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More Fictional Days of Rage

By Jonah Raskin
Huffington Post
December 9th, 2015

Author and activist Diana Block calls her narrative, "Clandestine Occupations," "an imaginary history," though she might have simply described it as a novel, or perhaps as a roman a clef, to borrow the French phrase for a tale in which fictional characters are based on real people.

In many ways, there's little if anything that's imaginary about "Clandestine Occupations," a 240-page book that's recently been published by PM Press in Oakland, California and that looks at the history of underground movements in the U.S. from a feminist, anti-imperialist perspective.

Historical figures like Assata Shakur, the African American political exile, appear in these pages, along with real places like San Francisco and Chicago, and actual events like the Occupy Movement and the War in Iraq.

Block is understandably reluctant to divulge certain facts and basic information that might make her work less murky than it is. After all, according to her profile at the back of the book, she "spent thirteen years living underground with a political collective committed to supporting the Puerto Rican independence and Black Liberation movements." In her world, there's very little that's worse than being a "snitch."

Bloch's profile also states that since 1994 she "has committed herself to anti-prison work, becoming a founding member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners and the Jericho Movement." Then, too, Clandestine Occupations is dedicated to Marilyn Buck who helped Assata Shakur escape from prison, who served a long prison term herself and who died shortly after she was released from prison in 2010. This book is also dedicated to "ancestors, comrades, friends, lovers, daughters, sons, prisoners and freedom fighters who inspired this imaginary history."

Prisoners and fighters for human liberation seem to love Clandestine Occupations. There are blurbs from nearly a dozen of them, including Laura Whitehorn, Margaret Randall and David Gilbert, a member of the Weather Underground who joined with members of the Black Liberation Army to rob a Brinks armored vehicle in 1981 and who is still in prison after his arrest and conviction for murder.

Sylvia Federici, an Italian-born professor who taught at Hofstra University, provides a burb in which she says that "Diana Block's new book is the first major novel taking us to the world of women who in the 1960s and '70s opted for clandestine struggle."

Whether that is accurate or not, isn't clear. Members of the Weather Underground as well as historians and journalists have published accounts of clandestine organizations and groups in the era of the Vietnam War.

One of the most recent books on the subject is Bryan Burrough's Days of Rage: America's Radical Underground, the FBI and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence. While it isn't popular with many radicals who once engaged in acts of revolutionary violence it doesn't demonize them and what's more refrains from calling them "terrorists."

In 1978, I published a novel about fugitives entitled Underground in which the main characters are based on real people. I know from my own experience many of the challenges that face a writer who wants to tell the truth and at the same time doesn't want to jeopardize the lives and liberties of real people.

There have been at least a dozen other novels about the underground, plus films like The Company You Keep, starring Robert Redford as an aging fugitive from the age of revolutionary violence who's running out of time. The film features an unrepentant radical/ come drug dealer named Mimi Lure who's played by Julie Christie.

Still, Block's novel has a larger cast of women characters than any other work of fiction that has so far been published about the world of clandestine politics, passion and crime. (The line between criminal and revolutionary activity can be blurry if non-existent.)

There are probably too many women characters in "Clandestine Occupations," too many events and scenes and far too large an historical backdrop. At the front of the book, Block provides a useful timeline that begins in 1970 and ends in 2019. There's also a short list of characters that includes ten of the novel's major players including Cassandra, Sage, Rahim, Luba and Gordon, along with the years in which they were born. Cassandra, a baby boomer, seems to be the oldest, Gordon, a millennial is perhaps the youngest.

That information helps, though not entirely because some of the characters, including Rahim, Sage and Luba have more than one name. Underground activity demands that they adopt aliases and noms de guerre, to borrow another French term.

If the reader doesn't pay close attention, the plot and the characters can be confusing and if not overwhelming. Moreover, while the book is divided into six different sections, each told by a different narrator, the six voices tend to blur into one another. The author herself seems to be in part behind many of the characters who appear to be a blend of the real and the fictional.

What drives the narrative isn't really a plot orstory line - there isn't any real plot or storyline - but rather a volatile mix of ideology and emotions.

"Clandestine Occupations" is first and foremost a political novel; the characters are motivated by political ideas and political passions. They talk pointedly about political actions and movements: "the radical history of the Bay Area, the intersections of feminism and antiracism, the connections between armed resistance movements in the seventies to direct action movements today" -- as one character aptly puts it.

Block's radical feminists are also very often in a rage that not only fuels them but drives the novel itself. Rage seems to well up inside the author, too, and spills out across the pages of her book. Rage shapes the book and defines it, though it also seems to blow it up, and push it out of shape.

"Clandestine Occupations" burns with intensity and with few lulls in the action. The characters ponder critical issues and offer valuable political insights. One character observes that "prison visits cook emotions until they threaten to boil over in a sizzling, uncontrollable mess."

Another character wonders about "the complicated questions of language - Occupy, We Are the 99%" and explains that words seem to "gloss over the contradictions between occupiers and occupied." Block's language can be vivid as when she writes about "melancholy harmonies turned into discordant dirges about government plots and planetary destruction" and about "grains of terrible truth sprinkled amid paranoid delusions."

Any single character would have been enough for a hefty novel. Any one historical moment from the 1970s to the 2010s would have provided enough fodder for an explosive narrative.

Block has jammed too much into her story. The reader can feel like one of the characters who says, "I was losing my foothold." She goes on to say, "A former-fugitive lesbian mother, working as a secretary with a preadolescent son who had a voracious interest in the earth's geography and an uncanny knowledge of radical history."

There's enough information in that single sentence for an epic narrative.

On the back cover of the book there's a blurb from Laura Whitehorn who says, "Diana Block's novel shows why well-written fiction may be the most honest and profound way to recount history."

Maybe and maybe not! By fictionalizing history, Block has also reduced the past, created clichés and stereotypes. Sometimes non-fiction is the most compelling way to explore the past. 
No doubt, Block has protected the identities of radicals and their clandestine political activities, but in the process it feels like she's omitted, mythologized and blurred a largely invisible record of risks and rewards that only she knows from the inside out and from downside up.


Buy Clandestine Occupations | Buy Clandestine Occupations e-Book | Back to Diana Block's Author Page


Growing Up Fast Under the Nazis

by Wana Wyporska
Historical Novel Review
November 2015


November sees the 77th anniversary of Kristallnacht, when the Nazis orchestrated and encouraged a pogrom against the Jewish population in Germany, their properties and businesses. In recent years, more historical fiction about young people during the Nazi era has emerged, bringing new perspectives on the horrors of the time, but also enabling a deeper understanding of a broader range of experiences.

As Jim Shepard, author of The Book of Aron (Quercus UK, Knopf US, 2015), says, “we’ve gone from believing that the Holocaust couldn’t be dealt with at all in the arts — Adorno’s famous dictum that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz — to feeling as though it’s almost an over-trammeled genre.”

He goes on to explain that he sees the writer’s task as defamiliarizing “the expected — to make us see in a new way what we previously thought we understood — as well as, in the case of something like the Holocaust, to make the utter strangeness, the unprecedented strangeness of the event, available to us, as well.”

As writers of historical fiction, we often tread a delicate line between historical fact and historical fiction, but does any event remain off limits? How do we reflect the reality of those who died and those who survived, maintaining an appropriate level of respect? Joseph Matthews, author of Everyone Has Their Reasons (PM Press, 2015), puts it succinctly when he says, “The same cautionary responsibility applies to a fiction writer who presents events from any time or place distant from the reader: to not consciously or carelessly offer significant falsehoods.”

Both Matthews and Shepard agree that
historical fiction can be educative, but as Matthews emphasizes, “Perhaps more than ‘keeping memories alive’ or ‘educating’ about the war, or about any distant time or place or events, good fiction can help a reader engage with the past so as to transpose it into the present (e.g., the immigrant/refugee issues of this novel and immigrant/refugee issues of the present moment around the world).”
In the same vein, Shepard concurs that he’s certainly not ready to speak for all authors of fiction, but in his own case he feels an enormous responsibility to try to present the historical record as factually as he can. This is borne out by his extremely useful list of further reading in the acknowledgments section of his book.

In their very different works, neither Matthews nor Shepard holds back from portraying the realities of life in Europe for Jewish young people during the 1930s and 40s. Indeed, using the voice of young people as protagonists allows a greater range of situations and emotions to be portrayed, in contrast to the problems faced by the adults in their lives.

Despite their youth, they wrestled with huge moral dilemmas and faced persecution, poverty and hunger. They had to weigh the actions they were taking against the very real possibility of death or causing the betrayal of other members of their family or community. Risk-taking and hunger were the backdrop to young lives existing beyond the complex laws and bureaucracy, which all too often resulted in deportation, betrayal or death.

However, the two protagonists in these novels are very different. Shepard’s Aron, a nine-year- old Polish Jewish boy, is caught in the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw, where he ducks and dives and does what he can to survive. In the Ghetto he meets Dr Janusz Korczak (the pen name of Henryk Goldszmit), world-famous paediatrician and child rights activist, who is trying to save 150 orphans from dying of hunger and illness.

Aron helps the eminent doctor by doing what the adult will not, and Aron’s very ordinary courage is set side-by-side with that of the hero doctor, illustrating the complexity of heroism.

Shepard’s prose is lively and engaging, and his recreation of the Warsaw streets is evocative.

Aron is a typical nine-year-old boy living in an extremely atypical world, and we see him, and indeed Korczak, as whole characters – warts and all.
Shepard points out that “certain figures’ greatness is even more compelling when I have a clearer sense of their overall humanity.” He is fascinated by what he calls“the distance we all feel between the dismalness of the way we mostly are and the amazing heights to which we aspire, and sometimes even achieve.” This sentiment lies at the heart of the two stories, and both heroes are shown complete with their flaws. Arguably, this makes Aron and Herschel, the protagonist of Matthews’ novel, very believable as characters; they evoke our empathy, but also often our irritation. These ordinary young people manage to act heroically, even in a time as heinous as the Nazi era.

Everyone Has Their Reasons also features a young Jewish boy, but here the similarity between the two books ends. On 7 November 1938, Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old Jewish Polish-German, walked into the German Embassy in Paris and shot dead a minor diplomat called Ernst vom Rath. It became such a cause célèbre that the US journalist Dorothy Thompson established a campaign to raise funds for Grynszpan’s Paris trial.

This assassination was the pretext for the launch of the Kristallnacht pogrom, although the Nazis had clearly planned such an event for some time. Grynszpan claimed that he was protesting the rounding up of 12,000 Jews (including his family) living in Germany with Polish passports, who had been dumped at the Polish border. Herschel’s story is narrated through his letters to a mysterious lawyer, allowing a fragmented narrative that reflects the 17-year-old’s mind. Matthews paints a picture of a teenager troubled by what was going on in the world around him, but also of a boy beset by feelings of deep fragility one minute and immense grandeur the next. Once arrested in 1938 in Paris, Herschel is caught between the proverbial Scylla and Charybdis, in other words, the French and the Germans. His fate is entirely dependent upon the line of the invading German forces as he is moved south through France.

Even when he finds himself at liberty, he realizes that turning himself in at a French prison is preferable to being hungry and on the run, with the prospect of being captured and recognized by the Germans.

Matthews expertly portrays Parisian society in the 1930s, with its socio-economic, religious and ethnic hierarchies exacerbated by the stress of increased migration and war. “I’m not a fan of literary works that merely use highly charged historical or political settings as little more than backdrops, lending a cheaply-purchased aura of significance to the works, without taking on hard questions raised by those settings,” he says. He describes the book as “an attempt to take on some of the issues that I saw as being raised by Herschel’s story – among them the treatment of refugees, politics based on ‘identity’, the workings of social class during crises – [this] was one of the main reasons I wanted to write the book in the first place.” Interestingly, Matthews was a criminal defense lawyer for many years, which is cited as helping him to sort through the evidence in the case and understand the many legal machinations upon which Grynszpan’s life ultimately hinged.

Grynszpan ‘disappeared’ and was declared dead in 1960, at the request of his parents, one of the many mysteries in his story. His motive for shooting vom Rath has been disputed: was he driven to it on account of his parents’ deportation, or was it in fact a crime of passion? Did he know vom Rath, or was this merely a legal ploy dreamt up by his lawyer to prevent the Nazis from holding a show trial? Not much is known about Grynszpan’s life in France and nothing is known about his death, which makes an interesting canvas for a fictitious account. Matthews has filled in the gaps so convincingly that the reader will have difficulty distinguishing between fact and fiction. In contrast, Shepard’s Aron is clearly a fictitious character interacting with a very real Korczak, and this means that there cannot be a happy ending.

Debate still rages about whether events of the Holocaust should be fictionalized and by whom.

This has been fuelled by an increase in the number of works of historical fiction treating the subject. There is clearly a substantial difference between the early works written by survivors, such as Tadeusz Borowski or Elie Wiesel, and the two works reviewed here. Literature on this subject is constantly enriched by a variety of genres, whether memoir, academic works or fiction. In addition, there is a highly developed body of commentary on Holocaust literature, in which many of the debates are rehearsed in great detail.

Shepard’s and Matthews’ works are the latest in a growing line of fiction focusing on the experiences of young people, following the phenomenal success of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (David Fickling Books, 2006) by John Boyne. Most importantly, both of the works illuminate the wide range of situations Jewish young people experienced and their resilience and courage in the face of systemic evil. They also illustrate the impact of ethnic, religious and/or economic persecution and oppression, which is just as relevant to current debates in Europe on migration and refugees.

Buy book now | Download e-Book now | Back to Jospeh Matthew's Author Page


Sasha Lilley interviewed in The People's Press

by Andy Pragacz
The People’s Press
October/November 2015

Sasha Lilley is co-author of Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, author of Capital and its Discon- tents: Conversations with Radical Thinkers in a Time of Tumult, both from PM Press’ political economy imprint Spectre. She is also a former Ithaca resident and the co-host and co-producer, with C.S. Soong, of Against the Grain, the thrice weekly hour- long conversation of radical ideas. Find her work at pmpress.org and free radio programs at againstthegrain.org.

People’s Press: In your most recent book you and your co-authors coin the term “catastrophism.” What’s catastrophism?

Sasha Lilley: Catastrophism is a politics based on the notion that a socie- tal collapse is coming, and that the main – or even only -- hope for radi- cal social change is out of such a collapse. A related notion posits that people are most likely to move to the left, toward a more progressive political outlook, if they face an erosion in their living standards or simi- lar hardships. We argue that both ideas are misguided. The book devel- oped out of a number of conversations about this commonsense notion that things have to get really bad for people to take progressive action. Americans, so the theory says, have had it too good, and if anyone is going to see the world for what it is, they’ll need some deep shock, like an economic shock, to force the scales to fall from their eyes. It’s inter- esting that people have not entirely let go of this idea even after the 2008 economic crisis. The Great Recession was a massive shock to peo- ple’s livelihoods. At the same time, as the crisis began there was eupho- ria in some circles that capitalism was unraveling and the chance for those of us who wanted to see capitalist replaced with a more just, egal- itarian economic system was at hand. Instead of falling apart, however, the system restructured itself. Capitalism profited enormously from the crisis. Of course, a number of capitalist lost their shirts, but by and large the result was a brutal class war waged from above that increased cor- porate profits by forcing regular people to work more hours for less money. The working class ended up with less power to fight back be- cause the prospect of being unemployed loomed so large.

PP: So instead of turning people away from capitalism and into the arms of progressive movements, people became more reliant on wage work, under worse conditions?


SL: Exactly.

So, in the book we ask: what does it take to move people to radical action? We aren’t prescriptive (I wish we were!). Take strike waves, for example. Over the course of U.S. history radical collective action on the job has tended to happen during times of economic ex- pansion.

During economic contraction, however, workers turn on each other and are prone to scapegoating the marginalized, like women and people of color. Lynchings, for example, went down in the booming 1920s and up during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Of course my point here is not that people shouldn’t organize during a crisis. Our point is the opposite: people should be organizing all the time. We are trying to warn progressives about a logic that says: “we don’t have to organize because the crisis will do it for us.”

PP: And that somehow, through the crisis, the capitalist system will re- veal itself for the exploitative, oppressive system that it is.


S.L. Right. What you see is when people organize themselves effectively in a crisis, often it’s because they were already organizing themselves and had some sort of social solidarity before the crisis. The obvious case is Egypt during the Arab Spring and the U.S. civil rights movement. Rosa Parks was not just a woman who was tired and didn’t want to go to the back of the bus. She was an organizer who had been in the trenches for years. We, too, need to organize, even when it is totally unrewarding, so when a moment of crisis hits, we are much better prepared to take ac- tion.

PP: How has catastrophism negatively affected politics?


SL: It generates paralysis.

Catastrophism tends to emerge when people are in despair about their ability to collectively change the world, typi- cally when social movements are in retreat. Catastrophism presumes that fear will move people to positive political action. Fear, however, is straight out of the toolbox of the right-wing, not the left. The right is all about fear: scapegoating migrants and other minority groups, the glori- fication of authoritarian leadership to take charge in times of crisis, and so on. These are all things that should be repugnant to the left. People who are on the left or progressive, however, often get involved in rightwing projects without realizing it.

This was readily apparent in the Millennium Bug and in Peak Oil theories.

Take Y2K: the leading spokesperson, an Australian physician, got people into a frenzy by talking about possible nuclear power plant melt- downswhentheyearturnedto2000.

Theendresultwashighlyunpro- ductive (unless you were in the Bunsen burner business). People spent a lot of money on things that weren’t necessary, like survivalist gear. Scaring people like that does not move people toward an awareness of how the system works. If anything, it makes people want to pull back when the prophecy is wrong.


PP: If fear is the politics of the right, what’s the politics of the left?


SL: Traditionally the left has offered a broad utopian vision of the fu- ture. A belief that the world could be a better place, not just because the wolf is no longer at the door. It’s a politics not simply about not starving to death, but about actually living in a way that brings people together across divisions, reshapes our relationship with nature, and with ourselves as part of nature, and produces qualitatively different, fuller and more rewarding lives, at work and leisure.

This gets tricky when we think about global climate change. The solution on offer from environmentalists is one of austerity-- that every- one needs to tighten their belts--which is already the politics coming from above, from the business class. Environmentalists say “we need to live simply, live with less.” The working class is already told to figure out how to feed their families with diminished wages and less governmental support, from schools to healthcare to food. Any environmental politics grounded in “doing more with less” is not going to be very convincing to the majority of people and can dovetail dangerously with the politics of the capitalist class. I think what’s important is to reframe the problem. Rather than seeing Americans as ungrateful gluttons, we need to look at how the capitalist system itself produces waste and excess. We need to think, instead, about a politics based on replacing private luxury with public abundance.


PP: So you’re saying that when we think of waste it’s usually consumer waste, like when the lettuce goes bad in my fridge, I’ve produced waste. Are you arguing, rather, that waste (or excess) is the product of a sys- tem that encourages personal consumption over production and con- sumption in common?


SL: Yes. The great feminist thinker Ursula Huws points to the fact that we don’t need a lot of things as individuals. Obviously this won’t solve the global climate change problem, but wouldn’t it be a much better idea to own a lawn mower collectively as a neighborhood, rather than every single person owning one individually? How frequently do you use it? Capitalism is full of what seems like irrationality (although it isn’t if you’re in the business of turning a profit).


PP: So, if waste or excess-- be it lawnmowers or lettuce--is not a product of individual patterns but the social organization of consumption and production, then what does that mean for proponents of growing our own food?


SL: There is nothing wrong with growing things, but we need to think outside of subsistence strategies, which is another form of austerity, the belt tightening I spoke about earlier. There is no way that we, as individ- uals, can grow enough food to be self-sufficient, unless we actually live on a farm. There are a lot of misconceptions about the potential for ur- ban homesteading that obscures the larger food system, as well as the type of food system that would be required to feed the U.S., or even New York State. We often forget that there is a larger food and wage system that unevenly delivers food based on one’s class, race, and gen- der.

It’s striking to visit Ithaca, a place that I love, and see how nar- rowly food politics are conceived here. The celebration of small farmers and local food production tends to obscure a lot about agriculture, on any scale, under capitalism. On the one hand, it makes invisible the mi- grant farm workers (and other hired labor) who keep local production going; and on the other hand, it loses sight of poor people who cannot afford such food. Should food be shipped around the country or across the world, when it could be produced regionally? Of course not.

But the idea that local food production is the answer to food insecurity is really misguided.

Where I live, in Oakland, California, a farmer’s market was set up in a low-income community with the intention of giving peo- ple access to fresh food. It failed. Why? Because people were too poor to purchase the nice fresh, organic food. The problem is not access, but people not having decent incomes.

Book Review: Catastrophism – The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen and James Davis (PM Press 2012)

cataCatastrophism is a collection of essays addressing the use of dooms day predictions in the environmental movement, the left, the right as well as in popular culture. The four chapters are authored by Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen and James Davis following conversations within the Berkeley-based Retort collective guided by Iain Boal (who led an excellent biking oral history tour in Dublin as part of the Prosperity Project in May).  This book is meant as ‘a political intervention, designed to spur debate among radicals.’ (4) I have taken this as an invitation for discussion.

Firstly, what is catastrophism? Sasha Lilley offers the following definition in the introduction:

‘Catastrophism presumes that society is headed for a collapse, whether economic, ecological, social, or spiritual. This collapse is frequently, but not always, regarded as a great cleansing, out of which a new society will be born. Catastrophists tend to believe that an ever-intensified rhetoric of disaster will awaken the masses from their long slumber—if the mechanical failure of the system does not make such struggles superfluous.’

Seeking a clearer understanding of what the writers meant by catastrophism, I listened to a podcast where Lilley explains that they are discussing an ideology around collapse and rebirth which assumes a new society will be born out of the ashes of the old. This kind of thinking, they argue, results in people waiting for the collapse rather than organising. They further claim that catastrophism is based on fear which works very differently for the right where it is mobilising, than it does for the left where it is paralysing.

Eddy Yuen begins by voicing a critique of the environmental movement. The central argument he puts forward is that the environmental movement is failing to mobilise because of its catastrophic discourse and an ‘apocalyptic narrative’ that presumes this will lead to political action. He is concerned that ‘dooms day scenarios’ don’t have a politicization effect and suggests environmentalists should find better ‘narrative strategies’.

Catastrophism, here, refers to the warning of environmental crisis. Dissemination of information, according to Yuen, does not lead to action. He claims the environmental movement has caused fear induced-apathy in the population. Yuen pins this to a deeply held conviction about politicization apparently held by environmentalists – if people have the facts they will act. While this may be the case for some, Yuen does not address the importance of understanding the dynamics of climate change and their consequences as a vital precursor to action. In the same way that knowledge of starving children in your city does not lead most people to take action, so knowledge about climate change does not necessarily lead to action. This phenomenon is not unique to the environmental movement.

Yuen makes the assumption that the environmental movement cannot mobilise because it uses catastrophic language. This line of argument ignores the complexity of psychological and sociological factors contributing to inaction. Kari Marie Norgaard has done some excellent work on social movement non-participation and speaks about strategies people develop to avoid having to deal with difficult emotions. This indicates that, like with other bad news we get, there is a need to support people while dealing with these difficult emotions. 

Yuen rightly criticises false solutions like green consumption proposed by Al Gore. It seems like Yuen sees Al Gore as a spokesperson for environmentalists. This is not the case and should have been clarified. Al Gore is probably the most visible advocate of ecological modernisation in the US. Ecological modernisation theory (EMT) argues that the institutions of modernity, including multinational corporations and governments, will increasingly give more importance to ecological concerns. It is the neo-liberal belief that the crisis can be solved through far-reaching reforms, without the need for radical social change. Leftists concerned with climate change however, argue that social change and an alternative to capitalism are needed.

He further argues that the catastrophism of ‘many left-leaning greens’ is ‘Malthusian at its core’, points out a ‘shocking deficiency in the movements understanding of history, capitalism and global inequality’ and a simplistic analysis which places the blame on ‘the human race’. Surprisingly, he does not mentioned groups and networks on the left dedicated to building a climate justice movement which addresses the above concerns. This movement, like Yuen, rejects false solutions. It argues that climate change is not a problem of overpopulation but overconsumption/overproduction by and for the global north and elites in the global south. Climate justice activists speak about capitalism and point out the ‘contradictions between infinite accumulation of capital, and life on a finite planet’. It would have been more stimulating if he had discussed shortcomings of the environmental left, rather than criticising neo-liberal environmentalism.

Communicating climate change is difficult. Most people (including many on the left) do not want to hear about the topic because it makes them feel uncomfortable and there are no easy solutions. Climate denial, sponsored largely by the fossil fuel industry, is distorting reality. They want us to believe that climate change is not man made or that it is nothing to worry about. My concern with this chapter is that it could be used by some to further silence environmental activists.

In the second chapter, author and Against the Grain (which is well worth checking out) radio host Sasha Lilley distinguishes between two types of catastrophism on the left: determinist and voluntarist catastrophism. The former is a belief that capitalism will collapse under its own weight while the latter refers to the idea that worsening conditions will lead to a revolution. Catastrophism leads to the paralysis of the many and the vanguardism of the few and results from a politics of despair.

Lilley writes that the belief that capitalism “will come crashing down without protracted mass struggle is wishful thinking.’ (44) Are there really people on the left who think the sudden and uncontrolled collapse of capitalism would be a positive event? Surely the suffering would be enormous in such an event. She then looks at thinkers including Rosa Luxemburg and Immanuel Wallerstein whose analyses predicted that capitalism will collapse. Lilley disagrees. In her view capitalism will not come to an end due to internal contradictions. (136) The consequences of assuming collapse, it is further argued, leads to “adventurism (the ill-conceived actions of the few) or political quietism (the inaction that flows from awaiting the inexorable laws of history to put an end to capitalism)”. (52) Lilley asserts that we cannot rely on external forces to do the work of ending capitalism for us and that political organising is crucial. Unfortunately she has not presented convincing evidence that deterministic catastrophism is a phenomenon that requires discussion.  The sources she quotes do not take the position that we can sit back and wait. To the contrary they argue for the importance of organising a new society before capitalism collapses.

The second type of catastrophism on the left, voluntarism, is more common, according to Lilley. What ties determinism and voluntarism together is “a deep-seated pessimism about mass collective action and radical social transformation.” (45) Immiseration and state repression then are tools for politicisation leading to an assumption that “radicals should do what they can to make things worse.” (54) It is the idea that state repression can lead to the growth of movements. That the KPD (German Communist Party), one of her examples, made very serious mistakes has been discussed since 1945. Attempting to demonstrate that the KPD believed state repression would bring them to power in three paragraphs, while taking quotes out of their historical context, does not do the situation any justice.

Speaking about state repression and revolution, the next section examines war, which ‘has long been seen on the left as the midwife of revolt, often patterned in the trinity of crisis-war-revolution’. That revolts can follow war is a historical fact. To argue, however, that the left sees war as ‘midwife’ is a serious misrepresentation, at least of the European left which associates nothing positive with war.

The sub-chapter ‘Heightening Contradictions’ discusses militant groups like the Weathermen and the Red Army Faction arguing that insurrectionism is a misguided tactic, while the last part discusses anti-civilization.

James Davis, Irish writer and film maker, looks at catastrophism on the right and introduces the disease-cure binary of catastrophe. The catastrophe for the right is the threat to privilege and political power. The left is the catastrophe for the right, the left is the disease. Civil rights, feminism and social democracy are trends the right wishes to reverse. One approach to this is cure catastrophism, a subset to disease catastrophism. Acts which could contribute to a reversal in power won by social movements might be sparked by right wing terror and could then take the form of a ‘race war, insurrection, Armageddon, civil war, or in its purest form biblical apocalypse, and rapture.’ (78)  Actors explored in this chapter include the media used as a tool for propaganda, individual acts of terror on the right, small groups on the radical right, conspiracy theorists and the religious right. Catastrophism, Davis argues, “has a long history on the right and both the state and the organised far right understand it and wield it skilfully to achieve political and propaganda goals.” (106) It was unclear how this chapter relates to the previous two.

The final chapter takes a look at catastrophism in pop culture. David McNally, Professor of Political Science at York University, firstly discusses the relationship between capitalism and body panics by linking the rise of early capitalism to body snatching. The commodification of the body and the emergence of a corpse economy created fear among poor and working people, during the 18th century, that their bodies would be lost to medical experiments after their death. This also led to an increase in murders and grave robbing. McNally then discusses the historical origins of monsters, such as Frankenstein, who was constructed from dead body parts of humans and animals, and zombies, the cannibalistic consumer on one hand and the living-dead labourer on the other. McNally argues that the truths about social dynamics embedded in these tales about monsters need to be redeemed and translated into “languages and practices of social and political action.” (126)

The book’s key dilemma is that there is no clear definition of catastrophism as a concept. In a way this problem is reflected by a paragraph in the introduction where Lilley explains that “an overarching logic might be harder to place, since these movements and ideas are driven by different impulses, from above and from below (and in the case of the greens, both). In that sense, it is hard to talk about a catch-all catastrophism, without specifying whether it is of the left, right, green – or liberal – variety.” The definition offered by Lilley in the introduction as well as the scene set by the title – The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth is misleading. It suggest the authors are speaking about an ideology that assumes a collapse, be it economic, ecological or social, and is followed by a new and better society, which will be born out of the ashes of the old. Apart from the the religious right, which is mentioned in the third chapter, there is no evidence of collapse being viewed as a positive event.

- See more at: http://www.irishleftreview.org/2014/01/28/catastrophism-apocalyptic-politics-collapse-rebirth/#sthash.AOOGp2NJ.dpuf

Book Review: Catastrophism – The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen and James Davis (PM Press 2012)

cataCatastrophism is a collection of essays addressing the use of dooms day predictions in the environmental movement, the left, the right as well as in popular culture. The four chapters are authored by Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen and James Davis following conversations within the Berkeley-based Retort collective guided by Iain Boal (who led an excellent biking oral history tour in Dublin as part of the Prosperity Project in May).  This book is meant as ‘a political intervention, designed to spur debate among radicals.’ (4) I have taken this as an invitation for discussion.

Firstly, what is catastrophism? Sasha Lilley offers the following definition in the introduction:

‘Catastrophism presumes that society is headed for a collapse, whether economic, ecological, social, or spiritual. This collapse is frequently, but not always, regarded as a great cleansing, out of which a new society will be born. Catastrophists tend to believe that an ever-intensified rhetoric of disaster will awaken the masses from their long slumber—if the mechanical failure of the system does not make such struggles superfluous.’

Seeking a clearer understanding of what the writers meant by catastrophism, I listened to a podcast where Lilley explains that they are discussing an ideology around collapse and rebirth which assumes a new society will be born out of the ashes of the old. This kind of thinking, they argue, results in people waiting for the collapse rather than organising. They further claim that catastrophism is based on fear which works very differently for the right where it is mobilising, than it does for the left where it is paralysing.

Eddy Yuen begins by voicing a critique of the environmental movement. The central argument he puts forward is that the environmental movement is failing to mobilise because of its catastrophic discourse and an ‘apocalyptic narrative’ that presumes this will lead to political action. He is concerned that ‘dooms day scenarios’ don’t have a politicization effect and suggests environmentalists should find better ‘narrative strategies’.

Catastrophism, here, refers to the warning of environmental crisis. Dissemination of information, according to Yuen, does not lead to action. He claims the environmental movement has caused fear induced-apathy in the population. Yuen pins this to a deeply held conviction about politicization apparently held by environmentalists – if people have the facts they will act. While this may be the case for some, Yuen does not address the importance of understanding the dynamics of climate change and their consequences as a vital precursor to action. In the same way that knowledge of starving children in your city does not lead most people to take action, so knowledge about climate change does not necessarily lead to action. This phenomenon is not unique to the environmental movement.

Yuen makes the assumption that the environmental movement cannot mobilise because it uses catastrophic language. This line of argument ignores the complexity of psychological and sociological factors contributing to inaction. Kari Marie Norgaard has done some excellent work on social movement non-participation and speaks about strategies people develop to avoid having to deal with difficult emotions. This indicates that, like with other bad news we get, there is a need to support people while dealing with these difficult emotions. 

Yuen rightly criticises false solutions like green consumption proposed by Al Gore. It seems like Yuen sees Al Gore as a spokesperson for environmentalists. This is not the case and should have been clarified. Al Gore is probably the most visible advocate of ecological modernisation in the US. Ecological modernisation theory (EMT) argues that the institutions of modernity, including multinational corporations and governments, will increasingly give more importance to ecological concerns. It is the neo-liberal belief that the crisis can be solved through far-reaching reforms, without the need for radical social change. Leftists concerned with climate change however, argue that social change and an alternative to capitalism are needed.

He further argues that the catastrophism of ‘many left-leaning greens’ is ‘Malthusian at its core’, points out a ‘shocking deficiency in the movements understanding of history, capitalism and global inequality’ and a simplistic analysis which places the blame on ‘the human race’. Surprisingly, he does not mentioned groups and networks on the left dedicated to building a climate justice movement which addresses the above concerns. This movement, like Yuen, rejects false solutions. It argues that climate change is not a problem of overpopulation but overconsumption/overproduction by and for the global north and elites in the global south. Climate justice activists speak about capitalism and point out the ‘contradictions between infinite accumulation of capital, and life on a finite planet’. It would have been more stimulating if he had discussed shortcomings of the environmental left, rather than criticising neo-liberal environmentalism.

Communicating climate change is difficult. Most people (including many on the left) do not want to hear about the topic because it makes them feel uncomfortable and there are no easy solutions. Climate denial, sponsored largely by the fossil fuel industry, is distorting reality. They want us to believe that climate change is not man made or that it is nothing to worry about. My concern with this chapter is that it could be used by some to further silence environmental activists.

In the second chapter, author and Against the Grain (which is well worth checking out) radio host Sasha Lilley distinguishes between two types of catastrophism on the left: determinist and voluntarist catastrophism. The former is a belief that capitalism will collapse under its own weight while the latter refers to the idea that worsening conditions will lead to a revolution. Catastrophism leads to the paralysis of the many and the vanguardism of the few and results from a politics of despair.

Lilley writes that the belief that capitalism “will come crashing down without protracted mass struggle is wishful thinking.’ (44) Are there really people on the left who think the sudden and uncontrolled collapse of capitalism would be a positive event? Surely the suffering would be enormous in such an event. She then looks at thinkers including Rosa Luxemburg and Immanuel Wallerstein whose analyses predicted that capitalism will collapse. Lilley disagrees. In her view capitalism will not come to an end due to internal contradictions. (136) The consequences of assuming collapse, it is further argued, leads to “adventurism (the ill-conceived actions of the few) or political quietism (the inaction that flows from awaiting the inexorable laws of history to put an end to capitalism)”. (52) Lilley asserts that we cannot rely on external forces to do the work of ending capitalism for us and that political organising is crucial. Unfortunately she has not presented convincing evidence that deterministic catastrophism is a phenomenon that requires discussion.  The sources she quotes do not take the position that we can sit back and wait. To the contrary they argue for the importance of organising a new society before capitalism collapses.

The second type of catastrophism on the left, voluntarism, is more common, according to Lilley. What ties determinism and voluntarism together is “a deep-seated pessimism about mass collective action and radical social transformation.” (45) Immiseration and state repression then are tools for politicisation leading to an assumption that “radicals should do what they can to make things worse.” (54) It is the idea that state repression can lead to the growth of movements. That the KPD (German Communist Party), one of her examples, made very serious mistakes has been discussed since 1945. Attempting to demonstrate that the KPD believed state repression would bring them to power in three paragraphs, while taking quotes out of their historical context, does not do the situation any justice.

Speaking about state repression and revolution, the next section examines war, which ‘has long been seen on the left as the midwife of revolt, often patterned in the trinity of crisis-war-revolution’. That revolts can follow war is a historical fact. To argue, however, that the left sees war as ‘midwife’ is a serious misrepresentation, at least of the European left which associates nothing positive with war.

The sub-chapter ‘Heightening Contradictions’ discusses militant groups like the Weathermen and the Red Army Faction arguing that insurrectionism is a misguided tactic, while the last part discusses anti-civilization.

James Davis, Irish writer and film maker, looks at catastrophism on the right and introduces the disease-cure binary of catastrophe. The catastrophe for the right is the threat to privilege and political power. The left is the catastrophe for the right, the left is the disease. Civil rights, feminism and social democracy are trends the right wishes to reverse. One approach to this is cure catastrophism, a subset to disease catastrophism. Acts which could contribute to a reversal in power won by social movements might be sparked by right wing terror and could then take the form of a ‘race war, insurrection, Armageddon, civil war, or in its purest form biblical apocalypse, and rapture.’ (78)  Actors explored in this chapter include the media used as a tool for propaganda, individual acts of terror on the right, small groups on the radical right, conspiracy theorists and the religious right. Catastrophism, Davis argues, “has a long history on the right and both the state and the organised far right understand it and wield it skilfully to achieve political and propaganda goals.” (106) It was unclear how this chapter relates to the previous two.

The final chapter takes a look at catastrophism in pop culture. David McNally, Professor of Political Science at York University, firstly discusses the relationship between capitalism and body panics by linking the rise of early capitalism to body snatching. The commodification of the body and the emergence of a corpse economy created fear among poor and working people, during the 18th century, that their bodies would be lost to medical experiments after their death. This also led to an increase in murders and grave robbing. McNally then discusses the historical origins of monsters, such as Frankenstein, who was constructed from dead body parts of humans and animals, and zombies, the cannibalistic consumer on one hand and the living-dead labourer on the other. McNally argues that the truths about social dynamics embedded in these tales about monsters need to be redeemed and translated into “languages and practices of social and political action.” (126)

The book’s key dilemma is that there is no clear definition of catastrophism as a concept. In a way this problem is reflected by a paragraph in the introduction where Lilley explains that “an overarching logic might be harder to place, since these movements and ideas are driven by different impulses, from above and from below (and in the case of the greens, both). In that sense, it is hard to talk about a catch-all catastrophism, without specifying whether it is of the left, right, green – or liberal – variety.” The definition offered by Lilley in the introduction as well as the scene set by the title – The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth is misleading. It suggest the authors are speaking about an ideology that assumes a collapse, be it economic, ecological or social, and is followed by a new and better society, which will be born out of the ashes of the old. Apart from the the religious right, which is mentioned in the third chapter, there is no evidence of collapse being viewed as a positive event.

- See more at: http://www.irishleftreview.org/2014/01/28/catastrophism-apocalyptic-politics-collapse-rebirth/#sthash.AOOGp2NJ.dpuf

Buy Catastrophism now | Download Catastrophism e-Book now
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My Life, My Body: A Review in Peace News

By Gabriel Carlyle
Peace News
December 2015- January 2016

A self-described ‘socialist-anarchist-feminist’, the US activist and writer Marge Piercy is the author of 17 novels, spanning a wide range of different genres including science fiction, as well as one of North America’s best-selling poets.

Nonetheless, this latest addition to PM’s excellent ‘Outspoken Authors’ series eschews fiction to focus on ‘essays, rants and railleries’. The latter cover a wide variety of topics, including abortion, homelessness, censorship, the tragedy of Marilyn Monroe, the role of politics in fiction, and a moving essay on Piercy’s own discovery of feminism.

Not one to mince her words, she believes that people in the US ‘are being trained from infancy into a people... with the attention span of a puppy and the intellectual curiosity of a stale doughnut’, and that ‘one reason too many American novelists... have atrophied, producing their best work out of the concerns of late adolescence and early adulthood, is that since they do not care to grapple with or even to identify powerful forces in our society, they can’t understand more than a few stories’.

Why should this matter? Because literature, she argues, has power and can ‘help us survive and win’ – if we bother to read and support it.

Though it often squanders the opportunity, speculative fiction can ‘enable the reader to enter worlds in which important variables have changed or in which current trends are extrapolated and we can see the full danger and damage’. And ‘it is by imagining what we truly desire that we begin to go there’.

It is no accident, Piercy argues, that ‘classlessness is pervasive in feminist visionary fiction’ and that many of the utopian novels written by women ‘are deeply concerned with sharing the prestigious, the interesting, the rewarding opportunities’ alongside ‘the daily invisible labour that underlies society’. Likewise, that these same novels often ‘envision women’s sexual energy loosed and free to redefine sexuality individually and collectively.’

Throughout, Piercy’s feminism, working-class perspective and rich life-experience come together to generate sharp and memorable conclusions. One favourite: ‘The real heroes of many people on the Left and in the women’s community are failures who remain pure according to a scriptural line and speak only to one another.’

Midway through reading this short book, I stumbled across two of Piercy’s novels (one very thick) in a second-hand bookshop. I immediately purchased them both.

Buy book now | Download e-Book now | Back to Marge Piercy's Author Page


Sisters of the Revolution: A Review in Peace News

By Erica Smith
Peace News
December 2015- January 2016

‘It’s good to read outside your comfort zone’, I told myself when I was asked to review this collection of short stories. I had no real idea what ‘speculative fiction’ was and, of the 29 authors, the only names which were at all familiar to me were Angela Carter, Ursula K Le Guin and the visual artist Leonora Carrington.

According to the cover, the editors are a literary power couple with awards for both editing and writing fantasy. Their two-page introduction, in which they explain that the stories have been arranged to ‘speak to one another, rather than in chronological order’, reassured me that there were going to be treats in store.

There are stories from the 1960s through to 2012.

I would have expected Margaret Atwood to be represented, and while she is not, the first story, ‘The Forbidden Words of Margaret A’ by L Timmel Duchamp, is a thought-provoking tale concerning a journalist who has designed her adult life around arranging a visit to a political prisoner. The latter is forbidden to discuss anything of consequence because of the power and revolutionary potential of her previous speech and writings. It was impossible not to think of prisoners as diverse as Aung San Suu Kyi and Julian Assange.

The following two stories are also about prisoners, although their types of imprisonment have little in common. The story by Leonora Carrington was a particular favourite, a fantastic piece of verbal surrealism, but all of the stories engaged me.

Although the contributors are predominantly North American there are stories from all around the world, including writers with Finnish, Indian, Japanese, Jamaican and Belgian heritage. And folk tales and magical realism are as well represented as stories with a scientific setting.

I loved them all, but it was a surprise to me that the stories that have stayed with me were two disturbing works about illness. James Tiptree Jr’s ‘The Screwfly Solution’ is about a terrifying plague that turns the nicest men into murderous misogynists, while Octavia E Butler’s amazing ‘The Evening and the Morning and the Night’ is a beautifully-narrated story told by a young woman with a self-destructive genetically-inherited disorder.

The writers selected for this anthology share a dystopian view of the world, but this is more apparent in the writings from the ’70s and ’80s, where slavery, imprisonment and victimhood are more common themes. As the writings move into the ’90s, the protagonists are more likely to be scientists or actors engaging with the world, rather than simply doomed to a miserable end under an oppressive patriarchy.

The authors are all feminists and sisters of a speculative fiction revolution rather than a group of political activists. As such, their role is really to explore possible worlds and ways of being, leaving it to the readers to draw their own lessons from the scenarios painted. In their introduction, the editors state that this anthology is ‘the beginning volume of something even more diverse and rich’. I look forward to the next volume in the conversation. In the meantime, I wholeheartedly recommend this collection as a comfortable exploration of an unknown genre. I would even recommend it as the ideal Christmas present for – anyone!

Buy book now | Download e-book now | Back to Ann VanderMeer's homepage | Back to Jeff VanderMeer's homepage




Politics of Protest

By Seth Sandronsky
Progressive Populist
December 15th, 2015

In "Crashing the Party: Legacies and Lessons from the RNC 2000" (PM Press, 2015), Kris Hermes details the fierce state response to protest at the GOP National Convention in Philadelphia 15 years ago. A long-time activist, his purpose is clear.

“I wrote this book largely to preserve our shared legacy of political and legal resistance so that we can learn from these experiences and challenge ourselves to be more effective in achieving broad-based social change.” Hermes aims to sustain that activist trend of collective action against corporate-state power in the post-Sept. 11 era, from increasing the minimum wage to ending police brutality and the eco-crisis.

To this end, Hermes documents state infiltration and oppression of GOP convention protesters. Attempts to enclose them in fenced protest areas suggested a continuity of enclosures to separate peasants from common land to force them into wage-labor.

How and why the Phil. authorities proceeded against activists and their legal team is a cautionary tale to the Black Lives Matter and other current justice movements. The past lives in the present.

In summer 2000 in Phil., dissidents plan to protest GOP domestic and foreign policies and priorities. Preventive police raids unfold, Hermes writes.

Is there a corollary to the post-9/11 war against terror of preventive detention at home and abroad? I think there is.

Philadelpha authorities had studied the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. That singular event spurred a policing model of mass arrests of political protesters.

Philadelphia police detain, violently, protesters at a warehouse where they build puppets.

Hermes follows the tax dollars flowing to private pockets behind the multi-agency government assaults on peaceful protesters.

He writes: “The likeliest reason for mass arrest on August 1 was the city’s desire to eliminate threats to the convention’s ability to attract tourists and “consumers.””

Business counts. Behind the GOP’s rhetoric of free markets and liberty, the political power of business shapes the capitalist state and public policy.

Hermes lays bare this tendency. Further, he shows and tells how legal activists and political protesters in Philadelphia responded to state repression in the streets, jails and courts.

The relevancy for today is clear. This is why a new generation of activists should read his book.

Solidarity can be an effective counter to the status quo in what Noam Chomsky terms “a corporate-run and propaganda-managed society.” Such collective actions challenge state-corporate power to control people, a vital underpinning of the capitalist economy.

Republican protesters practice solidarity in and out of jail. However, activists and attorneys are not always on the same page, and Hermes details the tensions, which might surprise some readers.

Activists win major victories. Their noncompliance with government procedures helps them gain ground in the court of public opinion.

Hermes explores the question of the media and political protest in depth. Who tells the story matters.

Under arrest, in jail and courtrooms, GOP protesters discover what many poor and nonwhite Americans know. That is, the criminal justice apparatus (extreme charges, violent arrests, high bail, etc.) is pitiless.

Hermes shows how in the face of such maltreatment, collective action can reap humane change. R2K Legal occupies no small part of section two in which Hermes documents the ebbs and flows of confronting the authorities hell-bent on neutering political protests.

Exposing abuses, shaping public opinion and reaching out to religious groups strengthens the uses of court solidarity. Hermes defines this term, and its applications, from misdemeanor to felony cases, a rough road, given defendants’ different aims and home bases.

In the third and last section of the book, Hermes analyzes the wins and losses of civil litigation. In part as a result of what occurs in Phil., protesters’ practice of jail solidarity changes at later GOP conventions.

“While the RNC 2000 case study mainly applies to mass mobilizations in which hundreds of arrests occur, it is still invaluable for understanding the motivations of contemporary political policing and for developing the means to challenge today’s National Security State,” he writes. Precisely.

Seth Sandronsky is a journalist and member of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email sethsandronsky@gmail.com

Buy Crashing the Party now | Buy e-Book now | Return to Kris Herme's page




Damnificados: A review in LA Progressive

Damnificados



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Diane Lefer
LA Progressive
December 4th, 2015

I‘ve never met JJ Amaworo Wilson (though I hope to remedy that soon) but when he contacted me, hoping I would read and comment on his work, I said yes. His publisher is known for radical and stimulating fiction, the author’s website intrigued me and so did the premise of his novel, Damnificados.

So here’s the advance word on some extraordinary fiction. Welcome to a world of two-headed wolves where people go to war over trash and thousands of the desperate move into an unfinished skyscraper tower built on a base of compacted garbage. The squatters learn “how to build a community from this upright tomb” in defiance of the most violent, ruthless, politically connected family imaginable. The Torres family, with control of the Army, the police, and the government, continues to lay claim to the Tower.

Welcome to a world of two-headed wolves where people go to war over trash and thousands of the desperate move into an unfinished skyscraper tower built on a base of compacted garbage.

Wilson, born in Germany to an English father and Nigerian mother, has worked and traveled throughout the world, extensively in Latin America, and his novel’s setting has a Latin American feel. Which is appropriate: though it takes place in an imaginary and globalized space, Wilson was inspired by the real-life occupation of the Tower of David in the financial district of Caracas, Venezuela. In 2007, more than two thousand of the city’s damnificados, or homeless, moved into the shell of a luxury building after financing fell through and construction stopped. The squatters were led by a controversial figure–a reformed criminal who may or may not have been truly reformed. The site inspired scenes in the TV show Homeland where it was, of course, portrayed as a frighteningly violent place. Wilson sees it differently.

Though the term damnificado has its particular meaning in Caracas, I am struck by the word’s resonance. Obviously, English-speakers see damned while the Spanish word can be translated as victim or survivor or the meaning I like best: damaged–in the sense of being an injured party, someone entitled to seek recompense or redress. Today’s global poor are indeed the survivors of the violence of global economic crime. Where, how can they seek redress?

Wilson’s damnificados emerge from “cardboard cities” and hillside shanty towns where “ramshackle houses crowd together, climb upon one another as if for comfort.” Some of the damnificados have “wrapped their faces in cloths, like lepers, only eyes visible, and their steps are padded as a panther’s because many have no heels to walk in, just rags binding their feet or shoes with worn rubber soles. And others move barefoot, hunched and furtive, two by two, shifting in the shadows for safety.”

They are led—though he would prefer the community remain leadership—by Nacho Morales, who heaves his wasted body through the days on bandaged crutches. Born only to be abandoned on a river bank, swaddled in rags, he has the good fortune to be found by a storytelling schoolteacher. Unable to run or fight, he’s also lucky to have a big brother Emil with a knack for showing up in the nick of time. Nacho becomes a voracious reader and a linguist as “languages stick to him like mud to a boy’s knee.” And there are many languages in the world of the novel. Characters speak Spanish, Portuguese, German, Arabic, Italian, Creole, Latvian, Tagalog, French, Gujarati and more. The Tower is a veritable Tower of Babel. The squatters may not always use politically correct speech: the giant hero is referred to always as simply The Chinaman. But unlike what happens in the Scriptural Tower of Babel, the squatters aren’t confused and confounded by difference. They cooperate.

Damnificados

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tower of David

Brazilian novelist Jorge Amado surely put many nationalities in the streets of Bahia, but he was celebrating the mixing of races and cultures while Wilson’s take on diversity seems to me to reflect the globalization of poverty and oppression. And like Amado, when Wilson’s narrative enters mythic territory, this isn’t so much magic realism–reporting supernatural occurrences as if factually true–as the recognition that gossip, exaggeration, and legend are part of history, too.

Turning contemporary realities to legend takes a talent as rare and special as JJ Amaworo Wilson’s. Through his narrative rich in danger, adventure, humor, romance, and risk, he can raise essential questions without succumbing to earnestness or didacticism. How can the damnificados of the earth assert their dignity and take control of their own destinies? Where do you turn when all the forces of so-called law and order are the oppressors and assassins. How can anyone live nonviolently in a violent world which is always ready to dispossess human beings of their homes, those they love, and their lives? Damnificados takes us to the limits of the possible.

When Nacho starts teaching the adults and then the children in the Tower, the priest who’s taken up residence warns him literacy leads to revolution. When people read about their rights, they learn they’ve been exploited throughout history. Then: “If the government comes for us, we’ll all be dead.”

Nacho replies “someone always survives. There’s always some poor wretch who gets out alive and spreads the word.”

Which reminds me of a story I heard decades ago from the great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe. I expect the author of Damnificados knows it too and I hope he’ll forgive me if my memory causes me to retell it wrong. A lion has a rabbit in its jaws, and the rabbit begs for just a minute more of life to say its prayers. The lion releases it and the rabbit, instead of praying, lies on its back in the dirt and thrashes about raising dust. “What good did that do you?” the lion asks. And the rabbit says, “Anyone passing by this road will know a great struggle happened here.”

diane leferThank you, JJ Amaworo Wilson for your eloquent fiction that entertains even as it advances the very necessary struggle of our much-afflicted world.


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Waging Peace: A Review in Popular Resistance

An Inspiring Life’s Work Continues To Inspire
By Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers
Popular Resistance
November 6th, 2015

Just the other night we were discussing our upcoming November actions to stop the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other corporate trade agreements with two organizers, both in their twenties, Mackenzie McDonald Wilkins and J. Lee Stewart.  We were trying to figure out what we could do to stop the corporate push for laws that will undermine workers and the environment while strengthening corporate power over democracy. This led to talking about how it is impossible to predict what the impacts of a protest action will be, even when the odds are against you.

At the same time, we both brought up David Hartsough who has been a civic activist for justice for 60 years. We started telling stories that he writes about in his memoir, Waging Peace: The Global Adventures of a Lifelong Activist. His remarkable stories show that taking brave and determined action can inspire others and even lead to transformative change.

David started his lifelong civic activism in 1956 when he was 15 years old. His father, Ray Hartsough, who was a Congregational minister involved in Quaker peace work, took him to Montgomery, AL. They arrived four months into the great civil rights bus boycott which had begun when Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus.

David saw the reality of Jim Crow segregation and the violence against African Americans, especially directed at their churches. He could not understand how white Christians could do this to black Christians. The experience of seeing the boycott was life-changing, he writes:
“I was even more stunned that the victims of the violence were persistently saying that they were not going to give up their struggle for justice—and that they were committed to trying to love their enemies. I was deeply moved by so many people choosing to walk with dignity rather than ride the buses as second-class citizens. Seeing them get up an hour early to walk to work and get home an hour later than usual at night—refusing to hate the people who were imposing the hated system of segregation and creating this hardship—was profoundly inspiring and life-changing for me.”

David briefly met Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Montgomery when King was only 26 years old. He notes, looking back, that there was no way of knowing at the time that King was going to become one of the most prominent figures in US history and that his strategic nonviolence would influence movements for the rest of David’s life.  Indeed, during this time period King was still learning about nonviolence and how to use it to create political change.

One of the stories we told Mack and Lee was a powerful story of nonviolence.  Five months after Hartsough entered Howard University, on February 1, 1960, four students from Greensboro, NC sat down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter and began the sit-in movement demanding an end to segregation at restaurants.  David and fellow classmates protested in Maryland where segregation existed but then decided to go to the much more challenging state of Virginia, where in Arlington, George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the American Nazi Party, threatened to lynch anyone who challenged Virginia’s segregation laws.

On June 10th, David joined ten African American students from Howard and a white woman from another college in the heart of hatred and sat down at the lunch counter at the People’s Drug Store in Arlington. The owner told the police not to arrest them and closed the lunch counter. Shouts of racial hatred were heard, people threw things at them, spat on them, shoved lit cigarettes down their clothes and one threw a firecracker at them. American Nazi storm troopers showed up. They were punched and kicked to the floor. They stayed for 16 hours until the store closed for the day. Then, they came back for a second day.

On the second day, David had a life changing experience confronting the reality of nonviolent protest. Late on the second day while David was meditating on the words of the Sermon on the Mount, “Love your enemies… Do good to those who hate you,” he heard a voice behind him, “ Get out of this store in two seconds, or I’m going to stab this through your heart.” David saw a man with hatred exuding from his blazing eyes, whose jaw was quivering, and hand was shaking while holding a switchblade—about half an inch from David’s heart.

David and his colleagues had practiced how to respond to violence with nonviolence. Loving your enemy suddenly moved from theory and philosophy to a challenging reality. In brief moments David responded saying “Friend, do what you believe is right, and I will still try to love you.” The man’s jaw and hand dropped. He turned away and walked out of the store.  It was a moment where David learned how love can overcome hate. David reflected on the moment and realized not only had he done the right thing, he had done the effective thing.

The students were scared and hungry; they decided to write a statement to the community urging an end to segregation. They stood at the door and read it. They concluded with a promise: “If nothing has changed in a week, we will be back.”  

For six days they feared going back. Would they have the courage to face the hatred, racism and violence? They were inspired by similar actions around the country, by others facing even greater risks. They prepared to go back. On the sixth day they got a phone call telling them that the lunch counters in Arlington would be desegregated by the end of June. Faith leaders had talked to business leaders; together they reflected on the issue and decided to end segregation.

There were so many lessons for David, and now so many lessons for us. Courage, persistence, strategic nonviolence and reaching for people’s humanity all led to transformative change.  We gain inspiration from each other. Courage becomes contagious and grows movements. This reality is repeated many times in David’s memoir on a variety of issues.  His experiences allow us to reflect on our own actions –

strategically seeking justice can inspire changes the country and world so desperately need. We don’t know what will result, but we do know we need to fight injustice.

This is just one of many stories of David Hartsough’s long and beautiful struggle for peace and justice recounted in Waging Peace. David continues to be an inspirer in his work today. We remember him and his wife, Jan, coming to us when we were at Freedom Plaza during the Occupation of Washington, DC to talk with us about the injustices of the day and the strategy needed to transform injustice to justice. We also had David on our radio show, Clearing The FOG, where he did what he always does – without even trying – he inspired us to continue our work.

We believe David’s stories will inspire and instruct others to be advocates for justice and peace.

They prove that small actions can create great waves and move us to continue the struggle against all odds with the hope that we are bending the arc of history towards justice.

David currently serves as the executive director of Peaceworkers, based in San Francisco and is co-founder of the Nonviolent Peaceforce. He is also a co-founder of World Beyond War, seeking to create a world where war is no more.



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David Hartsough: An Inspiring Life

by David Krieger
Nuclear Age Peace Foundation
September 11th, 2015


I recently read this impressive autobiography by nonviolent activist David Hartsough, which I recommend highly.  David was born in 1940 and has been a lifelong participant and leader in actions seeking a more decent world through nonviolent means.  His guiding stars have been peace, justice, nonviolence and human dignity.  He has been a foe of all U.S. wars during his lifetime, and a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War.  He has lived his nonviolence and made it an adventure in seeking truth, as Gandhi did.  I will not try to recount the many adventures that he writes about, but they include civil rights sit-ins, blockading weapons bound for Vietnam, accompanying at-risk individuals in the wars in Central America and creating, with a colleague, a Nonviolent Peaceforce.

David has lived his life with compassion, commitment and courage.  He is principled, but also pragmatic.  He finds, “It is much easier to make friends than to fight enemies.”  He asks us to use our imaginations: “Imagine how the world would change if we recruited millions of people for the Peace Corps, nonviolent peace teams, and other constructive efforts, rather than for our military forces.  Think of how much safer we all would be if the world knew Americans as healers and teachers, builders of clinics and schools, and supporters of land reform, rather than as deadly dominators.”  Imagine what a different world that would be.

In addition to telling his life story, David has a chapter on “Transforming Our Society from One Addicted to Violence and War to One Based on Justice and Peace with the World.”  He also included sections on: Proposal for Ending All War; Resources for Further Study and Action; Ten Lessons Learned from My Life of Activism; and much more.

David Hartsough’s life is inspiring, and the lessons he draws from his experiences are valuable in paving the way to a world without war.  I encourage you to read his book on his lifelong efforts at Waging Peace.

Hartsough, David with Joyce Hollyday, Waging Peace, Global Adventures of a Lifelong Activist (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2014)


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Waging Peace: A Review

By Rev. Sharon Delgado
General Board of Church & Society
January 26th, 2015


Waging Peace: Global Adventures of a Lifelong Activist by veteran activist David Hartsough is part autobiography, part recent history, and part call to action. This new book shows how a commitment to active nonviolence can plant the seeds and provide the impetus for significant social transformation.

In 2012 I was arrested with David and Jan Hartsough, Shirley Osgood and Janie Kesselman at a demonstration at Beale Air Force Base, near my home in Northern California. We were the first of many to be arrested at anti-drone protests at Beale, home of the Global Hawk, a surveillance drone that helps identify targets for armed Predator and Reaper drones.

Our arrests resulted in a trial that generated significant publicity. Our case and others like it at bases around the country got people discussing and questioning the morality of killing people by remote control.

Throughout the trial, David urged our lawyers to focus on the Nuremburg Principles and International Law, even though the judge refused to consider these factors as a defense. We were found “guilty” of trespassing onto base property.

Before being sentenced we each gave a statement to the court. David’s complete sentencing statement is an addendum to Waging Peace.

The judge could have sentenced us to six months in jail. After hearing our statements, she acknowledged that we were motivated by "deeply held ethical and religious beliefs,” and consequently sentenced us to just 10 hours of community service.

We continue to demonstrate at Beale, however. As David says, “Sustained resistance brings transformation.”

Many adventures

David is Executive Director of Peaceworkers, based in San Francisco, and co-founder with Mel Duncan of the Nonviolent Peaceforce.

In Waging Peace, David shares some of his many adventures in active nonviolence, as well as his strong faith and the spiritual beliefs that motivate his actions as a Quaker and as a Christian. This book engages the reader every step of the way.

A man held a knife to his heart and threatened to kill him

Waging Peace is a compelling autobiography that tells the story of a life-threatening encounter David had at age 20 while sitting with African American students at a “whites only” lunch counter in Arlington, Va. A man held a knife to his heart and threatened to kill him. Fortunately for David, he had already incorporated a deep inner commitment to nonviolence, and was able to respond in a way that diffused the anger of his would-be killer.

As he tells the story of his childhood, David explains what brought him to this life-threatening event, how he handled the situation. He describes how the seeds of peace were sown by his remarkable parents, how he came to understand what Jesus meant when he said to love your enemies, how he began early experiments with nonviolence, and how he came to dedicate himself to living a life consistent with his values.

Modern-day history

David’s father was a Congregational minister who worked for the American Friends Service Committee, and his friends and colleagues had a big influence on David, especially the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. By the age of 15, David was organizing demonstrations against nuclear weapons.

In addition to being an autobiography, this book is a modern-day history of nonviolent social movements, written from the perspective of a committed activist. As an agent for nonviolent social change, David seems to have always been at the right place at the right time.

During the Cold War, David travelled to Russia and organized peace demonstrations there. As the United States and Soviet Union were threatening nuclear war over the divided city of Berlin, David lived in West Berlin just a few blocks from Checkpoint Charlie. He traveled back and forth to East Berlin, learning as much as he could and speaking out against both communist and capitalist propaganda. Ten years later the FBI issued a warrant for his arrest and questioned him about his activities there.

David and Jan, his beloved wife and partner in nonviolent action, stopped paying “war taxes” early on. David claimed conscientious-objector status and was an outspoken critic during the Vietnam War.

Committed to the good

David was protesting with his friend Brian Willson on the day that Brian was run over and his legs severed by a train carrying munitions to Central America. David writes about the trauma of that event, but also about how many people continued to block the trains. A short time later his elderly mother and father joined him and others on the tracks.

David and Jan traveled in Central American war zones during the 1980s, when U.S. financial support to corrupt regimes and death squads made such travel and life for people who lived there extremely dangerous. He worked in the United States with Cesar Chavez in the struggles for the rights of farmworkers.

In the 1990s, David was part of a Fellowship of Reconciliation delegation for peace in Bosnia-Hertzegovnia. He has travelled extensively in his peacemaking work, including to Iran and Palestine. His peacemaking work continues, including through Peaceworkers and the Nonviolent Peaceforce.

The book is written not only by an observer in these historic events, but from the perspective of one who is committed to the good: to compassion, justice and peace.

Call to action

In addition to being an autobiography and a first-hand history of social movements, Waging Peace is an inspiring call to action. Every page expresses David’s hope for lasting social transformation based on his faith and his experience. By reading about David’s adventures as a skilled practitioner of active nonviolence in key historical events of our time, the reader gains hope and confidence that significant change is possible.

Waging Peace is a “how to” book for transforming our society and the world. It encourages us to start where we are, by learning and practicing nonviolence in all areas of our lives. It includes a wealth of suggestions and resources for would-be activists. This book not only gives practical direction, but also shows us the strong foundation built by others upon which we can stand in solidarity with other people of faith and conscience around the world.

After describing some of the astonishing changes that nonviolent action has brought about in recent years in places around the world, David writes:

What other spots on our earth are waiting for such stunning change? What corner is beckoning to your heart and spirit? Where is God leading you to invest your life on behalf of a world where all God’s children share the abundance and live as one family in peace and harmony with the earth?

David closes Waging Peace with this statement of faith: “Deep in my heart, I do believe, that — together — We Shall Overcome!”

You can order signed copies of Waging Peace from Peaceworkers or order from a local bookstore. It is also available on online outlets, such as Cokesbury.com.

Editor's note: The Rev. Sharon Delgado is a United Methodist member of the California-Nevada Annual Conference. You can read more about her at sharondelgado.org/.


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