Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Good advice to Democrats

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Among the tidal wave of articles on Occupy Wall Street, one stands out for me: advice from OWS to the national Democratic Party. Written on the Truthout website on October 21st by J.A. Myerson, himself an occupier, it urges the Dems to, literally, cave in to the movement.

"Dear Democartic Party," he writes, "Cave into pressure from us. Do it. Go whole hog with it. Now is your moment. You have never had the type of political cover you have now, and you never will again. Stick a big middle finger up in the direction of Wall Street, fire your revolving-door-begotten stafers, declare yourself now and forever the party of working people, and be done with it."

This is brilliant. In effect, it anticipates the abuse Democrats will take (actually, already have taken) from the right, and urges them to embrace the abuse, much the way African Americans were urged in the civil rights movement to embrace the "abusive" term Black; much the way gay people were urged to embrace the "abusive" term Queer. It's telling the Dems to say, in effect, Yes, we've "caved in"--that is, really embraced, the legitimate message expressed again and again, by so many different people, by so many disparate means--by so many Americans--involved in OWS.

To be sure, some Democrats appear to be taking baby steps in that direction. According to The Observer, an e-mail sent out recently by the Democratic congressional campaign committee is seeking signatures on a petition backing OWS. And House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is reported to have said that the "message of the American people is that no longer will the recklessness of some on Wall Streeet cause massive joblessness on Main Street." But many more Dems need to shed their banker benefactors and openly declare their support. And, I would add, shout "Shame" on those who do not.
Doing so would allow the Democratic Party to appeal to a growing base. At present, according to a recent CBS/New York Times Poll, forty-three percent of Americans  already suport this spanking new uprising. In the history of American social movements, this is astounding for a brand new one that seems to have arisen from nowhere a few weeks ago, yet is spreading rapdily around the country and overseas. It is especially noteworthy given the mainstream media's relentless portrayal of OWS as an inchoate group of malcontents who are so disorganized that they cannot come up with a single "demand."

For those--including avid supporters and more-or-less sympathizers--who are nevertheless disconcerted by the absence of a finely tuned set of microscopic demands, check out Matt Taibbi's suggestions:

1) Break  up the monopolies
2) [Make Wall Street] pay for [its] own bailouts. A tax of 0.1 percent on all trades of stocks and bonds and a 0.01 percent tax on all trades of derivatives would generate enough revenue to pay us back for the bailouts, and still have plenty left over to fight the deficits the banks claim to be so worried about.
3) No public money for private lobbying.
4) Tax hedge-fund gamblers.
5) Change the way bankers get paid. We need new laws preventing wall Street executives from getting bonuses upfront for deals that might blow up in all our faces later.

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Egypt: 'Explaining' the Revolution


It should not be surprising that as the reverberations of Egypt’s revolution spread throughout the Mideast, igniting supporters and terrifying despots, there appears to be no lack of efforts to “explain” the upsurge as validating this or that cause, ideology or political myopia. Here are a few examples, mutually exclusive, of pundits claiming that the revolution merely reflects a justification of their own mind-sets.

In Iran, for example, where a rigidly Islamic government is now using brutal methods to suppress a similar uprising in its own front yard, chief cleric Ayatollah Khamenei recently said that the Egyptian revolution was nothing more than an “Islamic awakening,” a reflection of the example set by the Iranian Islamic overthrow of the Shah in 1979.

Not to be outdone, right winger Elliott Abrams (of Iran-Contra fame) wrote in the Washington Post on January 29 that the Egyptian revolution owes its very existence to none other than George W. Bush. For wasn’t it the former U.S. President who verbally championed the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon and gave lip service to, um, totally supported a democratic Palestinian state way back in 2003? And doesn’t that verbal support show that not only was he “defending self-government, not the use of force” in invading Iraq, but that he was encouraging democratic governments in the Mideast?

And so what if the Bush administration provided ongoing financial and technical support for Mubarak, let alone used Mubarak’s jails for torture and extraordinary rendition? So what if it supported as well the despots in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere? All that was just, well. . . realpolitik.

Among other American conservatives, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, speaking on CNN’s State of the Union program recently blamed, at least in part, Egypt’s formerly outlawed Muslim Brotherhood for the revolution, and warned: “I worry that we’ll rush to an election where the Muslim Brotherhood, who is the most organized but doesn’t represent the true will of the Egyptian people, will have a disproportionate effect.” On the same program, former Minnesota Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty, a potential presidential contender, criticized President Obama “for not explicitly declaring his opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood during an interview with Fox News Channel’s Bill O'Reilly a week ago.”


Incidentally, for an antidote to the argument that the Muslim Brotherhood played any significant role in the Egyptian uprising, see Egyptian journalist Hossam el-Hamalawy’s observation
on Al Jazeera that “The Brotherhood has been suffering from divisions since the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada. Its involvement in the Palestinian Solidarity Movement when it came to confronting the regime was abysmal. Basically, whenever their leadership makes a compromise with the regime, especially the most recent leadership of the current supreme guide, it has demoralized its base cadres.”

Unfortunately, it’s not only hard line Islamists and U.S. right wingers who seek to explain the revolution through their own political eyeglasses. In an otherwise excellent analysis of key global developments after the decline of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the United States as the world’s sole superpower, Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project,
writes that “Pax Americana proved to be a Pox Americana for the [Mideast] region and the world.” In other words, to Englehardt, the Egyptian revolution was essentially an anti-American- imperialist movement.

Trouble is, this type of argument can be used by anybody of any persuasion: for example, a radical Islamist, taking its cue from Englehardt, can state, with tons of (selective) historic evidence, that western invasions of Islamic countries constituted an oppressive Pax Christianity-Judaism, embraced by Mubarak, against which freedom-loving Islamic truth-seekers rose up and defeated the infidel invaders. In other words, that the Egyptian revolution was at base a religious victory of Islam.

In a like vein, Adam Hanieh of The Socialist Project
writes that the struggles in Egypt and Tunisia “are best understood through the lens of class struggle.” Really? But the masses of Egyptians in Tahrir/Freedom Square represented virtually every class in Egypt--with the exception of those in Mubarak’s inner circle--including upper class physicians, middle class students, and lower class workers (if unemployed). As Mohammed Bamyeh, writing on the Arab Studies Institute's E-zine website Jadaliyya, noted: “[O]ver the days [in Tahrir Square] I saw an increasing demographic mix in demonstrations, where people from all age groups, social classes, men and women, Muslims and Christians, urban people and peasants--virtually all sectors of society, acting in large numbers and with a determination rarely seen before.” Emphasis added.

Apparently, none of that multi-class participation refutes a class analysis (which holds that conflict between classes creates the revolution) because, according to Hanieh, in the Middle East, “the ways in which ‘class struggle’ is expressed will take a variety of forms that constantly disrupts any reductionist economistic readings.” I guess one of those variety of forms is all classes working together. Class cooperation is the new class struggle? C'mon.

Even some people I invariably admire, like Israeli peace activist Uri Averni, has offered a
view
of the revolution that makes one think “Say wha?” Although Averni acknowledges that the “turmoil in Egypt was caused by economic factors: the rising cost of living, the poverty, the unemployment, the hopelessness of the educated young,” he doesn’t stop there. “But let there be no mistake: the underlying causes are far more profound. They can be summed up in one word: Palestine.”

He explains: “Betraying a poor relative is shameful in Arab tradition. Seeing Hosni Mubarak collaborating with this betrayal [of Palestinians] led many Egyptians to despise him. This contempt lies beneath everything that happened this week.”

To me, this is over the top. Certainly Palestine/Israel, especially Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians, is an issue among the people in virtually every Arab nation, Egypt included. But it takes an enormous straining of credulity to hold that this issue, and this alone, lay “beneath everything” in the Egyptian revolution

My point in recounting all this? Those rushing to expound self-serving "explanations" should hold back a bit. Wait awhile, let history unfold before you rush to judgment, lest you reveal yourselves as, at best, spurious, and at worst, fatuous.

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Monday, November 8, 2010

40th Street (Cont. #15)

Shattering the peace in Borough Park, circa 1958

XVIII: Dope Time

Dope came to 40th Street in the late-1950s.

I was sitting on my stoop, doing nothing in particular, when I heard a car screech. I turned towards 15th Avenue, and saw a black sedan speeding, swerving from left to right, slamming into one car after another that lined the curbs. But I didn’t jump up or anything. I just sat there and watched, as if the entire scene were happening in a slow motion movie. The car kept swerving—it must have banged into at least eight or nine autos before it smashed so fiercely into one car that it came to a halt.

I remember staring, dumbly. And just as dumbly watching as the driver, an Italian kid I recognized but did not really know--about seventeen or so, a bit older than me--stumbled out of the car and began to run, crazily it seemed, down the street towards 16th Avenue. When he was nearly there, I finally jumped up, but the reason I “awakened” at that point now escapes me. I ran down the stoop stairs, and sped towards him. He had turned the corner. When I got there, I saw him still running, or speed-wobbling, now headed towards 41st Street.

Then, out of nowhere, three young men who were working at a gas station a block or so away, gave chase. They caught him, flung him to the ground, and kept him there. Somebody must have called the police, because cop sirens soon filled the air.

I never found out what happened to him. The only thing that stays with me is the image, several hours later, of his mother, a tiny woman all in black, walking frantically up and down the street, stopping every teenager she could find and pleading with them to “Tell the cops he was wit’ you, in your house. Tell ’em it wasn’t him.” She stared up into their faces, pleading for them to lie. The kids she approached just shook their heads.


I remember actually feeling sorry, almost pained, for her, as she made her desperate way back towards her home on 15th Avenue.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Gladwell on the civil rights movement


In an otherwise perceptive recent New Yorker article debunking the notion of a "Twitter revolution" (that social media websites like Twitter and Facebook are the key tools of today's demonstrations and mass uprisings for social causes), Malcolm Gladwell, among our more savvy social critics, reveals a profound ignorance about the civil rights movement in this country.

After noting, for example, that the students involved in the early sit-ins across the South described the movement as a fever, he writes: "But the civil-rights movement was more like a military campaign than like a contagion. . . ."

Military campaign?

It was anything but, at least to my recollection. Indeed, it was the most unmilitary enterprise imaginable--egalitarian, grass roots, overwhelmingly bottom-up not top-down. Tactics and strategy were debated endlessly, rather than, as in the military, ordered and followed. And the movement indeed spread like a fever, a good, healthy, passionate fever, washing like an endless, cleansing wave across campuses and cities, in small towns and large, from the North to the South.

A personal note: Gladwell was born in 1963, when the old decades-long, rather staid, civil rights movement was getting into super-high gear. One year later, at the vibrant age of twenty-two, I became actively involved in that movement (up north). So Gladwell's information comes from archival research. Mine comes from organizing or joining rent actions against slumlords in Harlem, sitting-in at dangerous traffic intersections to demand street lights, picketing local white-owned stores to prevent firings, demonstrating against rampant police brutality. And from organizing, house to house, apartment to apartment, a residents' street group, the West 122nd Street Block Association.

Which meant knocking on doors, entering apartments, sitting around with the tenants, discussing with them, one on one, why it's important to do this and to do that--indeed, learning from them what we may have been doing wrong, and how to make it right--again and again, day after day, month after month. The work was difficult, frustrating and exhausting, but it was also joyous, exhilirating. Above all, contagious.

Now, Gladwell is not one to make a statement and then walk away from it without providing evidence. The problem is that the evidence he cites is inadequate. After stating that the key sources of the movement were the NAACP and black churches, he writes that the NAACP "was a centralized organization, run from New York according to highly formalized operating procedures. At the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Martin Luther King, Jr., was the unquestioned authority. At the center of the movement was the black church, which had a carefully demarcated division of labor, with various standing committees and disciplined groups." He then quotes Aldon D. Morris' The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: "Each group was task-oriented and coordinated its activities through authority structures. Individuals were held accountable for their assigned duties, and important conflicts were resolved by the minister, who usually exercised ultimate authority over the congregation."

In short, to Gladwell, a military campaign.

Even if accurate, this history is incomplete. For it leaves out the movement's most important organization. Namely, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (pronounced Snick), which Gladwell never mentions. Although formed as an offshoot of Martin Luther King's organization, SNCC's members--who bore the brunt of white violence against the movement--were more akin to anarchic democracy workers or worker-priests than to organizational functionaries. It was the most grass-roots of the civil rights organizations, in which participants spent almost all their time and energy working one on one with poor black southerners.

As word of SNCC's work and experiences spread, other young people in the movement were influenced not only by their activities but by their methods of operation. For example, although the national office of the Congress on Racial Equality may well have had a top-down structure, the CORE chapters on campuses were far more egalitarian (some might argue unorganized). The CORE chapter at City College of New York, where I was a member, was typical. But so were the chapters at NYU and Columbia. And so were the non-student chapters like East Harlem CORE (known as the River Rats) and others throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn. SNCC eventually became the model for the early new left Students for a Democratic Society, especially those involved in community organizing in places like Newark, New Jersey, or Cleveland, Ohio. Lest we forget, to the early SDS, hierarchy was anathema. SNCC and SDS also spawned the women's movement, in which most of the organizations were also non-hierarchical.


So when Gladwell dismisses the view of social media as fomenting mass activism, he may have a point (although the younger members of today's blogosphere appear to be enraged at that view) but for the wrong reason. "Facebook and the like are tools for building networks, which are the opposite, in structure and character, from hierarchies." True enough. But hierarchies are not what made or characterized the civil rights movement, or any of the other 1960s-1970s cultural revolutions (women's rights, gay rights, anti-war, disabled rights, etc.) that sprang from it.

Rather, what characterized those movements was egalitarianism, in spirit, in structure, and in action.

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Sunday, April 4, 2010

40th Street (Cont. #14)

A Coney Island tale, in the 1950s.

XVII: The warped "S"

I began draping a towel over my shoulders and down my back on the beach around the time I turned thirteen or fourteen. That’s when my scoliosis—a deformity in which the spine curves unnaturally—began to show markedly. Everybody else in the world had a straight back; I was the only one in creation whose back resembled the letter S. A kind of warped S.

Which also lowered my height several inches. And because the teen years are when survival means you have to look tall like everybody else, or at least like every other teenager, walking around with a weird back that made you even shorter than usual was a source of constant humiliation. It wasn’t so bad when I had a shirt on, because it was hidden. But at the beach, of course, wearing only a bathing suit, nothing was hidden.

“Hey, look at Nathan’s back!” Louie called out once, when the towel had slipped, and everybody came running to look. Louie was a tall, skinny guy with severe acne, but he didn’t seem to mind that. Or he didn’t openly mind it. So everybody stared.

After a few seconds, though, they shrugged and walked away. But even though they pretended not to care, and talked and carried on, and pushed and shoved each other, and laughed like crazy about a million other things, I knew that they were all obsessed with my back.

Secretly, maybe, and silently. But still.

I wanted to grab Louie and shake him and scream at everybody to look at his acne hah hah!

One hot summer day we were all at the beach, Bay 8 at Coney Island. By “all,” I mean all the teens on 40th Street and surrounding areas. All the boys and all the girls. I was fifteen. This day was different, because Norma Stein was there. She was a few years younger than me, and I knew she liked me. First crush, probably. I felt she was too young for me—even one year’s difference when you’re a teen is enormous, let alone three—but I was thrilled that she actually liked me, so I’d talk to her when we’d all gather together on summer evenings at someone’s porch. Or just on the sidewalk, with portable radios playing Little Richard and Fats Domino and other rock ’n roll.

Anyway, that day at the beach, with the towel constantly slipping, I felt horrible. Norma would see me with my scoliotic back, and like everybody else in the world would shrink back in disgust. So when she shyly walked up to me—facing my front, not my back—I turned away, mortified, gripping the towel tightly around my shoulders. She said “Hi,” and I think I didn’t even answer her. Instead I walked away.

And later that evening, back on 40th Street, when we all re-gathered to talk about whatever we talked about, and listened to music, I deliberately ignored her. I knew she was wondering what the heck was happening, but I didn’t care. I couldn’t face her. She had seen with her own eyes what a physical freak I was.

From that day on, I don’t think I ever said another word to her. I’d hear through the grapevine that she was very upset, that she didn’t know why I wouldn’t speak to her, that maybe she thought that she had done something bad—this sweet, innocent young girl—but I could never tell anybody. I could never say how horrible I felt.

Not horrible that I was behaving like a selfish, self-centered shit. Horrible because I had let the towel slip earlier that day.

On some level, I think I have been wrapping myself in a towel ever since.

* * *

Saturday, March 13, 2010

40th Street (Cont. #13)

An art lesson at 1546 40th Street, Brooklyn, NY.


XVI: Plugging a leak


Everybody except my father, who had been an artist, told me that the clay horse I made out of plasticine was beautiful. My father didn’t comment on it, but that was okay, because he rarely commented on anything I accomplished. Especially any artwork. Anyway, the horse was about two inches by three inches. My mother, who had also been an artist, showed it to people, aunts and uncles and neighbors on the block. Look at how beautiful it is, she’d say. Even though she may have been exaggerating, I felt very proud. I was about eight years old, I think. I decided that this was proof that I’d grow up to be an artist, just like my parents.

One day soon after, our washing machine sprung a leak. It was a big white machine, on wheels, that you could wash clothes in if you moved it next to the sink, and somehow connected its hose to the sink faucet and got the machine to turn on and start chugging.

Only this time, the fixture that extended from the washing machine sprung a leak. And no matter how tight my mother turned a knob or something, she couldn’t stop the leaking.

Then she had an idea. She saw my clay horse. And she decided that the only way to deal with the water dripping down onto the floor was to stuff the horse into the pipe or spigot or whatever that was leaking. That would stop the leak. At least temporarily, until she got around to calling the landlord, who was a plumber. (She probably didn’t think of putting a pot on the floor under the leak until the plumber came.)

So she took my horse and squished it in her hand and stuffed it into the spigot. It minimized the leaking, but didn’t completely stop it, because I saw some water seeping out around the clay.

I just watched her do it. Then I did what I'd often do when something like that happened: I stared, and kept myself very still, and started to scream inside my head no no no it’s my horse no. . . . Silent screaming, just like that painting by Edvard Munch of the person on the bridge.

Then I walked away.

Later my mother said she was so sorry she had to use my clay horse, but it was the only thing she could do. This is what I remember her saying. “It was so beautiful! I had to destroy it to stop the leaking. I’m so sorry.”

It was so beautiful, I had to destroy it. . . .

So I pretty much stopped playing with clay. But I think I kept silently screaming for a long time.

* * *

Friday, February 26, 2010

40th Street (Cont. # 12)

A medical emergency, and more, in Borough Park, Brooklyn, circa 1949


XV: Skippy

When I awoke late at night screaming in pain, my parents knew to knock on the door of our neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Eton, to use their phone to call a taxi. We didn’t have a phone then. It was 1949, and I, at seven years old, had just shown the symptom that our doctor, who had visited our home on 40th Street earlier that day, warned my parents about. In those days, doctors carried a small black bag and made house calls. He had given me medicine for a pain on the right side of my belly that I had been complaining of. Then he told my parents that if I awoke at night, screaming, to send me right away to the hospital. He said that it might be more than a stomach ache.

At first that day, my parents, especially my father, didn’t even want to call the doctor. He was sure that all my complaining was probably about nothing more than an ordinary stomach ache. And that it would go away if we just let it alone. He said it with a tone of annoyance, if not disgust. At my being such a cry baby.

But the pain didn’t go away, and I didn’t stop crying. So eventually they called our doctor. Who said my pain might indicate a ruptured appendix.

On the operating table, the doctors or somebody put a mask on my face and gave me ether. Of course I didn’t know what ether was at the time; I didn’t know anything, except that I was on a table or something and somebody put a mask on my face and I was in the black sky with a million stars and I was falling falling down into nothingness. And in that black nothingness was the horrible smell, which I recall as a combination of menthol and rancid split pea soup. And I was falling downward forever in the sickening blackness.

I guess that was a dream, although it didn’t feel like one. A dream was supposed to be different. Like a dream in which I had a pet dog, which I always wanted but couldn’t have. Because my mother said she hated dogs. She was afraid of them, she said, and dogs ruined furniture, and were dirty. And the last thing she needed was to clean up after it.


Anyway, after the falling-in-the-black-sky dream, I awoke in a strange white bed and had to go to the bathroom. But I didn’t know where I was, until some girl told me I was in the hospital. She was maybe two or so years older than me, or at least she was much taller than me, which I could see even though both of us were lying down. She was in a white bed, just like mine. In an all-white room with white walls. She said I could use the bedpan that was under the bed. Or I could call a nurse who would help me get to a bathroom. I felt I couldn’t wait, so I reached down and then peed in the bedpan. But I was embarrassed, because she saw me peeing. So I closed my eyes and pretended. . . . I don’t remember what I pretended. Maybe that I wasn’t there.

The following day, the girl in the bed next to mine was sitting up and sucking her thumb. She was nine years old, I found out later, two years older than me, and sucking her thumb. That made me very scared, but I can’t say why. Maybe I thought that I would become just like her, a thumb-sucker. But that’s only what I surmise now, thinking back. At the time, I just wanted her to stop sucking her thumb. But she wouldn’t, and I stayed scared.

So when my mother came to visit me later in the day, I cried and cried and pleaded with her to take me home. She said she couldn’t until a few days later. But I kept crying, so to get me to stop, she promised that if I were a good boy, and stopped crying, she would get me a pet dog when I got home.

Certainly, that was a big thing for her.

When I got home, sure enough, there was the dog. I fell in love immediately, and called him Skippy. I didn’t know what “breed” he was; in fact, I didn’t know there were breeds. Let alone what breeds meant. Today when I check page after page of dog pictures on Google, I can never find Skippy. Maybe he was something called an American Staffordshire Terrier. Or a German Pinscher. Or a Jack Russel Terrier. Or a mutt.

Tawny, like a lion. Playful, like a friend. Excited, like a little boy just like me.

All I knew was, Skippy was my dog. I wanted like anything to take him outside for a walk. But I'd have to wait, because I had to stay indoors for two weeks, doctor's orders. Every day, for the next two weeks, all I could think of was taking Skippy for a walk.

Then the big day arrived. I could go outside, because the jagged scar on the right side of my belly, where my ruptured appendix had been, was healing. I couldn’t wait to take my dog for a walk. I was so excited I could hardly think.

That morning, my mother said she had to go to the grocery store, and would take Skippy with her. When she got home, she said, I could take Skippy out myself. About a half hour later, she came back.

Without Skippy.

Where’s Skippy? I asked. She said he was probably stolen. She said she had placed his leash on the doorknob of the grocery store before she went in to buy stuff. When she came out, he was gone. She said she looked up and down the block, calling his name, but she couldn’t find him. She said she saw a truck driving away, and she was convinced that the truck driver had seen what a beautiful dog Skippy was and stole him and drove away. She said she was so sorry. So so sorry.

Children, especially very young children, tend to accept as truth whatever they are told. So for some years afterwards, I used to think that someday I would find that truck driver and kill him and get my dog back. Only sometimes, in the back of my brain, I remembered how much my mother had hated dogs. And that she saw how much I was attached to Skippy.

Which in her mind, I think now—I really think now—she experienced as a detraction from my attachment to her.

Maybe that was it. Or maybe it was the truck driver.


* * *