Category Archives: Obituary

They Don’t Make Republicans Like the Great Paul Findley Anymore!

In his 22 years in Congress (1960-1982), Paul Findley achieved a sterling record for fundamental positions, proposals and breakthroughs that revealed a great man, pure and simple. He never stopped learning and applying his knowledge to advance the right course of action, regardless of political party, ideology or pressure from various groups.

Findley, a courteous, kindly, ex-World War II navy veteran passed away earlier this month at the age of 98 in his home town of Jacksonville, Illinois. The District he represented was the one Abraham Lincoln was elected from for his one term in the House of Representatives. Findley was a student of Lincoln’s life, and embraced Lincoln’s view that “a politician should be willing to reject outmoded ways of thinking that no longer fit the times.”

Findley was a thoughtful, studious legislator with a superb sense of justice. He was an early civil rights champion. His opposition to runaway Presidential war-making was reflected in his leading support for the War Powers Act of 1973, though he wanted stronger curbs on the White House’s unilateral militarism.

Having been a journalist and owner of a small-town newspaper – the Pike Press, before going to Congress in 1960, Findley used his writing skills to explain issues regarding agricultural policies, a foreign policy of diplomacy and peace, and nuclear arms controls. He was an outspoken early opponent of the Vietnam War and a critic of the Pentagon’s chronically wasteful spending. He was not a “press-release” legislator, staking out his opinions and leaving it at that. He worked hard and smart to lead, to persuade, to get down to the minute details of coalition-building, lawmaking and legislating.

Back in Jacksonville, after his Congressional career ended in 1982, Findley wrote books and articles and lectured around the country. He courageously defended Americans of the Islamic faith, after 9/11, from bias, exclusion and intimidation. He did his civic duties with local associations. He also started the Lucille Findley Educational Foundation, in memory of his beloved wife – an Army nurse – he met in war-time Guam. They had two children. He always found time to be helpful, to serve others both locally and nationally. He also played tennis daily into his mid-eighties.

Findley possessed more than a streak of mid-west populism. Agricultural subsidies disproportionately going to a few wealthy landowners upset him greatly. He got through the House, after years of rejection, and over the objections of the Republican leadership, a $20,000 yearly limit of such subsidies per farm. The measure failed in the Senate.

Once again, in 1973, he bucked his Party and introduced an impeachment resolution against Nixon’s vice president Spiro Agnew, who later resigned in disgrace over a bribery scandal.

It was Findley’s interest in U.S. policies and operations in the Middle East, following his 1973 successful effort to obtain the release of a constituent from South Yemen that showed his moral courage, his belief in dialogue between adversaries and his commitment to the treatment of all people with dignity and respect. It also led to his defeat by Democrat Richard J. Durbin, now Illinois’s senior Senator.

Findley learned that the dispossessed and occupied Palestinian people were being treated unfairly and deprived of their human rights and self-determination. He visited refugee camps in the region. He met with Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and he urged peaceful diplomatic resolution of that conflict. For this sensible, though rare outreach by a Congressional lawmaker, he earned the immense enmity of U.S. partisans of the Israeli government. How dare he speak out on behalf of Palestinians, even though, he continued to vote for foreign aid to a prosperous militarily advanced Israeli superpower?

As the New York Times reported: “He became convinced that the influential pro-Israel lobby known as Aipac, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, had a stranglehold on American politicians that prevented the establishment of a Palestinian state and prevented rational dealings with Arab leaders in general.”

AIPAC activists, nationally and with their local affiliates, openly mobilized to defeat Findley in the 1980 election. They failed to do so. In 1982, they tried again, helping his Democratic opponent, Richard Durbin, to end Findley’s Congressional career by a margin of less than 1500 votes. AIPAC took credit for the win, raising over 80 percent of Durbin’s $750,000 in campaign funds from around the country. AIPAC’s executive director told a gathering in Texas: “We beat the odds and defeated Findley.”

Three years later, in 1985, Findley wrote and published his bold book They Dare to Speak Out, that described his efforts at peaceful advocacy for a two-state solution, which is now supported by many Israelis and Jewish Americans. In his book, he profiled other Americans who dared to speak out, and who endured intimidating slander and ostracism. Findley’s documentation of the suppression of their freedom of speech was an early precursor of what is going on now.

It was acceptable for the early patriots to boycott British tea, for civil rights leaders to boycott certain businesses in the South, for opponents of South Africa’s apartheid to launch a worldwide economic boycott. But some state governments impose sanctions on their contractors if they merely speak out in favor of the call to boycott, divest and sanction Israel’s illegal and brutal occupation of Palestine and its millions of Palestinians. (Today, Palestine is only twenty two percent the size of the original Palestine).

Findley wrote his autobiography in 2011. But it will take a fuller biography to place this modest lawmaker/public citizen, and wager of peace over unlawful wars and rampant militarism, in the conforming context of his times. His career contrasts with the present big business, Wall Street over Main Street, militaristic GOP and shows that the Republican Party didn’t always demand rigid unanimity.

To his credit, Senator Durbin eulogized Paul Findley, as “An exceptional public servant and friend.” He added that the man he defeated was “an elected official who showed exceptional courage in tackling the age old controversies in the Middle East.”

Senator Durbin could not say this about a single Republican in either the Senate or the House today, nor of over 95 percent of the Democrats.

Bassam Shakaa: The Making of a Palestinian “Organic Intellectual”

It would be unfair to claim that Palestine has not produced great leaders. It has, and Bassam Shakaa, the former Mayor of Nablus, who passed away on July 22 at the age of 89, was living proof of this.

The supposed deficit in good Palestinian leadership can be attributed to the fact that many great leaders have been either assassinated, languish in prison or are politically marginalized by Palestinian factions.

What was unique about Shakaa is that he was a true nationalist leader who struggled on behalf of all Palestinians without harboring any ideological, factionalist or religious prejudice. Shakaa was an inclusive Palestinian leader, with profound affinity to pan-Arabism and constant awareness of the global class struggle.

In a way, Shakaa exemplified the ‘organic intellectual’ as described by Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci. Indeed, Shakaa was not a mere “mover of feelings and passions” but an “active participant in practical life, as constructor and organizer – a permanent persuader, not just a simple orator”.

Shakaa’s base of support was, and remained, the people – ordinary Palestinians from Nablus and throughout Palestine who always stood by his side, most memorably when the Israeli government attempted to exile him in 1975; when the Palestinian Authority (PA) placed him under house arrest in 1999 and when he was finally laid to rest in his beloved home town of Nablus, a few days ago.

Between his birth in Nablus in 1930 and his death, Shakaa fought a relentless struggle for Palestinian rights. He challenged Israel, the PA, US imperialism and reactionary Arab governments. Throughout this arduous journey, he survived exile, prison and an assassination attempt.

But there is more to Shakaa than his intellect, eloquence, and morally-guided positions. The man represented the rise of a true democratic Palestinian leadership, one that sprang from, spoke and fought for the people.

It was in the mid-1970s that Shakaa rose to prominence as a Palestinian nationalist leader, an event that changed the face of Palestinian politics to this day.

Following its occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza in June 1967, the Israeli government moved quickly to fashion a new status quo, where the Occupation became permanent and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was denied any political base in the newly-occupied territories.

Among other things, the Israeli government aimed at creating an ‘alternative‘ Palestinian leadership that would engage with Israel with trivial, non-political matters, therefore marginalizing the PLO and its inclusive political program.

In April 1976, the Israeli government, then led by Yitzhak Rabin, conducted local elections in the West Bank and Gaza.

Israel had, by then, assembled another group of Palestinian ‘leaders’, which consisted mostly of traditional heads of clans – a small, self-seeking oligarchy that historically accommodated whatever foreign power happened to be ruling over Palestinians.

Israel was almost certain that its hand-picked allies were ready to sweep the local elections. But the Occupation had its unintended consequences, which surprised the Israelis themselves. For the first time since Israel’s creation, all of historic Palestine was now under Israeli control. This also meant that the Palestinian people were, once again, part of the same demographic unit, which allowed for coordinated political mobilization and popular resistance.

These efforts were largely facilitated by the Palestinian National Front (PNF) which was founded in 1973 and comprised all Palestinian groups throughout Occupied Palestine. What irked Israel most is that the PNF had developed a political line that was largely parallel to that of the PLO.

To Israel’s dismay, the PNF decided to take part in the local elections, hoping that its victory could defeat the Israeli stratagem entirely. To thwart the PNF’s initiative, the Israeli army carried out a massive campaign of arrests and deportation of the group’s members, which included intellectuals, academics and local leaders.

But all had failed as Palestine’s new leaders won decisive victories, claiming most mayoral offices and bravely articulating an anti-occupation, pro-PLO agenda.

“We are for the PLO, and we say this in our electoral speeches,” the elected Mayor of Ramallah, Karim Khalaf, said at the time. “The people who come along to our meetings do not ask about road improvements and new factories; we want an end to the Occupation.”

Bassam Shakaa was at the forefront of that nascent movement, whose ideals and slogans spread out to all Palestinian communities, including those inside Israel.

Despite decades of exile, fragmentation and Occupation, the Palestinian national identity was now at its zenith, an outcome the Israeli government could never have anticipated.

In October 1978, Shakaa, Khalaf and the other empowered mayors were joined by city councilors and leaders of various nationalist institutions to form the National Leadership Committee, the main objective of which was to challenge the disastrous Camp David agreement and the resulting marginalization of the Palestinian people and their leadership.

On July 2, 1980, a bomb planted by a Jewish terrorist group, blew up Shakaa’s car, costing him both of his legs. Another targeted Khalaf, who had one of his legs amputated. The leaders emerged even stronger following the assassination attempts.

“They ripped off both my legs, but this only means that I am closer to my land,” said Shakaa from his hospital bed. “I have my heart, my intellect and a just aim to fight for, I don’t need my legs.”

In November 1981, the Israeli government dismissed the nationalist mayors, including Shakaa. But that was not the end of his struggle which, following the formation of the PA in Ramallah in 1994, acquired a new impetus.

Shakaa challenged the PA’s corruption and subservience to Israel. His frustration with the PA led him to help draft and to sign, in 1999, a “Cry from the Homeland”, which denounced the PA for its “systematic methodology of corruption, humiliation and abuse against the people.” As a result, the PA placed Shakaa, then 70, under house arrest.

However, it was that very movement created by Shakaa, Khalaf and their peers that sowed the seeds for the popular Palestinian uprising in 1987. In fact, the ‘First Intifada’ remains the most powerful popular movement in modern Palestinian history.

May Shakaa rest in peace and power, now that he has fulfilled his historic mission as one of Palestine’s most beloved leaders and true organic intellectuals of all times.

Marta Harnecker, the Fighter

Marta Harnecker

Comrade Marta Harnecker passed away of cancer on June 15, 2019, in Canada.

A relentless fighter, comrade Marta Harnecker (1937 – 2019) made valuable contributions in the areas of theory related to revolution for socialism in the broader Latin American perspective.

Her struggle was for a humane world.

Marta Hernecker was not an adventurist-head and not an adventurist-voice, which made her a leading theoretician for people of her time. Rather, years of learning from struggles helped her take an approach linking to reality and perspective, alignment of classes and balance of power of hostile classes. This led her to say:

We need a left that realizes that being radical does not consist of raising the most militant slogan or carrying out the most extreme actions — with which only a few agree, and which scare off the majority — but rather in being capable of creating spaces for the broadest possible sectors to meet and join forces in struggle. The realization that there are many of us in the same struggle is what makes us strong; it is what radicalizes us. We need a left that understands that we must obtain hegemony, that is to say, that we have to convince instead of imposing. We need a left that understands that, more important than what we have done in the past, is what we will do together in the future to win our sovereignty — to build a society that makes possible the full development of all human beings: the socialist society of the twenty-first century.1

It’s a lesson to be taken into consideration.

“Radical […] raising the most militant slogan or carrying out the most extreme actions” mean nothing, but simply a juvenile effort to establish self as the “hero”, in real sense a zero, the character class enemies of the exploited prefer most.

The sociologist, political scientist, and activist from Chile was a close comrade of Hugo Chavez, the Bolivarian revolutionary leader of Venezuela and one of the most hated figures to the imperialists.

To Marta, today’s Venezuela is a laboratory of the Bolivarian revolution. By type of a number of works, she was also a journalist. But, her work took her away from the political fight of people for a humane world. She was not without any idea which is devoid of political action.

Marta writes:

In order for political action to be effective, so that protests, resistance and struggles are genuinely able to change things, to convert mass uprisings into revolutions, a political instrument capable of overcoming the dispersion and fragmentation of the exploited and the oppressed is required: one that can create spaces to bring together those who, in spite of their differences, have a common enemy; that is able to strengthen existing struggles and promote others by orientating their actions according to a thorough analysis of the political situation; that can act as an instrument for cohering the many expressions of resistance and struggle.2

It’s an essential line of approach today; because the bourgeoisie are fragmenting the exploited with different colors – the tact that weakens the exploited and strengthens the exploiters.

The theoretician was always at the front-line, from country to country.

She summarized lessons from successful revolutions:

The history of triumphant revolutions clearly demonstrates what can be achieved when a political instrument exists that is capable of raising an alternative national program to unify the struggles of diverse social actors behind a common goal […]3

And, she emphasized:

[…] actions be carried out at the right place and the right time, always seeking out the weakest link in the enemy’s chain.3

It’s the same lesson Lenin taught through the Great October Revolution: right place, right time, enemy’s weakest link.

Marta talks about political instrument:

The political instrument is like a piston in a locomotive which transforms steam power into the motion that is transmitted to the wheels, driving the locomotive forward, and with it, the whole train. Strong organizational cohesion does not alone provide the major objective capacity for acting, but at the same time, it creates an internal climate that makes possible energetic interventions into events, profiting from the opportunities these offer. It must be remembered that in politics, one does not only have to be right but one must also be timely and rely on strength to achieve success.

Her idea of political instrument of today is in the context of existing reality.

She admits:

This task needs time, research and knowledge of the national and international situation. It is not something that can be improvised overnight, much less so in the complex world in which we live. There are “heroes” who don’t have time to learn and research but have more than enough time for slogan-mongering, and have enough time to indulge in ignorance. But, Marx, emphatically said: Ignorance brings no good. Rather, ignorance compresses one into anarchism, and encourages to declining looking at social process. The bourgeoisie want super-production of ignorant “heroes” spewing only slogans, and no effort for spadework, and no humbleness to learn. For these “heroes”, the point Marta raises is a lesson, if they like.

Marta doesn’t ignore the question of political organization:

The initial preparation will always have to be done by the political organization […].

Political organization should take the lead. For spearheading people’s political struggle, whoever dreams of relying on NGOs, rights organizations and organizations submerged into marginal forces missing the class question should take into consideration Marta’s point – political organization.

There are questions of strategy and tactics. So, Marta writes:

The political instrument is necessary, not only to coordinate the popular movement and promote theoretical thinking, but also for defining strategy.

All successful revolutions correctly defined the question of strategy and tactics.

However, Marta doesn’t forget the aspect related to broader spectrum. She writes:

[…] I believe we must be very mindful that, as it progresses, this project should be enriched and modified by social practice, with opinions and suggestions from the social actors because, as previously stated, socialism cannot be decreed from on high, it has to be built with the people.

Therefore, there’s no scope for sectarianism.

Marta discusses the question of popular struggle with specific characteristics and specific context:

[…] at this time in our countries, the popular struggle is developing in very different circumstances from those of czarist Russia. But it is also obvious that Venezuela is not Cuba nor Nicaragua, nor is Bolivia the same as Ecuador. In each country, there are different circumstances that mediate the strategy and modify the forms of popular struggle. Consequently, I do not believe it is useful to propose a template with a formal structure that the revolutionary instrument would have to be.

Thus, it appears, she was free from dogma, free from the machine-made-theory approach for all countries.

Marta Harnecker participated in the revolutionary process of 1970-1973 in Chile. After studying with Louis Althusser in Paris, she returned to Chile in 1968, and joined the Socialist Party of Chile.

In 1973, after the overthrow of the government of president Salvador Allende by the US-backed coup d’état led by General Pinochet Marta was forced into exile in Cuba.

She has written extensively on the Cuban Revolution. She also lived in Caracas and was a participant in the Venezuelan revolution.

Marta Harnecker was the director of research institute Memoria Popular Latinoamericana (MEPLA).

In 2002, Marta interviewed Chavez for fifteen hours, the longest interview Chavez has given since 1997, before he was elected president.

One of her famous books is A World to Build: New Paths toward Twenty-First Century Socialism.

Marta’s Fidel: la estrategia política de la victoria (Fidel: The Political Strategy of Victory) discusses the revolutionary process in Cuba.

Marta was entrusted the editing and indexation of the booklet El nuevo mapa estratégico (The New Strategic Map), a collection of speeches by Chavez in November 2004. This booklet contains the condensed doctrine of the Bolivarian Revolution.

In Haciendo posible lo imposible: la izquierda en el umbral del siglo XXI (Making Possible the Impossible: the left on the threshold of the 21st century), initially published in Cuba and later in Chile, Colombia, México, Portugal and Spain, Marta presents a wide view of popular movements Latin America.

Marta discusses the question of hegemony of different types:

Popular movements and, more generally, the different social protagonists who to-day are engaged in the struggle against neoliberal globalization both at the international and national levels reject, with good reason, attitudes that aim to impose hegemony or control over movements. They don’t accept the steamroller policy that some political and social organizations tended to use that, taking advantage of their position of strength and monopolizing political positions, attempt to manipulate the movement. They don’t accept the authoritarian imposition of a leadership from above; they don’t accept attempts made to lead movements by simply giving orders, no matter how correct they are. Such attitudes, instead of bringing forces together, have the opposite effect. On the one hand, it creates discontent in the other organizations; they feel manipulated and obligated to accept decisions in which they’ve had no participation; and on the other hand, it reduces the number of potential allies, given that an organization that assumes such positions is incapable of representing the real interests of all sectors of the population and often provokes mistrust and skepticism among them. But to fight against positions that seek to impose hegemony does not mean renouncing the fight to win hegemony, which is nothing else but attempting to win over, to persuade others of the correctness of our criteria and the validity of our proposals.4

Her practical proposal was:

If we want to truly be radicals and not just radicals in name, we must immerse ourselves in the daily work of constructing a social and political force that permits us to bring forth the changes that we want. How much more fruitful would it be if those who spoke out were those who were committed to this daily militancy instead of those who practice their militancy from a desk. (“Interview with Marta Harnecker: In the laboratory of a revolution.5

Facebook “revolutionaries” – persons deluging Facebook with revolutionary slogans and undisciplined statements and arguments, and doing no elementary work essential for building up people’s organization and struggle – may learn from this statement: “immerse ourselves in the daily work of constructing a social and political force.”

On building up a counter-position to capitalism in Latin America, Marta said:

We are beginning a new cycle of revolutionary advancement and we must accelerate the construction of the subjective factors that circumvent new historical frustrations. Unfortunately, there are few countries where the social and political forces of the left work harmoniously reinforcing each other. Egoism and political ambition usually prevails among their leaders. They have not sufficiently understood that power is in unity and that unity is constructed by respecting each other’s differences. They have not sufficiently understood that the art of politics is to construct a political and social force capable of making that which appears impossible today, possible in the near future; that in order to construct political strength you must construct social strength.

Here is a statement that should be taken seriously:

We are beginning a new cycle of revolutionary advancement. However, there are a few theoreticians in the camp of the people, who only see rise of the right, only see a rightward tilt of the time – “victory” of neoliberalism. They miss the dialectics – people’s struggles are building up in countries, imperialism is finding its tactics are failing in countries at times, imperialism’s assessments are turning wrong at times, a few theories imperialism asserted with are turning outdated in regions.

So, with revolutionary spirit, Marta lives, lives in places far away from those timid scholars.

Marta Harnecker is author of more than 60 books that include:

– The Basic Concepts of Historical Materialism
– The Left after Seattle
– Hugo Chávez Frias: un hombre, un pueblo, Venezuela: Militares junto al pueblo and Venezuela: una revolución sui generis A World to Build (Monthly Review Press, 2015)
– Ideas for the Struggle, (Socialist Interventions Pamphlet Series, 2010)
– Haciendo posible lo imposible: La izquierda en el umbral del siglo XXI, (Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 429 Seiten, 1999)
– América Latina, izquerda y crisis actual: Izquierda y crisis actual, (Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 305 Seiten, 1990)
– La Revolución Social: Lenin y América Latina, (Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 307 Seiten, 1986)

Comrade Marta Harnecker’s march along people will not cease as the people are building up and intensifying their struggles in countries in Latin America, as political activists in countries go through her works to chart a respective path of revolution – the path to emancipation and freedom.

  1. “Latin America and Twenty-First Century Socialism: Inventing to Avoid Mistakes,” Monthly Review, July-August, 2010.
  2. “A Political Instrument Appropriate for Each Reality”, The Bullet, January 25, 2019, The Socialist Project, Toronto, Ontario.
  3. Ibid.
  4. “Ideas for the Struggle, pamphlet, Socialist Project, Toronto, Ontario, August 2010, notes omitted.
  5. Cuba Diglo XXI.

Remembering Gerd Berlev

I got word last weekend, on the afternoon of June 1st, 2019, Denmark time, that my friend and comrade, extremely talented organizer and much-loved grandmother and horn player, Gerd Berlev, died. There is so much that can be said about her, but as I sat in my apartment in Portland, Oregon, taking in this news, I wrote these words.

When I met Gerd, she was around the age I am now, in her early fifties. There were still teenagers in her life, who are now accomplished young adults with children of their own. I wasn’t around for the raising of Gerd’s children, but most of my visits to Gerd and her husband, Jan, in recent years have involved multiple grandchildren present. She was a highly engaged and very enthusiastic, ebullient grandmother, just as she was highly engaged and enthusiastic about everything else that mattered. Gerd is one of the many people in the world who I have known in a sort of snapshot form.  One of many people who I’ll see a lot of for a few hours or a few days, and then I won’t see again for several months or more, until the next time.  But Denmark is a country that I have often visited or toured in more than twice in a given year, over the past two decades or so, and most of those visits included seeing Gerd for one reason or another — usually for several reasons.

I believe I first met her at an annual Communist Party festival that used to happen in Copenhagen, called K-Fest.  In any case, it was soon after my first tour of Denmark that she became, for many years, the most consistent organizer of protests, peace festivals — and concerts for me as well as for other indy left wing musicians from Scandinavia, the US and elsewhere.

When Gerd first offered to organize a gig for me in Copenhagen, sometime in the early Naughties, another Danish communist I knew cautioned me, making sure I knew that Gerd was a member of the smallest communist organization in the country — the last one that still believed in the violent overthrow of the Danish government. I have no idea if this is true, I’ve never read the party platform, but I did, in fact, confirm Gerd’s desire to overthrow the Danish government. However, I never saw her lift a finger to hurt a fly, let alone take up arms. But she may have just been waiting for the right moment.

While she never organized the revolution, she organized a hell of a lot else, and always with an infectious joy for the small things in life, and the kind of dedication to the broader cause that inspired others to feel it, too.  She organized very small events frequently, at her party’s book store, October Books, but for many other bigger events, few people knew in what ways she had been involved.  She was very sensitive to politics, so she would frequently give me a union official’s name and number and say things like, “he’ll probably be interested, but don’t tell him I recommended that you contact him.”

Unusually for communist-oriented types, Gerd was very familiar with and really in her own way part of what often gets dismissed with terms like “the counterculture.”  Her brother was a member of a very well-known Danish rock band called Gasoline.  I got some idea of how mis-spent her youth may have been when she mentioned that as a teenager she slept through a live Jimi Hendrix concert.  She was friends with, and worked actively with, a lot of other people coming out of the more counter-cultural parts of Danish society.  It was through one of the small peace festivals Gerd organized where I first met the core members of the iconic Danish band, Savage Rose, Thomas and Annisette, who gave a spell-binding performance that day, just as a duo.  I would later see Annisette singing at most of the demos Gerd organized.  Thomas would have been at them, too, but he had died by 2006.  The shirt Gerd is wearing as she’s receiving the local peace award, pictured with this post, is about Thomas Koppel, a “message from the grassroots,” a campaign she was involved with, both in his memory and looking forward to a better world, taking Thomas’s thoughts and music to help navigate.

It was Gerd’s completely open, ecumenical orientation towards organizing a real people’s movement that set her apart from the sorts of people who are more like functionaries, more interested in getting more people to sign up to their party’s email list than in building a broader movement.  Gerd always had much higher aims than the email list.

Though I first met her in her capacity as an organizer, for me she and her husband, Jan, became more just friends, and the people I usually stayed with when I was in Copenhagen, for many years.  When their teenagers moved out of the house, the little shack in the backyard that had for so long housed a chain-smoking Danish punk kid was empty, and became the home away from home for this touring musician for many years of frequent visits to Copenhagen.

So my main recollections are the little ones — waking up in the morning, coming out of the shack and talking about the news of the day over an edition of Politiken or the Daily Worker in Gerd and Jan’s little kitchen, or coming home late at night after a gig and talking beneath the open skies in their very well-tended and well-loved backyard garden.  I was able to bring my daughter, Leila, to Denmark once, when she was four, and she had a great time swinging on the swing on the back porch, that they set up when there are small children about.

Gerd applied all her grandmotherly skills during Leila’s visit, and I particularly remember one wonderful little intervention.  I had to go off to play somewhere, which involved taking our rental car.  But Leila wanted to sit in the stroller.  I explained to her that we needed to take the car, so if she could walk with me to the car, that would be great.  But she was steadfast, and sat in the stroller anyway.  It was one of those little conflicts that can arise between a parent in a hurry and a small child who quite understandably doesn’t want to go along with the program being forced on her.  It could have gone in a number of different ways, one likely possibility involving a crying child and sad parents, too.  But Gerd knew just what to do.  She grabbed the handles of the stroller Leila was sitting in and took her for a walk — a walk of about three meters, the distance from the house to the car.  But it was a walk in the stroller, and for Leila, it turned out to be just what she needed.  Happy at this point that her desire to walk in the stroller had been sufficiently acknowledged, she got out of it on her own accord and sat in the backseat of the car as her papa had demanded.  If I had thought a three-meter walk in the stroller could have made everything better, I might have tried that, but it hadn’t occurred to me.

Gerd’s partner for all the time I knew her has been Jan Nielsen, who is very much still with us.  Every spring, Gerd would get some kind of spring fever, and fall in love with Jan all over again.  She would tell me about it every spring, how she was falling in love with her husband all over again, but it was the sort of thing that hardly needed to be expressed verbally to be abundantly clear.  Her face would turn red and she would act like a puppy.  It was a beautiful relationship to witness, also because it persisted so well despite the fact that she never succeeded in getting Jan to join her party.  He, instead, had settled for the furthest-left party that has actual representation in the Danish parliament, Enhedslisten.

Gerd’s antiwar organizing efforts often involved opposing NATO’s wars, NATO’s expansion, and NATO generally.  The least well-liked Danish prime minister in recent decades among my friends, Fogh Rasmussen, was NATO Secretary-General for a good chunk of NATO’s recent expansionist and especially actively militaristic period.  In 2005, when NATO was having a summit in Sweden — oddly enough, a non-NATO country — Gerd and I, along with rabble-rousing songwriter Anne Feeney and other folks, traveled up to northern Sweden to protest.

I suppose it’s in times of relative crisis that the most enduring memories are formed, so probably the vision of Gerd Berlev that I will always remember the most will be from December, 2009.  It was during the climate summit that was happening that year in Copenhagen.  Laws had been temporarily modified to basically suspend civil liberties in Denmark for the duration of the summit.  Anyone was liable to be arrested anywhere, anytime, basically.  This was especially true one night at Christiania, where some of the counter-summit types of activities were taking place.

A police raid turned into a riot, there were burning barricades, thousands of bottles and other things transported and thrown, and then, unusually for Denmark, there was a water cannon.  This changed the equation for the usual Copenhagen riot, and soon the riot police had put out the burning barricades, thus allowing them to drive onto Christiania with their armored vehicles.  A crowd of people smelling strongly of tear gas flooded into the Opera House, where I was playing that night.  We tensely awaited the next wave of people to enter the building, who we expected to be riot police intent on taking revenge on whoever it was who might have been throwing all those many bottles at them not long before.

Word quickly got out about what was going on then in Christiania.  My friend Carsten, a teacher from Hellebaek I had been marching with the other day, texted me, that he was waiting in his car just outside Christiania, to take me away from the riot zone, once I managed to get out of the Free State.  But it was Gerd who marched on her own through the ranks of the riot police as they stood in their helmets, menacingly gripping their truncheons, to the Opera House.  She fetched me and I think a couple other folks, and led us back through the ranks of the riot police and out of Christiania, to Carsten’s waiting car.  She had a sort of militant, communist, grandmotherly halo around her as she walked.  Although she was a little woman, a full head shorter than me or the average Dane, she inspired fear and obedience in the typical riot cop.

I last saw Gerd a couple months ago, last time I was in Denmark.  It was a brief visit of not more than a half hour or so, due to logistical issues.  She had had something mailed to me in Portland that was from the US, just to save postage and such, because she knew I was just about to come to Denmark.  I was just delivering a bottle of vitamins.  One of a variety of ways she was trying to get healthy again, after being diagnosed with cancer.

Gerd played in a group called Red Horns — the horn version of the Socialist Choirs you’ll find in some towns in England, or the Labor Choruses you’ll find here and there in the US.  Gerd will be missed by her fellow musicians, her fellow organizers, her husband, children, grandchildren, and her many friends and comrades.  Many others in Denmark will miss her, but they won’t know it, because so much of the work she did was behind the scenes, like all the best organizers, among the ranks of whom Gerd Berlev most definitely belongs.

For those of you in the region, her funeral will be in Copenhagen on June 15th. I won’t be getting to Denmark for the summer until ten days later, so I’ll have to settle for being there in spirit.
Good-bye, Gerd.  I miss you already.

A Friend as Guidepost and Connector

It was impressive, the number of people this 66 year old fellow touched: a father figure, a friend, a guide, a mentor, a guidepost, a brother, and a giver.

The service was held in Portland Sat. 4/27 and hundreds showed up at the Quaker church. I was asked to say some things about the man, my friend, and I had already written a poem of dedication to him, but I had to let a more simple-and-unfolding-of-our-collective-emotions sort of poem lead me.

I had just spent the night before in some forest land 10 miles north of White Salmon, WA, with Mt. Hood to the south and Mt. Adams to the west. I was there to thin out some trees so the health of the forest my sister and I had inherited from our old man more than 20 years ago would stay robust for another 20 years.

I spent time with Jim who lives in a house he and his wife built, and with his newly retired brother, JT, who has 20 acres with his big RV parked there and an outbuilding with electricity and a washer machine to make it feel more like home. JT is a bachelor who is still married to an estranged wife because of health insurance reasons and possibly social security concerns if he croaks. He has children and grandchildren, mostly living in Orlando, Florida.

JT was able to retire from Boeing/Seattle after 35 years working for that company. He told me he was in the military R & D department. JT’s liberal, and he spends time in the Hood River area because their 94-year-old mother was moved from Hawaii to a care facility in the town of Hood River. She’s going strong, and her life for a long time had been centered around living in Seattle.

Jim says their mom gets riled up in the skilled nursing facility because she’s a social democrat and most the old timers living with her are conservative, and Trump backers. Jim says his mom can be pretty articulate but forceful talking about her spin on the world: she’s for regulating banks, she’s for a single payer health program, she’s for better PK12 education, she’s for making the rich pay their fair share of keeping safety nets for the working class, the working poor, the working homeless and the middle class. She believes the rich are only rich because the working class and other workers helped them get that way, so she is for higher taxes for the rich. These are not unAmerican ideas, nor are they off the charts liberal, but in today’s world, Ike Eisenhower would be a flaming liberal if he ran today as the Republican he was in the 1950s.

She’s 94, so that means she was born in 1925. Hmm, seems as if she should be at that table in Salem (or in Olympia) discussing the value of almost 100 years in this country paid to a society that helps, not hurts; a society that honors all people, not singles out the elite and the rich as the only ones worthy of attention and respect; a country that plans for seven generations out, not one that gouges previous generations’ ability to survive and bankrupts the current young generation and future ones.

Jim is not retired, technically, but he says he has a good life in the woods on 50 or more acres. He wanted to leave the city, Seattle, when he was 25, and now he’s 67 and still running a big CAT, bucking trees, cutting wood for income, and playing cards for income. He says it’s all a hobby, but, in fact, his wife works as a personal care professional freelancing (many, many aging people who are still “aging in place” in this part of the Columbia Gorge) obviously to keep the bills paid and to add to the retirement fund.

The night before Jerry’s memorial, JT, Jim and I drank a bottle of vodka as gimlets, Jim’s specialty. We talked about the world, about my intersections with so much of the world as a writer, social worker, teacher, counselor and Marxist/ ecosocialist. Sometimes I function as the oddity or the intensely interesting guy, as Jim might call me.

Jim watches FOX News so he can see what the opposing side’s strategy is, according to what he says. He’s adept at navigating the Trump world since he plays cards at the Elks clubs in the area and does business with old timer loggers, millwrights, and blue collar types.

I think both JT and Jim got a kick out of me railing and listing off the systems of oppression breaking the country from the inside out. No matter how much NYT and CNN and NPR one consumes, these middling news agencies never ever get it right, or get to the bone, or get in the mix to see how precarious maybe more than half of the US population is in terms of economics. The fact that we are moving toward a world without ice puts 99 percent of us in some peril.

I find that Americans are good at laughing and joking, but in many ways do not have a great sense of humor. However, Jim and JT are good at story telling, good at laughing off their own foibles and aches and pains and do have a sense of humor, and a sense of irony.

I dig getting with people like JT and Jim to again let some of that America Once Might Have Been Good optimism flow over my tattered wings.

Bad knees from sports injuries, bad shoulders from repetitive work, and just bones wearing down are laments we talked about, but not very long and with no “woe is me” lines of discourse.

I bring this up since I was out from the Central Oregon Coast where I live to be a part of Jerry’s memorial in a church. I bring it up because while I am an angry man — sounding almost naively young — I can be very appreciative how the lives of others who have travailed various trail ways and narratives can be very compelling.

Here, a comment about one of my pieces just published here at DV:

Comment: Enjoyed (well maybe enjoyed isn’t the correct word) your Dissident Voice article on Earth Day. I have written for them, mostly when they first went online. So many of us have been fighting the good fight since Rachel Carson raised the flag, and yet nothing seems to change. I wrote this piece [“Fast Fashion“] about the impact of the fashion industry on the environment. It is even worse than I had imagined. I doubt that knowing these facts would make a dent in the buying practices of the elite progressives. Keep up the good work. I love reading pieces written in anger. Sheila

And, no, I did not have to rail against JT for being part of the problem — a worker bee for the vast military industrial complex that is Boeing. Sometimes just being in that moment of three guys, in our sixties (wow, that is a line for which have never written in my lifetime until NOW), talking, listening to owls, turkeys, and the wind whipping Douglas firs can be enough. Hood River has cloud server behemoths, and an international  drone manufacturer, wind (sail) surfers, Full Sail/ Sessions brewery and even the famous Tofurky/vegan Field Roast manufacturer. It’s a “hip” town now, no longer the timber processing and exchange center it once was.

Jim likes being out in the woods, though where we have our property, others also like being on their 20 acres for maybe some of the same reasons, and for other reasons as well.

Ironically, I see Jim and JT as perfect candidates for adults in the classroom — mentors and living examples of Americans who with varying degrees of success came out the dark tunnel of capitalism with some safety nets. Both men could be integrated into any school system to teach youth about life, tenacity, perspectives and some hands-on stuff, too.

That’s one big fault of education — the pigs at the top, the administrators and politicians and such, have gutted the school systems’ ability to be transformative for young people. Instead, it’s dumb downed curriculum and teachers forced to not deviate from the various states’ application of NCLB — no child left behind (sic).

My various theses are not predicated on some Utopian ideal, some unrealistic vision of a world impossible to achieve. The problems we are facing in every arena — think of every department/sub department and specialized field of study at a decent state university and you can see everything, unfortunately, is about solutions, about dealing with problems that have been set forth through capitalism and a political/business world that is based on tolling and servicing the suffering and poor, one based on wars against people, including all the wars we have inside this society and those we export to other societies via armed wars, economic wars, environmental warring. The system is about creating poverty and precarity while creating a minority class of wealth accumulators.

Leaving the 20 acres we have, I saw a black bear scramble across the dirt road. I ended up heading west again to attend this funeral. Maybe I agreed to talk as a way of punctuating my belief that some people are so unusual in their compassion and ability to connect so many others to compassionate allies that I had to honor Jerry.

Cerebral Palsy, crutches, confined to a wheelchair, then one little thing and then big thing in less than 12 months, and he is gone. Sixty-six years later!

I went across the road where the Quaker church was receiving guests, to the private school, Reed College. I walked the grounds, watched a beaver muddle the water of a pond, and reflected on all the foliage bursting out from a fallow fall and winter.

Cliche, but life is around us, even among the dead and the dying. I knew at one point reflecting silently while walking on this toney small campus that it’s our call of duty to honor and celebrate the brave lives and the giving people in their midst and through their passing.

One remarkable aspect of this friend who died a hard death in the hospital was that he was a marker, that guidepost, not so much a guide. He allowed me to sound off, to emote, to dramatize my life in words, and he never judged but he was no pushover. He amazingly loved people the way I like people (not so gifted to love a lot of people but I do appreciate their struggle and their gifts to the world).

Jerry discovered his potency as a human who was straddled by CP rested on his ability to understand people way beyond any psychologist’s or minister’s understanding and shaping of humanity. Jerry was the guidepost from which I knew I could aspire to,  but one I would never meet in the end because our physical beginnings and the amount of extra experiences with a healthy body that allowed me a lot of reckless travel and undertakings made us different since he had the body that limited that aspect of life but provided a deep well of knowledge and self-determination many of us “able bodied” souls can’t have, forget to have, or fail to nurture within ourselves.

Jim, JT, Jerry. I would have never thought a night in the woods could have gelled in me what I had to say at the funeral. I am glad to have been in his life since Jerry (like JT and Jim) allowed for a two-way transformation of self. You see, each time I engage, each time I intersect with people, each time even with Trumpies, I learn more about myself.

I learned at a young age not to take life for granted because of many reasons — from living in the Azores, in other countries like France, traveling throughout Europe in the 1960s and then later as an adult. Living and traveling and working in Mexico and Central America. Working with migrant farmers and then in prisons and then in low income communities as a teacher. Hell, when I was 19, my older sister by three years was splayed on the road in British Columbia when some guy fell asleep at the wheel and crossed into Roberta as she was driving her Harley down south to see us in Arizona.

Spreading her ashes in glacial fed waters near Hyder, Alaska, I gained much perspective for a person at a relatively young age. Earlier perspective I gained while I did community service working in a hospice at age 16 when the number of moving violations during my various motorcycling forays caught up with me and I opted to pay them off with community service. Reading Robert Frost and Shakespeare plays to one woman, Audrey, while she died a slow painful death with a forty-pound tumor wrapped around her kidneys and liver, I learned the value of a few more weeks on planet earth is not about the number of CC’s your motorcycle has or the number of watts in your stereo. She had been a high school English teacher for more than 38 years, and that’s what consoled her at the end as two liters of radioactive-looking brownish fluid come from her body each day. Drip drip drip under her hospital bed while her wild bunch long-haired volunteer 16-year-old read Othello.

Almost half a century later and here I am still trying to find guideposts, still looking to learn life, to do adulting the “right way, and learning to capture authentic life and living in a line, or two, or thousands of lines! Jerry too, like Jim and JT, would have been a valuable asset in the classroom — a vision of hope, guts, honor and ethical love for his fellow man/woman would have been worth a thousand other lesson plans the youth would have gotten!

Friend Who Forever Allowed Us In

for Jerry Pattee, on his passing

He Allowed
the voice of impatience to settle

He allowed
the disharmonious song to fall

He allowed
Portland showers for a new dawn

He allowed
old staggering men to lift words

He allowed
new worlds to settle into his orbit

He allowed
trauma and fear to sink into calm

He allowed
sprigs and cuttings to be carried away

He allowed
new friends to gather, old ones to root

He allowed
indulgences of artists to be understood

He allowed
space to enter slowly inside his realm

He allowed
freedom to lift him from his physical inertia

He allowed
family to be friends, friends as clan

He allowed
shadows crisscrossing light to honor the gray

He allowed
food to become spiritual

He allowed
so many to call him brother, father, friend

He allowed
us gathered here to sing his praises

Finally, I want to say that I never let my poetic words have the last line when thinking about the life of a person as uniquely broad and giving as Jerry. I’ve had a few times with William Stafford, the poet par excellence of America, and his son, Kim. Kim’s the poet laureate of Oregon, a job title that has two years of duties and ceremonial gravitas bundled up with it.

Ironically, Jerry had not been a nature-lover in the true sense of the terms, that is, not a backpacker, kayaker, camper, back-country explorer. He was, however, always talking about plants (he had tons in his house) and flowers (dahlias were one of his favorites). And he did live in a very rural part of the world, Payette, Idaho, early in his life.

He did understand how powerful the draw to land — mountains, rivers, forests, ocean — this place he ended up living in for most of his life has on new and old comers.

I think about all those people I have known and worked with that have had some physical or developmental challenge keeping them away from what I believe are powerful agents of harmony and perspective to any human — nature and wildlife.

Here, Kim’s poem, for Jerry:

Do You Need Anything from the Mountain?

By Kim Stafford

Could you bring me a smudge of camas blue,
and the whisper whistle of that one pine
at the edge of the meadow at dusk, when day

gives a lost, last breath? Bring me the road
that becomes deep duff as it trails away
into the forest, young firs ten feet tall

along the hump between the old ruts.
Bring me a story you hear in dark silence
after the last light, the gone that gathers dew

in the fingers not to hold, carry away, but
only to feel. Bring me that skein of fire
that hangs in intimate eternity, after

the dark but before the thunder, when
the bounty of yearning in one cloud
reaches toward another, in each being’s

endless, impossible desire to complete itself
before falling away

William Blum: Anti-Imperial Advocate

In the incessant self-praise of the US imperial project, kept safe in a state of permanently enforced amnesia, occasional writings prod and puncture.  Mark Twain expressed an ashamed horror at the treatment of the Philippines; Ulysses Grant, despite being a victorious general of the Union forces in the Civil War and US president, could reflect that his country might, some day, face its comeuppance from those whose lands had been pinched.

In the garrison state that emerged during the Cold War, the New Left provided antidotes of varying strength to the illusion of a good, faultless America, even if much of this was confined to university campuses.  Mainstream newspaper channels remained sovereign and aloof from such debates, even if the Vietnam War did, eventually, bite.

The late William Blum, former computer programmer in the US State Department and initial enthusiast for US moral crusades, gave us various exemplars of this counter-insurgent scholarship.  His compilation of foreign policy ills in Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower, was written with the US as sole surveyor of the land, all powerful and dangerously uncontained.  To reach that point, it mobilised such familiar instruments of influence as the National Endowment for Democracy and the School of the Americas, a learning ground for the torturers and assassins who would ply their despoiling trade in Latin America.  The imperium developed an unrivalled military, infatuated with armaments, to deal with its enemies.  Forget the canard, insists Blum, of humanitarian intervention, as it was espoused to justify NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999.

His Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions since World War II, remains his best and potently dispiriting affair, one in which Washington and its Christian warriors sought to battle the “International Communist Conspiracy” with fanatical, God-fearing enthusiasm.  In this quest, foreign and mostly democratically elected governments were given the heave-ho with the blessings of US intervention. Food supplies were poisoned; leaders were subjected to successful and failed assassinations (not so many were as lucky as Cuba’s Fidel Castro); the peasantry of countries sprayed with napalm and insecticide; fascist forces and those of reaction pressed into the service of Freedom’s Land.

The squirreling academic, ever mindful of nuts, has been less willing to embrace Blum. This has, to some extent, been aided by such curious instances as the mention, by one Osama bin Laden, of Rogue State in a recording that emerged in 2006.  “If I were president I could stop terrorist attacks against the United States in a few days. Permanently.”  Sales surged at this endorsement from the dark inspiration behind September 11, 2001. “This is almost,” observed Blum wryly, “as good as being an Oprah book.”

Killing Hope, praised by various high priests in academe on its initial release in 1986, morphed.  Various extensions and additions were not approved.  Blum, considering the US in its vicious full bloom of the post-Cold War, saw the wickedness of the market in Eastern European countries, the hand of US power in sabotaging negotiations between the Muslims, Croats and Serbs in Bosnia that led to an ongoing murderous conflict, and ongoing mischief in the Middle East (the Syrian conflict, sponsored jihadists).

Much of this, admittedly, finds an audience, if only for the fact that it excuses, to some extent, local factors and failings.  Students of imperial history tend to forget the manipulations of local elites keen to ingratiate themselves and sort out problems with the aid of a foreign brute.  It is worth pointing out that, in the vastness of US power, a certain incompetence in exercising it has also prevailed.

But the groves of the academy have tended to sway away from Blum for many of the usual reasons: tenure, security and treading carefully before the imperium’s minders.  “It merits mention,” poses Julia Muravska, very keen to mind her P’s and Q’s before the academic establishment as a doctoral candidate, “that after the release of the last majorly revised edition in 1995, successive versions of Killing Hope have largely passed under the radar of mainstream punditry and academia, but remained stalwartly cherished not only in left-leaning circles, but also amongst conspiracy theorists and fringe commentators.”

Such is the damning strategy here: to be credible, you must wallow in mainstream acceptance and gain acknowledgment from the approving centre; to be at the fringe is to not merely to be unaccepted but unacceptable.  Amnesia is a funny old thing.  While Blum’s scholarship at points had the failings of overstretch, a counteracting zeal, his overall polemics, and advocacy, were part of a tradition that continues to beat in an assortment of publications that challenge the central premises of US power.

Much of Blum’s takes remain dangerously pertinent.  “Fake news” has assumed a born-again relevance, when it should simply be termed measured disinformation, one that the CIA and its associates engaged in, and still do, with varying degrees of success.  The Russians hardly deserve their supposed monopoly on the subject, though they are handy scapegoats.

Blum did well to note an absolute pearler by way of example: the efforts of the CIA’s Office of Policy Coordination and the US Post Office to solicit a letter writing campaign in 1948 to influence the course of Italy’s 1948 elections.  American Italians, or so it was thought, were mobilised to swamp the mother country with warnings of atheistic communism and the threat it posed to Catholic authority.  Should Italy turn red, US largesse and aid would stop flowing to a country still suffering from the ills of war.  Italians known to have voted communist would not be permitted to enter the US.

Some individuals, guided by samples run in newspapers, offered specimens, but it soon became a campaign featuring “mass-produced, pre-written, postage paid form letters, cablegrams, ‘educational circulars’ and posters, needing only an address and signature.”  Italian political parties, generally those of centre, could count on the CIA for a helpful contribution.

Empire remains a terrible encumbrance, draining and ruining both the paternal centre and its patronised subjects. It is a salient reminder as to why Montesquieu insisted on the durability of small republics, warning against aggrandizement.  Doing so produces the inevitable, vengeful reaction.  As Blum surmised, “The thesis in my books and my writing is that anti-American terrorism arises from the behaviour of US foreign policy.  It is what the US government does which angers people all over the world.”  To that end, his mission, as described to the Washington Post in an interview in 2006, has been one of, if not ending the American empire, then “at least slowing down” or “injuring the beast.”

The Fallacy of Calling McCain or Anyone Else a War Hero

Obit scribblers are calling John McCain a war “hero.” Well, I have to concede that unlike so many warmongering chickenhawks such as Karl Rove, Paul Wolfowitz, Robert Kagan and most other neocons, McCain did actually serve in the military.  But the same could be said for nearly all top Nazis including Hitler and Goering; they fought in a war and they loved war. They were destructive persons who learned nothing positive from their military experience.

Of course, few of the pundits and politicians who are eulogizing McCain would wish to include Nazis in their hall of fame, nor would most of them care to designate most neocons as anything less than patriots.  So what is it that might qualify someone as a hero, or as a war criminal?  Having been in the military, I sometimes think about that.  These are some thoughts that come to mind.

Heroism is sort of like morality, it’s usually defined by the powers that be.  And a lot of it has to do with being in the right place at the right time.  An example of that would be the five Marines in the famous photo of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima.  What made them more heroic than the many thousands of other GIs who fought on that and other islands in the Pacific, you might ask.  And the answer is: time and place, plus a photographer to take their picture.  So they were in a dramatic photo, and that was at a time when the government needed heroes to sell war bonds.

Military discipline is such that soldiers tend to do as told, even under fire.  It’s a military axiom that soldiers fear their sergeants more then they fear the enemy’s bullets, and I think there’s a huge amount of truth in that.  Even though a sergeant may not be particularly fearsome, there’s a huge power structure behind him.  Individual soldiers become part of the military machine.

My friend Van Dale Todd was in Vietnam and came back with medals.  He didn’t seem to consider himself a “hero.”  What he emphasized was that he’d been through an experience.  “You don’t know what it’s like to see your buddies die!” he often said, and then one night he killed himself in front of me.  That was in San Francisco, in 1972.  In his diary he’d written, “How could killing humans have been fun?  Can God forgive me?”

Many Vietnam veterans suffered from PTSD.  Many died before their time, some shortly after coming home, others years or even decades later, in their 30s or even in their 50s, not necessarily from physical injuries, but often from invisible damage they’d incurred during the war.  I never met any who considered themselves “heroes.”

War criminals?  Van never spoke of himself as being a “war criminal,” but he’d been trained to enjoy killing “the enemy,” and I think it bothered him immensely that he had enjoyed it.  That, I think, was a major factor in his suicide.  Certainly not the only factor.  He took part in antiwar actions, and it shocked him to find nobody representing the power structure (news reporters or judges) would hear what he had to say.  Of  course, the corporate media makes a big show of honoring military personnel and veterans — but only as long as we go along with the bullshit, buy into their narrative and regurgitate propaganda.  During the Vietnam War, media pundits used to tell us that the U.S. was there to defend democracy, and to back it up they’d say, “Ask a GI!” implying that people who’d been in the military believed in the war and would speak in support of it.  Well, you probably know the rest of that story.

I often think of the characters in the Iliad and the Odyssey, wondering how those guys could be considered heroes.  Socrates apparently thought they were; he held Achilles up as an inspiring example of a man who stood by his principles. That strikes me as really strange. In my view, Achilles was the archetypal spoiled brat who just wanted to have his own way.  Then there was Odysseus, a notorious liar, who got tangled up in his own lies, and that’s basically what brought about the loss of his ships and the deaths of his crews on the way back to Ithaca.  The leader of it all was King Agamemnon, a rather poor general, also a poor father who sacrificed his own daughter, and on returning to his home at the end of the war he was killed by his wife, which is about what he deserved.  Those “heroes” were made of rather poor stuff, and a couple of their gods, Zeus and Athena, both of them deceitful schemers, weren’t too great either.  The only person in the Iliad who comes off as genuinely heroic is Hector.  It’s interesting that Homer, presumably a Greek himself, would present their enemy’s champion and other Trojans as being about the only decent persons in the whole story.

Achilles, Odysseus, Agamemnon and all the rest of them.  Those were the men who fought the Trojan War, the elite officer class, that is.  Homer called them heroes and sang their praises, but tongue in cheek, while carefully letting us know who those guys really were.

John McCain’s Imperial Complex

Obituaries are not the best places to identify faults unless they assume the form of a hatchet job.  The opposite is more often the case: worshipful and respectful to the point of being cloying.  As the tears dry, and the sobs of reflection pass, the figure transmogrifies.  For a politician, aspects of the hero are sketched out, crumples and creases ironed.  In the case of the late Senator John McCain, his role as sober, stable legislator were underscored in a world of Trumpland’s narcissistic chaos.  His five-year stint a prisoner of war in that brutal school of re-education “Hanoi Hilton” constituted an important part of resume building in politics, and it was not forgotten.

A drier eye would be more circumspect in looking at the senator from Arizona.  Christopher Hitchens did not have much time for a person he regarded as a poor politician who never quite got over an inner gunpowder tendency to blow.  “He combines the body of an ox with the brains of a gnat,” he tartly observed in Slate in a year the senator was contesting the presidency against Barack Obama.  “Indeed, if his brains were made of gunpowder and were to accidentally explode, the resulting bang would not even be enough to rearrange his hair.” For Hitchens on McCain, the question was whether rage was of the generous sort, or an ungovernable one leading to instability.

The case of McCain the erratic did not convince that other late scion of neoconservative enthusiasm, Charles Krauthammer, holding fort at the Washington Post in claiming that it was merely a “cheap Obama talking point.  The 40-year record testifies to McCain the stalwart.”  What held sway for Krauthammer against Obama was McCain’s insistence that the global financial crisis had softened US resolve; the need to be fearful of the outside world was ever present.  He proceeded to outline a laundry list of terrors current and imminent, all necessary mental baggage for the neoconservative zealot: “We have a generations-long struggle with Islamic jihadism.  An apocalyptic soon-to-be-nuclear Iran.  A nuclear-armed Pakistan in danger of fragmentation.  A rising Russia pushing the limits of revanchism.  Plus to sure-to-come Falklands-like surprise popping out of nowhere.”  If you deal in the economy of fear, McCain was your man.

This harnessing of insecurity was something that played well with an individual who had transformed from hardened realist to messianic neoconservative, a process that was complete by 1999. That conversion saw a notable voice in Congress enlisted in the service of the American imperium, one far from cautious about the sorrows of imperial overstretch.  Even after the catastrophic invasion of Iraq in 2003, he would still stump for the neoconservative cause, issuing a manifesto of such themes for presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012:

“We are now engaged in a great debate over whether America’s core challenge is how to manage our own decline as a great power – or how to renew our capacity to carry on our proud tradition of world leadership.  Ultimately, this is what’s at stake in this election, and the stakes could not be higher.”

It is precisely such a vision that landed US marines in Vietnam, in total ignorance of the nature of polycentric communism, and old Mesopotamia, in total obliviousness to the complex dynamic of Middle Eastern politics.  Both constituted failed experiments of a misguided, imperial cast of mind. The latter case supplied an object lesson in the tormentedly flawed policy of regime change, a point McCain refused to accept.  As Jacob Heilbrunn would observe in The National Interest, “McCain’s vision of American power and influence around the globe is so open-ended that it constitutes an invitation for hegemony, something that China is bound to reject.”

Such a vision is, by nature, intolerant of rivals, and naturally inflating of threats.  Foes must be found; their potency must be exaggerated.  It persuaded McCain that North Korean nuclear tests, conducted in 2006, warranted the acquisition of a missile defence shield both futile and costly.

McCain’s other chequered side sported a certain insensitivity to race, a point that surfaced with a murmur in 2008.  Eight years prior, while on a bruising campaign trail for the White House that saw him pitted against the Bush dynasts, he made a crass remark reflecting on his time as a prisoner of war.  “I hate the gooks,” he shot at reporters aboard his campaign bus.  “I will hate them as long as I live.”  Executive director of the San Francisco-based Chinese for Affirmative Action was plainspoken in her disgust: “For someone running for president not to recognize the power of words is a problem.”

McCain’s response was to issue a modest qualifier: “I was referring to my prison guards and will continue to refer to them in language that might offend some people because of the beating and torture of my friends.”

Tributes to McCain have attempted to isolate the good and noble from the rot and the core. Contrast McCain the principled man with the GOP, an unprincipled entity pockmarked by corruption.  Eugene Robinson of the Post is an exponent of this exercise.  “President Trump’s GOP,” he reflected, “could not care less about the ideals McCain stood for, such as honour, service and community.  The party is shamefully moulded in Trump’s image now, with its enormous corruption, monumental selfishness and grasping little hands.”  Sterling, graphic stuff, made less plausible by its errors: Trump’s GOP, the same entity so incredulous at his rise? The same entity so utterly opposed to him in favour of family nepotism?

For all his deeply critical faults, Trump lacks an ideological worldview that idolises the neoconservative creed.  His interventions leave aside the messianic urge to meddle in the name of a higher good – hardly surprising for one immune to such notions.  McCain, in razor sharp contrast, remained, to the last, the spokesman of US valour and its legions, even to the detriment of his own country and its cruel predations.

Charisma and Banality: Kofi Annan and the UN

Being the head of a creature essentially without spine, and, even more to the point, with vague form, must be something of a challenge.  Part of the failing of the United Nations probably lies in its disparate existence, a scattered composition of bureaucratic entities that, when they come together, supply a perfect picture of inertia.  (Perhaps for the best: a more active UN could well lead to a deeper muddying of waters.)  Such an arrangement invariably leads to one conclusion: The organisation tends to mimic the power order of the day, compliant to the great states, malleable to their capriciousness. What matters on the day is what is legitimised.

Kofi Annan’s time as Secretary General of the UN reflected the post-Cold War realignments of power.  But unlike his predecessor, the oft prickly Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who gave the hagiographers little to go on, he cut a fine figure for fandom.  He was soft-spoken, rarely got irate, proved so diplomatic as to reveal little.

Certain works on Annan’s legacy have been flattering to the point of crawling.  James Traub’s The Best Intentions (2007) gushes, telling readers of the “big smile and a roundhouse handshake”, “the gentle, kindly African with the silver goatee and the rueful, yellowing eyes”.  Traub’s description of Annan was much like that of an infatuated groupie with eyes popping, enthused by a man who had made the UN office of Secretary General his own.  “Kofi and [his wife] Nane, both enormously attractive and disarmingly modest, the one short and black the other tall and blonde, made for a dazzling couple: they projected a kind of moral glamour” (sic).

Even more reserved assessments, such as that of Michael Ignatieff, hover over the issue of personality and disposition. Dire negotiations with dark characters were met by “a soothing temperament that became second nature early in his Ghanaian childhood.”  He became “adept at circumspection and dealing with all sides, while keeping his own cards concealed.”

That he appealed in company and proved pleasing to the eye hardly armours him against criticism. Annan presided over the UN during a time when the US imperium had lost any viable, containing foe, with no rivals to ruffle feathers; and it was an imperium that took a shining to the Ghanaian diplomat in encouraging his rise to the post of Secretary General in 1997.

His amenability to US influence began early.  The Ford Foundation noted him as an appropriate convert while still in Ghana, after which he found himself studying economics in Minnesota.  The Carnegie Foundation then took an interest, sending him to a graduate institute in Geneva.  The academic stripes were never earned, and Annan found himself on the bureaucratic track starting at the World Health Organisation.  On the way, he snacked on doctrines of managerialism at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

It is worth noting that his time in the UN was very much passed as that of a bureaucrat ever keen to avoid anything disruptive.  Stints in budgetary positions tend to have that effect.  The call of power had to be heeded, and he wasn’t the one doing the calling.  Those close to him soon realised how comfortable he felt with keeping the Washington line.

His stint as chief of UN peacekeeping operations was marked by a few noteworthy moments that do not fit the hagiographer’s script.  On receiving a desperate cable from Canada’s Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire, in charge of UN forces in Rwanda in January 1994, Annan stonewalled with coolness.  Daillaire’s request that he be given permission to raid Hutu arms caches as an effort to frustrate an unfolding genocide against the Tutsi population was fobbed off, an unnecessary deployment of UN resources.  Diligently civil servant-like, Annan kept the Security Council in the dark as the corpses mounted.

As Perry Anderson noted with characteristic bite, Annan played this cold concealment and reluctance to his advantage, claiming with insensitive banality that he was working in an organisation that was, at the time, “media-shy” and unsure on how best to use publicity.  More should have been done, the media mobilised, attention drawn to the conflict.  “Translated: don’t blame me, I’m the one who became media friendly.”

Being masterful with media became a signature calling, and the unreflective social media adoration that has enveloped his memory suggests what the modern UN figurehead needs to do.  Court the cameras; charm the trendy circles and push the trends; feign effectualness in the face of impotence. “Few people,” wrote Ignatieff in 2012, “have spent so much time around negotiating tables with thugs, warlords and dictators.  He has made himself the world’s emissary on the dark side.”

Praise, in the absence of analysis, has been effusive.  Forbes called him the father of modern corporate sustainability.  “A great son of Africa and a true global leader has passed away.”  Other tributes on his legacy have been trite, admitting to the limits of diplomacy while suggesting he did change the order of global politics.  He, explained an uncritical John J. Stremlau of the Carter Centre, “knew the UN system and its strengths and limitations better than anyone.”  Despite his sketchy record when involved in the peacekeeping side of things, he would tell African leaders in 1997 that “human rights are African rights” and that, while the continent deserved external assistance, ultimate responsibility fell to its leaders.

Stremlau’s account focuses on Annan the great chatterer, a regular at meetings of the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Conflicts, a person who “used policy relevant scholarship by teams of academics on a range of conflict prevention topics.”  This is less the person of action than persistent, and continuous conversation – perhaps typical of UN practice and streaming babble – to identify and shape support within and without of the organisation “for more comprehensive efforts to prevent complex emergencies within states.”

Others also attempt to pad out an essentially skimpy outline of actual changes that took place under his watch. Ignatieff offers a range that reads like resume enhancement without due evaluation: the UN Global Compact, the Millennium Development Goals, the Global AIDS Fund, the International Criminal Court, and that most troubling of notions, the “responsibility to protect”, which has merely been shown to be another variant of the traditional “right” to meddle.  To that, Ignatieff might have added UN non-reform.

The totality of Annan’s leadership was the totality of conversation and chairmanship, the activity of the meeting room, which can be confused with effective governance and the making of policy.  Founding the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, or being the chairman of Elders, founded by Nelson Mandela, can surely be no more or less prestigious than any post-employment shoe-in, the gravy train rendered respectable?  Such moves are designed less to change the world than profit from it.  But that was his consummate skill: to seduce counterparts, woo detractors and court the public spectacle even as others made policy.  Truly an appropriate winner, along with the organisation he represented chocked with its failures and mild successes, of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001.