that life has no meaning. Throughout the poem’s two stanzas, which are written in free verse and feature one word’s separation from the next by large spaces, the speaker poses a series of questions to herself regarding the value of literature in the face of man-made devastation as she beholds a ‘single page from a half-burned book’ (l. 3) that descends through the air, attaching itself to the chest of a woman killed in the bomb attack. The poem ends with an intertextual reference; a quotation (rendered ‘space-less’) from Ibn Hazm al-Andalusi’s poem ‘The Pigeon’s Ru ’,9 which the page on the slain woman’s chest is revealed to display. Thus, the speaker – and by extension, the reader – is ultimately reassured that the ideas expressed in and the aesthetic e ects of literary texts will reverberate and provide guidance for humanity for aeons even if their material manifestations have been destroyed.

A half-burned page on al-Mutanabbi Street

Is this a sign then?
Floating in the air, this single page,
A single page from a half-burned book?
A half-burned book on Mutanabbi Street Mutanabbi Street whose tales were cut short
by a bomb?
A bomb that scattered all those pages?
As if searching desperately for a meaning?
This very page from `The Pigeon’s Ru ’ Flew up and oated down
Between the scattered bodies
To cling to her chest?

Aren’t these the same lines once recited to her?
‘As I come to you, I hurry
Like the full moon crossing the sky And as I leave – if I leave –
I move slowly like the high stars xed in slowness.’
(Mikhail, 2012: 72; reproduced with kind permission of PM Press)

The poem’s enciphered rst line, ‘Is this a sign then?’, only becomes intelligible through the information provided in the rest of the rst stanza, which leaves the reader as puzzled as the speaker when the latter beholds the carnage wreaked by the bomb attack. Through the serial deployment of the stylistic device of anadiplosis, i.e. the repetition of the words from the end of one line at the beginning of the next, the speaker reconstructs the events that led to the half-burned page oating through the air in reverse chronology, thus ren- dering this passage reminiscent of the rewinding of a lm. Since ashbacks to the precipi- tating event are common in trauma victims, this passage suggests that the attack on the heart of Baghdad’s literary and intellectual life has left the speaker in a traumatised state. Asking herself a series of questions – inter alia, whether the oating page’s attaching itself to the chest of the slain woman ‘is a sign then? / ... As if searching desperately for a meaning?’ (l. 1; 7) – the speaker is portrayed as questioning whether literature has any value in the face of the human potential for malice evident in the attack on al-Mutanabbi Street, and, in turn, whether it is useful to read the world, that is, to interpret lived experience for meaning.

While the speaker seems to sympathise with the philosophical position of nihilism in the poem’s rst part, the second stanza eventually suggests that the poem ‘The Pigeon’s Ru ’, which is discernible on the half-burned page that has fallen onto the slain woman, was once quoted to the latter by her lover. Thus, the relationship between literature and humanity is likened to a romantic relationship. The lover (i.e. the speaker in ‘The Pigeon’s Ru ’) in turn, via simile, likens his loyalty by his beloved’s side to the endurance of stars in the night sky: ‘“And as I leave – if I leave – / I move slowly like the high stars / xed in slowness”’ (l. 16–18). Here, by imbuing literature with the characteristics of stars, Mikhail’s poem ultimately posits that, akin to stars that continue to shine for thousands of years after they have burned out, literary texts will remain potent repositories of ideas and continue to provide moral guidance for humanity10 long after their material manifestations (books, for instance) have perished. Mikhail further emphasises this longevity of literature by quoting from Moorish intellectual al-Andalusi’spoem‘ThePigeon’sRu ’,pennedin1022CE,whichwastransmittedtoposterity despite the Christian reconquista of Andalusia.

The ubiquity of death and the impossibility of art: Sinan Antoon’s novel The Corpse Washer
Sinan Antoon’s11 novel The Corpse Washer (2013) addresses various in ections of life and death in occupied Iraq. It relates the story of Jawad, the autodiegetic narrator, who is artis- tically talented and refuses to follow in his father’s professional footsteps as a corpse washer.

Much to the latter’s dismay, Jawad enrols in the Baghdad Academy of Fine Arts, aspiring to become a sculptor. Although Jawad has experienced the Iraq–Iran War (1980–1988) and the Gulf War (1990–1991), losing loved ones in both, and has survived Saddam Hussein’s dicta- torship and the draconian UN sanctions, he is unprepared for the ubiquity of death in the wake of the US invasion. While he is unable to nd a job relevant to his degree in ne arts, his family’s corpse-washing business ourishes. When his father dies, the omnipresence of death forces Jawad to renounce his artistic ambitions in favour of washing and shrouding the dead for a living. After two years, he decides to leave Iraq behind in order to save his sanity and to study art in Europe. However, as Jawad is not allowed to cross the border, he returns to his old life in Baghdad as a corpse washer.

Death plagues the entire story, playing an in uential role in Iraqi people’s lives and shaping the survivors’ destinies. The frequent wars12 in which Iraq has been involved constantly a ict the characters of the novel, biologically, socially and psychologically. For instance, Reem, the protagonist’s ancée and a lecturer at the Academy of Fine Arts, is diagnosed with breast cancer, presumably caused by the US army’s use of depleted uranium during Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s. Ammoury, Jawad’s brother, a talented medical school grad- uate, was killed in the war with Iran just two months before Iran agreed upon a cease re. During the 2003 invasion, Jawad’s father dies of a heart attack while the Americans are shelling the city of Kazemieh.

The battle between life-a rming forces and destructive forces is ever present in the novel. Jawad represents life with all its pains and joys. Death, however, is personi ed as Jawad’s authoritarian, greedy chief who rules over his life day and night. Jawad objects: ‘Death is not content with what it takes from me in my waking hours, it insists on haunting me even in my sleep. Isn’t it enough that I toil all day tending to its eternal guests, preparing them to sleep in its lap?’ (Antoon, 2013: 3). Jawad remembers that before the US occupation and the ensuing civil war, even in the time of the UN embargo, ‘death was timid and more measured’ than today (3).

The young protagonist’s story can be read as an allegory of Iraq’s history. Both Jawad and the Iraqi people are denied the political sovereignty necessary for realising their dreams independent of foreign in uences. The people native to the region of modern-day Iraq, similar to many people residing in formerly colonised countries of the Global South, barely enjoyed the sovereignty to develop their full potential, which, as Mbembe remarks, in ects a ‘society’s capacity for self-creation through recourse to institutions inspired by speci c social and imaginary signi cations’ (2003: 13).

In a broader perspective, the US military occupation synecdochically represents a long history of Iraqis’ subjugation by foreign powers, including the Persian Empire, the Abbasid Caliphate (seventh century to twelfth century CE), Mongol rulers, the Ottoman Empire and the British Empire. The hardships faced by the Iraqi population during the Ba’ath dictatorship (1968–2003) were further exacerbated by the sanctions imposed by the UN after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Despite this long history of subjugation, until the Mongol conquest of Baghdad, Iraq’s capital had been widely regarded as ‘the cradle of civilisation’, whose inhabitants played an important role in preserving ancient knowledge by translating texts from Latin and Greek into Arabic. Today, the scienti c and philosophical resources Iraqis have historically cultivated barely receive the recognition they deserve, let alone the care and protection required for their preservation under an occupying force. As Jawad’s art teacher, Mr Ismael – who becomes another victim of war, having been drafted into military service just before the commencement of the war with Iran in September 1980 –, teaches his students: ‘art was intimately linked with immortality: a challenge to death and time, a celebration of life’ (Antoon, 2013: 31). He goes on to remind his students:

that our ancestors in Mesopotamia were the rst to pose all these questions in their myths and in the epic of Gilgamesh, and that Iraq was the rst and biggest art workshop in the world. In addition to inventing writing and building the rst cities and temples, the rst works of art and statues had appeared in ancient Iraq during the Sumerian era and now ll museums all over the world. Many still remained underground. He said that we all were inheritors of the great treasure of civilisation that enriches our present and future and makes modern Iraqi art so fertile.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Jawad’s familiarity with losses precipitated by political events, the protagonist is fascinated when the sculptor Giacometti’s works are introduced to him at the art academy. He is especially taken with a sculpture entitled ‘Man Walking’ because he feels that ‘the man he sculpted was sad and isolated’ (41). His professor, Isam al-Janabi, con rms Jawad’s impression, stating that ‘many critics say that his works express an existentialist attitude toward the emptiness and meaninglessness of life’ (41). Giacometti’s sculptures embody what bare life might look like: ‘Humans in Giacometti’s world, be they men or women, appeared sad and lonely, with no clear features, emerging from the unknown and striding toward it’ (42).
Mghaysil, the morgue operated by Jawad’s family, where many episodes of the story are set, is an allegory of modern Iraq. The causes of death, re ected in the bodies that are being washed and shrouded, change throughout the story, from natural ones such as stroke or accidental ones such as re before the Iran–Iraq War to exclusively war-related causes after 1980. Antoon portrays the social life in post-2003 Iraq as all but paralysing, eventually prompting Jawad to relinquish his artistic ambitions and follow in his father’s footsteps by becoming a corpse washer. In contrast to the devastating e ects of the US invasion on artistic and intellectual life, any business related to the destruction of Iraqi lives ourished: ‘death is more generous, thanks to the Americans’ (104). In addition, kidnapping, killing or dismem- bering bodies became lucrative careers as people’s lives ‘became a currency that was easy to circulate and liquidate’ (108).

As Jawad re ects:
We’d thought the value of human life had reached rock-bottom under the dictatorship and that it would now rebound, but the opposite happened. Corpses piled up like goals scored by death on behalf of rabid teams in a never-ending game. That is the thought that came to mind when I heard ‘Another car bomb targeted ...’

A series of suicide bomb attacks resulting from the Sunni–Shia factional strife that ensued after the US invasion have not only added more bodies to such ‘corpse piles’, but have e ec- tively normalised death and integrated it into the everyday lives of Iraqis. Antoon once personi es death as a postman who brings letters every day. The likening of human lives to letters is signi cant here because it reminds us that in modernity, as Mbembe states, ‘the subject is the master and the controlling author of his or her own meaning’ (2003: 13). However, under the US occupation, as in any‘state of emergency’scenario, the postman has been authorised to undermine people’s autonomy, penning their letters in their stead. The postman brings ‘the bloodied and torn envelopes’ to Jawad, who would ‘wrap them carefully in white so they may reach their nal readers – the grave’ (Antoon, 2013: 3). Jawad’s exas- perated imaginary dialogue with his dead father underscores how ubiquitous death has become in occupied Iraq: ‘But letters are piling up, Father! Tenfold more than what you used to see in the span of a week now pass before me in a day or two’ (3).

Ultimately, Jawad’s thwarted escape to the Swiss art world and his return to the realm of the dead as a corpse washer are suggestive of his survival of necropolitics as bare life: a liv- ing-dead amongst the dead.

Writing as performing survival of neocolonial necropolitics

As will have become apparent, the texts under consideration in this essay have a poetological component or re ect on the role of art in the face of large-scale death, human su ering and
cultural annihilation. The ‘torn text’ abu ghraib arias constitutes the result of Metres’ grappling with the di culty of imagining and representing the unmaking to which the US empire subjected Iraqis by using torture. Mikhail’s poem contemplates whether writing literature makes a di erence in contexts where death is ubiquitous and literature is deliberately tar- geted. While some Iraqi contributions to Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here highlight the impor- tance of reading and exchanging ideas on Baghdad’s ‘Street of the Booksellers’ for the city’s population during the trials of the last decades, Antoon’s novel exposes the impossibility of producing art in the face of necropolitics, a condition which is inimical to the creative process.

The two questions these writers grapple with – Does art have any meaning in the face of war, colonial annihilation and other manifestations of human malice? And if so, how are said atrocities to be represented? – evoke the artist’s perennial dilemma captured in Theodor Adorno’s justly famous statement ‘Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’ (1977: 30, our translation). This statement has been widely interpreted as an injunction against writing poetry. However, Elaine Martin suggests that Adorno’s statement is best understood as an aporia:
De ned as an irresolvable impasse as a result of equally plausible yet inconsistent premises the term ‘aporia’ succinctly captures the essence of Adorno’s deliberations on post-Shoah art: the imperative to represent the egregious crimes and the impossibility of doing so.
(Martin, 2006: 2)

What Adorno seems to have postulated, then, is that writerly engagement with crimes against humanity should not fall back on an aesthetics of Light Romanticism. In this way, he implicitly critiqued a traditional Kunstverständnis which conceptualises art’s primary function as enabling the recipient’s experience of beauty (see Adorno, 1984). In (neo)colonial contexts, a third dimension is added to the conundrum ‘native’ writers face. Since literature serves as a repository of a ‘native’ society’s knowledge about its own history and epistemology, it becomes a crucial form of cultural self-representation, one that also functions as an antidote to the distortions produced by colonialist Othering of ‘native’ cultures. Thus, the imperative to continue their society’s cultural self-representation by writing may outweigh the self- doubts ‘native’ writers may have regarding the impossibility of representing the atrocities visited upon their society. After all, if Iraqis were able to associate the bomb attack on al-Mu- tanabbi Street with the Tigris having turned red, then black after the Mongol invasion of Baghdad, this was not only due to the fact that this event had become engrained in Iraqi cultural memory, but also to the fact that contemporary writers had preserved it for the generations to come. Thus, Iraqi writers’ very act of writing post-2003 constitutes a perform- ative survival of the US empire’s necropolitical assault on Iraqi biological and social life.

In this context, Iraqi diaspora writers such as Sinan Antoon and Dunya Mikhail also used their relative privilege of not living under existential threat to re ect on the devastation of both their compatriots and their homeland’s cultural heritage, thereby making their own contribution to the survival of Iraqi intellectual traditions. Furthermore, by originally penning their works in Arabic, Sinan Antoon, Dunya Mikhail and other subaltern writers speak, both literally and discursively, to a non-Western, non-Anglophone interlocutor. In Post-Orientalism: Knowledge and Power in a Time of Terror, Hamid Dabashi suggests that postcolonial critics have to ‘put an end to the idea of “Europe”, or a fortiori “the West”, as the principle interlocutor of the world – for it is not. It is a terrible and terrifying abstraction’ (Dabashi, 2009: 272). To that end, Dabashi is critical of Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak for having:

a white Euro-American interlocutor at the center of [their] narrative attention, moral outrage, and argumentative persistence – as if trying hard to convince him (and it is always a ‘him’) of the atrocities of colonialism around the globe – as if unless and until this ctive white male interlocutor is not convinced that the horrors of colonialism actually took place, then they did not in fact happen at all. (273)

Collectively, the Iraqi writers covered in this essay, particularly those who rst published their work in Arabic, launch a postcolonial epistemic insurrection. They do so by changing ‘the very alphabet of reading the world’ (278), and by speaking to the world in a language that is not ‘trapped in a circuitous discourse of merely talking back to the self-appointed interlocutors of the world’ (278). Writing against the US empire’s assault on Iraqi biological and social life, and thus performing a de ant act of survival in the face of neocolonial nec- ropolitics, they ‘write back’ (see Ashcroft, Gri ths and Ti n, 2002) with a twist: by writing in Arabic, they signal that their implied reader is not, in fact, the (neo)colonial power, but fellow subaltern Iraqis/Arabs.


1.    Contrasting the two notions, Agamben uses zoe to denote ‘the simple fact of living common to all living beings’, while he uses bios to indicate ‘the form or way of living proper to an individual or a group’ (1998: 1). Building on Agamben, we understand bios as a quali ed mode of life that exceeds the mere fact of being alive. Since the elds of politics, culture and education, which are integral to such a quali ed mode of life, presuppose sociality, we use the shorthand social life throughout this essay. 

2.    According to Harvard library specialist for the Middle East, Je Spurr, although organisations such as the International Council of Museums had repeatedly warned the US Department of Defense in the days leading up to the invasion that it was required by The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Con ict to secure culturally important sites in Iraq, the US military undertook no steps to protect sites such as the National Museum of Iraq or intervene once they were targeted by arson, looting etc. American troops were, however, deployed to protect the Ministry of Oil from attack (Spurr, 2005). 

3.    Philip Metres is a Lebanese American scholar and poet who writes in English. 

4.    This Babylonian law code is considered one of the rst legal regimes in human history. 

5.    Metres has described the genesis of his poem thus: ‘I have engaged in a process of writing 
by erasure’ (Metres, 2008: 1601). He chose sections from the unredacted testimonies by Abu Ghraib torture victims, and let certain words or word sequences disappear or fade to grey while blackening others, and combined the result with fragments from the other abovementioned sources. 

6.    The sections focalised by the prison guards, i.e. the perpetrators, do not feature omission. 

7.    Another form of torture literally destroys the torture victim’s sexuality; during the Algerian War of Independence, for instance, French torturers routinely castrated Algerian FLN ghters, e.g. 
by electrocuting or smashing their testicles (Lazreg, 2008: 124–125). 

8.    Dunya Mikhail is a Baghdad-born poet who has resided in the US since 1996. This poem was 
rst written in Arabic. 

9.    The poem’s original Arabic title is ‘Tawq al Hamama’; it was penned in 1022 CE. Ibn Hazm al- 
Andalusi (994–1064 CE) was a leading Andalusian Islamic theologian and poet. 

10.    That the star imagery foregrounds the function of literature as moral compass becomes particularly clear when one considers that humans relied on the stars for orientation throughout 
most of history.

11. Sinan Antoon is a writer, scholar and translator who was born in Iraq, but has resided in the US since 1991. He rst published this novel in Arabic as Wahdaha shajarat al-rumman in 2010. He translated the novel into English himself. 140 K. MOTYL AND M. ARGHAVAN

12. ‘In the winter of 2003 it seemed that, once again, war was coming. ... we got ready for wars as if we were welcoming a visitor we knew very well, hoping to make his stay a pleasant one’ (Antoon, 2013: 61).

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now


Quick Access to:



New Releases

Featured Releases

The Unknown Revolution: 1917-1921

The Road Through San Judas