Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Coda: 16 Impossible Things Before Breakfast
Well, I thought I was done — until I wasn’t.
I think Bliss assumes, like many so-called rational people on the left, that social change is primarily an intellectual and political problem. Bliss writes of an anguish “no amount of scholarship can heal” as if it would be possible to study your way out of despair, but you can’t. The only way out of hopelessness is, oddly enough, hope itself.
Before I first read Bliss’ piece, I was working on a passage in my novel in which my main character, Morian, is having dinner with Lillian Ruby, the head of a huge biotech firm, probably one of the most powerful organizations in that world. Before detailing his version of the geopolitical history of the region, Ruby asks Morian what her political leanings are. She gives a noncommittal answer; the truth is she’s been politically inert for a long time, ever since she left the movement because of its lack of imagination. Ruby counters Morian’s lackluster response by quoting to her the last sentences she ever posted to a political forum: The revolution is coming, but if you keep looking where you’ve been looking, you will never see it. It dresses in colors you have never worn; it is written in a language you have yet to speak.
At first Morian pretends not to remember the post, but then she finally admits to Ruby the reaction to her post was far from positive. She was imagining possibilities at the edge of language, almost beyond the limits of human imagination. She couldn’t make her comrades understand, so she just gave up.
“I’m not surprised,” Lillian Ruby tells her. “Politics is the art of the possible. You wanted people to conceive of the beyond possible, which is usually the domain of religion.”
I was revising that particular section today when something hit me: in order to effect change, you must first believe in it. You have to have the courage to imagine 16 impossible things before breakfast. You have to have faith. To be successful, activism has to have a strong intellectual, political and spiritual foundation.
I essentially ended Part 2 of this series with a declaration of faith. I will continue to work for change because I believe I must and because I believe in my blood it is possible.
Now I realize “faith” and “spiritual” are loaded terms. You either think of Bible thumping fundamentalists or airy fairy New Agers. But it was no accident the Civil Rights movement was based, for a large part, in churches. That was the perfect place for many people to gain the fortitude to begin a journey towards the impossible, because moving towards what Obama called, a “more perfect union” in one of his better speeches, certainly seemed near impossible to many of them at the time.
The arts can serve a similar function. (And no, I don’t mean didactic pieces that preach mainly to the choir, although those can serve a purpose.) The arts can give us the inner resources to fight the impossible fight, by imagining the way to light, by reminding us the world is worth saving even when we think it’s doomed to hell, and by providing encouragement during those inevitable long, dark nights of the soul. If we are to actively build our future, we must have the courage and imagination to dream it first.
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Mastery of — or at least the ability to master — the extant technologies by which the Ruling Class maintains its power: A little over ten years ago, I looked into applying for an LPFM license with a couple of friends under the aegis of Dreamstreets Press. The idea was to build a radio station that would showcase the wide range of Wilmington’s cultural offerings, with an emphasis on local under-served communities. We planned to feature the work of local musicians, have interviews with visual and literary artists, do in-depth local news reporting and generally be a clearing house for the city.
We had a bit of a head start. I basically already owned everything to start a radio station except a transmitter. Our little group had several members with both deep roots in the community and audio production experience. We might have even been able to wrangle a little money from somewhere since funding for non-profits was hardly as tight as it is today. But unfortunately, the lower end of the FM band is rather crowded in this area, so no frequencies were available. I think the closest available frequency was somewhere south of Dover.
Why was a radio station so important? Because consistent access to the media is important. It’s the way you get your message heard — and unfortunately, progressives have fallen way behind in this area.
I’ll confess I have no idea as to how we might remedy this situation. Blogs, zines, books, websites, and podcasts are all well and good, but what we need is a TV station, indeed a whole network, since TV is the medium that is most readily available and popular. It is also the most expensive to produce well. Cheap TV looks cheap and the people will not be fooled.
The support of a major foreign power: I learned when I was a teenager that if I wanted something kind of iffy, that my parents might not want to give, that it was better to ask for it when outsiders (company, extended family) were present. Since my parents tended to avoid public displays of conflict, they usually gave in to avoid an argument — and with very few exceptions I got what I wanted. I took advantage of their efforts to save face.
Bliss asserts the specter of the former Soviet Union served a similar function for America’s capitalist ruling class. Since there was a strong, viable alternative lurking somewhere on the planet (they beat us into space after all) the robber barons couldn’t put their ugly butts on full display. The USSR might have been imperfect; they might have been oppressive and cruel, but we always had to show we were better than they were. We at least needed to look like we had the moral upper hand.
Now, Bliss maintains, for all practical purposes, socialism is dead and the new globalism has initiated a planet-wide race to the bottom, at least for most of us. Even in nominally Communist China, to get rich is glorious. Who cares if you wind up with some of the most polluted cities on the planet, thousands of people die in your mines or occasionally you are tempted to taint your products to maximize your profits? (It’s been a long time since I’ve read Marx, but I think that’s enough to have him spinning in his grave.)
Maybe nation states are no longer the true power. Corporations are. They have the money; they have the equipment; they have the jobs; they transcend borders and they can write their own rules. This is starkly apparent in the case of the BP oil disaster. Everyone yearns for the government to “do something”, but in reality there is only a limited amount the government can do. BP has the money, the equipment and the expertise. The government is very much at their mercy.
The time to have done something was before the drilling began, with strong regulation, oversight and planning. Of course then there would be the risk of BP taking its toys to play elsewhere, where perhaps the “small people” wouldn’t try to meddle as much. Even as Bobby Jindal tries to advocate for Louisiana’s endangered ecosystems, he doesn’t want drilling to end forever. It’s hard to slap the hand that feeds you.
These new world powers have given rise to an enemy just as ruthless. Al Queda in all its permutations is globalism’s darkest reflection. Despite all pretenses to the contrary, I wouldn’t call it a legitimate revolutionary movement because as far as I can see, it is completely nihilistic; it seeks to build nothing, only to destroy. It is the last desperate shout of the damned.
Yes, I know. It’s almost the Platonic form of depressing. But like I said, I refuse to give up. I also don’t want to discount the progress we’ve made so far. Obama has accomplished far more in his 18 months of office than he’s given credit for. However, I increasingly get the sinking feeling we are trying to patch up something fundamentally broken and that radical, paradigm shifting changes are needed if the human race is to survive.
The Gulf of Mexico oil gusher is an excellent case in point. Thankfully, at this writing, there is reason to hope. The oil has finally stopped flowing, but what about the oil already released? How long will it take the ocean to recover and will it ever recover completely? What will it mean if it doesn’t? And why were we going around poking holes where no human could go in the first place? How close are we to running out of oil and how much of the earth are we willing to rape to get it? What does a clean energy, post-petroleum economy even mean? A Prius in every garage — or something far deeper? What does the end of the easy oil age mean for agriculture, manufacturing, city planning, or medical science? Oil is in everything, you know, from the fresh tar coating on my parents’ driveway to the rather ingenious contraptions that allow me to stand and walk again. What will happen when there simply is no more?
The questions are endless. How long can the United States afford to spend the bulk of its resources remaking the world in its image and dreaming up new and exciting ways to kill people while it lets its own infrastructure rot? What will happen when it gets too expensive and dangerous to import basic goods from 12,000 miles away? What will happen when all those people in the world’s cheap labor markets finally stand up and say, Show us the money! Give us our due!
Bliss compares global capitalism to the Borg and maintains not only is resistance futile, but “rebellion is suicide”. I disagree. The challenges ahead are daunting, but not impossible. If I can imagine the dangers ahead, I can also imagine ways to conquer them — and imagine I must. I have no choice but to walk towards the future. So I write as if it matters, dream as if it matters, live as if it matters.
Because, in the end, it really does.
Saturday, July 17, 2010
I’m not sure why Bliss’ piece affected me so deeply. Perhaps it was because I’d spent the day working on my novel Goodbye Jambalaya which is in large part about the geography of despair. Maybe it’s because I’ve often heard his hopelessness (and bitterness) echoed among several of my older activist friends. Anyway: it hit me hard enough to get saved into the PDF archive.
Bliss begins by thanking a couple of friends for their comments on previous posts and then gets down to explaining why he hasn’t posted anything for nearly a month. “Several people have wondered if I am sick — if my long silence is the result of illness. Indeed it is, but my affliction is neither viral nor bacteriological. It is instead political: the fact our collective powerlessness has become so obvious — and so depressing — there is little I can do beyond the proverbial wailing and gnashing of teeth.”
Oh yeah, I thought, I’ve definitely been there before. Several times: right after the latest Iraq War started, when the public option was taken off the table in the health care debate, when President Obama decided he was going to expand the war in Afghanistan, when BP’s insatiable lust for profits (as well as our insatiable lust for fossil fuels) propelled them to tear a hole in the ocean floor, and for 85 days, 16 hours, and 25 minutes all we could do was watch it bleed.
On most of those issues, I thought I was a good active citizen. I kept myself informed; I voted; I wrote my congressman and senators; I wrote and published zines. In the case of Afghanistan, I even wrote the President — in longhand, since I read somewhere he’d be more likely to actually see my missive that way. “Do something truly audacious,” I implored him. “Stop a war.” But no go. All my efforts — as well as the efforts of several million others — were in vain.
Bliss asserts this state of powerlessness is more than a passing malaise, that indeed real change is impossible and the bad guys (the Ayn Rand capitalists) have won. Part of the reason for this is that the “four basic requirements” for “liberation from tyranny” no longer exist. These four basic requirements are: solidarity, a disciplined population, the ability to master the “extant technologies by which the Ruling Class maintains its power” and support from a major foreign power.
I estimate Loren Bliss to be at least 20 years older than I am (judging by the fact he’s retired and by his terminology, which seems dated. Who capitalizes “Ruling Class” anymore?) so presumably he has less time to try to live in a state of total despair. Unfortunately, I can’t afford to give up; it’s a matter of survival and sanity. So I do not take Bliss’ four prerequisites as gospel and refuse to believe the tools to build a better world have vanished forever. But his post did get me thinking — and in my next posts, I will use his four conditions as a framework to discuss why real change is so slow in coming.
Solidarity: By this Bliss means ideally ideological solidarity, or “at least the solidarity of a common list of grievances”. If you are going to effect change, you have to have enough people to agree on what needs changing first, and in America, getting to that crucial first step is quite a challenge.
I started attending demonstrations in the early 80’s way after the late 60’s/ early 70’s heyday. The one thing I was struck by was how scattered many of them felt; there was no solidarity of purpose. While we nominally might have been there to support one cause — divesting from South Africa, equal rights for women, etc — it was patently obvious to me (and I think anyone watching) that people were more interested in publicity for their own special interest group. Sometimes verbal altercations broke out between young and old, blacks and whites, anarchists and Democrats, gays and straights. It was depressing and sometimes flat out embarrassing. What does it say about your particular cause when you can’t get people to agree on it for a single afternoon?
I think that’s why I was foolish enough to think the anti-war demonstrations just before the second Iraq war would actually work. Not only were they huge, but, more importantly, they were focused. You really got the feeling of “we the people” because, amazingly, everyone in attendance was on the same page. It was exhilarating!
Part of the reason we have trouble coming together is that American society is incredibly diverse. But we are also intensely individualistic and selfish. I don’t mean to imply we are all personally selfish, as Americans have the ability to be quite generous when we want to be, but we live within a system that rewards selfishness — indeed thrives on it — and that’s bound to color our everyday dealings with one another.
Plus, many of us lack the knowledge and skills to be able to see the big picture. We don’t see what racism has to do with worker’s rights, has to do with women’s rights, has to do with early childhood education, has to do with universal health care, has to do with the environment. We almost never think about the long haul. Hell, often we can’t even remember what we did yesterday, and worse than that, in some cases we simply refuse to. (Hence the Tea Party people who can’t tell the difference between Hitler and Obama) If we lack the ability to think outside the box of our own heads, how can we expect to recognize what we may have in common with our neighbor?
A Disciplined Population: “Effective political action requires discipline and teamwork”, Bliss states. True enough — although Bliss seems to think Americans lost their best opportunity to learn true teamwork and discipline when we abolished the draft. I’m not sure I agree with him on this point, but I understand what he’s getting at.
Some sort of compulsory national service (though not necessarily military) might teach people that freedom means more than just doing what you want; it costs something; it demands you give your best in return. It also might serve to give all Americans the benefit of a common experience of serving their country and help them become more invested in the common good. For instance: if everyone’s son and daughter had to serve in the military, we’d probably start fewer wars. Certainly, more people would have been more skeptical in the run up to Iraq.
But back to the point of discipline: political action and governance is often tedious. Yes, it requires passion, but it also requires patience. Yes, there are demonstrations, civil disobedience, and grand speeches, but there is also database maintenance, teaching yourself Flash, fact checking, grant writing, copy editing, accurate bookkeeping, talking to people you might not like and the occasional wearing of uncomfortable clothes and shoes so people will take you seriously. It’s not all fun and games and is often a thankless job.
Thursday, July 15, 2010
At http://www.flickr.com/photos/autoplant/sets/72157624351380045/ there is a slide show and short movie about the place.
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
Thursday, July 1, 2010
It was a hoax that I had perpetrated and it came from an overwhelming sense of frustration. It was shortly after I had finished writing the first edition of my novella, Poe’s Daughter, Pym’s Soul which was, in part, a piece of historical fiction about Poe’s visits to Delaware.
Two events occurred concurrently. One was my disappointment that my stories about Poe and his encounters with Delaware’s first literary figure John Lofland had such a weak public reception. My efforts had barely seemed worth the work I’d put into it, even though I earned $7,000 in fellowship grants from the Delaware State Arts Council for two of the stories. The second event was my discovery of an incident that occurred at Price’s Corner in 1903. I had stumbled upon it while doing research into Delaware’s Federal Writers’ Project papers at the University of Delaware library. The incident, only hinted at in a single page from an incomplete article, was the only lynching to have occurred in Delaware. I went to the microfilm archives to find out more. In the local daily newspaper I found the whole story. First, I was shocked to discover that my great grandfather had found the nearly dead girl who had been murdered. The event led to the arrest of George White, who was Black and even though he had not been formally charged, was incarcerated for his own protection in the New Castle County Workhouse, which used to stand in Price’s Corner. The other thing I discerned from a close reading of the newspaper articles of the time was the possibility that George White was innocent and the real killer was a stranger referred to as “The Avenging Cowboy,” who had conveniently shown up in time to incite a lynch mob. A sidebar article in the newspaper reported that he had been a part of several other similar incidents around the county, which led me to speculate that “The Avenging Cowboy” had been the real killer and that his modus operandi was to commit these crimes and then to frame an innocent victim. I thought about forming my research, which led only to speculative conclusions, into a novel. It was then that I said to myself, “Why bother? I’ll probably have to publish it myself in small numbers as I had with Poe’s Daughter, Pym’s Soul and afterward too few people will even want to read it to make my efforts worthwhile.”
However, the story was too juicy to give up on, so I perpetrated a hoax. I invented an unknown Delaware author, who I had discovered in much the same manner as I had discovered other little known but actual Delaware authors. I invented an author named “Tux Munce,” who had written a novel entitled Willow Run, which related the story of the lynching of George White and the activities of the real perpetrator who had got away with murder. Then I could turn around and report a shorter review of Tux Munce’s novel. A shorter piece would be more manageable. It would be short enough for people to read at a single short sitting, and it would be less costly to publish. This I did, published under the title, “Willow Run,” and told very few people I had invented “Tux Munce.”
I came clean with the hoax in a booklet, entitled The Secret Life of Tux Munce available elsewhere on this web site. In this booklet, I “used” Tux Munce to tell the story of some other events, like the story of how Upton Sinclair’s wife Meta, while the two where living the free love lifestyle in Arden, ran off to the bohemian scene in New York City with the American poet Harry Kemp. In later chapters of The Secret Life of Tux Munce, I mixed real life people who’d lived in Wilmington, like F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, with lessor known but remarkable residents of the city, like Weeping Joe Smoleki, who had been written about in Wilmington author J. Saunders Redding's No Day of Triumph; and Three Gun Wilson who was Wilmington’s version of Eliot Ness of The Untouchables fame; Daisy Winchester who was a local speakeasy proprietor, cabaret singer and local radio personality; G. Peyton Wertenbaker, who wrote science fiction for Amazing Stories and who also sang as Crash Peyton on local radio as Wilmington’s answer to Bing Crosby. I mixed in characters from novels by local authors John Biggs, Christopher Ward and Charles Wertenbaker and had them interact with Tux Munce and actual people, like the Fitzgeralds. Tux Munce carried on his writing endeavors by publishing stories in Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s The Wilmington Advocate, during which time Munce was secretly in love with Pauline Young, Dunbar-Nelson’s niece. In one of the stories, Munce encounters the Vodou loa Ghedé on the east side of Wilmington. For The Wilmington Suburban News, in the early 1950s Munce writes an article about Charles and Eleanor Bostwick, former residents of Kiamensi Gardens near Stanton, who were driven out of the county by local perpetrators of the Communist witch hunts during the HUAC/Joe McCarthy era. In his travels Munce interacted with the tango poets in Argentina and writes about it in another actual Wilmington publication called CANDID. Later he writes about his encounter with Zora Neale Hurston during a stopover in Haiti for another short lived Wilmington Black newspaper from the late 1940s called FRONT PAGE. I even inserted people I actually knew into the mix. Beside Pauline Young, who I knew, I inserted my grandfather, John Gasser, former Delaware State Senator Wilmer F. “Rudy” Williams, and Charley Stone, an elderly Black man from my youth who used to cut grass for some of my neighbors in Richardson Park.
Writing these stories had been some of the most enjoyable literary work I ‘d ever done. Drawing on both the literary works of authors who had worked in Delaware, combined with interesting characters they created, along with actual fascinating people, both famous and obscure, all within the context of our obfuscated local history was personally rewarding. As it’s turned out, that has been my only reward. Too bad I felt the need to cloak it in a hoax, but after all, it may have all really happened –– in another universe!