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Using Humor and Satire: A Review of Basic Skills Caucasian Americans Workbook

By Lyn Miller-Lachmann
Times Union
September 15th, 2013

Many of us remember the textbook chapters and informational books that presented Native Americans. The unit was a fall staple, and often elementary school children dressed in homemade costumes, built tipis and longhouses, and ate “typical” Native foods in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving.

But how well did we really get to know Native peoples from these activities? More often than not, the activities reinforced stereotypes, trivialized the cultures of Native peoples, conveyed erroneous information, generalized on the basis of a few tribes’ practices, and left the impression that Native Americans and their cultures are long gone.

Beverly Slapin is the co-author (with Doris Seale) of various award-winning resources on how to evaluate children’s books about Native Americans and how to teach the diverse cultures of our continent’s indigenous people, among them Books Without Bias: Through Indian Eyes (1992) and the 2005 update of this classic, A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children. In the colorful updated edition of Basic Skills Caucasian Americans Workbook, published by progressive independent publisher PM Press, Slapin shows why accurate, authentic portrayals matter—by turning the tables on non-Native readers. The workbook, which is designed for educators, teens, and general adult readers, asks indirectly: How would you feel if your own lives, beliefs, and cultural practices were portrayed in the same manner as Native American practices commonly are?

Ample laugh-out-loud humor prevents this volume from becoming polemical or predictable.

Some of the observations are uproariously on-target, as outsider perspectives can sometimes be. For instance, “The Caucasian American women were constrained to wear tight clothing, and sometimes their shows were pointed at the front and had long sticks at the bottom. This made it very difficult to walk, and they often hurt their backs.” (The boldfacing of what are considered unfamiliar terms pokes fun at series nonfiction for young readers.) In other places, the humor is based on customs that we consider strange in other cultures but are no less strange in our own, such as the widespread use of “sacred green paper”—that is, money.

Misunderstood language is another source of humor. Often books about Native cultures mistranslate or misinterpret words, and the same is true in the workbook: “The fashion magazines commanded, for instance that all Caucasian American women had to be tall and thin, just like the supermodels. So many Caucasian American women went on diets. No one knows the origin of that word, but it had to do with death, since many Caucasian American women died soon after becoming thin.”

In other places, the information is distorted or inaccurate to hilarious effect: “After chanting ‘WWW’, the Caucasian American information seekers, otherwise known as users, were given a specific Internet address or url. (The legend of how urls came to be is lost, gone forever.) But when the users typed the urls into their computers, the answers to all the questions the Caucasian American seekers were seeking instantly appeared on their screens! Certainly, these urls were a magical thing!” And in a televised contest called “the Wheel of Jeopardy…[t]he luckless losers, who were called runners-up, ran up a long staircase, at the top of which they were sacrificed to the gods.”

Pronunciation guides, end-of-chapter puzzles, and fake biographies and endorsements add to the appeal of this satire. Also of note are the well-chosen vintage photographs that illustrate the anachronistic approach of cultural “lessons,” including the common impression that living cultures are dead and gone. This resource will lead readers to look at informational books about diverse cultures with a more critical eye, as they see stereotyping and misinformation of their familiar culture along with underlying insights conveyed with an edgy wit.

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Drawn to New York in The North Adams Transcript

by John Seven
North Adams Transcript
August 3rd, 2013

"Drawn To New York" by Peter Kuper (PM Press)

Illustrator Peter Kuper has spent three decades slowly becoming a native New Yorker, and this new art book compiles the story of that metamorphosis through illustrations, comics and paintings that Kuper has done over those 30 years for various publications.

Like New York City itself, Kuper's is not a clear narrative -- or, rather, of course it is, it just doesn't seem so by the presentation, and that's what makes the collection so vital. In trying to capture the city he both loves and hides inside, Kuper offers his work in a format that mirrors its most important quality -- chaos.

It's a chaos that is created from a lot of little voices attempting to harmonize, but not always succeeding, so over the course of the book you find several sweeping silent cartoons that take you on a tour of the city's denizens, as well more autobiographical tales, as well as artwork capturing parks, water towers, crowds, city streets, the back seats of taxis, homeless people and buildings.

Kuper's trademark surrealism offers cartoon scenarios where Donald Trump and Harry Helmsley build a giant wall through the middle of Manhattan, just like Berlin, and create a post apocalyptic absurd adventure, as well as numerous dream scenarios that throw the city into situations where the dreamer must confront his place within it.

Kuper finishes up the collection with work pertaining to 9-11 and how that changed things, including his conceit that New York City wasn't really part of America.

Kuper's New York is one filled with raunch and sleaze and weirdness in a more major way than exists now, when the sweeping and sometimes disturbing craziness of the city functioned as an abstract soap opera better than anything you could find on television. For those who never had the adventure of living in that New York, Kuper's book does an excellent job of relaying that experience through the intensity and dark humor of his art.

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The Knitting Circle Rapist Annihilation Squad in Stirring

by Rosalie Morales Kearns
Stirring: A Literary Collection
September 2013

Years ago I attended a women writers conference where a woman in our fiction-writing workshop read aloud to us from a novel she had started. As I recall, the plot involved members of a book group, all women and all survivors of domestic violence, who agreed to a revenge pact. Each one, they decided, would kill a man who had abused someone else, a man with whom she had no connection.

It was a hot, sunny day, I was a bit drowsy from lunch, I was being read aloud to. Violent men were about to meet their doom in deeply satisfying ways. What stands out in my memory is how soothing the experience was.

I don't know whether the writer ever finished her novel, but of course it leapt to mind as I read The Knitting Circle Rapist Annihilation Squad, a satire by Derrick Jensen and Stephanie McMillan. The title handily telegraphs the novel's plot: as members of a knitting group start confiding in each other, they find out that they're all survivors of rape, and the rapists in question (high school counselors, relatives, clergymen, ex-husbands) have never even been arrested, let alone prosecuted. The women avenge each other by killing those rapists. With their knitting needles.

There are various subplots: A female police officer is sympathetic to the knitters. The fourteen-year-old daughter of one of the knitters discovers what her mother is up to, and argues with her about the ethics of using violence to stop violence. A group of fundamentalist Christian men form a new organization, MAWAR (Men Against Women Against Rape). Best of all are the unctuous TV newsman Franz Maihem and his go-to expert, FBI agent Chet Stirling, who function as a clueless Greek chorus throughout the book as they report on the unexplained knitting-needle murders: first they insist that the murderer is an alienated young white male; then, when the knitters send a communiqué to the FBI ("We will stop killing rapists when men stop raping"), proclaim the message incomprehensible: "We're baffled. We have no idea what this could possibly mean."

Avenging rape as a motive for murder is found is some mysteries and mystery-thrillers (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.), but non-genre fiction doesn't seem to go in much for plots that revolve around women killing men-and in the case of Knitting Circle, it's lots of women, killing lots of men. I can imagine this novel making some readers uncomfortable. No doubt others will dismiss it as "political," a novel with an agenda, although that complaint has always puzzled me. It's also a political choice, I would argue, to create characters who are perfectly comfortable with the status quo.

The style as well as the subject matter won't be to everyone's taste. Don't expect the attributes of a "straight" literary novel, the unspoken standard of literary fiction with its conventions of deep investment in characterization, meticulous attention to visual detail, and careful verisimilitude. In Knitting Circle, we're in the realm of parody, not realism, as the authors demonstrate from the opening pages, when a mob is "celebrating the city's victory in the National Chess Championship. . . . After an evening of rioting, setting small yet well-designed fires in dumpsters, and overturning police cars, the nerds howl with grape soda-induced laughter as they reenact their most impressive chess moves."

On first read, the humor occasionally struck me as too lightweight, almost sophomoric (each time the police chief appears, for example, he's reading a different "expert on crime": Sherlock Holmes, Encyclopedia Brown, Hercule Poirot), but as I considered it more, I realized that Jensen and McMillan were making specific stylistic choices. The police chief is cartoonish precisely because the novel draws on a wide range of pop-cultural forms: Vonnegut and other satiric novelists are clearly an influence, but so are cartoons, TV sit-coms, Saturday Night Live skits, film spoofs like the Naked Gun series, and mockumentaries like Christopher Guest's Best in Show or A Mighty Wind. The book's cover blurb describes it beautifully as "Monty Python meets the SCUM Manifesto."

Although some readers might smirk more often than laugh, there are plenty of spot-on, chortle-out-loud scenes and wonderfully deadpan whimsy. At a typical knitting circle meeting, "after a few preliminaries and pleasantries, the women get down to the businesses at hand: knitting and stopping rape." The touchy-feely Red Moon Sacred Gyn Mill Tea House serves "wheat-free, dairy-free, sugar-free gingerbread wimmin and gyrl cookies." Glenn Beck makes an appearance, at his chalkboard, redrawing a pair of crossed knitting needles so that they form a swastika (he also denies that rape is even possible, bless his little heart). Sentences that at first seem to meander end up packing a punch: the female police officer, Sandy Dougher, is "as beautiful as the Mona Lisa. As beautiful as the sweeping boughs of a western red cedar. . . . As beautiful as a sharp kick to a rapist's testicles."

And over and over again, like that kick to the rapist's testicles, the hard truths of male violence against women are sprinkled amid the silliness. Characters discuss the abysmally low percentage of rapists who are ever incarcerated. Right after the description of the chess nerd riot, a character travels to an unfamiliar part of the city at night and "adopts the walk that all women from an early age learn to use in scary places: rapid, firm, and purposeful. . . . Appear confident. Show no fear." Here is part of the argument between fourteen-year-old Marilyn and her knitting circle mom, Gina:

    "You can't just take the law into your own hands."
    . . . "I couldn't possibly do a worse job wielding the law than they [police and the courts] do." . . .
    . . . "You're asking for social chaos."
    "Marilyn, social chaos is when 25 percent of all women are raped and another 19 percent have to fend off rapes, and nothing is done about it."

When the police hold a meeting on how to stop the knitting-needle killings, Officer Dougher raises the eminently sensible question: "What if we do our jobs and stop rapists?" She is met by silence. Her police colleagues provide no answer to her question, ever.

And sometimes the hard-hitting facts and the goofy humor coincide. When the hapless FBI agent finally concedes that the knitting-needle killers are women, Franz Maihem asks him how he reached his conclusion:

    "Well, Franz, they're just like every normal rational serial killer in every way, but for one bizarre, freaky exception."
    "What is that, Chet?"
    "It's almost unheard of in the long, illustrious history and tradition of serial killing. It's frankly horrifying."
    "Tell us, Chet."
    "All the victims are men."

There are other trenchant observations along the way: on religion, on diet plans, on capitalism, on the ubiquity of television. One of my favorite commentaries is by knitting circle member Brigitte on male-female relationships:

"First he comes to a [knitting circle] meeting, next he's telling me what to wear and to make him a sandwich. Gradually it escalates. . . . Brigitte gets lost and it becomes all about 'we.' 'We hated that movie.' 'We plan to buy a house in the suburbs.' 'We decided that Brigitte's soul was superfluous so we sold it.' . . . Fuck that."

The authors put some amusingly blasphemous, if improbably self-aware, dialogue into the mouth of a MAWAR member: "Where in the Ten Holy Fucking Commandments does it ever say, 'Thou Shalt Not Rape'? Huh? The answer is, it doesn't. In fact, the whole fuckin' Bible is filled with rapes that fulfill God's merciful will." New Agers come in for skewering too, in the form of a self-help guru arguing that rapists should be met with compassion: "Since I'm not really a stop rape kind of guy, and since I don't want to feel bad about not being a stop rape kind of guy, it's important to me that no one else try to stop rape, or it will make me feel inferior, like I should actually be doing something."

What's interesting to me as a feminist is how soothing the novel is. This is partly because it's structured like a happily-ever-after bedtime story: the novel opens with the now-grown Marilyn explaining to her students how the knitters and their allies put a permanent end to rape. But there are also interesting parallels to the "cozy" subgenre of mystery novels. Think of Miss Marple in her quaint village, puttering around in her garden as she solves a murder or two. In the typical cozy, the victims are unsympathetic people whom we don't see while they're still alive. We have no access to their perspective and don't have to expend emotional energy feeling sorry that they're dead. We can forget that a terrible crime has propelled this lighthearted romp. Similarly, Knitting Circle is propelled by a double layer of violent acts: the original rapes, and the subsequent murders of the rapists. And yet we end up with an oddly comforting story where, after "the rage and frustration and sorrow of thousands of years of taking it and taking it and taking it," there is "the joy of finally fighting back."

Unlike most spoofs, The Knitting Circle Rapist Annihilation Squad raises unsettling questions: What do unprosecuted rapists deserve? When is retributive violence, or vigilante justice, called for? Should I feel such glee at these deaths? As if these weren't disturbing enough, there is a subtle parting shot, located on the back cover, right above the price, where the book's category is listed as "Fiction/Relationships." The perfect finishing touch for this strange combination of hilarity and righteous anger.

Rosalie Morales Kearns is an Albany, NY-based writer. One of the stories in her collection Virgins and Tricksters (Aqueous Books, 2012) earned a Special Mention in the 2013 Pushcart Prize volume. Her stories, poems, and nonfiction have appeared most recently in Witness, The Nervous Breakdown, Necessary Fiction, and Her Kind.

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| Back to Stephanie McMillan's Author Page

Alternative history: The Human Front- A Review

By Pik Smeet
The Socialist Party of Great Britain
September 2013

Alternative history

Alternative history is a strange genre. Its central premise, that small changes in history can lead to radically different worlds is somewhat tenuous: Hitler dying as a small child is unlikely to have prevented a Second World War (merely changing the cast and their precise lines, instead). It is, though, fiction, and it provides a useful means of exploring ‘what ifs’, where the route to the alternative history is usually just an excuse to look at a world that might have been or is simply just different from our own. Being able to imagine different societies is a useful skill, in and of itself.

A few are wish fulfilments, and there’s a few too many ‘If the South won the Civil War’ or ‘If the Germans won the Second World War’ and even ‘If the British Empire never fell’. And of course, the less said about Zeppelins, the better.

Ken Macleod’s work has featured in our review columns before, often for their interesting examination of the ideas and cultures of the revolutionary left, as well as for his commitment to libertarian (proper sense) causes. The Human Front was his first published novella, and it has recently been reissued, along with an essay and an interview that further flesh out some of its themes.

It begins with the news that the Communist partisan Joseph Stalin has been killed in early 1963. The Soviet Union had fallen in 1949, under assault from Allied super hi-tech secret weapons. As Macleod explains in the essay, this dramatically changes the shape of the post-war world, leading to the unrestrained use of military superiority to maintain the colonial powers’ positions. The absence of the Soviet Union and the ongoing Chinese revolution means Maoism rather than Trotskyism comes to predominate on the British left. This leads to several scenes of ‘People’s War’ in the Scottish Highlands, with all the horror and brutality that entails.

Originally published in 2001, the image of a fugitive Stalin gunned down escaping is now resonant with the fates of Hussein and Bin Laden, and indeed, of our present unipolar world with the unrestrained use of drone strikes. Tens of years on, it seems more like prescience than alternative history. Although the novella soars off into high science fiction for its end twist, its grounding in the Scotland and the Lewis of Macleod’s childhood gives it a sense of solidity, grounding it in real history and left wing arguments remembered.

This reissue is an opportunity to not only consider the themes of the original story, but also alternative history itself and the way in which we shape our pasts to try and make our own future.

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Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here in World Literature Today

by Issa J. Boullata
World Literature Today
September 2013

Al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad is a winding street about one thousand feet long, noted for its many bookstores and outdoor book stalls. Named after the famous classical Arab poet Abu at-Tayyib al-Mutanabbi (915–965 CE), it has been a thriving center of Baghdad’s bookselling and publishing for many years. On March 5, 2007, a car bomb was exploded on it, perhaps to intimidate intellectuals. More than thirty people were killed, and more than one hundred were wounded—booksellers, book buyers, and devotees of reading and of books—and the Shabandar Café where intellectuals met was gutted. Beau Beausoleil, a poet and San Francisco bookseller, created in solidarity a coalition of poets, artists, writers, printers, booksellers, and readers; broadsides of their writings and artwork about this tragic event were printed, and recitations were made in many cities. With Deema K. Shehabi, another San Francisco poet, an anthology of 135 pieces in prose and verse has now been compiled in this book, including some translated from Arabic and French and the texts of some broadsides (see WLT, May 2012, 34–37).

The pieces are of different lengths and moods. Some describe the street and decry the horrible event, others commemorate the innocent victims, and others still exult defiantly in the eventual triumph of freedom and truth:

“You can bomb a bookstore or ban / a book, but it will not die. You cannot kill / a poem like you can a man. / Al-Mutanabbi Street will rise again” (Sam Hamill).

“The books blew up and people, / cafés and stores; but words remained, / hovering, circled, waiting” (George Evans).

The anthology begins with an impressive five-page essay by Anthony Shadid, originally published in the Washington Post on March 12, 2007. Born in Oklahoma City in 1968, Shadid died on February 16, 2012, while covering the current Syrian revolution. His essay is a heartfelt story of Mohammed Hayawi, an Iraqi bookseller who died on Al-Mutanabbi Street and whom he knew while he was the Baghdad bureau chief of the newspaper. A similar personal essay is by Maysoon Pachachi, a London-based filmmaker of Iraqi origin, who reminisces about a 2004 visit to Baghdad for the first time in thirty-five years and remembers Al-Mutanabbi Street and Shabandar Café and other experiences. She ends by saying, “And sometimes it seems like the rhythm of Iraqi history is one of destruction, lament, and repair.” In fact, Al-Mutanabbi Street has reopened, and Shabandar Café has been renovated, although its owner lost many family members in the murderous blast.

Among other contributions, there is one by Adrienne Rich (1929–2012) entitled “Tonight No Poetry Will Serve,” another by the Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab (1926–64)—his famous “Rain Song”—and another by Marilyn Hacker entitled “Ghazal: Dar al-Harb,” critical of the United States: “I might wish, like any citizen, to celebrate my country / but millions have reason to fear and hate my country.”

This anthology is recommended, not only for its literary merits, but also for its testimony.

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JwJ: Still Alive & Kicking Today

By Steve Early
August 28, 2013

In the run-up to their convention next month in Los Angeles, top AFL-CIO officials have welcomed closer ties with non-labor groups and associations of workers’ who lack bargaining rights. In an interview with USA Today this summer, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka claimed that formal partnerships with the Sierra Club and NAACP would soon be forthcoming. In a Wall Street Journal interview, he waxed enthusiastic about bringing a leading Hispanic civil-rights organization, the National Council of La Raza, into the house of labor as well (despite its controversial funding from the Walmart Foundation).

Trumka also told a conference of the Labor Research and Action Network in June that “we must rethink what it means for working people to have a collective voice and real power.” He urged the assembled academics and activists to provide him with some “fresh thinking and new ideas for a dynamic labor movement.” He announced that the federation would collect “a lot of ideas, try them, experiment with them and see which ones work.”

The AFL-CIO’s latest quest for “new ideas” was launched shortly after the country’s most durable community-labor coalition celebrated its first quarter century of grassroots organizing work. Formed in the late 1980s, Jobs with Justice (JwJ) is the subject of a timely new book, edited by JWJ supporter Eric Larson, from Providence, R.I., and with an introduction by Communications Workers of America (CWA) president Larry Cohen, a founding father of the group.

Jobs With Justice: 25 Years, 25 Voices (from PM Press in Oakland) uses oral history to trace JwJ’s development as a singularly effective vehicle for uniting workers, their unions, and non-labor allies. Among the longtime activists interviewed are the late Mattie Stegall, an African-American cafeteria worker at a state university in Texas; Margaret Butler, a former telephone operator in Portland, Oregon; Barb Ingalls, a printer radicalized by the Detroit newspaper strike in the mid-1990s; Lara Granich, a former tenant and student organizer in St. Louis; Maria Whyte, an organizer for economic justice in Buffalo; and Rev. Calvin Morris, a veteran of the southern civil rights movement. Rand Wilson and Russ Davis report on the experience of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice, while Carl Rosen, John Ryan, and Stewart Acuff describe how their big city coalitions took root in Chicago, Cleveland, and Atlanta respectively.

Reading this book, one wonders if Trumka and others at AFL-CIO headquarters are not missing one key element of JwJ’s success? (If so, it wouldn’t be the first time, as noted below.) As the best case studies in this volume demonstrate, it takes direct networking among local insurgents to enhance individual union effectiveness and revitalize labor in any city or region. Roping together the walking wounded of institutional liberalism, inside the Beltway, is an entirely different project. It’s also far less likely to produce any discernible results, nationally or locally, other than a few convention-related newspaper headlines.

JwJ was created at a time when a far more conservative AFL-CIO dominated any “letterhead coalitions” of national organizations that it deigned to participate in. Too often, local central labor councils were, as Rosen puts it, “pretty moribund” and certainly more wary of left-wing “outsiders” (including Rosen’s own unaffiliated United Electrical Workers). Worse yet, many CLCs proved unable or unwilling to generate real solidarity in major strikes, organizing campaigns, and contract fights. When JwJ emerged to fill that void, it often had “an uneven, rocky start,” according to Acuff. In Atlanta, where he was a local leader of the Service Employees International Union, JwJ was initially “crushed and suppressed by the State Federation of Labor and the Central Labor Council.”

But this only spurred Acuff to campaign for the Atlanta AFL-CIO presidency “focusing on organizing and solidarity, all of which was the JwJ program.” When he got elected, Jobs with Justice became “a committee of the labor council” and the main vehicle for its strengthened ties with the community. Elsewhere in the book, John Ryan recalls his parallel experience as a reform-minded CWA local president, who played a similar dual role in Cleveland Jobs with Justice and, later, the city’s central labor council. As Ryan recalls:

“Jobs with Justice allowed for smart, energetic incredible women and people of color to be leaders of the coalition at a time when they were shut out of the labor federation, which we later changed. Now, there’s a much more diverse labor federation. Today, it is headed up a by a big supporter of Jobs with Justice, our first woman leader after I left.”

Out-reach to students, immigrants, environmentalists, the clergy, civil rights organizations, and others in the community is now second nature to many unions, when they find themselves in a tight spot. But, in the late 1980s, the mainstream labor movement was just beginning to value community-labor relationships that were more reciprocal and less opportunistic. As immigrant minister and Pride at Work member Israel Alvaran notes in the book, JwJ has helped many unions “realize that a lot of their membership can easily be part of community organizations. Maybe you are a hotel worker and you are Filipino. There’s an overlap.”

Eventually, some (but not all) Jobs with Justice-affiliated unions contributed to the national AFL-CIO’s own political upheaval in the mid-1990s. SEIU’s John Sweeney was elected president of the federation on a “New Voice” slate. Trumka, an early JWJ backer when he led the United Mine Workers, became Sweeney’s secretary-treasurer. JwJ’s initial reward for their victory was to be informed by Trumka (and New Voice backer Jerry McEntee, then president of AFSCME) that the only community-labor coalitions needed in the future were those created by the “new” AFL-CIO.

In 1997, after Trumka and Sweeney became reconciled to the continuing existence of JwJ, the AFL-CIO did donate $100,000 a year to its national office. Fifteen years later, the federation was reportedly still contributing the same amount out of an annual budget of $140 million. During labor’s failed campaign for the Employee Free Choice Act, American Rights at Work (ARAW) received greater labor funding, now scaled back to the same level as JwJ, which merged with ARAW last year.

With the AFL-CIO poised to “invest” more in formations allied with labor, one would think that JwJ would be at the top of its grantee list? After all, as Cohen notes in his introduction: “Jobs with Justice brings to the table 25 years of practice building unity, bringing diverse groups together, balancing interests, seeking commonalities, and aligning campaigns and movements. That experience and those skills will be crucial in the coming period.”

It remains unclear, however, whether national JwJ will receive AFL-CIO funding at the same level as before its absorption of ARAW or more generous allocations. “We’re hoping that they’ll see the utility of supporting a stronger, merged organization at a higher level,” one local JWJ leader told me. He touted ARAW’s boost to JWJ’s national lobbying, research, and public relations capacity.  Other representatives of the AFL-CIO and JwJ/ARAW would not confirm any details of their financial relationship.

If there’s a weakness in 25 Years, 25 Voices, it’s the amount of ink devoted to mutual back-scratching by past or present national staff members (who are all fine folks). Inside the Beltway, such self-congratulatory “discourse” may be standard fare, at labor and political testimonial dinners. But it doesn’t reflect what built JwJ at its best, over the years, at the grassroots level. There, the group was often defined by its rebel spirit, rank-and-file orientation, and bottom-up initiatives. JwJ’s leaders were widely known and respected for being self-effacing and self-sacrificing. Among them are formidable organizers like ex-GE machinist Russ Davis in Massachusetts or former Pac Bell worker Margaret Butler in Oregon. Both have toiled for much of their career on “movement” salaries far below the pay of the full-time union functionaries whose faltering campaigns their JwJ affiliates have rescued on innumerable occasions.

Hopefully, 25 Years, 25 Stories will be a reminder that JwJ was created as an alternative to the bureaucratic functioning of existing unions and their “progressive alliances” of three or four decades ago. “What’s different about Jobs with Justice is it really is about building a permanent network of relationships grounded in one local community,” says Butler, who was initially skeptical of JwJ when Cohen visited her local union in 1987 to promote the idea. “He was from the national union,” she explains. “In Portland, we were a radical union and we didn’t like the national that much.”

Mimicking the organizational behavior of national unions today, however much improved, or the model of foundation-funded workers’ centers is not the best way to be what Stewart Acuff calls “the militant wing of the labor movement.” In the 45 communities and 24 states where JwJ is still promoting worker mobilization and direct action, there is no more important and unfinished role for it to play.

Steve Early worked on the national staff of the Communications Workers of America for 27 years. During that time, he was an active supporter of Jobs with Justice in Boston and its predecessor, the Massachusetts Labor Support Project. He is the author, most recently, of Save Our Unions: Dispatches From a Movement in Distress (Monthly Review Press, 2013). He can be reached at

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Love and Struggle in Socialism and Democracy

by B. Loewe
Socialism and Democracy
2013 Vol. 27, No. 1, 191–221

For organizers and students of history too young to have touched the 1960s, that decade holds a mystique that David Gilbert’s Love and Struggle does wonders to make real.

Bernardine Dohrn, former Weather Underground member and now juvenile justice advocate, says that the sixties are a club used against today’s activists. She suggests that the way the history of the time gets told makes it a story inaccessible and artificially unique. She helpfully notes that the way we tell the myth of the sixties makes its advances and its fervor seem impossible today. Love and Struggle dispels those myths and provides readers with an inside view of one of the more controversial and misunderstood components of those times: white anti-imperialist armed struggle and the third world movements with which they allied themselves.

Unlike other books by former Weather members, Gilbert’s is neither an adventure novel nor an apologist saga. Being part the 1968 Columbia student strike, the rise and fall of Students for a Democratic Society, the counterculture and its “sexual liberation,” and one of the underground groups which carried out a series of bombings against government and corporate entities gives Gilbert plenty of material to keep readers turning pages through heartracing tales. But that’s not the point of the book. Instead, it is the production of a man who has had 31 years to reflect on the whirlwind of organizing and opposition that eventually led to an act of solidarity gone terribly wrong, tragic loss of life, and his 75-to-life sentence, which he continues to serve in a New York State prison today.

In a sense it carries to completion a task he set out for himself immediately after his arrest.

Love and Struggle is a thorough assessment of the achievements and mistakes, groundbreaking thought and misguided lines, revelations and retreats of its author and the organizations in which he participated.

As he and his co-defendants dealt with beatings and intimidation, attempted to develop a courtroom strategy, enlist outside support, and ensure his newborn son would be raised in a loving environment, Gilbert also felt that participants in the armored truck robbery in Nyack, NY, that would become known as “Brinks” had the duty to provide a self-reflection to movement forces. “As revolutionaries,” David writes toward the end of the book, “our commitment isn’t to our own status but rather to advancing the struggle. Indeed, if we can draw out useful lessons, our personal sacrifices are not completely in vain.”

Nothing that David Gilbert has done with his life has been in vain. Love and Struggle is 300+ pages of useful lessons. He documents his own politicization from suburban Boston to Harlem/Columbia, the body of study he embarked upon to make sense of the world and his and others’ place in it, the dynamics within the student movement, the violence of the state, and the solidarity with third world movements that eventually led to his decision to go underground.

Gilbert models what seemed so troubling for some of his peers, honest self-criticism. Many movement veterans of that period will say that “criticism, self-criticism” was anything but using someone’s strengths to overcome their weaknesses. Instead they recount that criticism, self-criticism was a weapon to tear people down and often ensure their submission to leadership. Gilbert’s dedication to advancing the struggle by focusing on lessons – as opposed to enhancing his own status – is clearest when he invites a former collective member who worked under his leadership to share his distinct memory of Gilbert so that readers get an assessment unbiased by the “vanity of memory” that could come from the author himself.

How is such an assessment useful to readers today? Readers who open Love and Struggle hoping for a memoir will be disappointed. Entertaining and autobiographical pieces are included only as opening vignettes that serve as starting points for Gilbert’s reflection. He’s constantly answering questions. What were organizers thinking? What examples and theories offer the most revolutionary potential? How did activists’ interactions with each other reinforce or reinvent power? What were the blind spots that allowed for mistakes to be made? At times he’s clarifying history, at others he’s correcting it.

He refutes the efforts to paint Weather members as guilt-ridden or blood-thirsty and points out that often such critiques are launched because those making them seek to avoid what actually makes Weather lasting and important – the politics they represented.
He lays out their goals:

1)  Draw some heat so that the police and FBI couldn’t concentrate all forces on Black, Latino/a, Native, and Asian groups
2)  Create a visible example of whites fighting in solidarity with Third World struggles
3)  Educate broadly about the major political issues
4)  Identify key institutions of oppression
5)  Encourage white youth to find a range of creative ways to resist despite repression.

And he points out that Weather was not alone in using armed propaganda to accomplish their pursuits. Multiple militant actions took place nationally, for example, in response to the Attica prison massacre of inmates and even guards at the hands of state police.

But most telling to illustrate both the politics that brought Gilbert to Weather and what eventually got him expelled is the glimpse of above-ground life we get when he temporarily surfaced in Denver. Without a cell and without armed purpose, Gilbert is neither guilty nor seeking violent confrontation. Instead he sets an example of what white anti-imperialist politics look like in a different context. He situates himself among the white counterculture, developing a collective home and alternative lifestyle and from that place seeks to: act in solidarity with people of color organizations that both are rooted in their community and share a common politics; support women’s liberation and challenge his own sexism through a men’s group and its activities such as childcare; and be a bridge that may link the separate worlds into something greater than the sum of their parts.

In the multiple lives Gilbert got to live throughout the book, we see many examples of solidarity in action, sometimes odd other times profound – from running across vacation beaches with the flag of the Vietnamese National Liberation Front to purposely going limp at the start of his own trial and having to be tied to his chair because of his complete non-cooperation with a government he deemed illegitimate.

To be totally transparent, I’ve been in off-and-on correspondence with David since the summer of 2001, when I worked on a farm whose mission was to support organizations carrying on the legacy of the Black Panthers. David served as an adviser to that project and quickly became a mentor to me, a role he plays for hundreds of people who have found their way to his thoughtful letters after seeing the Weather Underground movie in 2003, reading Dan Berger’s Outlaws of America, or Gilbert’s other book, No Surrender. Reading Love and Struggle is like reading a long series of letters from David with fewer puns.

It’s an invaluable addition to anyone seeking to understand the world of 50 years ago or the efforts to change the world today. It shows that the history-makers of the sixties are neither gods nor devils but simply fierce and flawed people who threw themselves toward their understanding of freedom. It is further proof that David Gilbert (or any of the political prisoners) should not now be in jail.

Love and Struggle shares how one person answered the age-old question of “which side are you on?” or, in the more pointed form addressed to white activists by James Forman in The Making of Black Revolutionaries, “What will you do when they seal off the ghettos of America?”

And it pulls back the curtain on a system that’s still alive and unfortunately doing too well, thus asking readers the same. What will we do to see that David Gilbert and the other political prisoners still behind bars are freed? What will we do to carry on their legacy? What will we do so that the lessons learned and shared are advanced for another generation? I’m sure David would love to hear your answer. You can write to him at #83-A-6158 / Auburn Correctional Facility / P.O. Box 618 / Auburn NY 13024.

# 2013 B. Loewe Chicago twitter: @bstandsforb

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to David Gilbert's Page

An Interview with Norman Nawrocki about His New Album, CAZZAROLA!

By Norman Nawrocki
Les Pages Noires
Montreal, September 2013

1. What kind of music is on CAZZAROLA!, the album?

It ranges from traditional Italian folk – kind of world beat, but updated – to contemporary Italian-themed compositions of my own that are folkloric, ambient, electroacoustic and somewhat ‘indie.’ The songs are arranged chronologically following the story in the book (CAZZAROLA! Anarchy, Romani, Love, Anarchy: A Novel), spanning 130 years of Italian history from 1880 to today. There are waltzes, folk dances, love ballads, prisoner songs, a marching band, and different kinds of soundscapes, from a 1920 auto factory and 1920s street noise, to Rome street music today. You will hear traditional Italian instruments on some songs: large tambourine hand drums, hurdy gurdy, bagpipes, bass mandolin, etc., and sampled/looped beat creations on others. Thirty tracks total.

2. Can you give some examples of the songs?

The album opens with a traditional, lone, Italian shepherd bagpipe piece, followed by a waltz by one of my bands which includes a harp and steel drums. There is an acapella love song by a friend I recorded recently in a 15th century Italian abbey, then a 1894 theatrical soundscape we assembled in Montreal. There are well known Italian singalong favorites like ‘Bella Ciao,’ in Italian and English – one a solo folksinger; the other, full band; a 1960s jazz duo; a Romanian Roma refugee accordionist playing on the streets of Rome; a Rome ‘noise’ band, a 1950s swing song with another band of mine, and more. One-third of the songs are in Italian; one-third in English; the rest, instrumentals.

3. Are these adaptations or new compositions?

Both. The album is a mix of interpretations of older Italian songs dating to the 1880s, newer ones, and original compositions by myself and friends. Some sound like they were recorded in 1910, others are clearly contemporary.

4. Why did you make CAZZAROLA! the album?

I’m a writer but I'm also a musician, so I wanted a musical soundtrack for my new novel – CAZZAROLA! Anarchy, Romani, Love, Italy (PM Press, Oakland, 2013). I imagined an album with period songs and soundscapes reflecting, based on, and inspired by the book. A reader could listen to the album before, during or after they read the book. Or potential readers might hear the album first, then be curious about the book.
The album is very much an invitation to read the book. It offers another entry point into the novel, and complements the story with real period sounds and songs. It also stands on its own as a audio document: a brief musical survey of Italy from the last 130 years that covers historical events in song. It allows a listener to travel in time through music.

5. How did you choose the tracks for the CD?

I wanted the music to cover the same period in the book, from 1880 to today, so I consulted ethnomusicologists I know, Italian musician friends and others for suggestions. I also did a lot of research, online and in person, through interviews and scouring the Montreal library’s Italian music collection. In the end I chose some traditional period songs, composed new ones, and asked for contributions from Italian friends. I visited Italy twice this year to do field recordings and meet and work with local musicians. This resulted in a few amazing collaborations.

6. Where did you record CAZZAROLA!?

Everywhere! I recorded at home, in a Montreal studio, and in different regions of Italy, in cities in studios and on the street, in villages and mountain meadows. Collaborators recorded in their own studios here and abroad and sent me pieces.

7. How did you meet and work with your collaborators?

I met Italian musicians during previous book and album tours of Italy, and more recently online. They invited me to return to Italy to work directly with them. I met other musicians there and invited them to contribute to the album. Otherwise, I asked local friends and bandmates to play on it.

8. How many artists besides yourself are on the album?

Two incredible bands (DisCanto and Obsolescenza Programmata ) plus two separate singer/songwriters from Italy. One band is folkloric from Abruzzo, the other, an underground ‘noise’ band from Rome.
There are three of my bands from Montreal (Crocodile, DaZoque! and SANN), and an assortment of other local and Italian musicians.

9. You have 30 tracks on this album?

Yes, running from 30 seconds to 6 minutes long. They range from full band instrumentals to single folk singers with guitar, a few spoken word pieces set in soundscapes, including recited extracts from the novel.

10. Who co-produced the album?

David Sturton, a renowned Montreal sound engineer/friend with unlimited talent and a track record of working wonders with everyone’s music, from Jean LeLoup to Bran Van 3000 among others. He also engineered two of my earlier albums, with one of my bands, DaZoque!, and my solo cd, Duck Work.

11. What was your last album?

“Letters from Poland/Lettres de la pologne” (Les Pages Noires, 2008), a bilingual collection of letters set to music from my short story collection, The Anarchist & The Devil Do Cabaret’ (Black Rose Books, 2003).

12. What are your current music projects?

I have a new band, Crocodile, from Montreal. A bar owner once said we sounded like The Ex from Holland. We will record a first album later in 2013. I am also working towards another cd based on the Quebec student strike of 2012, setting my poems to music. I continue to perform many solo violin shows, sampled and looped, with and without spoken word.

13. Other stories about making CAZZAROLA!, the album?

In Italy, we drove through the mountains of Abruzzo one day looking for a shepherd with his flock. We found one, and with the permission of the shepherd and his 7 sheep dogs, I walked through the herd recording them live. Musician friends in Italy introduced me to other musicians, colleagues at work for example, and I invited them to play on the album and recorded them after work the same day. One night, I discovered a marching band in a mountain village and recorded them and fireworks on the spot. In another village, I recorded the sounds from a metal sculpture dedicated to emigrants, and gave the recording to some friends and asked if they could compose a piece based on them. I was incredibly fortunate to meet generous, creative, talented musicians all over Italy. I am deeply grateful to them for their contributions.

14. Is it true that you actually sing on this album?

Ha! I am not a singer, everyone knows this, and I would never pretend to call myself one, but for the first time since I started recording albums, in 1986 – and that’s 24 albums and about 35 compilations – I actually do sing a few songs, sort of. Mostly I do the vocals and play violin, some keyboards, accordion and a wee bit of percussion.

15. Will the Italian song lyrics be translated and included with the CD?

They will be translated very soon and available online from my website.

THE ALBUM, “CAZZAROLA!by Norman Nawrocki & amici,”
OCT 24 – DEC 3RD, 2013, or online from Les Pages Noires
or from his publisher, PM PRESS:

Buy Cazzarola! now | Buy e-Book now | Return to Norman Nawrocki's page

Maroon the Implacable: A Review in Solidarity

By Steve Bloom
July/August 2013

RUSSELL MAROON SHOATZ is not a household name. Even within the milieu of those who are engaged in work to free the many political prisoners in the United States there are some who have not heard about his case — though a new political campaign that was launched in early 2013 is actively changing that reality as these lines are written. Go to to find out more.
In brief: Shoatz is a political prisoner, a former Black Panther and revolutionary activist from Philadelphia. He has been behind bars continuously since 1972 — except for two brief periods in which he escaped, thus earning the nickname “Maroon.” More than 30 of his years in prison have been served in solitary confinement. That he has been able to remain so much in touch with what is happening in the world, to discourse intelligently on popular culture and political events, is testimony to an individual with an intense intellect and profound perseverance.

This book is a collection of essays, composed mostly for the education of fellow prisoners. It is written, therefore, in a popular style that’s easy to read. But it is also filled with deep and profound insights. That is a rare combination.

Most of the material — except for one essay written explicitly for the book — previously existed only in the form of scattered small pamphlets or manuscripts (in the literal sense of being hand-written) in the files of family and friends. The editors, for the sake of completeness, have included everything that was available to them.

Different essays will, therefore, have different weight or interest for different readers. But even a piece like “Respect Our Mothers, Stop Hating Women” (2010), with conclusions that might seem obvious to those who went through discussions in both activist and academic circles in the wake of the feminist rebirth during the 1970s, takes on a qualitatively different meaning if we understand the context of macho culture that predominates in a prison where men are incarcerated.

Masculinism was also a prominent feature of the Black revolutionary milieu that Maroon himself comes from. This piece thus represents a significant personal testament by a human being who successfully challenged both himself and the culture which surrounds him.

Resistance and Deep Critique

The subject matter of these essays ranges from the fraud perpetrated by the U.S. prison system, in the name of “law and order,” to the theory of revolutionary organization. It includes, in particular, a deep critique by an active participant of the Black liberation movement as it developed in the 1960s and ’70s.

Shoatz’s assessment is particularly striking in light of the wave of nostalgia which has emerged in recent years for the Black Panthers and similar formations. Maroon does not fail to salute the important advances in consciousness that were made during this period and embodied in such organizations. But he undertakes a serious critical balance sheet that considers their weaknesses and flaws as well.

He is critical, for example, of the Panthers for their top-down organizational style that restricted the possibility of initiatives at the local level. Also, while asserting that attention to the development of armed struggle was an obvious necessity during this time, he expresses the view that “Panthers ‘shooting it out’ with more heavily armed police from fixed positions was downright ludicrous! Even if they survived, it still left them in jail or hospitalized, causing everybody else to have to drop important work to bail them out or raise money for their legal defense.” He also talks about ways in which the Panthers in Oakland, under Huey Newton’s leadership, essentially became corrupt and abandoned their original vision, while the East Coast wing was too weak and inexperienced to forge a genuine alternative.

One key historical insight is contained in Maroon’s essay titled “The Real Resistance to Slavery in North America” (2005).

The focus is not on the conventional challenges to slavery that we all know about — the northern bourgeoisie whose hesitant opposition was embodied in the Republican Party, or the hard-core abolitionists who were far more resolute than the Republican Party (John Brown, the underground railroad, the abolitionist press, etc.), or even the Black slaves and ex-slaves who took more decisive action and whose contributions have come down to us as part of the established history (even if a lesser-known part of that history) such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Nat Turner.

Instead this essay focuses on an element most readers will be aware of only dimly, if at all — the maroon communities created primarily by escaped slaves but also including native peoples who refused to adapt to a white settler-colonial society, along with disaffected whites who dropped out.

Creating an independent, self-sufficient culture within the context of territories considered by others to be unsuitable for human habitation — such as the Dismal Swamp in Virginia and North Carolina — these maroon communities successfully battled for decades against all attempts to wipe them out, providing first a refuge for escaping slaves and then a fighting force that was among the decisive elements that led to a Northern victory in the Civil War.

One important distinction made in the book is between what Shoatz calls “treaty maroons,” who first won their own independence but then attempted to institutionalize what they had won in collaboration with their former oppressors — often agreeing to sell out the interests of other slaves or native peoples in the process — and those he labels “fighting maroons,” who never compromised or gave up the struggle for a genuine independence.

Based on this assessment, Shoatz offers an interesting challenge to conventional revolutionary Marxist thinking in his essay “The Dragon and the Hydra: A Historical Study of Organizational Methods” (2006).

Here, too, he focuses on the resistance of maroon communities in North America and the Caribbean, considering in particular how those who refused to subordinate themselves to any centralized authority were able to survive and continue to struggle for decades as “fighting maroons,” whereas those which attempted to establish more conventional forms of political or state structures were consistently beheaded, or co-opted, or disarmed by the imperial authorities — or else transformed into new kinds of repressive instruments as in Haiti.

Shoatz’s conclusion is that the proper organizational model for genuine revolutionary struggle should be the multi-headed “hydra,” rather than the centralized “dragon” — an idea which constitutes a particular challenge for those, such as the author of this review, who have lived our lives and consistently built organizations based on one or another version of the “Leninist” paradigm.

In grappling with this question we do have to acknowledge Shoatz’s insights. Yet there is something that he does not consider in this chapter: the fact that even if the decentralized maroon struggles were able to survive on their own terms for decades, continuing a genuine battle for independence, they were not able to stop the global advance of the imperial project which, today, threatens the destruction of our planet.

Something else needs to be factored into the equation, therefore, if we are going to actually disarm and dismantle the machinery of patriarchal white supremacy and imperial conquest. I have personally begun a correspondence with Maroon on this all-important question. From our exchange so far it becomes clear to me again (as was already obvious from the book itself) that Shoatz is an honest and creative revolutionary who will think about and consider every serious question that is raised with him, even (especially) those which challenge his own previous modes of thought. I am hopeful, therefore, that our exchange will lead to some further development of a collective synthesis. I’ll keep readers of ATC informed if I can as our conversation develops further.

The Question of “Matriarchy”

The concept of “patriarchy,” just mentioned, leads us to another theme that is central to the book. Shoatz is straightforward about the influence on his thinking that others have had over the years. One of the individuals named most prominently is Fred Ho, also an editor of this volume, whose proposal to embrace “matriarchy” as an alternative to patriarchy and “manifest destiny Marxism” Shoatz openly embraces.

It is not quite clear from the book itself just what is meant by the term “matriarchy.” But it is obvious that for both Ho and Shoatz this represents something more than “feminism,” or even “radical feminism” — which still suggests an equality of women with men in the context of our present-day industrial culture. The concept of “matriarchy” being embraced here is tied in with a vision of “ecosocialism” which would constitute a sharp break from our present-day industrial culture.

Shoatz calls directly for the development of a “subsistence economy” — a term used not in the sense that most will probably instinctively understand it, an economy which produces a bare minimum necessary for survival and nothing by way of a social surplus, but in the sense used by writers like Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva from whom Shoatz quotes extensively: an economy where local production for local use begins to replace a reliance on industrial production in general, and on globalized industrial production in particular.

Given the ecological challenges posed by 21st century technology this is an idea that at least deserves a serious conversation within the revolutionary movement today.
 Finally, a list of those individuals to whom Shoatz expresses his deep gratitude would not be complete without a mention of Stan Goff, another whose writings are quoted extensively in the book.

Appendices include a “Manifesto for Scientific Soul Sessions” (SSS is a group founded several years ago by Fred Ho and others), also available at, and a statement by a relatively new organization called “Ecosocialist Horizons,” which was created initially by members of SSS but has begun to establish a fairly broad national and international network. [Fred Ho’s article on the revolutionary content of jazz music appeared in ATC 159 and is online at For more information on Ecosocialist Horizons, go to]

The book also includes a foreword by rap artist Chuck D. (who characterizes Shoatz as “one of the most brilliant thinkers on the subject of Black liberation, as well as freedom, justice, and social transformation for all who want a planet free of abuse, oppression, and exploitation toward humans and Earth itself”), an introduction by Quincy Saul, one of the editors, and a “prelude” by Fred Ho.

If you are interested in a book which will challenge you in creative and intelligent ways, read this one.

Buy Maroon the Implacable now | Buy e-Book now | Return to Matt Meyer's Author Page now
Return to Quincy Saul's page

In Letters of Blood and Fire in The New Yorker

The New Yorker
July 5th 2013

What We're Reading: Summer Edition Volume II

Summer reading plans and aspirations from the New Yorker staff. This second installment follows part one.

...George Caffentzis has been writing as part of what is sometimes called the “anti-capitalist” movement for roughly thirty years. In Letters of Blood and Fire: Work, Machines, and the Crisis of Capitalism is the best available collection of his work. Rooted in Marxist fundamentals, Caffentzis examines how capital has turned forces like “information technology” into newer and more efficient modes of labor exploitation. His tone is less stringent than that of some academics (thought this isn’t a book for anyone scared of theory), and he pokes around into more historical badger holes than other writers in his cohort (the Turing machine pops up).

Calm but furious and meticulously researched, this collection is required reading for anyone other than the Koch Brothers.

—Sasha Frere-Jones

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