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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A half-burned page on al-Mutanabbi Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing as performing survival of neocolonial necropolitics

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wielding Words Like Weapons: A Change-links Review

By Michael Novice
September 30th, 2017

This new volume of essays by the noted Indigenous activist and scholar Ward Churchill is, as he noted in his own introduction, about a decade overdue because of  the reactionary and racist attacks on the author and his work when right wing media and academic and political authorities. Churchill was forced to defend himself, his work, his indigeneity, and his career from a belated, manufactured outrage over his use of the term “little Eichmanns” to describe some of the global financiers in the World Trade Center that was brought down on Sept. 11. 2001. (He eventually prevailed in a civil suit he brought after he was dismissed by the trustees of the University of Colorado led by a member of the Coors family). Depriving us of these insightful essays, book reviews, politico-legal analyses and personal memoirs in book form for so long is yet another crime of the system of colonialism and white supremacy, a measure of how threatened that system is by Churchill’s well-reasoned and uncompromising critique of the land theft and genocide that continue to this day.

To cite four examples from this nearly-600-page work: In “Subverting the Law of Nations,” Churchill methodically and convincingly uses the legal and diplomatic reasoning and institutions of the United States government itself (in Supreme Court rulings, treaty language and Indian Claims Commission findings well into the 20th Century) to demonstrate the illegality on its own terms of US claims to sovereignty over this land, and the unextinguished nature of “the right of indigenous nations to recover property to which their title remains unclouded, or … their right to recover lands seized without payment…”

In  “Broadening Our View of the Penal Colony, ” his book review of Luana Ross’s Inventing the Savage, Churchill calls attention to her effectiveness in overcoming two weaknesses of much of recent organizing and polemicizing about the prison-industrial complex: “a rather lopsided emphasis on men, and a pronounced tendency to ignore American Indians.” He cites her research into the numbers, where imprisoned Natives are 1/3 of the prisoner population in Alaska, nearly 1/4 in South Dakota, and over 1/6 in North Dakota and Montana; in every case double or triple their share of the general population. In Montana, Native women are 25% of the total female prisoner population. Quoting Ross: “Thus Native women are more likely to be imprisoned than Native men or white women.” Churchill points out the conclusion that Ross draws: The very existence of the US requires an ongoing internal colonization of the indigenous nations upon whose land it has constituted itself.

In “American Indians in Film,” Churchill reviews all the tropes of Hollywood “Indians,” including the most “enlightened” and “progressive” directors, to demonstrate that the notion that the US, or other Western societies built and based on stolen land, are in no way “post-colonial,” and in the process to demonstrate the inadequacies of “post-modernity” and other cultural and political critiques that evade the responsibility to overturn and correct the underlying crimes of this system. In describing his use of such films in his teaching, he also outlines a pedagogy that leads to “not simply an empowering of students to interpret the world more accurately, but to change it.”
In “Kizhiibbinesik/A Bright Star, Burning Briefly”, Churchill writes movingly of the life, destruction and death of his late wife, Leah Renae Kelly, a brilliant, creative writer, painter and film-maker. Alcohol and alcoholism, demonic and overwhelming forms of self-medication for historic, familial and personal trauma, led to her early and tragic death on the cusp of fulfilling some of her creative capacities. Churchill says, “I’ve sought …to draw readers into sharing some facet of my sense of loss … embracing it as their own… What happened to Leah was indeed tragic, but it was no tragedy … it was a crime, an offense against humanity remarkable not in its singularity but because it is so common … and all but universally ignored… Call it, as I have, colonialism. Or, as I also have, call it genocide.”

Other essays in the volume spell out more fully why Churchill rightly calls it genocide, and why colonialism was, and remains a crime. Some may differ with his believe that ultimately, international law can be used as an effective weapon to right these wrongs, but his thinking must be grappled and the profound analyses and carefully documented (and profusely footnoted) research he provides are invaluable. If you can’t afford a copy of your own, get your school, college or public library to buy a few copies. Indigenous Peoples Day would be a good time to start reading it.

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San Francisco Is So Expensive, You Can Make Six Figures and Still Be 'Low Income'

By Karen Zraick
New York Times
June 30th 2018

In the latest sign of the astronomical cost of living in parts of California, the federal government now classifies a family of four earning up to $117,400 as low-income in three counties around the Bay Area.

That threshold, the highest of its kind in the nation, applies to San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin Counties. It’s used to determine eligibility for federal and local housing assistance programs. (But it’s different from the federal poverty guidelines.)

To generate the number, officials at the Department of Housing and Urban Development factor in the median income and average housing costs in an area. The second-highest threshold is in Honolulu, according to the agency — but the third is also in the Bay Area, in Santa Clara County, the heart of Silicon Valley. The New York City area, where a family of four earning up to $83,450 is classified as low-income, came in at No. 9.

Back in the Bay Area, residents and experts said they weren’t surprised.

“It sounds ridiculous, but it’s not,” said Richard A. Walker, a professor emeritus of geography at U.C. Berkeley and the author of a recent book about the tech boom and displacement in the Bay Area. As the tech industry has drawn legions of highly paid workers to the area, home prices aren’t the only thing that has gone up. Transportation, utilities and food are also costly.


“It’s arguably the most expensive city in the country, so what that translates to is really not that much money,” said Ed Cabrera, a Housing and Urban Development spokesman who is based in San Francisco. “Especially with children in an area where properties are considered affordable if they’re going for half a million dollars.”

The federal government pegs the “fair market rent” for a two-bedroom in the San Francisco area at $3,121. The median home price has climbed above $1 million, according to a recent report by the California Association of Realtors, and sales are robust.

The “low income” designation allows people to qualify for affordable housing and a variety of government programs, like ones for first-time home buyers.

But officials noted that a vast majority of San Francisco-area residents who get direct housing assistance, like the vouchers known as Section 8, are well below the maximum low-income standard: The average household that receives assistance makes just $18,000. And the average wait time to make it into subsidized housing is 64 months.

In neighboring San Mateo County, officials say the housing stock — primarily single-family homes, many on picturesque cul-de-sacs — lags far behind demand. Many residents who have been forced to move farther inland now face grueling commutes to their jobs.

“We’re the epicenter of the affordability crisis we’re seeing in the hotter markets throughout the U.S.,” said Ken Cole, the county’s director of housing.

“What it means on the ground is that teachers, first responders, people who grew up here of average income are being forced out by the high prices,” he said.

He called for building new, higher-density housing along rail lines. Others, including Mr. Walker, say the state should abolish a state law that limits rent control and consider other steps to cool the overheated market.

“The very success of the place undermines the viability of life for at least the lower half, if not the lower two-thirds,” Mr. Walker said. “And those are the people who get forgotten in the narrative of the glamour of tech changing the world.”

Kate Hartley, director of the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, said high construction costs and low federal funding had added to the challenges of keeping low- and middle-income people in the city.

“What makes the Bay Area great is its diversity, its creative and innovative economy, and its free spirit,” she said.

“But the harder it is to house our artists, teachers, restaurant workers, health care providers,” she added, “the more we put that great spirit and strong economy at risk.”

Houses near the Bay Bridge in picturesque, but prohibitively pricey, San Francisco. Housing costs have skyrocketed as the tech industry has drawn lots of high-paid workers to the area.CreditJim Wilson/The New York Times

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PM Press: Ten Years of Literary Molotovs

By Craig O'Hara
Fifth Estate
Summer 2018

"If a revolutionary's first weapon is a book, PM Press has the arsenal. Their texts are battle plans for a new world." —Peter Werbe, Fifth Estate 

PM Press celebrated its tenth anniversary of publishing in May with a bang-up party in Oakland, Calif., where staff, authors, and various well-wishers howled at political sketch comedy, smashed a captured Amazon delivery drone, and danced the night away to good old punk rock.  

PM Press was founded at the end of 2007 by a small collection of people with decades of publishing, media, and organizing experience. At the outset we strived to create and distribute radical audio, video, and text releases through every available channel in all possible formats. True to one expanded variation of our name, "Print Matters," we're shamelessly biased in favor of hardcopy books as the best format to communicate ideas for social change.

In many ways, book publishing is similar to entertainment-related industries like professional sports or music, where the pressure is heavy to produce recognized, celebrity-driven material aimed at the lowest common denominator, as quickly and cheaply as possible. Our peers in publishing too often chase the wild goose they hope will carry them into a financially secure situation. This includes not just authors but every part of the industry involved with publishing a physical book, most of whom have little active role in promoting social change: rural paper mills, industrial park printers, strained freight carriers, overstocked distributors, and brick and mortar stores.

"When the PM Press book cart rolls into town, it's reassuring to know that the drivers have as much vision as the writers that they carry." —Ian MacKaye, Dischord Records

PM Press has never had a New York Times bestseller, and you will not find our books reviewed in its pages. It's not part of the financial equation for small presses to reach the mainstream by moving millions of copies of single titles—although we have sold millions of copies of books in total, often one at time, face to face. Events like anarchist book fairs and the existence of radical book shops are critical to exposing our work around the world. We organized, promoted, or attended 370 author events and 200 tabling exhibits in 2017 alone. PM is currently staffed by 10 people: several scattered around the West Coast, others working from the Rockies, Appalachia, New England, Montreal, and in the UK. After years of volunteer work, we are able to pay living wages by producing 30 books per year for gross sales surpassing a million dollars. And like Fifth Estate, PM just celebrated our 400th release.

There is a shrinking audience in 2018 for what we'd call historical anarchist texts, which have long been the staple of movement publishers. While anarchism has earned respect as a topic of intellectual study and debate in the universities, the discourse too often takes place apart from the poor and working-class communities that nurtured the movement in the 19th and 20th centuries; defanged by spring-break symposiums and backslapping sabbaticals.

One of our tasks as anarchist publishers, then, is to inject the historical politics of anarchism—active self-organizing, promotion of equality, opposition to hierarchy, the state, and organized religion—into the movements, milieus, and media of the times. Anarchism is always on the side of the oppressed. It never seeks mainstream respectability.

"Working with a press that respects writers and is committed to radical politics is a dream come true. It helps that they also make great and beautiful books. I find PM books all over the world; it's a sign that I've found a great bookseller." —Cory Doctorow, author of The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow 

The good news is that we have a broad enough umbrella to be a part of the discussion within many different cultures and experiences, from political prisoners to punk rockers, social scientists to cartoonists. Among our bestsellers, books such as Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology, the full-color Understanding Jim Crow: Using Racist Memorabilia to Teach Tolerance and Promote Social Justice, and the West Virginia history book Gun Thugs, Rednecks, and Radicals, bridge perceived gaps between traditional supporters of anarchist publications, those involved with grassroots social justice activism, and professional writers and educators doing some of the best work in their fields.  

At the tiny level on which independent publishers operate, selling 3,000 copies of a book in one year makes it a bestseller. A handful of anarchist-specific backlist titles, including books on the CNT in the Spanish Revolution, German philosopher Gustav Landauer's collected works, and titles by UK activists Stuart Christie or Colin Ward, may not sell 100 copies annually, combined.

Many of the problems facing independent publishers today are the same as decades ago. Rising physical costs of producing a book—paper, freight, storage, advertising, distribution—are still everyday concerns. And who wants to do the unglamorous and physically demanding work of warehousing, or spend years learning the highly-detailed, solitary skills of proofing, indexing, and book design for projects that will rarely be financially profitable?

Yet countless writers, artists, and activists are submitting more manuscripts and proposals than PM could ever publish. If a dozen independent publishers formed tomorrow to disseminate these texts, in every format and genre, they'd have plenty of work to do, and we would all benefit.

"PM's range is vast—coloring books and cookbooks, polemics, memoirs, novels, pamphlets, treatises, manifestos, and comics. PM's topics are encyclopedic—bicycles, vegetables, squatting, sex, soccer, punks, Wobblies, self-defense, fathering, mothering, striking, sitting in, you name it. PM is an altogether terrific outfit keeping the flags flying—red, black, and rainbow." —Peter Linebaugh, author of Stop, Thief! 

Anti-authoritarian books garner plenty of attention within the modern anarchist movement, but building lasting alternatives to capitalism is what we have to do, not just churn out books. The ideas and examples contained in these books must inspire the doers who create community lending libraries, food-growing and sharing co-ops, non-capitalist child and elder care, prisoner support networks—and yes, as dated as it sounds, revolution against oppression by any means necessary.


Craig O'Hara, cofounder of PM Press and the Tabling Tornadoes, has spent the last twenty-five years publishing and selling radical books to stores big and small, at book fairs, academic conferences, rock concerts, flea markets, and activist gatherings nationwide.

On the Fly in The Washington Post

The Washington Post

July 24th, 2018

In 1915, Charlie Chaplin, to the delight of moviegoers, created “The Tramp,” an enduring image of the sooty and bumbling yet lovable vagrant. Although distinctions were drawn between hobos and tramps, they were American migrants who hopped freight and passenger trains in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some traveling in search of work, some others for less uplifting reasons.

“On the Fly,” an anthology billed as the first of its kind, guides us through the literature of “hobohemia” — the “jungles” (camps), “decks” (tops of passenger trains) and “main stems” (main streets) haunted by characters such as Sugar Butt Sam, Long Coat Lizy and Slicker Fastblack.

Editor Iain McIntyre has included writing from 1879 to America’s entry into the Second World War, by which time many migrants had taken to highways in automobiles. The tales and ballads demonstrate how hobos inspired both fear and envy in people trapped in domestic routines.

Popular portrayals such as Chaplin’s naïf belie just how literary hobos could be. Harry Kemp describes how he avoided jail a couple of times because sheriffs were awed “to find a tramp reading Shakespeare.” Meanwhile, in Glen Mullin’s white-knuckle tale of “riding the rods” — from his 1925 memoir “Adventures of a Scholar Tramp” — the author imagines the train passengers above him, who have no clue that “under their feet, hanging precariously to a rod, was a grimy hobo reading a socialistic pamphlet by Oscar Wilde.”

Women also rode the rails. Ben Reitman, writing as Boxcar Bertha, describes “the best known of the queens,” Lizzie Davis, who reminded him “of a great turbine engine, throbbing away. She had tremendous sex appeal, in spite of her hundred and seventy pounds and her ill-fitting, shabby gowns.”

Life on the road was not all ad­ven­ture. Many accounts, such as Edwin Brown’s 1920 book “Broke: The Man Without a Dime,” tell of severe deprivation, including one tragic image of an old man lying on the ground, covered in tobacco juice, while vermin scampered around, feasting on last night’s dinner scraps.

Men ride on the “pilot” or “cowcatcher” of a train in the 1890s. (Courtesy of PM Press)

Morley Roberts, one of several English writers who “tramped around” America in search of material, wrote in 1904 that “America is a hard place, for it has been made by hard men . . . the unconquerable rebel, the natural adventurer, the desperado seeking a lawless realm.” Starting in the 1890s, Jack Black spent grueling years as a thief and opium addict before becoming a librarian and writing such books as “You Can’t Win,” a model for William S. Burroughs’s “Junky.”

African American writer William Attaway — who would go on to write “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” with Harry Belafonte — describes horrendous conditions for a group of travelers in 1919, during the Great Migration. He reports that migrants “squatted on the straw-spread floor of a boxcar, bunched up like hogs headed for market, riding in the dark for what might have been years.”

Hobos of all kinds avoided the American South, where they were often rounded up and placed in forced-labor camps.

Who were these men exactly? Some dreamed not of freedom but of “standing at their machines in their factories . . . lined up at the office window on pay day.” For others, life “on the fly” was not about excitement or employment. Writer and transient Henri Tascheraud describes those like him as “for the most part throwbacks, pure and simple. We don’t fit, and that is why we love vagabondage, and disdain respectability.”

McIntyre includes lyrics to folk ballads, protest songs and blues songs, the most affecting being those like “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” which yearns for a promised land “where all the cops have wooden legs . . . and the hens lay soft-boiled eggs.”

The spirit of these roving authors lived on in Jack Kerouac’s restless dreamers, Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” and Jack Nicholson’s drifter Bobby Dupea in “Five Easy Pieces.”

In an era when tent cities spring up in prosperous American metropolitan areas, the lives captured in “On the Fly” feel less comfortably distant than we might like. That is perhaps why the best of these classic accounts of “bumming around” retain all their simmering anger and desperate optimism.

Ernest Hilbert is a poet and dealer in rare books.

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Whatever happened to those radical boomer activists from the '60s and '70s?

Boston, MA - 10/15/1969: Participants in the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam demonstration hold up peace signs while gathered on Boston Common on Oct. 15, 1969. (Paul Connell/Globe Staff) --- BGPA Reference: 180111_BS_003
The Boston Globe/File
Antiwar protesters on Boston Common in 1969.

The “Me Generation” propelled an age of dissent, and then seemed to lose interest. Or so the story goes. 

TOM WOLFE FAMOUSLY TAGGED the 1970s the “Me Decade.” The era marked the coming of age of the baby boomers, who had been outraged students in the late 1960s: for civil rights and feminism, against the war in Vietnam and police brutality. When the world didn’t change fast enough, they sought personal gain and fulfillment instead. The “Me Generation” gorged on the most prosperous period in American history and left a mess for subsequent generations to clean up. Over time they’ve become the “worst generation,” even a “generation of sociopaths.

Or so we’ve been told.

That’s a little harsh, say those who lived it. The “leading edge” boomers — those born between 1946 and 1955 — grew up with regular reminders of the existential threats that lurked beyond the cul-de-sac: “duck-and-cover” drills in case of nuclear attack, a president assassinated for the first time since 1901, civil rights protests and race rioting, and escalating involvement in Vietnam. Then came 1968. The year had just begun when the Tet Offensive, North Vietnam’s massive effort to inspire rebellion among the South Vietnamese and encourage the United States to scale back its involvement, launched on the Vietnamese new year in late January.


Lew Finfer was a high school senior in suburban New York in the spring of 1968, organizing marchers for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign. For him, the reports out of Vietnam that year put the lie to “three things a lot of the boomers were raised with: that our government always tells the truth, that whenever we fight a war we’re completely right and moral, and that the communists are the evil, godless ones.” Finfer never stopped organizing, moving on to school desegregation in Boston in the 1970s. Today, at 67, he serves as co-director of Massachusetts Communities Action Network in Dorchester.

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“There’s a certain mythology that the boomers gave up on their idealism,” says Allen Young, who was a staff member of the Liberation News Service, the “underground” news organization founded in Washington, D.C., in 1967 by Amherst College grad Marshall Bloom and Boston University alum Ray Mungo. Like Finfer, Young, who was born in 1941, begs to differ with that assessment. “I know a number of people who became nurses, doctors, social workers, and therapists,” he says. Even many of the lawyers he knew ended up working on social and environmental issues.

In truth, most boomers did not join protests against Vietnam or anything else. The ’60s did see rallies of sizes unprecedented at the time, with 250,000 people attending the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, and by some estimates 2 million turning out nationwide for 1969’s first Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam (100,000 came to Boston Common). Relative to the population, the moratorium was probably the biggest protest the country had seen before last year’s Women’s Marches, which drew as many as 5 million Americans. The perception of the boomers as activists extraordinaire lingers, however, perhaps because they were the first generation whose iconic events were widely broadcast on television. Certainly, Doonesbury’s Zonker, Megaphone Mark, Joanie, and the rest of Garry Trudeau’s original Walden Commune residents have kept the cartoon archetypes of the boomers in the public eye.

BTM1582397:TET OFFENSIVE:HUE,SOUTH VIETNAM-FILE PHOTO 7FEB68-His own clothes drenched with his buddies blood, a US Marine looks up in disbelief as he tries to comfort his wounded friend during action at the Citadel wall at Hue, February 3, 1968. U1582397 CREDIT: BETTMANN ARCHIVE
A US soldier tends to a fallen comrade during the Tet Offensive.

One big spark for the era’s activism was the Democratic National Convention in August 1968 in Chicago, where antiwar Senator Eugene McCarthy faced off against Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. Tens of thousands of student protesters gathered on the city’s streets to demonstrate against the war. Many of them had responded to the call of organizers including the Yippies, the Youth International Party, founded by Worcester’s Abbie Hoffman and friends. The Yippies were notorious for pranks that included dumping fistfuls of money onto the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange and promising to “levitate” the Pentagon. In Chicago, they would nominate a pig as their party’s presidential candidate. But they were also savvy manipulators of the still relatively new medium of television, and effective organizers.

“There was an incredible feeling there was going to be something happening” in Chicago, says Ron Pownall, now a Boston-based rock photographer, then a college student covering the protests as a cub photographer for the Chicago Tribune. “The tension was palpable.”


Christopher “Kit” Binns drove his Volkswagen Beetle from Princeton, where he was a student, to Chicago to support McCarthy. He found himself in the middle of the so-called Battle of Michigan Avenue. Binns, a South Shore native who is now a 71-year-old retiree living in Dorchester, remembers how the police began charging the crowd “like fish through the sea. They just kind of barged around like that all evening long.”

Pownall’s photos told the story as it unfolded, from the rows of helmeted police forming a human wall to the young man who was pummeled for pulling down an American flag. One image captures a bloodied protester on the ground, glasses in hand, while others tend to his injuries. Pownall learned months later that the injured man was Rennie Davis, another Yippie and one of eight protest organizers, including Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, who would be tried for incitement to riot in the infamous Chicago Seven trial of 1969. (The eighth, Bobby Seale, was tried separately.) An independent report pinned the violence on a minority of officers who engaged in what “can only be termed a police riot.”

Televised nightly on the network news, the footage of Chicago police clubbing and tear-gassing young demonstrators revealed two Americas, literally lined up in opposition. There were the youth, who were being sent overseas to a war they did not support, and the authorities, many of them — such as Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and FBI head J. Edgar Hoover — men who had lived through the Great Depression, men who would not tolerate dissent. “I do remember Walter Cronkite looking straight into the camera with his tortoiseshell glasses,” says Judy Gumbo, who was a leader of the Yippies along with her late husband, Stew Albert. She recalls Cronkite commenting, “ ‘They’re beating our children.’ ”

0 WAS97:CAMPAIGN-HOTEL:WASHINGTON,20AUG96 - FILE PHOTO AUG68 - Chicago police and anti-war demonstrators fight on Michigan Avenue during the Democratic National Convention in 1968. As Chicago prepares to host the Democratic National Convention beginning August 26, local sites remember the riots and confusion that occurre d the last time the city hosted the Democratic National Convention.jw/CORBIS-BETTMANN-UPI REUTERS ++FOR ONE TIME EDITORIAL USE ONLY WITHIN 90 DAYS OF TRANSM ISSION++ Library Tag 07252004 National/Foreign
The New York Times
Police and protesters clash in Chicago in 1968.

At one point, as police were herding protesters into police wagons, the crowd began chanting, “The whole world is watching.”

“We knew it was true,” says Gumbo, “and it gave us confidence. We knew we were on the side of the righteous.” During the primaries, a majority of votes cast had been for antiwar candidates. But most delegates were assigned in party caucuses, and the Democrats nominated Humphrey to run against Richard Nixon.


After Chicago, boomers and their slightly older counterparts ramped up their demands for attention. Across Greater Boston, students seemed to be out in the streets as often as they were in the classroom. Campus buildings were occupied by students at Harvard, Boston University, and Boston College, where African-American students aired a list of grievances, bringing the aims of the Black Power movement to Chestnut Hill. At MIT, students engaged in a six-day standoff with officials in late fall 1968 when they created a “sanctuary” for a soldier who had deserted after turning against the war.

MIT student George Katsiaficas was the son of an Army man; he’d been considering military service himself until the war changed his mind. He was the only undergraduate MIT named to a blue-ribbon panel to evaluate the school’s innocuously named Instrumentation Laboratory, which researched technologies for NASA and the US Department of Defense. “It opened my eyes,” says Katsiaficas. “I had no idea that MIT was so directly involved in developing weapons systems.”

The research center was eventually spun off from the school as the independent nonprofit Draper Laboratory. Katsiaficas became an ardent protester, spurred both by his work on the panel and the death of a lacrosse teammate, Paul Baker, who’d joined the Marines and was killed in Quang Tri. Katsiaficas missed his graduation while serving a 45-day sentence at the Middlesex House of Correction in Billerica for “disturbing a school.” In graduate school at the University of California at San Diego, he studied with radical Marxist Herbert Marcuse, then came back to Boston to teach social science at the Wentworth Institute of Technology, publishing more than a dozen books on leftist politics. His next, The Global Imagination of 1968, is out next month.

“Even for people who were not against the war, those events revealed the character of the world,” says Katsiaficas. “Something about the world and the way it was perceived changed. . . . The United States I thought I knew was not the United States that existed. I was totally shocked, surprised, and horrified at what was on the evening news every night.”

BTM1608809:YIPPIE:WASHINGTON-FILE PHOTO 5OCT68-Before there were Yuppies, there were Yippies. Abbie Hoffman, leader of Youth International Party is arrested in Washington, October 5, 1968. U1608809 CREDIT: BETTMANN-UPI library tag 08272000 new england
bettman upi
Police in Washington, D.C., arrest Abbie Hoffman in 1968.

The unrest continued into the early 1970s. BU even canceled undergraduate finals and commencement in 1970, after a rash of fires set in school buildings. Violence created a rift between protesters who shunned aggression and those who believed it necessary for true change. Surveys have shown that protests, for all their drama, were supported by a small percentage of Americans, and they began to die down. The draft, a hot-button issue for activists, ended in 1973, and boomer activism began to shift to the Equal Rights Amendment, while the country as a whole was buffeted by the oil crisis and then stagflation. Some of the Yippies became Yuppies in the go-go 1980s — Jerry Rubin famously became a stockbroker. But Rubin also marketed a health drink made with bee pollen, ginseng, and kelp. It was called Wow!

Pownall thinks the number of boomers “who went that way, to the money side, is way less percentage-wise than it had been in previous generations. There were still a lot of people with liberal cred.” In fact, polls have shown that older boomers have consistently leaned Democrat, while those born after the mid-1950s, coming of age during the Carter and Reagan presidencies, have tended to be more conservative.

Yet even on campus in the 1960s, the boomers weren’t uniformly hippie. Reid Ashe covered the soldier-sanctuary incident as a reporter for MIT’s student newspaper, The Tech. Ashe, a native of Charlotte, North Carolina, only attended protests as a reporter. “I certainly believed that the war was wrong, that things needed to change,” he says. But while some students “were committed to the movement,” of the students he knew at MIT, many more “were too busy doing other stuff, studying for the next exam.” Ashe became a managing editor at The Tech and then went into newspaper management.

He witnessed another side of boomer activism as president and publisher of The Wichita Eagle in Kansas in 1991, when the “Summer of Mercy” took over the city for six weeks of protests against three abortion clinics. Thousands of advocates on both sides showed up on the streets; by the end, more than 2,500 demonstrators were arrested. It was one example of conservative boomers adopting the language and tactics of social protest associated with their more liberal peers.

Somerville, MA--5/29/2018-- Photographer Ron Pownall poses for a portrait inside his studio in Somerville. (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff) Topic: 061018BoomActivism Reporter:
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Ron Pownall in his Somerville studio, with photos he took at the Chicago protests.

There was no single response to the events of the times, says Theda Skocpol, a professor of government and sociology at Harvard. She and her husband, Bill Skocpol, had married as students at Michigan State University and came to Cambridge in 1969 to do graduate work at Harvard. “People took different lessons from it all. For me, all those events cemented a lifelong commitment to social justice.”

She does think the ’60s and ’70s were a freer time for activism. “People were not as fearful then as they are now,” she says. “The atmosphere of students being afraid for their futures if they got involved in protest, that was not then.”

Some members of the generation have revisited their youthful spirit of protest since fellow boomer Donald Trump was elected president. They’ve been outspoken on Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement, and shown up for the Women’s Marches, where thousands of boomer women joined their younger counterparts in donning pink “pussy hats.”

Boomers are supporting younger activists now. As Finfer sees it, these new generations are carrying on the healthy brand of skepticism the boomers introduced into the national discourse. Ask anyone from subsequent generations if they ever believed their government would always tell the truth, he says, “and they’ll look at you like, ‘Are you kidding?’ ”

In this new age of division and despair, Finfer still sees plenty of reasons to be hopeful. He points, for example, to the young people pushing for gun control laws in the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shootings in Florida. It may be years before those young activists see any results, he says. “It’s not like they’re going to demonstrate every day forever. But that’s a major event some of them are passing through, the same way our generation had to deal with the Vietnam War and civil rights and so forth.

“Every generation has its idealism and people who live that in lots of ways, and obviously some people who fall short of that in lots of ways,” he says. “It shouldn’t be a choice between Mother Teresa and Jerry Rubin. There’s a lot of space in between.”

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A new bill aims to send masked Antifa activists to jail for 15 years

By Dakin Andone

Antifa activists could be jailed for up to 15 years for wearing masks under a bill introduced by a US congressman.
If passed, Bill HR 6054 would punish anyone wearing a mask or disguise who "injures, oppresses, threatens, or intimidates" someone else exercising a right guaranteed under the Constitution.
The title of the bill -- "Unmasking Antifa Act of 2018" -- makes it clear that Antifa activists are its intended target, but the bill's text never explicitly mentions them.

The bill, which was introduced by Republican Rep. Dan Donovan of New York last month, has drawn widespread condemnation from critics who claim it unfairly targets Antifa activists, while it could embolden the far-right demonstrators Antifa protests against.

"This is another draconian measure to actually criminalize dissent in the United States," said Scott Crow, a former Antifa organizer and author.

"Because the law, even if it doesn't explicitly state 'leftists who mask up,' that's who the largest potential target of the law is," he said, "far more than white nationalists."

The term "Antifa," short for "anti-fascist," is used to refer to a loose coalition of individuals with left-leaning political views that often fall outside of the mainstream Democratic Party's platform.

The group has no figurehead or official governing body, but members -- some of whom turn to radical or militant tactics to make their views known -- generally oppose the inequality of wealth by corporations and discrimination against marginalized communities. They often wear black and obscure their faces while protesting.

The Antifa movement's profile has significantly risen in recent years, especially after members clashed with self-described "white nationalists" in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer -- a day that ended in tragedy when a James Alex Fields Jr. allegedly drove a car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one demonstrator, Heather Heyer.

Crow said the bill is an attempt by lawmakers to avoid tackling the issue of hate speech and instead address a "symptom" of it by targeting protests.

"Instead of dealing with that, they'd just rather deal with this," he said, "which is to put a band aid on something."

Walter Shaub, the former director of the Office of Government Ethics, tweeted about the bill on Tuesday, suggesting it advanced "authoritarianism."
"Two groups go to Charlottesville. A big group chants racist filth, wields semi-automatic assault rifles, fires a gun into a crowd & murders a woman with a car," he wrote. "A small group wears masks. It's the small group these Congressmen want to lock up for 15 years. Authoritarianism rises."

Unmasking the leftist Antifa movement
Donovan's office sent out a fact sheet that pointed out other instances in which Antifa activists exhibited violence, including an instance in February 2017 where they turned up to protest at a speaking event held by right-wing commentator Milo Yiannopoulous at UC Berkeley.

Donovan's spokesman Patrick Ryan also pointed out that the bill would simply add a section to federal civil rights statutes to include a penalty for wearing a mask.

"My bill expands upon long-standing civil rights statutes to make it a crime to deprive someone of Constitutionally-guaranteed protections while masked or disguised," Donovan said in a statement sent to CNN.

"Americans have the natural right to speak and protest freely; it is not a right to throw Molotov cocktails and beat people while hiding behind a mask."

But regardless of whether the bill becomes law, Crow said it won't stop protesters from wearing masks.
"If they take away the right to mask up," he said, "people will still do it anyway to fight against authoritarianism in any form."

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Repression & Resistance: From RNC 2000 to Trump

By Eric Laursen
The Fifth Estate
Summer 2018

Crashing the Party
was published three years ago, but it couldn’t be more timely in the age of Trump and Sessions. Kris Hermes’s book is an in-depth account of the legal saga that began with the repression and mass arrests of activists at the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.

Much of the groundwork for the hyper-aggressive style of protest policing that’s since become common practice, and that reached a new intensity with the outlandish charges against activists at the Trump inaugural, was laid in Philly that summer. Fortunately, it was answered by new techniques of response by arrestees and a renaissance of legal collectives that carry resistance from the streets and police wagons to the jails and courtrooms.

Hermes, who threw himself into the legal campaign for the Philly RNC arrestees as part of the R2K Legal Collective, is an excellent storyteller. He lucidly teases out the many volatile elements that made the convention a powder-keg: the city’s extreme cop culture, the seething racial tensions encapsulated by the politically motivated incarceration of activist-journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, the city’s splurge of taxpayer dollars to accommodate the orgy of influence-peddling that was the RNC, and the systematic demonization of protesters labeled violent by a compliant mainstream media.

He detaiLs tHe preparations by activists for a national convergence opposing the convention, and the efforts of the city and the national security state to stop them, from illegal surveillance and infiltration to unprovoked raids, to an extraordinary, secretly negotiated insurance policy immunizing the city from liability for actions such as false arrest, libel, and malicious prosecution.

From the beginning, anarchists were specifically targeted. One a davit submitted by the police listing organizations tagged for search and seizure included the blanket entry, “Anarchists.”
Inside the convention, George W. Bush was anointed Republican presidential nominee. Outside, the city’s insurance policy licensed police to engage in a free-for-all of beatings, preemptive arrests, harassment, and mass round- ups–420 arrests in total.

While the Philadelphia Inquirer editorialized that protesters “acted as if they didn’t realize that breaking the law meant you go to jail,” much of the police tactics were blatantly illegal. Arrestees were detained sometimes for weeks and charged under a sealed a davit that was later revealed to contain next to no evidence.

What those arrested in Philadelphia and their fellow activists had going for them was the grim experience gained during the vast mobilization in Seattle against the World Trade Organization a year earlier.

In some detention facilities in Seattle, Hermes notes, WTO arrestees were “dragged across the floor, sometimes through broken glass, doused with pep- per spray, hogtied hand-to-ankle, and handcuffed tightly enough to cause bleeding.” Some were beaten unconscious.

Later, reports of sexuaL abuse (six counts) and threats of rape surfaced. e lack of support shown by the ACLU in Seattle and the efforts of some attorneys to get individual defendants to break ranks are still distressing to read about today. In 2000, they convinced activists of the need to form a legal collective in Philadelphia that wasn’t dependent on mainstream liberal organizations.

Also, many veterans of the Seattle actions who were arrested in Philadelphia were experienced at jail solidarity.

They and their comrades had good support from civil rights lawyers and their comrades on the outside were organized to provide support as long as a single activist was inside.

R2K Legal got busy raising bail, raising more funds, publicizing police and jail abuses, developing a media strategy, and building a movement to drop the charges. When the district attorney and mayor stood their ground, the collective and its attorneys worked to organize trial trainings and push for pretrial dismissals, some of which were obtained.

They researched and exposed the spectacularly biased judge who heard many of the cases and (un- successfully) tried to get him recused. “While it was a long-short legal strategy,” the recusal effort “became a political success story” by “giving the public a glimpse into the style of justice that gets meted out every day” in cities like Philadelphia, Hermes writes.

One felony arrestee, activist Kate Sorenson, was found to have been subjected to months of police surveillance and harassment prior to the RNC. She was acquitted. Ultimately, fewer than 20 of the over 400 arrestees were convicted, and none was sentenced to jail time.

The police abuses provoked a rash of civil lawsuits, resulting in settlements by the city amounting to $18 million (disclosure: this writer was deposed in one of the civil cases.) e monetary awards aside, was it worth it?

Sometimes, civil litigation exposes crimes by the authorities and results in some measure of reform; on the other hand, the process is long and exhaust- ing and taxes the limited resources of legal collectives and their allies, surely one of the aims of the State.

Yet, activists re ned their skills at jail and court solidarity and took them to other cities and street-level protests, including actions over the Iraq war and at later political conventions.
Crashing the Party is thorough— perhaps too exhaustive for many readers—but the record Hermes compiles is an indispensable part of our experience as activists against the State.

He doesn’t neglect the vast expansion of surveillance by police, the FBI, joint terrorism task forces, and other agencies as a result of Seattle, the RNC, and other mass mobilizations, when law enforcement branded anarchists and “summit hoppers” the nucleus of a new domestic terrorism.

All that expanded vastly after 9/11 and the formulation of the War on Terror. But the State response to the RNC protests undoubtedly was a watershed in making the use of its resources to suppress dissent, often at the behest of private interests, commonplace. Recent example: the suppression of the Dakota Access Pipeline protest community at Standing Rock.

The great question since the RNC has remained much the same: how to join mass protests, often by white radicals, more firmly and productively with existing local activism in communities of color and among impoverished populations.

Hermes makes a strong case that the real legacy of R2K is the proliferation of legal collectives over the succeeding decade, from Midnight Special in Oak- land to the People’s Law Collective and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project in New York City. These groups not only help arrestees to better leverage their position in the jails and courts, but to use those contexts to extend their activism and build ties to other victims of the system, something a more fragmented legal strategy, dictated by conventional defense attorneys, can’t accomplish.

Donald Trump and Je Sessions, his attorney general, are embarked on a vast (and underreported) project to harden the criminal injustice system and heighten suppression of disfavored communities.

Protest, accordingly, is ratcheting up, but so is repression. “The likelihood of the state conceding to protester demands depends on the amount of political pressure that movements can muster,” Hermes concludes.

A strategy for carrying activism onto the criminal injustice system’s own turf is more important than ever. Kris Hermes’s fine book shows us how legal collectives can continue to play a vital role.

Eric Laursen is an anarchist writer and activist living in Buckland, Mass. His most recent book is The Duty to Stand Aside: Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Wartime Quarrel of George Orwell and Alex Comfort (AK Press, 2018).

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The Demanding, Essential Work of Samuel Delany: The Atheist in the Attic

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Insurgent Supremacists: Truthout Pick of the Week

In his new book, Insurgent Supremacists: The U.S. Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire, Matthew N. Lyons takes issue with the notion that the far right is a united force. Lyons dissects what is different and what is the same about groups that have varying visions of what is the priority in governance vis-à-vis the status quo of the state. The following excerpt is from the introduction to Insurgent Supremacists.

For people who thought the US far right was an irrelevant lunatic fringe, the 2016 presidential race seemed like madness. It was bad enough that the victor was a right-wing populist who called for excluding people from the country based on ethnicity or religion, advocated torture, boasted about sexually assaulting women, and encouraged his supporters to beat up dissenters at campaign rallies. But on top of that, his campaign received important help from a network of activists known as the alternative right or alt-right, who want to break up the United States into racially segregated “ethno-states.” Styling themselves “fashy goys” (fascistic non-Jews), alt-rightists bombarded social media with gas chamber jokes, rape and death threats against women, and internet memes that vilified both liberal multiculturalists and mainstream conservatives. The alt-right helped Donald Trump score upset victories over his Republican rivals and Democrat Hillary Clinton, gaining unprecedented visibility and attention in return. But alt-rightists were never committed Trump fans, and just a few months after he took office they were bitterly criticizing Trump for abandoning the “America First” nationalism of his campaign for a more conventional conservatism. Around the same time, many began to shift their focus from online activism to street protests and fighting.

Before 2015 or 2016, most mainstream reporters and political pundits had never heard of the alt-right, and they scrambled to figure out what the movement was and what it stood for. Because alt-rightists didn’t look or act like stereotypical Neo-Nazis, people accused them of trying to hide their white supremacist politics behind a “benign” label, even though in fact many of them went out of their way to sound as offensive and bigoted as possible. Because alt-rightists were explicitly white nationalist, many observers didn’t notice that they also promoted a misogyny so extreme that even many Neo-Nazis criticized it. And because some “anti-globalist” conservatives started using the alt-right label, many critics missed the distinction between fellow travelers and committed adherents — between those Trump supporters who wanted to reclaim control of the American republic for white Christian men and those who hoped for the republic’s collapse. Although media coverage of the alt-right gradually improved, this initial confusion underscored the need to rethink superficial, overgeneralized, and outmoded conceptions, and to recognize the far right as a dynamic, changing collection of movements.

This book is about far right politics in the United States. It is an effort to understand movements such as the alt-right: what they want, what they do, who they appeal to, and how they interact with other political forces. It is also an effort to place these movements in historical context, to analyze how and why they have developed over the past half-century, and how current circumstances affect their strengths and limitations.

The term “far right” needs clarification, since it has been used in many different ways. Depending on the user and the context, far right may refer to white supremacist ideology or hard-line conservatism, authoritarianism or laissez-faire economics, a fascist vision of a new order, or a reactionary drive to turn back the clock. Each of these concepts is relevant to the subject of this book to some degree, but none of them really describes what it is about.

Instead of focusing on a specific doctrine, my approach begins with a specific historical turning point: in the 1970s and 1980s, for the first time since World War II, rightists in significant numbers began to withdraw their loyalty from the US government. This marked a sharp break with the right’s traditional role as defender of the established order, as one of the forces helping economic and political elites to maintain social control. In my view, the resulting division between oppositional and system-loyal rightists is more significant than ideological differences about race, religion, economics, or other factors.

As an imprecise working definition (not for all times and places but for the United States today), “far right” is used here to mean political forces that (a) regard human inequality as natural, inevitable, or desirable and (b) reject the legitimacy of the established political system. This definition cuts across standard ideological divisions. It includes insurgent factions among both white supremacists (whose supremacist vision centers on race) and Christian rightists (who advocate social and political hierarchy based on gender and religion, among other factors). It also includes many Patriot movement activists, who may or may not advocate racial or religious oppression but who champion unregulated capitalism and the economic inequality it produces. The definition excludes system-loyal white supremacists, Christian rightists, and Patriot activists, as well as other rightists who want to roll back liberal reforms but leave the basic state apparatus in place. The definition also draws a line between the far right and radical leftists, who reject the existing political system but, at least in theory, seek to transform society based on egalitarian principles.

My analysis of the far right is based on a number of core premises:

The far right is made up of regular human beings…. Far right organizations attract and keep supporters because they speak to human hopes and fears, grievances and aspirations, and because they offer appealing explanations for big problems and confusing changes in society. Understanding the far right’s human appeal is important because it helps us to combat it more effectively and relate that struggle to the larger struggles for human liberation.

The far right grows out of an oppressive social order. The far right is often described as an extremist threat to democracy, yet the United States is not and never has been a democracy. It is a deeply unequal society where a tiny capitalist elite holds most economic and political power and multiple systems of dominance/subordination shape most human relations. These systems foster scapegoating and demonization of oppressed groups — and violence against them — by far right and mainstream forces alike, a dynamic that will not be eradicated as long as these systems remain in place.

This doesn’t mean that the United States is a dictatorship. It has always been a shifting mix of pluralistic openness and repression, where real political space has been won for some people and some ideas that would not be permitted in a wholly authoritarian system, including opportunities to organize, debate, participate in electoral politics, and criticize those in power. Pluralistic space has provided an important tool for managing conflict and a safety valve for popular discontent. Yet those who seriously challenge the underlying structures of power risk jail or worse, and many people (especially low-income people of color) routinely face police harassment and the threat or reality of violence — up to and including death. Such political repression has increased during various crisis periods in US history and has been trending upward for the past several decades.

The far right is politically autonomous. While some liberals have glossed over the deep connections between far right politics and mainstream institutions, some leftists have made the opposite mistake by treating far rightists simply as tools of the ruling class. It is certainly true that economic or political elites have sometimes found white supremacist and fascist forces useful — for attacking the left or the labor movement, for example — but the relationship between them is at best ambivalent. In calling for the US political system to be abolished or broken up, far rightists do not speak for any significant faction of the capitalist elite, although that could change.

The US far right has a contradictory relationship with the established order, reinforcing it in some ways and attacking it in others. This tension is often expressed in a kind of double-edged ideology. On the one side, far right groups offer people a way to defend the relative social privileges and power that they enjoy over oppressed groups such as people of color, women, LGBT people, and immigrants, and speak to fears that traditional privileges have been lost or are under threat. But the far right also speaks to people’s sense of being disempowered and downtrodden by groups above them, by denouncing groups that they identify with elite power, such as the federal government, liberal intellectuals, global corporations, or Jewish bankers.

Far right ideology is not just about race. When people say “far right” they often mean white supremacist or white nationalist. There are several problems with this. For one thing, people who want a society dominated and defined by people of European descent don’t all necessarily want to overthrow or secede from the United States. And equating the far right with white nationalism leaves out important rightist forces that reject the legitimacy of the US political system but don’t put race at the center of their ideology. A prime example is the Christian right’s hardline faction — embodied most clearly in Christian Reconstructionism — which wants to replace the US government with a full-scale theocracy based on biblical law. In addition, while all major far right currents in the United States are predominantly white, some have made real efforts to recruit people of color, and these efforts could grow.

Far right politics don’t stand still. The Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher commented once that after World War I, many German leftists thought the main danger from the right was going to be efforts to restore the monarchy. They were blindsided when the main rightist danger turned out to be a movement that had no interest in restoring the monarchy, but instead carried a red flag and put both “Socialist” and “Workers” in the name of its organization — the National Socialist German Workers Party, also known as the Nazis.

One of the most striking features of the US far right over the past half-century has been its repeated efforts to develop new doctrines, arguments, strategies, and forms of organization. As an example, many opponents assume that far rightists remain oriented toward classical fascism’s vision of a strong state and a disciplined, top-down political organization. In reality huge swaths of the far right have abandoned this approach and have embraced some form of political decentralism, ranging from the Neo-Nazi-based “leaderless resistance” strategy to Christian Reconstructionism’s vision of a locally based theocracy enforced through the small-scale institutions of church and family.

The far right presents multiple kinds of threats. In the short term, it’s extremely unlikely that far rightists could seize power and bring about the kind of society they envision. While this cannot be ruled out in the longer term, there are several more immediate reasons to take the far right seriously. First, far rightists carry out harassment and violence against targeted groups, and they encourage other people to do the same. Second, far rightists create more space for system-loyal forces to intensify their own bigotry, scapegoating, and violence, both by offering an example for system-loyal groups to learn from, and also by providing an “extreme” example that helps more “moderate” versions look legitimate by comparison. Third, far rightists can exploit popular grievances to draw support away from left-wing liberatory alternatives. Fourth, far rightists can infect the left itself with their poisonous ideas or recruit leftists to work with them.

Copyright, Reprinted with permission

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