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The Staughton Lynd Factor: A Dispatch from the Frontline Trenches of Higher Education in Middle America

American Communist History Journal
By Walt Howard
January 2011

Carl Mirra, The Admirable Radical: Staughton Lynd and Cold War Dissent, 1945-1970 (Kent State: Kent State University Press, 2010).

Andrej Grubačić ed., From Here to There: The Staughton Lynd Reader (Oakland, California: PM Press, 2010).


Carl Mirra’s The Admirable Radical and Andrej Grubačić’s From Here to There, two valuable tomes, employ the powerful tools of radical history and radical political theory to deal with crucial political, social and moral issues of post-industrial and post-modern American imperial society and culture. They also confirm the iconoclastic historian-activist Staughton Lynd as a contemporary saint and prophet of the American social democratic Left. I do not believe that it is hyperbole to state that Professor Lynd is the American E.P. Thompson and the American Ignazio Silone. Concerning the latter Marxist thinker, Lynd embodies the conception of “accompaniment”: he dwells with, and focuses on meeting the tangible needs of, the American working class in the “rust belt” near Youngstown, Ohio. In Ebonics, one would say he not just “talks the talk, but walks the walk.”

A Proud Son of Appalachia Meets Staughton Lynd

     A graduate student in American history at Florida State University (FSU) toward the end of the 1970s, I warmly recollect bonding with my advisor, Neil Betten, the specialist in Labor and Urban History, by way of our mutual admiration for the inspirational Staughton Lynd. Neil is the son of union activists, and I am a proud son of Appalachia and the descendent of peace-loving coal miners. At one of our first meetings, I smiled with an earnest heart as Betten and I both realized that we shared Lynd’s social democratic principles and both believed in the sincerity and influence of his life and work. In due course, Professor Betten launched me as a new Ph.D. into the academic realm to spread the Lynd gospel of non-violent radical change based on participatory democracy.

     In the many years since then, as I have explored the life and accomplishments of Staughton Lynd, I have had the good fortune to exchange emails with the likes of Yale’s Edmund Morgan and even take an urgent phone call from the enigmatic Eugene Genovese. This is heady stuff for a “grunt historian” such as myself who labors mightily at a small state teaching university in old Molly Maguire territory in northeastern Pennsylvania. Nonetheless, this is the special attention one garners by researching the life and career of a New Left icon. Both of these eminent scholars, Morgan and Genovese, offered fascinating comments and analyses of Lynd. Morgan suggested that if Staughton had stayed at Yale after his December 1965 trip to Hanoi he would have indeed been recommended for tenure by the Yale history department, and perhaps not put on waivers. In his book, Mirra convincingly reveals this claim to be highly questionable. Furthermore, an excited Genovese told me that he now admires his former rival on the Left, bares him no ill will, and that in the long run, Lynd’s 1969 efforts to politicize the American Historical Association foreshadowed the coming politicization of all the professional associations in the various disciplines of the Liberal Arts. He now seems to recognize Staughton as a prophet.

     Astonished and thrilled by this responsiveness from two such eminent scholars, I freely confess that I represent the historical profession at a level often overlooked or minimized by my more prominent and renowned senior colleagues. A descendent of Eastern Kentucky coal miners and United Mine Workers [UMW] activists, an Appalachian “Norman Pollack populist” by temperament, and a humble graduate of FSU’s Ph.D. program in history, I found myself professionally drawn to Lynd more than Genovese or even Christopher Lasch, both of whom I have great respect for. Moreover, like historian Herbert Gutman, by the late 1970s, I already considered the Consensus School of historiography hopelessly outdated.

     A young aspiring historian of that day, I was excited by the possibilities of history “from the bottom up,” and encouraging the growth of a social conscience among my students. As a Lynd enthusiast, over the decades since those conversations with my FSU advisor in the Seventies, I have taught innumerable U.S. history survey classes and many upper division courses in Labor, Social, and African American history, to hundreds, perhaps several thousand, of ordinary college students from Middle America at five different institutions of higher learning from Florida to Pennsylvania. I have even taught history to federal inmates in the prisons of Lewisburg and Allenwood, Pennsylvania until Bill Clinton and the Democratic Congress ended Pell Grants for federal inmates in 1994. After over thirty years in the trenches of American college classrooms, my countless Lynd-oriented courses are a fait accompli. Things cannot be changed. In this regard, to a considerable extent, Omar Khayyám’s “moving finger” trumps the lunacy and dribble of David Horowitz, Lynne Cheney, and all the representatives of the New Right and conservative talk radio, at least in the case of my academic career at the grassroots level of higher education.

     My coal mining grandfather, and name-sake, who had little formal education, and who was as much my mentor as Lynd and Betten, taught me important lessons as to a thinking man’s moral and social responsibilities in a democratic society. This mentor from my working class family, a UMW and CIO organizer from the 1930s, undoubtedly grins from his grave as I try my best to fulfill this responsibility through human rights scholarship that gives voice to powerless, marginalized groups. I would email country music bard Merle Travis (“Sixteen Tons”) about this state of affairs if he still walked the earth; it would make a great coal miner folk song. Interestingly enough, near the end of his life in the mid-1960s, my miner grandfather told me that he wished someone would go to North Vietnam and talk to its leaders and tell them that some of the working class coal miners in America, who were not Communists, wanted to use common sense and settle the Vietnam conflict without prolonged violent conflict. This conversation took place in the “holler” known as “Bailey Branch” near Wooton, in Appalachian Kentucky, in 1965.

     I was overcome with a feeling of serendipity when Lynd once informed me that during my grandfather’s lifetime, he hitched-hiked through Kentucky coal country and witnessed up close the poverty and deprivation of its hard-working people. In 2010, in my current scholarly endeavors, he and my grandfather cross paths again. There is more: in the Freedom Summer of 1964, when Lynd was at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, at the time of the tragic Klan assassination of civil rights workers Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman, I was a hillbilly child and Appalachian-in-exile student in the public school system of Hamilton, Ohio, a landing place of many Appalachian coal mining migrant families, just twenty minutes away from Professor Lynd.

     With this industrial Appalachian background, I have looked forward to reading The Admirable Radical and From Here to There. Having met Lynd several times over the years as a professional historian, I have enormous respect for him. In my long, unlikely and modest intellectual journey from Wooton, Kentucky to Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania, Lynd has been a key figure in shaping my professional identity. My trek as a working class teacher-scholar from the “hollers” of Eastern Kentucky to the halls of academia drew direction and inspiration from this particular New Left lion.

     It is also from such an authentic working class American perspective that I examine this important scholar who descends from academic royalty. All told, Lynd's work includes his unique contributions to historical analysis such as the enduring classic, Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism, first published in 1968, and his other work as a talented colonialist regarding the American Revolution. The rumor is that Ed Morgan, who helped recruit Lynd for Yale, considered him the most gifted colonialist of his generation. Apologies to Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood.

     One must also recognize that Lynd’s oeuvre also includes books on the politics of the Sixties such as The Other Side in 1967 and The Resistance in 1971. Finally, he has penned several works on the American labor movement such as American Labor Radicalism (1973); Rank and File (1981); The Fight Against Shutdowns—The Youngstown Steel Mill Closings (1982); Empty Promise—Quality of Live Programs and the Labor Movement (1987); and Solidarity Unionism: Rebuilding the Labor Movement from Below (1994).

     Mirra’s book is, in my estimation, just the first biography of Lynd; there will doubtless be several others in the coming decades as more historians focus on the watershed decade of the 1960s. The Admirable Radical was penned by a first-rate scholar, a Marine Corp. veteran, and antiwar activist in the ranks of “Historians Against the War.” Carl Mirra, associate professor at the Ruth S. Ammon School of Education, Adelphi University, Long Island, New York, is a proven historian, and the author of Soldier and Citizens: An Oral History of Operation Iraqi Freedom from the Battlefield to the Pentagon. He is just the kind of historian-activist one might expect to be a Lynd scholar. His biography is a well-researched and well-written exceptional study that explores Staughton Lynd’s life and career during the Cold War era of American history to 1970. And yes, there is another scholar-activist, Mark Weber, from Kent State University, who is working on Lynd’s life and work since the Seventies.

     In any case, future biographers and discerning, serious readers of Mirra’s and Grubačić’s books might take a cue from UC–Berkley’s Hubert Dreyfus (dean of America’s Martin Heidegger scholars), and acknowledge an existential quality to the life and work of Lynd that transcends the categories of the Left-Right divide and even the Culture Wars. Like a Heideggerian existential “Dasein,” more than a fully self-conscious Sartrean Marxist figure, or Camus’s fatalistic “Sisyphus,” Lynd has absorbed, articulated, and above all, embodied, a distinctive way of “being” a uniquely American radical in the second half of the 20th century (and the early 21st century).

     If truth be told, I say with certainty, Lynd’s life and example as presented by Mirra and Grubačić would resonate with some rebellious, restless and discontented Eastern Kentucky coal miners and their sons and grandsons, as well as a few FSU history Ph.D.s. More than a few coal miners from Appalachia, and their descendants, would appreciate Lynd’s defiance of Cold War authority and his distaste for the limited effectiveness of “corporate liberalism.” Like the Appalachian miners, Lynd is fearless in his moral and political convictions. A careful observer can detect Lynd’s authentic radicalism not only in his actions but also in his demeanor and carriage; indeed, in the very distinct way he walks and talks. There is an existential (Heideggerian) maxim of poet William Butler Yeats that "Man can embody truth, but he cannot know it.” I have myself witnessed this phenomenon in regard to Lynd several times at various conferences and basement meetings. In 2010, as an over-worked history professor, I try to convey a Lynd-like “Weltanschauung” and hopeful social democratic vision of the future to about 150 college students every semester. Indeed, I have done so for over thirty years.  

New Left History: A 21st Century Work-in-Progress

     Some scholars of the American Left classify the extraordinary Staughton Lynd as one of the historians who epitomizes the finest qualities of the New Left in the second half of the twentieth century, and early 21st century. Though, as a biographer, Mirra advances a complex and nuanced handling of Van Gosse’s relevant “declension” theory in analyzing Lynd and the New Left, it is nonetheless true that New Left legend Lynd has remained true to the early Sixties ideas of non-violent radical change built out of meaningful, grassroots participatory democracy.  Lynd himself sometimes contrasts his political orientation and convictions with those of his celebrated father and mother, Robert and Helen Lynd, best known for writing the groundbreaking "Middletown" studies of Muncie, Indiana: Middletown: A Study in Contemporary American Culture (1929) and Middletown in Transition (1937), two enduring classics of American sociology. Robert Lynd was “Old Left” and his son, whom he had such grand ambitions for, Staughton Lynd, was “New Left.”

     Inspired by Lynd’s special libertarian version of New Left activism and thought, Andrej Grubačić’s reader is, in effect, really an inspiring anarchistic primer on how an historian can be an agent of radical change in partnership with grassroots radical democracy that empowers the poor as well as despised and oppressed groups. To fully understand and appreciate Lynd’s anarchism from the bottom up, and his social democratic ideas, we need context.

     As a matter of history, the New Left came out of the termination of Soviet control over the international Marxist-Leninist movement after the astonishing happenings of 1956.  Needless to say, these specific events included Nikita Khrushchev’s well-known speech denouncing Stalin and his many crimes in addition to the East European revolt of Hungary (and before that Poland) as well as the Soviet reaction. What is more, the resolute opposition made by Maoist and Trotskyist parties around the globe to Soviet ideological management must be considered in any analysis. Later, the Cuban Revolution (1959), the fierce anti-colonial struggles in the Third World, and the Che Guevara legend, suggested to those who clamored for radical change that there were diverse approaches to fundamental political and social transformation, and that other social groups, separate from the modern working class, may well be the instrument of revolutionary change. Undeniably, in Staughton Lynd’s non-violent, democratic political universe, it was indeed students, women, racial and ethnic groups, as well as the anti-Vietnam War activists in Europe and the United States, who organized and stood up to challenge the status quo.

     Beginning in the Fifties, reaching a highpoint in the Sixties, and even spreading into the Seventies, an assortment of vital social, cultural and political movements struggled to make radical democracy and measurable equality realities in America. A revolutionary notion of democracy enlivened the movements for civil rights and black power, for peace and unity with the Third World, and for gender and sexual equality. Mirra and Grubačić, I believe, interpret the New Left as the broadest-based movement for fundamental change in American history. Like Lynd, they still see the New Left as a work-in-progress in this century in regard to the peace movement, feminism, green parties, and resurgence in thought and action on the Left.

     It was American sociologist C. Wright Mills who introduced the term "New Left." He did so in a theoretical document in 1960 titled Letter to the New Left. In it he called for a new “leftist” creed to replace the “Old Left” and its emphasis on industrial labor. This new radical paradigm opened up the space for Staughton Lynd and other New Left thinkers and activists. Lynd and other like-minded radicals did not seek to recruit industrial workers, but instead focused on a social activist approach to organization of powerless, marginalized groups.

     Staughton Lynd represents the elements of the New Left that were essentially “anarchist” in their orientation. He and others like him looked to libertarian socialist traditions of American radicalism as well as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and shop-floor union militancy. Lynd’s brand of New Left activism was also inspired by African American activists such as Bob Moses and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. Lynd’s New Left students and organizers, moreover, immersed themselves in poor communities building up grassroots support based on community organizing. Staughton Lynd’s New Left sought to be a broad based, grass roots movement.

     Grubačić’s anthology deals with Lynd’s brand of anarchism. Perhaps many American readers will not be familiar with this radical political theorist. Andrej Grubačić, an anarchist theorist, sociologist and activist, has a Serbian background and also advocates an anarchist approach to writing history from “the bottom up.” He is one of the protagonists of "new anarchism,” and a member of the anti-authoritarian, direct-action wing of the global social justice movement. An associate with Peoples' Global Action and other Zapatista-influenced direct action movements, Grubačić's primary concerns are political struggles in the Balkans. Like Staughton Lynd, his political thought and interests focus in large part on defining his brand of anarchism as participatory democracy and decentralized power based in local communities, not highly centralized political parties and not highly centralized leftist movements. Grubačić's attraction for anarchism arose out of his experiences with the Belgrade Libertarian Group that derives from the Yugoslav Praxis experiment.

Staughton Lynd or Christopher Lasch?

     I want to avoid the alluring temptation of participating in the Staughton Lynd versus Christopher Lasch debate. I leave that task to the exchanges between two able advocates: Carl Mirra and John Summers. Instead, let me acknowledge that in Lynd’s defense he has recently countered the old, tired charge of presentism and stated that “I believe that historians should look to one another's scholarly products and evaluate these by conventional academic methods.” Furthermore, another scholar has asserted that “Partisanship is what historians, and scholars in other liberal disciplines, are bound to display as a simple feature of their individual character. The approach made to documents is bound to be different for the religious or the secular, the radical or the conservative. Some of the most intellectually and morally instructive history has been written by passionately partisan scholars.”

     In light of these insights, it is arguably the case that Staughton Lynd is one of Clio’s best scholar-activists, and in academic circles, even now in the early 21st century, he calls to mind the turbulent 1960s, the contentious New Left, and a divided historical profession. To be sure, for decades, a number of Clio’s devotees have loved and admired him; others, not so much. Professor Lynd spoke in 2007 before a large audience of hundreds of students and faculty at my academic home (Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania) in opposition to the Iraqi War. But the interesting thing is that not only local militaristic “Patriots” (now leaders of the local Tea Party cadre) showed up to attack him, but even a few of my fellow Americanists, for whatever reason, in the history department refused to recommend to their students that they attend this talk. One particular colleague who objected to students attending Lynd’s talk echoed Staughton’s story of how C. Vann Woodward at Yale once told him in the 1960s that there were too many “commies” in SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee). Regardless, we need more historians of New Left figures and the 1960s movements such as Van Gosse of Franklin and Marshall, biographers such as Carl Mirra, and radical theorists such as Andrej Grubačić.

     Present-day historians correctly point to Lynd, as well as the late Howard Zinn along with Jesse Lemisch, as instigating and cultivating an innovative style of American historiography that investigates ordinary people in addition to the privileged, or “history from the bottom up.” History has, of course, traditionally been taught by articulating the important political events of the past and by admiring prominent people. Owing to Lynd and others like him, however, during the last four decades historians have expanded the range of their query into the past. Consequently, we are able to talk about and comprehend the historical process in a much more all-encompassing fashion. Thanks in large measure to Lynd, Zinn, and Lemisch, among others, “history” is now understood to take account of the narratives of everybody: the celebrated and the everyday, the learned and the uneducated, women, men, and children, the wealthy and poverty-stricken, and people of all races and ethnic groups – together all of these people create the full tapestry of American history.

     In any case, nowadays, there may be a Staughton Lynd revival taking place in at least one area of American intellectual life: academic history. Indeed, accolades abound for this renowned historian-activist: “The Admirable Radical” pronounces biographer Carl Mirra; “Legendary Historian, Attorney & Peace Activist,” states another source; “Forever Young: Staughton Lynd at 80,” proclaims Andy Piascik in a Center for Labor Renewal publication;  “The Marching Saint,” decrees historian Paul Buhle; “The Return of Staughton Lynd,” declares David Waldstreicher in his praise of the recent reprint of the Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism.

     According to Mirra, Lynd is an historian with a place in history. After all, in 1964 he did successfully direct the Freedom Schools in Mississippi during Freedom Summer. Without a doubt, however, he will be most remembered for his 1965 trip to Hanoi (North Vietnam) in the company of a young SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) radical Tom Hayden and Communist historian Herbert Aptheker. Now in his eighties and as active as ever, this seemingly ageless Sixties stalwart has moved on from this particular controversy to earn all the tributes noted above. He has merited them through his continuing radical political commitments and boundless energy. In fact, as an independent scholar, Staughton, often in partnership with his accomplished wife Alice (also an attorney and fearless activist), works harder than most full-time academics I know.

     Further, the key to understanding the many sides of the protean Staughton Lynd is to recognize his unswerving Heideggerian existential authenticity. In their respective books, both Carl Mirra and Andrej Grubačić implicitly make the case that Lynd stands out as one of the most important, relevant intellectual-activists in post-World War II America. In the historical profession itself one need only to look at the work of the current generation of colonialists, represented by Duke-trained Woody Holton, William and Mary’s Jennifer Oast, Yale-trained David Waldstreicher and many others.

     In today’s political universe, public intellectuals such as Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Sean Wilentz, Tony Judt, and Victor Davis Hanson, among many others, are not unusual. Nonetheless, room must be made for the original, ageless Staughton Lynd, if for no other reason than the depth of his radical thought and the genuineness of his sterling character. In old age, as two truly long distance runners from the Sixties, Staughton and his wife Alice continue to actualize the Herbert Marcuse idea of living in a state of revolutionary ecstasy.


     The Admirable Radical stands as a significant contribution to the scholarly literature of social history of post-WWII America, and no doubt will be of interest to cultural and intellectual historians. Contrary to some claims, Mirra has not written a hagiography. But of course he is a great admirer of Lynd. All the same, the author seeks to place this public intellectual/historian inside a particular American radical tradition. In the process, Mirra stresses that he does not ask for “a cult of personality” in regard to Lynd. To be sure, he endeavors to plot a successful course between his fondness for his subject and academic impartiality. In this I believe he succeeds. The radicalism of Lynd, according to Mirra, has been, and continues to be, guided by a key Jeffersonian ideal; namely, the right of revolution on behalf of the oppressed. In spite of the historical examples of all the late 1960s militants with their “over the top” revolutionary rhetoric, Lynd still has full confidence in social change achieved by nonviolence and “participatory democracy.”

Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania

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Gary Phillips Interviews Gary Phillips

Dancing With Myself:
Sea Minor
December 12, 2010

Over at Pulp Metal Magazine they've assembled a host of talent for a hell of a Birthday Party. Go along, blow out a candle and make a wish.

And Gary Phillips has just entered the building to talk to himself:

Q: Let’s start with you telling the good folks about your latest effort, shall we?

A: Most assuredly. On the surface The Underbelly from PM Press is about a sometimes homeless Vietnam vet named Magrady who looks for a disabled friend who has disappeared from downtown L.A.’s Skid Row. Of course like all mysteries matters are not what they seem to be. Magrady has psychological baggage about his past failures. He’s estranged from his grown children due to abusing booze and drugs, which have also resulted in his divorce, losing his house and blowing to hell a couple of businesses he’s had.

But as the story begins, Magrady is eight months sober, downtown is in the midst of gentrification, and Magrady assigns himself this task of looking for his friend as, he tells a friend, he needs a mission. Did I mention that the cop heading the Nickel Squad, the contingent of police offers patrolling the changing downtown was under Sgt. Magrady’s command in ‘Nam and there’s bad blood between them over an incident there?

 The Underbelly fits in with my other work, particularly in terms of my stories set in Los Angeles. I would say I try to give a flavor of a segment of the city not usually seen in other mystery novels. That there’s a certain amount of the socio-political landscape the protagonist operate in but not in a preachy way. Ultimately I want to tell you an entertaining story with characters who may not be the most sterling of individuals, but who when knocked down get back up and go to it.

Anyway, if folks are interested, they can pick up a copy at their indie bookstore or get themselves an e-book version on Kindle.

Q: Why does writing crime and mystery stories interest you?

A: Maybe because in those kind of stories the main characters are often called on to do something. I don’t necessarily mean they have to sock some brigand in the jaw or parry a knife thrust, but the nature of crime and mystery calls for your characters to not be passive, to act. Mysteries call on us to be in the main character’s head and possibly a few others as well. But not only are we privy to their thoughts, we also see what they do or do not do guided by what they’re thinking and feeling.

Too, there’s a structure to the mystery and crime novel. We as humans have a certain desire for order and setting matters to right. Now this is tempered with the knowledge of a world, post Watergate, Vietnam, 9/11, yellow cake, mythical WMDs, and so on. Which is to say you’re writing for a somewhat jaded and cynical audience so there has to be a reality of acknowledging these sensibilities in your plots and characters. The trick, I think, is to balance those notions without going too gray, too ambiguous about what motivates your main character. Nothing is pure black and white, but it does seem we want, demand, even, those who strive to right a wrong or at least settle a personal scores. Now naturally if you’re main character is a crook, a thief say, well, you have more latitude in proscribing how he operates in his or her arena.

Then too there’s the puzzle aspect. Who did it and why did they do it? It doesn’t seem the readers and the writers don’t get tired of that as long as we can keep coming up with fresh ways to pique our interests. I mean, I write the stories I want to read and hope others want to read it too.

Q: Are there other sort of stories you’d like to write?

A: When I was a kid through my teenage years, I read a good deal of science fiction. From Andre Norton and Jack Williamson to Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs. H.G. Wells to Heinlein and Asimov. Fredric Brown and Asimov, to name two, wrote both sci-fi and mysteries, sometimes combining those elements. Kristine Kathryn Rusch does the same today with her Recovery Man interplanetary detective series and under a pen name, Kris Nelscott, 60’s era political mysteries with a black protagonist, Smokey Dalton – which deserve more attention than they’ve gotten.

Anyway, I’ve also stated in the past that Rod Serling was an influence on me as a writer. I’ve got a couple of anthologies of prose stories based on his Twilight Zone teleplays. Fact one of the collections are adaptations done by a good storyteller his damn self, Walter Gibson, who penned many a pulp and radio adventure of the Shadow.

In some of my short stories like “’53 Buick” (originally in Murder on Route 66) and in “Incident on Hill 19” (originally in Retro Pulp Tales), his shadow and that of those classic science fiction EC tales is pretty evident on those pages. So, yeah, I’d like to take a swing at a science fiction novel combining mystery and sci-fi elements. I’ve got a couple of ideas floating around in my head and look forward to getting them down on the page one of these days.

Q: Apparently there was a recent Harris online poll conducted among 2,775 adults in the U.S. How this sampling of adults was achieved, is not clear, but some of the results regarding who treads crime, mystery and thrillers is interesting.

A: I saw that. The big kids on the block, Stephen King, Nora Roberts, Danielle Steel, Patterson and Grisham are favs but still, it’s kind of heartening, isn’t it? 48% of fiction readers say they read mysteries, thrillers and crime novels. This stat goes up to 61% among those 65 and older. 26% read sci-fi and those respondents in the age range of 18-33, 18% read graphic novels. Women not men are, it seems, more likely to read in the mystery field than men, I guess whether the protagonist is a man or woman.

This poll gave me to an idea I’d love to try; lunch trucks. That’s right, lunch trucks. Say a truck like we have roaming the streets here in Los Angeles, the Kogi Korean barbeque taco truck has several that go about the Southland. This truck, rolling kitchen really, is so popular, they post their schedules online and the hungry can follow them on twitter. See, specialty lunch trucks are all the rage these days and I figure if I can hook up with one of these services, giving out some free samples of my books -- and various foods are always mentioned in my tomes -- to go along with the bulgogi burrito with salsa, that’s gotta build my brand.

Q: You do some work in comics, that right?

A: I do indeed. I’ve been a comic book fan from way back. Fact I became a writer since as a kid I discovered my art wasn’t going to be the best so I couldn’t write and draw my own comics, but at least I could put down the words. Currently I’m doing some work for an outfit called Moonstone. Specifically I’m writing the further adventures of a licensed pulp character they’ve acquired, secret agent Jimmy Christopher, Operator 5. The tagline being that before Bauer and Bond, there was Jimmy Christopher. With one eye on nostalgia, and a foot planted in the revisionist history camp, my first Operator 5 story, “The Faithful,” involves a charismatic “America for Americans” preacher intent on assassinating a Marcus Garvey-type figure who leads a back-to-Africa movement for black folks in Harlem. Christopher has infiltrated the preacher’s goon squad. “The Faithful” will debut as the back-up feature in Moonstone’s new Spider comic book, premiering this coming January.

I’m also pleased to be writing another espionage character for Moonstone, the zen freelance spy, Derek Flint, based on the character popularized by the late actor James Coburn in two films from the late sixties. The That Man Flint series will drop in March and be set in the swinging sixties of mods, mini-skirts and Vietnam. Paisley shirts and satellites. Afros and lasers. The Cold War is hot and the Red Chinese aren’t the only ones doing the brainwashing. Love is in the air, but everyone isn’t groovy.

Flint is an inventor, ballet instructor, editor and contributor of the revised Kama Sutra, transcendentalist and translator of an ancient Mayan cookbook, seeker of the third eye and freelance spy, is the one M.A.C.E. (Mandated Actions for Covert Enforcement) calls on to tackle their most perilous assignments.

It’s going to be fun.

Q: Where do you get your ideas?

A: I used to clip articles out of the newspaper or magazines. Some news item, and it didn’t have to be about a robbery or a murder, though could have been. It could be about a medical oddity or a technological advancement. Now with the “internets” I still do this, only it’s mostly printing out an article I’ve read online. Take pro quarterback Brett Favre accused of sending lewd pictures and leaving voicemails to at least three female reporters. There’s also a push to have a moratorium on foreclosures. These are unrelated items but then you get to wondering, how could they be related? What could be the connective tissue between these events? When you start asking yourself that, combined with asking yourself, like, what the hell was Favre, married, a public figure, a young grandfather for goodness sakes, thinking? What’s the delusional state that sets in when a guy like that figures there’s not going to be fallout from these idiotic acts of harassment? Now we have something to hook onto for a kind of character, to be in his head.

The foreclosure debacle got me thinking about a news items I read more than a year ago where a desperate single dad chained himself to his outside water heater to prevent the gas company from disconnecting his gas due to his unpaid bill. Here’s another mindset, a man driven to do a desperate act to provide for his kids. Now what if specific events conspire to throw these two together in some sort of confrontation? Maybe too things are not always what they seem on the surface.

We’re off to the races.

Q: So how’s your poker game these days?

A: It’s never been good. It’s not as if I watch shows like the World Series of Poker and can imagine myself sitting at one of the tables stacking the chips. Naturally I’ve read various books on the game as a way to give me some insight…opening the third eye if you will.

Curiously, one of the poker books I have is this very enlightening one called The Education of a Poker Player by Herbert O. Yardley. Interesting cat. He was like something out of the pulps. As a teen, he was captain of the football team, editor of his high school paper and class president. He had a head for math and when his mom died in 1905, he inherited a modest two hundred bucks. He took to the poker tables and did quite well. By 1912 he was a code clerk in the State department. During World War I, he set up the Cipher Bureau, Military Intelligence 8 also known as the Black Chamber. You better believe I’m going to work this guy into the Operator 5 storyline.

Bouchercon, the annual mystery convention being held in San Francisco this year has a regular group of mostly writers who get together in the evening to play. I was there again, sucker that I am.

Q: You’ve edited or co-edited a few anthologies, most recently Orange County Noir from Akashic. Has this given you a different perspective as a writer?

A: It has. What I try to do as an editor is provide helpful notes or feedback to the writer to hopefully have them draw out what they’re looking to say in their story. My goal is not have them write the story like I would write it, but work with them to hone their work to be a tale that grabs the reader. The cool thing about short stories is you gotta draw ‘em in, keep them going along for a few pages, a twist or two, then resolve or at least end the story in a satisfactory fashion. I tell you, having the pleasure or reading others’ stories with both the critical view as the editor and a reader wanting to be challenged and entertained is a treat. There’s no bells and whistles, no way to dodge, to cover up parts that don’t work in a short story – it’s either humming or it’s not

Q: Speaking of ducking, is Floyd Mayweather Jr. going to keep ducking Manny Pacquiao?

A: It certainly seems so. Mayweather keeps coming up with excuses not to fight the Pacman and now he’s got legal woes though those aren’t insurmountable. Mainly he’s obviously scared to fight Pacquiao who would clean his clock. Sad really. It’s like in the comics, the Thing ultimately isn’t as strong as the Hulk, but damn that, he cowboys up and goes toe-to-toe with the jolly green giant when duty calls.

Q: With that as a metaphor, is writing, fighting as Ishmael Reed stated?

A: Heck yes. You have to know when to press your attack, when to be up on your feet bobbing and weaving, when to lay back and use rope-a-dope to let your opponent punch themselves out – but you have to be able to take the blows, the damage. You’ve got to be in shape to go the distance, baby.

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Cobbling Together Spirituality and Anarchism

The Jewish Daily Forward
By Yoel Matveev
December 8, 2010

A longer version of this post appeared in Yiddish here.

The son of a Jewish shoe store owner, Gustav Landauer became famous and was killed as a Jewish-German anarchist, having abandoned religion in his youth. Born in 1870, in Karlsruhe, Germany, Landauer’s interests were political and literary, not religious. By the early 20th century, however, he was reading about pantheistic, neoplatonic and Kabbalah-inspired varieties of Christian mysticism. Shortly after, he became friends with Martin Buber and his interest in mysticism brought him to Hasidic and Kabbalistic ideas.

A new translation of Landauer’s “Revolution and Other Writings: A Political Reader” by Gabriel Kuhn (interviewed here) brings his highly influential texts to an English-speaking audience and shows how he exerted a profound influence over both Jewish and non-Jewish thinkers alike.

Isaac Steinberg, the anarchist leader of the Jewish Territorialist movement, was one such thinker who came under Landauer’s influence. He had been highly critical of the “mechanical” nature of most Marxist versions of socialism, and believed that it was only possible to build a just socialist society through a creative spiritual process.

Steinberg’s creative approach to socialism comes from Landauer’s philosophy. Steinberg frequently refers to Landauer, directly and indirectly; he had Landauer’s book “Revolution” translated into Yiddish and he dedicated a whole chapter in his collection of political essays “In Struggle for Man and Jew” to Landauer.

Landauer also strongly influenced the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, who dedicated a whole chapter in his anarchist book “Paths in Utopia” to Landauer’s dynamic view of socialism. The kibbutz movement in Israel was also influenced by Landauer, and an impressive number of Landauer’s works were translated into Hebrew by kibbutz activists.

In order to understand the ideas of many Jewish leftist thinkers of the previous century — especially those who were sympathetic to traditional Judaism — one must have a good grasp of Landauer’s ideas. Unfortunately, most of his works are only available in the German original, as well as in Yiddish and Hebrew translations. Only a few of them have been translated into English, until now.

Kuhn, an anarchist activist, selected and organized material chronologically and thematically to touch on the broad scope of topics Landauer addressed. English readers can now see how Landauer’s political positions developed through the course of his life, appreciate multifaceted aspects of his thought and actions, and catch a glimpse of his personal life.

Kuhn succeeds in translating Landauer’s highly idiosyncratic German, full of his own unique terminology, into a clear and easy English, while preserving the subtle nuances of the original text. His English version of Landauer’s “Revolution” is even clearer to this Yiddish speaker than Steinberg’s Yiddish translation of 1933.

In 1919, when German revolutionaries declared the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic, Landauer was appointed Commissioner of Enlightenment and Public Instruction. As an anarchist, however, he didn’t want to command people and his one and only order was to abolish the history lessons in Bavarian schools, because he believed that school children were receiving false and harmful representations of the past.

Landauer’s brief involvement in state politics came to a bitter end when Munich was reconquered by the German army and he was arrested, sadistically tortured and stomped to death, on May 2, 1919. Landauer’s last words were: “Kill me already, if you think that you are human!”

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Anarchic Revolution and Traditional Judaism

A Conversation With Gustav Landauer's Translator
By Yoel Matveev
December 9, 2010

Gustav Landauer was born to a Jewish family in 1870, in Karlsruhe, Germany. As did most radicals, he abandoned religion in his youth, however, at the beginning of the 20th century he got interested in pantheistic, neoplatonic and kabbalah-inspired varieties of Christian mysticism. A few years later, he became friends with Martin Buber, and his interest in mysticism brought him to Hasidic and kabbalistic ideas.

A new translation of Landauer’s “Revolution and Other Writings: A Political Reader” by Gabriel Kuhn brings his highly influential texts to an English-speaking audience and I discuss those at The Arty Semite.

Landauer is known not only as a revolutionary, but also as a prominent mystical philosopher, a literary critic and a translator. With the help of his wife, Hedwig Lachmann, he translated from English an impressive number of works by William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw, Walt Whitman and other classic authors.

The Forvert’s Yoel Matveev spoke to Kuhn about Landauer, his legacy and his appeal (a Yiddish version of this interview appeared in the Forverts).

Yoel Matveev: Most contemporary anarchist groups focus on socio-political protests, but don’t seem to pay much attention to practical or even theoretical organization of full-fledged anarchist communities. Such activism attracts young, single college kids, but doesn’t have anything to offer people who live a relatively stable life: professionals or families with children. Landauer’s reappearance on the scene could change that. He viewed anarchism as a practical socialist movement of all people, not just a political platform for a few dedicated revolutionaries. Of course, every consistent anarchist views anarchism more or less the same way, but there is an emotional warmth and universal tone in Landauer’s writings that might appeal even to those who don’t spend much time protesting or theorizing the left. Do you see this universal attractiveness in his writings too?

Gabriel Kuhn: There is no doubt that Landauer appeals to a wider audience than [just] protest-focused activists. There is nothing wrong with protesting of course, it is an important part of resisting oppression and exploitation; however, eventually you face the questions of what you are fighting for and of what kind of a world you envision. As you say, this is particularly relevant for people with social responsibilities and a need for security that they are not willing to risk for an uncertain future, even if they are unhappy with the status quo.

For Landauer, the notion of “realization” — in other words, of concrete expressions of our ideals in the here and now — were central. And not just in the sense of individual righteousness in our daily conduct: The establishment of self-sufficient rural settlements was at the heart of his understanding of socialism. Whether we follow the settlement idea or not, I believe that the emphasis on building concrete alternatives to oppressive and exploitative structures is as important as ever. Of course it is questionable whether a network of independent settlements can ever extend to a point where the state becomes unnecessary; however, if we insist that a different world is possible, we need tangible examples of what it can look like.

I would also agree that Landauer’s wide appeal relates to what you call a “certain emotional warmth and universal tone.” Landauer was deeply concerned with the well-being of all people, and this comes through in his writing. He could be a harsh critic, but his ideas were never determined by hate but always by a love for humankind. Of course he was aware of class structures and of social discrimination, and the support of underprivileged people was always central to his political work — yet, he always saw all human beings united in a universal spirit; this summarizes the concrete political consequences of his mysticism, if you will.

In your book, you mention Landauer’s influence on the commune movements in Germany and on the kibbutzim in Palestine. But Landauer also strongly influenced Isaac Steinberg, a prominent leader of the Jewish Territorialist movement. Steinberg was a prolific Yiddish writer, a Russian revolutionary and a traditional religious Jew, who tried to establish nonnationalist Jewish autonomous settlements outside the Middle East. Many idealists who get disillusioned with capitalism and outdated Enlightenment values are turning to mysticism and faith — often to the most extreme reactionary of religious movements like far-right messianic Zionism and radical Islamism. Do you think that Landauer shows how faith and spirituality can also fuel the fire of creative, progressive, nonauthoritarian revolutionary change?

I think that you are raising a very important point: namely, that Landauer provides an example of taking spiritual needs seriously and of incorporating them into political thought while avoiding both reactionary ideology and superficial esotericism. Landauer’s mysticism clearly opposed all notions of superiority, all moral dogmas and all clerical hierarchies. Like all true mystics — whether they come from the Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or any other tradition — he finds the unity of all people, the oneness of creation, to be the foundation of spirituality. I do believe that such a notion can be of great help in spreading the ideals of equality and justice. I also believe that it allows engaging in politics with love rather than hate.

Anti-religious leftist rhetoric is indeed helpless in confronting religious fundamentalism. The borders between anti-religious leftism and religious fundamentalism are clearly drawn, and neither side is willing to listen to the other. If you want to convince religious people that a life of justice and equality is the purest worldly representation of God, you have to talk to them about God. Of course some believers will insist that they have an exclusive link to God and that God is only there to protect them. In that case, any attempt at communication might fail.

But I think that these people are a minority. Most believers who support conservative politics do so because they are manipulated by the worldly representatives of their faith, by churches and by religious organizations. If you speak their language, you can make them understand that true spirituality lies outside of such bodies, as practically every mystic in history has stressed.

I know that you wrote a few articles on pantheism. Do you plan someday to translate some of Landauer’s mystical and philosophical writings?

I’m definitely open to the idea. To be honest, a lot will depend on how this volume will be received. If there is a demand for more of Landauer’s philosophical writings in English, I am happy to get to work. For readers who want to get a taste of Landauer’s mysticism, I recommend the essay “Through Separation to Community,” which is included in the volume. It basically constitutes the first part of “Skepticism and Mysticism,” Landauer’s main philosophical text, and it contains all of the key elements of Landauer’s spiritual thought. Many of these elements can also be found in “Revolution,” the main text of “Revolution and Other Writings.”

Some anarchists accuse Landauer of having “fascist” tendencies. The keywords that ring the alarm are “Volk” and “organic.” His admiration of folk culture has also led to unfortunate associations. But doesn’t his healthy dose of romanticism actually bring him closer to contemporary continental philosophers, maybe even to Derrida and Žižek?

Within the left, terms like “bourgeois,” “reactionary” or “fascist” have often been used to discredit opponents. Usually, these accusations lack any substance. To speak of “fascism” in connection with Landauer is ludicrous, and I honestly don’t think it’s worth much discussion.

It is a little more complicated when we talk about “Volk,” but in my opinion, a lot of the criticism is based on misunderstandings. Yes, Landauer has been accused of being “völkisch” — a key element of Nazi ideology and later nationalist movements, as it gives particular value to a community of people supposedly connected by a particular language, a particular culture, and a particular area of land, although there are variations in the exact definition. We have to be clear about a few things, though: The German “Volk” can refer to “people” as an exclusive and nationally defined group (this would be its völkisch dimension), but it can also refer to “people” as “ordinary folks” in opposition to “rulers.”

In the latter sense, “Volk” has always been a key term of the German left — the modern-day term “Volksküche,” a German form of Food Not Bombs, is just one example. Furthermore, especially before World War II, “Volk” has also been used as a mere synonym for “society.” For example, speaking of the “russische Volk” did not necessarily suggest that one was talking about a homogenous and exclusive group of people with a common heritage — one simply spoke about the people living in Russia.

In short, Landauer’s usage of the term does in no way indicate that he was “völkisch.” You will be hard-pressed to find any German authors of the time who did not use it, whether they wrote pulp fiction or Hegelian treatises. If you look at Landauer’s texts, it is obvious that he had nothing to do with the völkisch movement. Not only because there is a complete lack of references to it in his writings, but also because the frequent references to a universal “humankind” as the subject of liberation clearly contradict this.

The fact that Landauer embraced cultural diversity does not necessarily satisfy the critics. They might call him an early proponent of “ethno-pluralism”: the conviction that it is best for people to live in their own ethnic communities, separated from others. This is a somewhat sophisticated form of right-wing nationalism but Landauer never advocated anything like this. He did not just embrace the diversity of cultures but also the blend of cultures; he saw culture as dynamic, in a permanent state of flux and constantly recreated — just as peoples, by the way, which “Revolution” clearly reveals. In this sense, I would wholeheartedly agree with you that Landauer is a thinker who was opposed to all forms of nationalism and whose writings can still be used to oppose all forms of nationalism today.

As far as the romantic element in Landauer’s thought is concerned, we must avoid misunderstandings here, too. Landauer is no “dreamer.” Much rather, his romanticism ties into his utopianism, meaning into his insistence that ideas need to be kept alive even if they seem unattainable. This, to him, is the driving motor of history, the force behind every revolution. If we give up utopia, we reach the end of critical thought and political progress.

How this relates to Derrida and Žižek is difficult to say. I believe that Derrida was often too cautious in his political allusions. As I said, I appreciate Landauer’s careful and balanced tone, yet he did not shy away from making clear political statements when they seemed necessary. Žižek is very hard to pin down politically, which is probably part of his popularity with the academic and cultural elite. Personally, I’d be happy if he replaced the Stalin portrait in his apartment with a picture of Landauer.

Is it possible that Landauer, even in his early years, was influenced by Jewish mysticism? His view of the society as a living organism, his emphasis on love and brotherhood, some of his pantheistic ideas, his belief in the power of language, are in perfect resonance with the teaching of Kabbalah and Hasidism. In fact, some very similar proto-socialist ideas, influenced by the French Revolution, are found in an 18th-century kabbalistic book called “Seyfer ha-Bris” (“The Book of Covenant”). The author, Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz, actually used the Germanic word “Bund” for the concept of self-organizing brotherly community in the original Yiddish preprint version of the book, pretty much in the same sense as Landauer.

My guess would be that the similarities stem from the similarities in mystic thought in general. According to my knowledge, the young Landauer was not well versed in the kabbalah and Hasidism. Judaism only started to play a role in his writing later in life. If he consciously avoided the topic at a young age, perhaps struggling with his Jewish identity, is hard to say. He met Martin Buber when he was 30 years old, and remained close to him throughout his life. He must have learned about Jewish mysticism in this relationship, even if it did not show in his publications or in his correspondence. The one mystical thinker he continuously referred to was Meister Eckhart, a Christian mystic from the late Middle Ages.

And finally, how did you become interested in Landauer?

I became interested in Landauer in high school, studying the history of German socialism. Together with Erich Mühsam, another important Jewish thinker and revolutionary, Landauer was the main representative of libertarian socialism in Germany. At the time, I only read the standard texts. During my university studies, Landauer played no central role; I focused on other periods and theorists. There is a Landauer quote in my thesis, though, which I guess indicates that he was always present in some way. I returned to more thorough Landauer studies a few years ago, when a friend of mine decided to publish a booklet with a few Landauer essays in San Francisco, asking me for help with the translations. It appeared to me that a fair amount of people bemoaned the lack of English Landauer translations, and I began to entertain the idea of putting together a more comprehensive collection. When the folks at PM Press signaled their support, the idea turned into reality. In the process, I was forced to read and study Landauer intensively, which I am glad for and I hope other people will be, too.

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Subversive Coloring Book a Holiday Treat

By Billie Wharton

Searching for a Christmas present that will help your children challenge the heterosexual norms of the nuclear family? This may not seem like a typical holiday season consideration, but for left-wing parents buying a gift for their children can mean a treacherous navigation through a world of militarism, frozen gender roles and idiocy (see the popular szu-szu pet). Luckily, our friends at PM Press have just the trick. A subversive coloring book that re-engineers popular fairy tales.

Sometimes the Spoon Runs Away With Another Spoon was written by Jacinta Bunnell and illustrated by Nathaniel Kusinitz. Bunnell states in a short intro that what draws her to creating things for children “is the all out cross-dressing, binary-smashing disregard for gender norms” that children embrace.

And there is plenty of traffic across traditional gender roles here. A mighty monster who prefers petite dresses and a fancy dog to scaring people. A wedding cake with the inscription “Marriage is so gay” below it. And a smiling boy dressed as Wonder Woman above the line “Not every little boy wants to be Superman when he grows up.”

Each page contains these smartly drawn punk rock cartoons that challenge traditional gender politics in an obvious, but not overbearing manner. You get the feeling that this book is more about the fun of childhood than any grownup agenda. Yet, it will produce many teachable moments.

My 5 year-old daughter was particular drawn to a page that features a cute princess puckering up for a kiss with a frog. The air bubble above the princess expresses her true desires for a non-traditional outcome to her magical smooch. “I hope it’s another princess, I hope it’s another princess…” My daughter laughed out loud, before asking a series of questions. What a wonderfully disarming way to begin such a conversation.

So, if you are looking for a Holiday present that offers a bit more than empty kicks Sometimes the Spoon Runs Away With Another Spoon might be an excellent fit. Good for a conversation piece with friends or as an educational resource for subversive youth. And anyway as my daughter observed, “It’s cute!”

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Eleanor Arnason Reviews
By Greg L. Johnson

Sometimes good things come in smaller packages. Such is the case with the publication this summer, in two separate volumes, of stories by Eleanor Arnason. One is an old-fashioned science fiction adventure story, the other a thoroughly modern take on life in the near-future Midwest as seen through the lens of an alternate history. Both are the work of a writer who, over the years has explored issues of gender, politics, and social structure in novels like A Woman of the Iron People and Ring of Swords. In Tomb of the Fathers and Mammoths of the Great Plains, she does much the same, while also displaying a sly wit and a talent for creating likable characters who are, in their own way, quietly subversive.

In Tomb of the Fathers, that character is Lydia Duluth. Lydia is part of an archaeological expedition sent to investigate the lost homeworld of the Atch. What they discover are the remnants of a civilization and species in which human parental roles were reversed. An accident leaves Lydia and her companions, some alien, some artificial intelligences, stranded on the planet where they are forced to deal with the few surviving members of the Atch. The humor comes out of the observations of the characters and their personalities. from Lydia's interactions with her own built-in AI to Karl Marx-quoting aliens. As adventure stories go, Tombs of the Fathers is a little heavy on exposition and a little light on action, but is nonetheless an enjoyable story which manages to make fun of social conventions while at the same time remaining true to the spirit of the classic planetary romances of the golden age of science fiction.

Mammoths of the Great Plains is a different kind of story. Set in that part of the northern Midwest where the forests give way to the plains, from Minneapolis to western South Dakota, Mammoths is told as a piece of family history, a story handed down from one generation to the next. It is the story of Rosa Red Mammoth, known as Rosa Stevens in the white man's world, and her struggle to preserve the last of the great mammoth herds that roamed the plains before the coming of European culture.

This is alternate history on a personal level, much closer to the style of Howard Waldrop than to the flamboyant alternate histories of Harry Turtledove. Arnason mixes her narrative with bits of Lakota culture, and the history of those proud people from the time they first met Europeans until the late twenty-first century. In doing so, she manages to capture the spirit and temperament of these people, a combination of fatalism and a humorous outlook that has allowed them to hold on to their culture even while their lands and much of their heritage were taken away. There is also a real feel for the land, so much so that by the end of the story the reader can imagine can imagine him or her self standing on the edge of the high plains, watching the herds of bison and mammoths moving across the landscape, with the Missouri River winding its way through the background.

At a science fiction convention in St. Paul this summer, Eleanor Arnason spoke of how she now felt free to write whatever she pleased, and how that freedom was being channeled into a new found creativity. If Tombs of the Fathers and Mammoths of the Great Plains are any indication, that creativity is manifesting itself in stories that should capture the attention of readers familiar with her past work, and serve as a welcome introduction to readers who have not yet been introduced to a writer whose voice remains as sharp, observant, and individual as ever.

Copyright © 2010 by Greg L. Johnson

While growing up, reviewer Greg L Johnson spent many days on the plains where the buffalo and mammoths once played. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction. And, for something different, Greg blogs about news and politics relating to outdoors issues and the environment at Thinking Outside.

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Prisoners at Supermax Ohio Penitentiary Begin Hunger Strike to Protest 17+ Year Solitary Confinement

Democracy Now!
January 4, 2010

Four prisoners in the supermax Ohio State Penitentiary have launched a hunger strike to protest what they call their harsh mistreatment under solitary confinement. The prisoners—Bomani Shakur, Siddique Abdullah Hasan, Jason Robb and Namir Abdul Mateen—were sentenced to death for their involvement in the 1993 prison uprising in Lucasville, Ohio. For over 17 years, they have been held in 23-hours-a-day solitary lockdown. On Monday, the four began refusing to eat meals until they are moved out of solitary confinement and onto death row, where they say they will get better treatment. We speak with longtime peace activist, historian and lawyer, Staughton Lynd. In 2004, he wrote the definitive history of the 1993 Ohio prison uprising at Lucasville.

AMY GOODMAN: Four prisoners in the supermax Ohio State Penitentiary have launched a hunger strike to protest what they call their harsh mistreatment under solitary confinement. The prisoners—Bomani Shakur, Siddique Abdullah Hasan, Jason Robb and Namir Abdul Mateen—were sentenced to death for their involvement in the 1993 prison uprising in Lucasville, Ohio. For 11 days, over 400 prisoners staged a riot against prison conditions. Nine prisoners and a guard were killed. It was the bloodiest prison riot since Attica. Hasan and Robb were sentenced to death, despite helping negotiate an end to the uprising, and supporters say all four were wrongly convicted.

For over 17 years, they’ve been held in 23-hour-a-day solitary lockdown. On Monday, the four began refusing to eat meals until they’re moved out of solitary confinement and on to death row, where they say they’ll get better treatment. In a statement, one of the prisoners, Bomani Shakur, said, quote, "We have undergone penalty on top of penalty; been kept from fully participating in our appeals, from touching our friends and families; denied adequate medical treatment; and so many other things that are too numerous to name. In a word, we have been tortured."

For more, we’re going to Ohio, where we’re joined by the historian, lawyer, labor activist and Quaker pacifist Staughton Lynd. In the ’60s he taught history at Spelman College in Georgia alongside Howard Zinn and helped direct the Mississippi Freedom Schools. In April 1965, he spoke at the first March on Washington against the Vietnam War and became an early leader of the antiwar movement. Since the 1970s, Staughton Lynd has focused extensively on labor and prison issues. In 2004, he wrote the definitive history of the 1993 Ohio prison uprising at Lucasville.

Staughton Lynd, welcome to Democracy Now! This is very bleak, to say the least, to have these four prisoners say that they would rather be on death row than where they are now. For an audience around the world who is not familiar with the Ohio State Penitentiary, describe why these men are in prison and why they’re in this prison.

STAUGHTON LYND: Well, they are in prison for various crimes, but they are all in this prison because of their alleged leadership of the 1993 uprising. And they are held in more restrictive confinement than the more than 100 other death sentence prisoners in the same prison. Now, why is this? It’s precisely because the system thinks of them as leaders. So, it will let them watch television. They even let Bomani Shakur use a typewriter. But what they don’t let any of the four men do is to be in the same space as another human being other than a guard at the same time. And this means that while other death sentence prisoners can wander about the pod, can have collective meals outside their cells, and especially can have semi-contact visits with their friends and families, the four are always obliged to encounter the world either through a solid cell door or, when they go out on a visit, through a solid pane of glass. So that, again, Bomani has a niece and nephew aged eight and three that he loves and would wish to touch. If he were on death row, he could do that. But he’s been told by the prison authorities he will never be on death row, because they’re going to keep him in social isolation until they kill him.

AMY GOODMAN: Meaning he is on death row, but just not physically. He is sentenced to die, but he is not actually on the row.

STAUGHTON LYND: Precisely. And so, these men feel that they’ve been given the ultimate punishment of death and then something more.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, to understand where they are, how this prison was even built, what a supermax means, let’s go back to, well, the subject of your book, Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising. What happened in 1993?

STAUGHTON LYND: Well, in 1990, at Lucasville, which was Ohio’s maximum-security prison—not supermax, maximum—there was a dreadful incident and, I would add, an ambiguous incident, perhaps not completely understood, where a black male prisoner followed a white teacher into the women’s restroom, and as white officers sought to break down the door, with all sorts of rape fantasies in their minds, the prisoner cut the woman’s throat. And that triggered a so-called Operation Shakedown. A new warden was brought in. There were lines painted on the floor on which people had to march to meals. There was a special post office box set up by the warden so that prisoners could inform—that is to say, snitch—on one another. And what has always seemed to me perhaps the most communicative detail, prisoners were allowed one brief telephone call at Christmas time per year.

So, in 1993, as you said, Amy, more than 400 prisoners took over a major cell block in the prison. And I believe their objective was to catch the attention of Columbus and get the state prison administration to intervene so that Muslim prisoners would not be inoculated with a TB shot that they claimed contained phenol, which they said had alcohol in it and, in their opinion and the opinion of their religious advisers, was not permitted for them as Muslims. But what happened, I think, was when this intended nonviolent occupation was initiated, all the pent-up feelings of prisoners expressed themselves. Both guards and prisoners were badly hurt. Eight guards remained as hostages. One of those hostages was murdered. And so, there was a negotiated surrender, in which two of the men now sentenced to death took part, but their reward for what they did to try to save lives in that way was themselves to be sentenced to death.

That’s the background.

And there’s no question, a federal judge has explicitly held that the supermax in Youngstown, where my wife and I live, was built as a response to that uprising. In fact, I once had the opportunity to ask the director of the Ohio prison system why there was no outdoor recreation at the Youngstown supermax, because many states have this supermax kind of prison, but most of them have some form of dog run, a concrete well, out of doors, where prisoners can feel rain on their face and see the sun. Youngstown, no. So I said, "Director Wilkinson, how come no recreation at Youngstown?" And he said, "Well, the Lucasville riot began on the recreation yard." So, there’s no question that the very building of this prison was a reaction—an overreaction—to what happened in 1993.

And these men are being held in total social isolation, where they can never be in the same space as any other human being except a prison guard, because it’s feared they would once again exercise their charismatic talents and lead some sort of uprising. But as Bomani again emphasizes whenever we speak with him, how is his ability to touch the hand of his eight-year-old niece a security threat? We feel the isolation is a violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, the more so because you can see the usual punishment by looking at the man in the next visiting booth.

But there’s a second issue, which is that every year there is a so-called security review for these men. Now, this should be important to every American citizen, because it is precisely what, according to the New York Times, the Obama administration is going to propose for the several dozen prisoners at Guantánamo that it feels it cannot bring to trial. Why can it not bring them to trial? Because they are alleged to have committed crimes to which they’ve confessed under forms of torture that a federal court would not permit to be put on the record. So what do you do with them? Well, the President is saying, we’ll keep them at Guantánamo indefinitely, but every year we’ll give them a security review. Now, what does that mean? The prisoner will say, "I’ve had no misconduct in the past year." And the prison administration will respond, "Well, of course you haven’t. We’ve had you locked down. That doesn’t give us any indication of how you would behave if you were at a lower security level or, in the case of Guantánamo, if you were freed." So I think this is smoke and mirrors. I think it’s hypocrisy. And I think it should be condemned in the strongest terms by the American people and the American legal community.

AMY GOODMAN: Staughton Lynd, how have they organized this hunger strike, if they can’t communicate with each other?

STAUGHTON LYND: Well, they don’t cell phones like the prisoners in Georgia. Sometimes it’s possible to holler to a person. If you’re on your way to your solitary rack, but you’re not too far from the cell of another man, you can sometimes yell to him. Of course, you’re going to be discrete in what you say. There is also the possibility of writing from prisoner to prisoner. Prison has the right to review that mail, doesn’t always do so. But as you know, I’m sure, from other interviews you’ve conducted, prisoners are extraordinarily ingenious when it comes to, for example, fishing, which is the practice of writing something, tying it to perhaps a string that you’ve torn from a sheet, and shooting it to a prisoner across the way. To prevent that from happening, the Ohio State Penitentiary put special strips of metal up around the sides and at the bottom of cells. But in whatever ways—and I haven’t inquired too closely—the men have managed to be in touch about, well, we’re going to start on such-and-such a day, Monday, January 3rd, and are proceeding.

AMY GOODMAN: This is the statement of Bomani Hondo Shakur, one of the four who are participating in this hunger strike. He says, "Before I speak my piece, let me make one thing perfectly clear: I don’t want to die. I want to live and breathe and strive to do something righteous with my life. Truly. For the past 16 years, however, I’ve been in solitary confinement, confined to a cell 23 hours a day for something I didn’t do and, speaking honestly, I have gone as far as I’m willing to go. [...]

"I realize that for some of you the thought that an innocent man could be sent to prison and ultimately executed is inconceivable. But it happens. [...]

"A few months ago, a federal judge recommended [that] my case be dismissed, which effectively moved me one step closer to being executed. It’s hard to explain how this made me feel, but upon hearing the news I immediately thought that a mistake had been made and that my attorney had somehow misunderstood the judge’s ruling. As it turns out, I was the one who misunderstood. Indeed, I have been 'misunderstanding' things all along."

Those are the words of Bomani Hondo Shakur. Staughton Lynd, if you could respond?

STAUGHTON LYND: Well, the judge was a magistrate who actually didn’t want to dismiss it, except in the sense of denying his petition for habeas corpus. But since you’ve asked, Amy, let me explain that Bomani’s leading issue on appeal has to do with what is called discovery. That is, the right of a defense lawyer to obtain certain information from the prosecution before trial. And under a Supreme Court case called Brady v. Maryland, the prosecution is supposed to give the defense any information that might be exculpatory. Here’s what the prosecution did in Bomani’s case. It gave his lawyer a list of names, many names, more than 50. It gave his lawyer a list of interview summaries, like three or four sentences. But it said, "We can’t tell you which prisoner gave which summarized interview, because that would be a security threat." Now, I couldn’t imagine a federal court feeling that that was a legitimate way to provide discovery, but the judge, the magistrate, managed to do it. I mean, I had in my hands a statement by another prisoner in which he said, "I was there. I watched the events for which LaMar," as he called him, "was convicted. LaMar had nothing to do with it."

AMY GOODMAN: And LaMar is?

STAUGHTON LYND: Is Bomani Shakur.

So, I think what these prisoners are feeling—in fact, Bomani says this elsewhere in his statement—"All these long years, 15 years, we’ve been told, well, when you get to federal court, you really get justice." And now Bomani is saying, "But I misunderstood. That ain’t the way it is. And I have to find some way to take my life in my own hands and protest." And that’s what this hunger strike is. And we’ve all thought, of course, about the Holocaust and people being led to the gas chambers, and "Why didn’t they do something?" I’m not sure what they were supposed to have done, but "Why didn’t they do something?" And these men are trying to answer that question by saying, "OK, we know no way to protest other than to harm ourselves by going without food. But if that’s the one way that’s open to us, that’s what we’re going to do."

AMY GOODMAN: Staughton Lynd, when did you last visit them?

STAUGHTON LYND: Let’s see. This is Tuesday. Last Wednesday, we visited Bomani Shakur. And a week ago Monday, we visited the fifth man, who they took out of the supermax because he had become severely depressed, and, my wife and I believe, the authorities were afraid that he would commit suicide. He’s at another Ohio prison. But we visited both him and Bomani, and we’ve been on the phone with two of the others.

AMY GOODMAN: And he is George Skatzes?

STAUGHTON LYND: He is George Skatzes.

AMY GOODMAN: Uh-huh. And they are afraid he will commit suicide before they execute him?

STAUGHTON LYND: That’s right. We had a guy who did try to commit suicide, and they took him to the local hospital, they nursed him back to life, and then they executed him a week later.

I should tell your viewers that Ohio is something else. Ohio is the only state of the 50 that executed more people in 2010 than in 2009. Ohio is now second only to Texas in the number of people that it executes. Ohio is doing its best to execute one man every month, but there were some clemency decisions, so they only killed eight in 2010. But, you know, Saint Paul says something in one of his letters about "Come over to Macedonia and help us." And this is Ohio saying, "Hey, we need some help." This state is off the rails.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about prisoner activism, from Georgia, the recent—you were referring to the cell phone protest—


AMY GOODMAN:—how they coordinated the protests in many of the prisons, to Ohio?

STAUGHTON LYND: Well, I remember going to a conference years ago where supermax prisons were being discussed, and I said something about how it was important for a lawyer, you know, to take leadership from the prisoners themselves. And another lawyer there said, "What are you talking about? You can’t do anything in a supermax prison." And, of course, there’s a commonsense basis for that observation, but human beings are human beings.

And if I could take a moment, I would like to describe one of the most extraordinary experiences Alice and I have had with this group of people, because we took a class action to the Supreme Court of the United States on behalf of all the prisoners at the Ohio supermax, and at one point the judge was leaning on us to negotiate a certain—to accept a certain settlement proposal that the state had made. And we said, "Well, we’re sorry, your honor. We have to go to our clients and talk with them." Well, how can you talk with your clients in a supermax prison, where they’re not allowed to be together? So, the prison gave us access to an empty cell area. Each of the—oh, I don’t know, maybe 15 at that point—plaintiffs, representing different kinds of problems, was put in a separate cell. Every one had his food slot open, so that they could put their arms through to vote. And the question came up, "Well, should we accept the state settlement proposal?" And all these arms came out for no. And then I said, "Well, in fairness, let’s see if anyone is for it." And one arm came out.

And it happened that this arm was from a man who had been sent to the supermax in the following way. He was standing in the chow line at Lucasville. Someone came up behind him and hit him with a very heavy—if I say "spatula," you’ll think of a little tin thing, but I’m talking industrial cooking, large iron spatula. And Kevin Roe—that was his name—was taken to the infirmary. When he was well enough to leave the infirmary, they sent him, not the guy who had hit him, to the supermax, which made quite an impression on our judge.

But at this particular meeting, after Kevin’s arm came through to vote yes, I said, in my most Quaker manner, "Kevin, didn’t you just finish voting no?" And a voice came from the upper range, "Well, I guess that’s what happens when you’re hit over the head with a spatula." And the whole place collapsed in laughter. And what was so interesting and so moving was that many of these men had never met each other. And yet, they were able to form a common position in response to a rather complex issue on which a lot depended.

So, I think—you know, Viktor Frankl wrote a book called Man’s Search for Meaning about his experience in a concentration camp. He said, "Human beings always have a choice." There’s always one—more than one thing you can do. And I think that’s true of supermax prisoners, as well. We’ve—because of our lawsuit, we’ve corresponded with people all over the country—Pelican Bay and California, the South, the Midwest—and there are a lot of very bright people being held under very burdensome conditions. And when you’ve got nothing to do all day but think about ways in which you can try, with whatever difficulty, to respond, to fight back, it’s amazing how ingenious people can be.

AMY GOODMAN: How long will this group of men, the four men at Youngstown—how long will they be on this hunger strike, Staughton Lynd?

STAUGHTON LYND: Well, that’s a frightening question. One of the persons with whom we’re working is a professor at State University of New York, Binghamton, the director of graduate studies in sociology, and he has written a book about the Irish hunger strikes in the early 1980s, that many may recall, when Bobby Sands and about a dozen others starved themselves to death.

Now, I have been scratching the surface of reality. Alice and I are each—Alice is 80, I’m 81. We’re not part of a law office. It’s really difficult for us to initiate litigation. But there is a lawsuit waiting to be brought for these guys, and there’s a very good precedent from the Angola supermax in Louisiana. And my hope would be this: that after they had been on hunger strike for however long, it would be possible to hold a press conference and to say, "Human beings cannot do this forever. But as a supplementary means of struggle, we’re initiating the following lawsuit," or it could be a petition to the director. As a matter of fact, if people are interested in a petition, there is a website,—that’s lower case i, no dot, petitions dot com—where folks could go to sign a petition to the authorities. I hope that, whether it’s a lawsuit, a petition, committees of inquiry, whatever, there will be some supplementary forms of activity developed so that these guys can come off the hunger strike before they destroy themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: And in a sentence, Staughton Lynd, what their demands are?

STAUGHTON LYND: Their demands are to have the same privileges that other death-sentenced prisoners have, the opportunity to be around other prisoners for a certain number of hours in the week, and to have at least semi-contact visits with their loved ones.

AMY GOODMAN: Staughton Lynd, as we wrap up, you have been involved with activism, with your wife Alice, with the larger antiwar community, civil rights activism, your prison work over the decades. Today, in 2011, as we move into this new year, what gives you hope?

STAUGHTON LYND: Well, first of all, let me tell you what does not give me hope. I am not one of those standing in line to blame President Obama, because I feel we have failed to create sufficient grassroots pressure on the President from below. And I think back to the early ’60s when the civil rights movement was at least as disgusted with President John Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy as anyone could possibly be with President Obama at the moment, but we had a movement. We represented potential voters. And those politicians changed course.

And I think it’s—I don’t know if you can say this gives me hope, Amy, but at least it’s my strategy for 2011. Let’s concentrate on creating a movement down below. I mean, for example, if Obama suggests what I believe is an essentially Mickey Mouse procedure for evaluating the security status of enemy combatants at Guantánamo, I think we should light into him and say, "This ain’t going to do it." And unless we do that, where do we leave him? He’s subjected to pressure from only one direction. And every negotiator likes to look across the table and say, "Well, you know, if it was just up to me, I might be able to agree with you. But they’d tear me to pieces out there." We’ve got to create the movement down below. And I’m not talking about doing whatever tells us to do on the internet. I’m talking about a genuine rank-and-file movement or a group of interlocking rank-and-file movements that puts out our demand for another kind of world.

AMY GOODMAN: Staughton Lynd, I want to thank you very much for joining us.

STAUGHTON LYND: My pleasure, Amy.

Staughton Lynd, longtime historian, peace activist and lawyer. A new edition of his 2004 book, "Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising" is being published in March.


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The xerox machine: printing press of the people

Burn CollectorBy Jackie Wang
HTML Giant
December 15, 2010

Karen Lillis is currently serializing a memoir about working at St. Mark’s Bookshop called Bagging The Beats At Midnight: Confessions of an Indie Bookstore Clerk over at Undie Press. Her recent installment, titled “People Who Led Me to Self-Publishing,” discusses the inspiring and energetic figures she encountered, people who took artistic matters into their own hands by making sloppy, lo-fi xeroxed booklets that were sold on a special consignment rack at St. Mark’s. Karen reminds us that writers such as Anais Nin, William Blake, Walt Whitman, Kathy Acker, Gertrude Stein, and others all self-published at one point. There’s a certain magic about it—the immediacy of it, the openness, the way any wing nut or fanatic or obsessive outsider can be given an equal hearing on the consignment rack. No filtration or editorial process—just print, copy, distribute.

In a recent email I sent to Al Burian, I wrote that I was interested in bridging the gap between the small press/indie publishing world and the self-publishing/zine world. Al is kind of a cult figure in the self-publishing world, but is probably virtually unknown to small press and indie lit readers (although he did get some kind of honorable mention in The Best American Nonrequired Reading series one year). I’ve been reading his zines since I was 13 and I’m still totally obsessed with them. Since Al Burian was my favorite zine writer, over the years I let everyone I knew borrow his writings—teachers, friends, family. Some instantly became obsessive fans of his work as well. Since last month Al’s out-of-print collection of early zines, titled Burn Collector, is finally back in print after being republished by PM Press. (You should check it out—I’ve probably read it more times than any other book in my life.) Al’s zine Burn Collector and others like his inspired me to start self-publishing when I was 15.

In high school I would use the crappy copy machine at the grocery store I worked at to make little booklets of my writings and art. I would mostly give the shoddy cut-and-paste booklets to friends and trade with other people through the mail. I still do this kind of stuff—although now I use InDesign for my layouts and buy nice paper. Even in college I was running something like a covert small-scale printing operation out of the library of an art museum that I interned at. I helped friends—including HTMLGIANT’s Alec Niedenthal—make their chapbooks, band flyers, and noise music tape inserts using printers and a fancy color copy machine that I had the code for. Alec would also sometimes catch me leaving my ridiculous anonymous pamphlets around. The whole thing was joyful and exciting, even if it was kind of naïve and sloppy.

Dennis Cooper is another writer who started out self-publishing. In the 70s, he started a zine called Little Caesar, which was “a literary journal with an anarchist, punk rock spirit.” Now we worship Dennis Cooper (I do, at least). But we can easily forget Dennis’s DIY origins, like we forget about the way countless other cutting edge writers get their start: by putting it out there themselves. Regarding the zines he made in the 70s, Dennis said: “…the literary magazines, whether they were gay or not, were sort of hostile to Little Caesar when it was around. I gave it out free to most people. Stores wouldn’t carry it because it was too weird so I would stuff it under my shirt and put it in the bookstores.”

In regards to Anais Nin, Karen wrote:
Meanwhile her “Story of My Printing Press” neatly laid out the how’s and the why’s of self-publishing. You self-publish because the commercial world could take decades to catch up to your brand of brilliance, because it’s best to get your work out there while it’s fresh, and because as long as you’re able-bodied and don’t mind wearing different hats (writer, book designer, printer, binder, publisher, promoter, etc.), why the hell not?

When I was a naïve little adolescent self-publisher, I was interested in both the established literary avant-garde and the weird world of underground self-publishing. In high school I didn’t know many people who were interested in the kind of stuff I was into, but I had one friend who was the type of literary teenage boy who likes Bukowski and Henry Miller. We traded books and reading material but he never wanted to read anything I gave him that was self-published. He said he was repulsed by it before reading it because there was no “quality control.” He said, “When I get an issue of McSweeney’s, I know it’s all going to be good. But with zines—anyone can make them. It’s probably mostly garbage.” Fair enough. I knew that some of it was garbage, but I wasn’t asking him to sift through every zine ever made—I was giving him the ones I already thought were good. But since he had a stubborn mentality about zines being illegitimate, he wouldn’t even look at them.

I’ve come across this mentality constantly—the people that fear the tyranny of the “bad” cultural producers coming to dismantle their value-system. This paranoia is accompanied by an apocalyptic vision of a world where standards and systems used to police aesthetic value have collapsed completely, allowing for the terrible opportunity of a free-for-all of artistic creation. But I say that it’s also the absence of a regulatory filter aimed at controlling quality and commercial value that allows for a lot of weird and beautifully bizarre things to emerge—incoherent manifestos, angry diatribes, rambling poetry, copy machine art, feminist revenge fantasies, crazy crayon drawings, Harmony Korine’s whack misspelled stories, stick figure comics about DIY anti-depression techniques, etc.

The funny thing to me is, the actual production process of today’s small presses are not that unlike those of the self-publishing world. They’re even undistinguishable in certain cases. Many chapbooks are made at kinkos, friends start presses together and support their friends’ work, etc. Even offset printed books are often independently funded and distributed and still sometimes have typos, disproportionate margins, and so-so photoshop/design jobs. There is still a certain level of do-it-yourself zeal that keeps the process of making things lively in both camps. Perhaps the main difference comes down to the aesthetics: the clean, design-oriented look of indie lit vs. the high-contrast punk stylings of zines. But certainly, these caricatures do not adequately capture the wide range of small press and self-published works out there, though the subcultures remain largely separate.

Honestly, I’ve always welcomed the vision of cultural apocalypse espoused by the guardians of standards. I think any teenager, mental patient, mother, fanatic, amateur poet, or whatever should write if they want to. It doesn’t mean I’ll necessarily read it, but I’ll be happy they’re doing it because it creates more space for unfettered creative activity and contributes to the overall artistic energy of an environment.

I wrote a thesis on race, gender and the practice of writing and something I wrote about was how power operates through the internalization of standards (perhaps a form of “micro-surveillance,” in Foucauldian terms), and a kind of self-imposed dehumanization that makes us feel like we are unworthy of having a “voice.” When I was working on my thesis I was also journaling about my thoughts on writing. I was telling my professor about my anti-hierarchical perspective on writing. Since she was a high modernist, she got real pissed and said, “I don’t get it. You’re one of the GOOD ones! Some people are just stupid and shouldn’t write!” When journaling about the self-objectifying

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A Moment of Doubt on Spinetingler

A Moment of Doubt by Jim Nisbet - quick take
By Russel D McLean
Spinetingler Magazine
January 5, 2011

[Ed note: Yesterday I noticed that Russel had posted a series of tweets about A Moment of Doubt by Jim Nisbet that formed a mini-review. With his permission I've collected them here in the form of a quick take. He also has reserved the right to dig deeper into some of these thoughts. I for one hope he does.]

A Moment of Doubt
by Jim Nisbet is one of the most insane things I’ve read in a long time. But very interesting in its “attack” on detective clichés, even if I think that inherent argument is maybe a little limited in scope. I’m not sure that the genre limitations are as frustrating as Nisbet makes out unless one deliberately makes them that way. Although of course there are times I do understand the points he makes. But besides the contentious stuff about the genre, A Moment of Doubt is still a messed up literary fever-dream of a book & worth a look.


A Moment of Doubt is at turns hilarious, thrilling and obscene. Jim Nisbet’s novella is ripped from the zeitgeist of the 80s, and set in a sex-drenched San Francisco, where the computer becomes the protagonist’s co-conspirator and both writer and machine seem to threaten the written word itself.

The City as whore provides a backdrop oozing with drugs, poets and danger. Nisbet has written a mad-cap meditation on the angst of a writer caught in a world where the rent is due, new technology offers up illicit ways to produce the latest bestseller, and the detective and other characters of the imagination might just sidle up to the bar and buy you a drink in real life. The world of A Moment of Doubt is the world of phone sex, bars and bordellos, AIDS and the lure of hacking. Coming up against the rules of the game–the detective genre itself, has never been such a nasty and gender defying challenge.

Russel D. McLean is a part of the Do Some Damage blogging crew and is the author of The Good Son and The Lost Sister.

The San Francisco poet and novelist Jim Nisbet's new book is an old book, reportedly conceived in the mid-1980s as he was making a name for himself with crime novels while also feeling disgusted by the marauding prosaicism of detective fiction. From necessity, he came up with a different kind of noir-pulp novella: literarily neurotic, self-deconstructing, hardboiled private-dick lit. Perhaps to cover his tracks, Nisbet also took the trouble of rendering the thing obscenely hilarious.

Aptly, he called it A Moment of Doubt — a short moment at just over 100 pages, yet long enough to have stayed timely until its publication this month in a joint effort by the East Bay's PM Press and San Francisco's Green Arcade. It qualifies as a local-publishing event, if this town nowadays can accept as much from a writer who's inclined to make his protagonist another writer who's inclined to liken his penis to Coit Tower at Christmastime. (Yes, as A Moment of Doubt hotfoots its course, from anticipated junk-needle jab to a breakthrough of consensual sodomy, pricks will abound.)

This increasingly anguished narrator, toiling away in the '80s himself, is one Jas Jameson, "detective writer, a name that bears the onus of years of fictional violence, of sexual outrage, and lately of fraudulent endeavors." Habits include contorted, toilet-rattling sex with his landlady, skulking around vestigial Cow Hollow sleaze pockets in a bleary-eyed fog of depressive paranoia, and confusing familiar barflies with his own fictional creations. As regards the fraudulence, that refers both to the whole of Jameson's literary oeuvre — which contains some conspicuously familiar titles from Nisbet's own backlist, plus a few other invented doozies such as So Long, Pockface — and to the dubious means of his recent bestselling eminence. Jas has just discovered "the marvelous labor-saving capacities of modern word processing," through which the hack becomes a hacker, tinkering with his publisher's mainframe and turning its business operations to his own advantage.

"I'll even give you a hint, dear reader," he warns early on, "right now, right this very moment, as you're buying, holding, reading, thinking about this text, you're deep, deep within a SUBMIT routine, conceived, written, and implemented a long, long time ago, by me. Your dear chickenshit author. And as of now, because you found out about all this too late, you're lucky I'm benevolent. Consider."

Only gradually does the irony dawn that A Moment of Doubt isn't just about genre fatigue in general; it actually anticipates the Kindle-tested, microblogger-approved technological horror that's palpably underway in the book business now — with deep reading ditched for mobile-upload synopsis skimming, author confidence shot and the whole organism of literature apparently sickened nearly to death. Or as Jas Jameson put it more succinctly some 20-odd years ago: "A pre-ulcerous condition loomed. Automation became imminent."

Under the circumstances, Nisbet seems remarkably magnanimous. One might almost weep with gratitude for the vigor he puts into even the most quotidian descriptions, the way of mocking writerly indulgence while also delighting with it. He's like a more hetero Burroughs, or a more companionable Mailer, or both at once. His avidity is touching, and rewarding.

This has been a productive year for Nisbet, with the publication of his novel Windward Passage and reissues of The Damned Don't Die (known originally as The Gourmet) and Lethal Injection. Maybe it'll even be productive enough to release him from the qualification that although many Americans still don't know his work, he's huge in Europe. If anything, A Moment of Doubt reminds us that he's been doing right by the reader from moment one.

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Signal: 01 - Review

signal:01By Pete Willis
Last Hours
December 10, 2010

Much has been written about the need for alternative and underground cultures to take an active role in preserving their history, the amount that can be learned from it, the inherent solidarity in knowing you were never alone and instead operate as part of a long and rich history of struggle and that if we don’t no-one else will. Anarchists have been generally pretty good at this, regularly dipping back into the archives to re-print obscure texts and celebrate forgotten battles.

One aspect of anarchist history that has been over-looked in the past is the artwork it’s produced and that which has helped it function. The tides are changing, thanks in no small part to the work of Josh Macphee and others at the Just Seeds artist co-operative. There is a vital, fascinating and relevant history of politically  antagonistic graphics, illustration and printmaking aside from the usual reference points of may 68 and dada,  from Clifford Harper in the UK to the Mexican printmakers of Zapata’s day.

This journal is the first of a series edited by Macphee and illustrator Alec Icky Dunn put out by PM Press and works as a more contemporary and alive continuation of the recent AK Press volume Realizing the Impossible. With the recent waves of student occupations now finally spreading to the capitals art colleges the first issue of Signal couldn’t have arrived at a better time to reassure those of us using visual culture to enter a political discourse. It starts as it means to go on, covering both current artists and groups like graffiti writer Impeach and printmaking collective Taller Tupac Amaru with some lessons from a while back like the Mexico 68 movement and Rufus Segar the designer behind almost every cover of Colin Wards ‘Anarchy’ magazine. Each interview is long and highly illustrated as you would expect, and naturally is designed and printed to the highest quality. The few remaining empty pages are taken up with a piece about the dutch Red Rat comic and some thoughts on the origins and benefits of adventure playgrounds. This is a great indictment of what we can expect from future issues, relevant current thought, inspiration from former struggles and probing into how far anarchist creativity can and has affected wider social projects. Projects like this one are vital for a movement that can occasionally get bogged down in endless academic theory and serves as a great reminder that anarchism is above all creative, not destructive, and that that’s maybe our best weapon against those who’s curtailment of freedom starts at restricting expression.

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