All posts by Ron Jacobs

Racist Mural in Liberal Vermont

In the Autumn of 2017, local Burlington, VT activist and agit-provocateur Albert Petrarca scrawled the words Off the Wall across a mural in the city’s shopping district. The mural is painted on a wall leading to one of the nearby parking garages and is supposed to represent the history of Vermont. Like so many other “historical” representations across the United States, that history seems to be made up of primarily white men. Petrarca’s graffiti provoked a series of reactions in the region—some threatening violence against Petrarca and others calling for a discussion. The mural ultimately became an issue in the recently completed mayoral/city council elections and remains a topic of discussion in the Council.

To begin with, the mural is not even a very interesting painting. The human figures are quite two-dimensional but not quite cartoonish or even abstract. Instead, they represent the lack of thought that seems to have gone into the entire mural. Some critics have rightly called it nothing more than a commercial billboard while pointing out that billboards are illegal in Vermont. Other critics—most notably Albert Petrarca, the man who brought it to the public’s attention when he spray painted his message across the Church Street mural in late 2017—have detailed the cost each merchant represented had to pay. In other words, it is a commercial billboard.
While the commercial aspect of the Church Street mural in Burlington, Vermont is repulsive enough, it is the explicit racism of the painting that has drawn the most criticism, and rightly so. The complete exclusion of the original Abenaki inhabitants of the territory we call Vermont from the artwork is probably the most blatant example of that racism. However, the fact that non-white immigrants and African-American populations are also not acknowledged is equally cause for attention.

The arguments of the bureaucrats and politicians involved in finding a resolution to the white supremacist nature of the mural have been found wanting. At first, I was willing to give those folks a pass, thinking to myself that the failure to include non-white skinned Vermonters in the mural was more a matter of a shortsightedness typical of many US residents. You know the type: they don’t think they are racist because their intentions are good and they never would intentionally harm any other person because of their skin tone or ethnic origins. At the same time, the systemic nature of the US’s white supremacist ethos is so inbred, their attempts to address their racism consistently fails once it moves beyond the individual-to-individual level.

Anyhow, like I said, at first I was willing to give those folks a pass because I thought the awareness raised by Mr. Petrarca and the Off the Wall Coalition could become a watershed moment in addressing the racism underlying many Vermonters’ understanding of their world. Then I discovered that the folks who approved the mural knew that the lack of representation in the piece might be a problem. Yet, they went ahead and allowed the painting to go up on that wall without any changes to its content. Then, once the racism of the mural was brought to the public’s attention, the only solution those bureaucrats and politicians had to offer was to paint another mural somewhere else that included those “other” Vermonters. In other words, leave the white supremacist mural up and create a separate but equal mural for the “colored” folks.

Personally, I wonder if there was some kind of promise made to the merchants and individuals who paid for this mural that it would remain as it is for a certain length of time. If this is the case, then that would prove once again how deeply integrated into our economy and politics the sin of white supremacy truly is. After all, if money is the reason the mural looks the way it does and if money is the reason it remains the way it is, then it becomes clear that Bob Dylan was more than truthful when he sang “Money doesn’t talk, it swears.” This truth becomes even clearer when one understands exactly how much of the US economy was built via the mass murder of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans and their descendants.

The two-mural suggestion is not a solution. Indeed, from where I sit it looks like a pathetic compromise with the forces of white supremacy. While those proposing this so-called solution might not see their action as such, it is difficult for many of us to see it as anything but. In a city that prides itself on welcoming refugees and immigrants (as it rightly should), the refusal to destroy the current mural and replace it with a painting that does justice to the Abenaki’s history, the role of non-European immigrants and to African-Americans is contradictory at best, and insensitively racist at its worst.

(This essay first appeared in a slightly different form in the local arts and politics magazine 05401Plus)

Sous Le Pave, La Plage: May 68

Fifty year anniversaries are important markers in our culture.  This is the case whether we are acknowledging an individual’s stay on earth or some greater historical moment.  This is why so many are remembering the year 1968 in 2018.  The nature of these reminiscences varies.  Mainstream media coverage writes about 1968 as the year that tore many societies apart—Martin Luther King assassinated in the United States and rebellion in the inner city, the TET offensive in Vietnam and the Cultural Revolution in China and the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, to name just a few.  All of these manifestations represent the essence of the cataclysmic changes that came to a head in 1968.  There were also student protests and riots in West Germany and the student-worker insurrection of May 1968 in France.

It was the latter events in France that held much of the student left around the world spellbound for several weeks in the spring of 1968.  What began as a student protest against restrictive dorm rules preventing overnight visits between men and women turned into a protest that forced President DeGaulle from the presidency and brought much of the country to a standstill.  Unfortunately, the right-wing was able to recover from the blow and ended up arguably with more political power after all was said and done.  However, while the battles between police and students raged and as workers took over their places of work across the nation, the hopes of the international New Left rose with each turn in the French events.

Naturally, books were written in the wake of the events of May in France.  These included Daniel Singer’s Prelude to Revolution: France in May 1968 and Obsolete Communism: The Left-wing Alternative by Daniel and Gabriel Cohn-Bendit.  Singer was a journalist who wrote regularly for the left-leaning US journal The Nation while the Cohn-Bendits were participants in the events.  Indeed, Daniel Cohn-Bendit was a leader in the early weeks of the uprising and it was his punishment by the authorities in Nanterre that provoked much greater protest there and Paris early in the events.  Other texts released in the months following the events were often collections of the texts of the numerous broadsides and pamphlets published by groups and individuals that included the Situationists and the Enragés—two loosely-knit groups of artists and intellectuals devoted to challenging the nature of modern capitalist society and culture.

Besides the books published in the immediate aftermath, many other books ranging from intellectual discourses to visually stunning presentations of photographs detailing the events and the media of the protesters have been released over the decades.  A couple of my favorites in the latter category include Beauty is in the Street: A Visual Record of the May ’68 Paris Uprising and Beneath the Paving Stones: Situationists and the Beach, May 1968 while one of the best in the former is Ken Knabb’s classic text Situationist International Anthology.  This brief list is but an introduction.

The most recent book on May 1968 in France is unique in its approach.  Titled May Made Me: An Oral History of the 1968 Uprising in France, it is one of the few English texts (if not the only one) that is composed entirely of viewpoints and memories of those who actually participated, not as journalists or observers but as protesters, organizers and cobblestone throwers.  The editor, writer and translator Mitchell Abidor, separates the text into five sections. They are titled “An Introduction,” “Veterans in the Struggle,” “Students in Paris,” “May outside Paris,” “May and Film,” and “Some Anarchists.”  These titles are self-explanatory.  Each section features interviews with individuals who fall under each category.  The interviews begin with a brief introduction describing what role the interviewee played in 1968 and their current occupation and politics.  After the introduction, Abidor begins the conversation with a question that leads to a series of incredibly interesting recollection and reflection.  Although every interviewee was politically located on the Left, there is quite a variety of perceptions here.  A commonly held opinion of them all—from Communist party member to gauchist (new leftists of a sort) to anarchist—is that the protests failed politically but forever changed French culture and society.  Some argued that it was capitalism that benefitted from this cultural revolution, not the workers or the students. If one considers the protests and rebellions in other parts of the world—from Chicago to Columbia, Beijing to Prague and Mexico City—it can be easily argued that this was the case in much of the rest of the world, too.

I am reminded of a History of the ‘60s course I co-taught with historian Jay Moore at the University of Vermont in the late 1990s.  Jay and I would usually let the students dominate the in-class discussions, often serving merely as guides and easy references when facts were wrong or lacking.  However, I do recall one or two class sessions when we shared what the period known as the Sixties meant to us and what if any permanent changes that period made in US society.   For my answer I would tell students that when I was growing up there were no women bus drivers, very few women doctors, no Black police officers, no women and very few Blacks working construction and gays were invisible or the subject of total scorn and ridicule.  Girls could not wear pants to school and boys had to have short hair.  Dorms were segregated by gender and contraception was very difficult to obtain in many places. After making my point about the discrimination and social repression that was the norm, I would talk about going to the grocery store in town and having my groceries rung up by a young man who had a pierced nose, blue and red hair that was cut in various lengths and a left arm full of tattoos.  In other words, I agreed with the people interviewed in May Made Me: while the dominant culture of western society is more tolerant of difference, the political structure has become more right wing and more authoritarian.  Meanwhile, the economic system has strengthened its domination over everything and everyone.

Flashing for the Refugees on the Unarmed Road of Flight

Every once in a while a book is published wherein the text transcends the subject matter, lifting the stories between the covers into a place that is both revelatory and sublime; a place that renders the words involved to be more than mere representations of the subject matter. Ramzy Baroud’s latest book The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story is such a book. Like the stories of Scherezade in One Thousand and One Nights or the epic poetry that makes up much of the world’s oral traditions, the eight stories in this text are told in a manner that enchants. They are the stories of individuals that are also the stories of a people forced into exile by powers greater than they. These narratives of unique lives lived in that exile and in wandering are as old as humanity itself and as new as the last battle in humanity’s endless series of wars with itself.

Baroud writes down the stories of eight individuals and their families. All Palestinian, they are also all refugees. Some have chosen to become warriors but the bulk of these intensely personal stories are about survival. Survival in desperate, dangerous and desolate circumstances; circumstances created by armies and politicians whose understanding of the human spirit is only that it is something that must be crushed to their will. Each tale is a brutal yet heart-rending reminder of how heartless decisions by the powerful destroy families, love, hopes and dreams. Despite the fear, despair, desolation and death, these stories and the people whose lives they describe maintain hope. It is that hope that not only keeps them live, but also what gives these tales their integral humanity.

There is the young fighter Kamal who chooses a form of Marxist revolution to rescue his people and his nation and there are the visions of Sara Saba, a Palestinian in exile in Australia. Also included among the eight tales is a story of the lovers Khaled and Maysam Saeed who are separated in their flight from the multi-sided war in Syria and the family of Samir and Hana who end up suffering at the brutal hands of the Israelis. Although I have mentioned only four, all of the lives inside the stories of The Last Earth are complex in their experience and their understanding. Baroud’s telling blends magical realism with descriptions of violence, passions, pathos, love and desperation to weave a tapestry of the Palestinian experience in human history. One thing that becomes clear is that the idea of a people, a national heritage exists within the heart and souls of those who share it. Nothing—not guns, not walls, not theft of house and land—can remove that idea. Numerous writings from Palestinians and their supporters have made this clear, but few have done so as adroitly and poetically as Baroud has done here.

One of the greatest tragedies of modern history is the story of Palestine and Israel. The story of the Jewish people in Europe and the destruction of their lives and culture by the Nazis and that regime’s collaborators is not only well-known, it informs much of what has taken place since. Even though the Zionist infiltration of Israel began much earlier, it was the aftermath of each of the twentieth century’s great wars that intensified the destruction of Palestine and its “replacement” with the state of Israel. Naturally, many books have been written about this history with different interpretations of the circumstances and consequences. Most of those published in the US and Western Europe represent the Zionist understanding while those written, published and read in much of the rest of the world provide a version that makes Palestinians’ claim to the land foremost. Unfortunately for the Palestinians, Israel’s allies include the world’s most powerful armies and governments. Those allies have proven time and time again that compassion and fairness are not what motivates them. This has created a political situation that continues to try and erase Palestine and its people from the annals of history. Yet, they have not succeeded in that task.

The Israeli historian Ilan Pappe writes in his introduction to The Last Earth that “Antonio Gramsci used to say that cultural resistance is either the rehearsal for political resistance or the means employed when political resistance is not possible.” Pappe continues his thought by writing that in the case of the Palestinians, it is both at the same time. Likewise, Baroud’s eight narratives are also both. The biographies he has collected and told in this book are a phenomenal testament to the courageousness of the human spirit. Baroud’s compositions are works of sheer unequivocal beauty. It is a beauty that is wrenched from a personal and collective tragedy so profound any reader but the one without a soul cannot help but be affected. This is a masterpiece of history and a masterful feat of writing. Together with Baroud’s earlier work My Father Was a Freedom Fighter, The Last Earth deserves not just a notice but a popular and broad reading by any and all who care about humanity in this age of despair.

Trump and His Tariffs

Photo by Backbone Campaign | CC BY 2.0

If one looks for commentary regarding Donald Trump’s recently imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, they will find that most of those comments come from a Wall Street point of view.  In other words, the remarks are concerned with how the tariffs will affect profits.  A couple union executives have stated that the tariffs will be good for US jobs in the affected industries.  In other words, steel and aluminum workers should have more work in the short term.  However, other industries, like the automobile and canned goods industries, may suffer job loss because the costs of their materials will rise.  This rise will mean the owners of said businesses will increase the cost to consumers.  Since wages are pretty much stagnant across the United States, this will probably mean that fewer finished products made from steel and aluminum will be sold, which could very well cause layoffs in those industries, their suppliers and their sellers. This could in turn eventually result in layoffs in the steel and aluminum industries as well.   In other words, the only sectors of the economy that can be certain to make money on this deal—at least in the short term—are a limited number of corporations and financiers.  Even they cannot be certain.

Of course, some financial speculators have already started betting on the tariffs.  In the days immediately following the tariff announcement, numerous news agencies reported that Carl Icahn, a billionaire investor and Trump’s former special adviser to the president on regulatory reform, sold tens of millions of dollars of associated stock in the days preceding Trump’s tariff announcement.  While the sale may not have resulted in huge profits, the sale prior to the announcement meant that Icahn would not see his holdings plummet in value once the market reacted to the tariffs.  Other speculators are most likely taking advantage of the dip in stock prices of those companies affected by the tariffs and buying them up.  Once the prices began to rise, which they most likely will, those investors will reap the benefits.

Meanwhile, the working people of the US will probably never see any lasting economic benefits from these tariffs.  Sure, some workers in the industry will feel that they have more job security; some may even see raises and many will probably get more overtime.  Yet, those workers will not be immune to the rise in consumer prices, so the likelihood is they will not come out ahead very much if at all.  These tariffs are not for the benefit of workers.  They are an attempt by a faction of the US ruling class to squeeze more profit from a system in crisis; to internalize the neoliberal system as much as possible.  The livelihoods of US working people are secondary at most in their list of concerns.  Just as the system of capitalism is global in nature, so must the resistance to it be.  When national governments present protectionist measures like tariffs as a solution to the problems working people face they are misleading the people.  The only solutions to the problems facing working people around the world are those which are internationalist in their understanding and in their practice.

As a person who wants capitalism sent permanently to the dustbin, I have a feeling these tariffs could nudge the future in that direction.  After all, the US is only one power in the world of global capitalism, and not always the strongest.  Indeed, the imposition of tariffs could be a sign of weakness, not of strength.  They could also backfire in ways quite dangerous not only to the general public, but also to Wall Street itself.  Many pundits in recent days have brought up the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Act which imposed tariffs on 20,000 imported goods and provoked a trade war that exacerbated what became known as the Great Depression.  Champions of the mythical free market (Milton Friedman among them) dispute(d) the idea that Smoot-Hawley had much effect on the depression at all, choosing to blame the Federal Reserve instead. The trade wars that ensued arguably led to World War Two.  In actuality, the causes of the Great Depression were considerably deeper.  The tariffs were a contributing factor but not the crucial element.  Looking back, it is clear that the Depression was a drastic example of how capitalism works.  Indeed, it was a market correction to top all market corrections.

Trumpists believe the current “free trade” deals like NAFTA are somehow unfair to US industry and banking.  This is apparent in their attempt to exempt Canada and Mexico from the tariffs if they agree to certain changes in the current NAFTA.  Although it is fairly clear that these trade agreements are harmful to workers around the world, the changes the Trumpists have in mind are not designed to improve the lot of workers.  Like the “free trade” agreements themselves, the changes are primarily designed to improve the stock value of various corporations and financial houses.  Working people around the world should be wary of those who claim that actions of the capitalist class are for their benefit.  This is true when discussing the WTO and its gospel of “free trade”; it is just as true when the agreements made in the name of “free trade” are challenged or torn up by those in the capitalist class.  When the Trumpists tore up the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) they did so because their ideas about maximizing profit for their friends on Wall Street didn’t jibe with the ideas of those in the capitalist class who supported the agreement.  While both factions tell the public that their approach to capitalist trade will benefit the public, they are only providing part of the story.  Any benefits workers obtain in a capitalist economy are the result of struggle, not the gifts of the owners and financiers.  Supporting the tariffs because of some imagined short term gain is merely buying into neoliberal capitalism’s con game.

Acidhead on the Run

On September 13, 1970 LSD champion and 60s counterculture hero Timothy Leary escaped from a prison in San Luis Obispo, California.  He did so with the help of the underground revolutionary group the Weather Underground (WUO).  The escape and Leary’s eventual trip to Algeria was funded by the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, a group dedicated to manufacturing and distributing the best LSD in the world.  Timothy Leary was their spiritual head.  As far as anyone can tell, he had no practical role in the organization; he did not help make the LSD, nor did he actually distribute it.  However, it was his inspiration that had led the members of the group to see their LSD involvement as a spiritual mission.  After escaping from the prison and throwing the authorities off the trail, Leary and some WUO members ended up in northern California, where Leary reunited with his wife and put together a disguise.  Soon, he was on the way to Algeria, where Yippee member Stew Alpert was trying to get him into the Black Panther International Headquarters.  This section of the Panthers was led by the fugitive Eldridge Cleaver, who was wanted in the US on numerous felony charges related to an incident with Oakland police after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr.  That incident resulted in Panther Bobby Hutton’s murder by the Oakland Police.  It also brought even greater repression down on the Black Panthers.

Meanwhile, Richard Nixon had declared Timothy Leary “the most dangerous man in the world.”  The FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had gone on record, saying, “the Black Panther Party, without question, represents the greatest threat to internal security of the country.”  The FBI’s most wanted list featured at least two or three members of the Weather Underground.  The Brotherhood of Eternal Love was quickly becoming the focus of numerous police investigations carried out by different California law enforcement agencies.  In other words, everyone involved was hot…very hot.

A new book titled The Most Dangerous Man in America: Timothy Leary, Richard Nixon and the Hunt for the Fugitive King of LSD tells the story of Timothy Leary’s escape and exile.  It is an adventure many readers might find too incredible to believe.  Yet, it did happen.  The book captures a fair amount of the temperature of the times this all occurred.  The authors are competent journalists and good storytellers.  If one decides to read this book, they will certainly be captivated by the story and the telling.  The only thing missing is the revolutionary politics.  Those politics are essential to understanding how the story told in these pages could have taken place.  Instead, the politics are reminiscent of Rolling Stone magazine.  In other words, they are fairly insipid.

It was always an ambitious project of the New Left in the late 1960s and early 1970s to create a coalition of the freak counterculture and the Black liberation movement.  Having Timothy Leary as the public fulcrum for this alliance was asking for trouble.  Leary’s politics were minimal to begin with and his drug proselytizing rubbed most Black radicals the wrong way.  Indeed, in 1971, the New York wing of the Panthers with whom Cleaver was more politically in tune with than the Oakland group, wrote a public letter to the Weather Underground about their statements regarding the use of drugs and making revolution.  As far as the Panthers were concerned, drugs were counterrevolutionary.  Their use not only jeopardized the security of revolutionary organizations, they also muddled the mind of potential revolutionaries.  Weather and other countercultural radicals (Yippies, Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers, etc.) saw certain drugs (marijuana and LSD) as means to open young people’s minds to the possibility of revolution.  Both opinions could be related to the social and cultural experience of drug use in each group’s segment of US society.

Although the authors hint at this debate and the underlying politics, they do not examine them in any substantial way.  Instead, the disagreements between Leary and the Panthers (especially Cleaver) come off as differences in personalities and clashes of egos.  It seems fair to assume that those elements were involved, but the fact remains that the Leary and Cleaver union only took place because of the politics of the time.  There was no other reason for the confab.  Lurking behind them both and the personification of what both oppose were Richard Nixon and his government.  Probably more paranoid than either Cleaver or Leary, he was joined by an unholy group that included J. Edgar Hoover and several men soon to be convicted felons—most of his immediate advisors.

I’ve heard many stories about Leary, the Brotherhood of Eternal Love and the Weather Underground.  Most of them were second and third hand, told by folks who knew one or the other characters or just happened to be in the same commune or circles. This book is also mostly sourced second and third hand.  The broader context is that it is story of a rebellion torn asunder by agents of the state, weaknesses of the human mind and experiential differences based on class and race. It is also a tale of paranoia and joy, revolution and ego. The authors have written down a fairly detailed chronology of events. This is a good piece of journalism. It does, however, lack a deeper context that would make the tale even better. Nonetheless, this fast paced and very readable narrative is worth the time.

The Geography of Marxism

David Harvey is a geographer and a Marxist. A collection of his works titled The Ways of the World was recently published in paperback. A collection pulled from his writing and lectures, the works are insightful, both in their approach to the world and the manner in which he combines geography and Marxism. Geography is more than just places on the planet and their representation on a map. It is also an examination of how humans and their interactions with the earth and with each other affect the planet’s ecology, climate and future. Buildings, roads, resource extraction, industry and population are but a few of the factors that go into the study of modern geography. The economy of capitalism influences them all. Therefore, a Marxist analysis provides a critical look at the nature of the influence capitalism plays. It is quite often not very pretty. However, once one accepts the approach, many things that made little sense before become clearer.

That is the beauty of Marxism. It clarifies phenomena that was once confusing, sometimes plain nonsensical, often inhuman, and always obfuscated. When David Harvey is providing the analysis, his explanations are straightforward and clear. Of course, his word is not the final one, but what he adds to any debate on economics, politics and the world we live in almost always provokes conversation. Not always polite, mind you, but always thought-provoking. Ideally, those conversations and debates create a new synthesis from which a better understanding of our situation can evolve. One such essay in this book is titled “The New Imperialism.” Harvey’s similarly titled book and this essay have instigated a necessary and useful discussion regarding the nature of imperialism in the twenty-first century. Likewise, his essay on the shift from what he terms managerialism to entrepreneurialism in the administration of capitalist cities enables progressive and Left grassroots organizations with an understanding that can help fight the bankers’ and developers’ plans for urban United States.

Capitalism is constantly re-inventing itself. This is a basic message of this text, especially when considered in its entirety. Harvey mentions a fundamental rule of capitalism: it must maintain a minimum rate of growth of three per cent. He argues that it will do whatever it takes to maintain that rate. As he describes it, “capitalism is littered with technologies which were tried and did not work, utopian schemes for the promotion of new social relations (like the Icarian communes in the nineteenth century USA, the Israeli kibbutzim in the 1950s or today’s “green communes”) only to be either co-opted or abandoned in the face of a dominant capitalist logic.” (314) With this cancerous approach to economics, capitalism destroys the planet. Yet, it continues to expand. This is one of the most important messages of this book. It is why capitalism itself must be defeated if we are to survive. There is no other path.

Perhaps the most interesting (and certainly the most poetic) essay in the book is titled “Monument and Myth.” It is a history of the Basilica de Sacré-Coeur in Paris. It is also a history of workers’ resistance and rebellion in that fair city. This means it is also a history of the royalist and reactionary resistance to that resistance. Woven seamlessly throughout this discussion of French history is an examination of the meaning of buildings and statuary—an examination quite relevant to the current battle over monuments to slavery and the Confederacy in states across the US South (and similar debates elsewhere around monuments to the genocide of Native Americans and its champions.) The idea that history is not subjective is given a serious blow in this piece.

Likewise, the idea that capitalism and its need to expand does not affect the environment we live in is given a serious blow in this text. In other words, human economics (not humane economics) do affect the environment. Harvey’s scholasticism and insight combine to create a unified argument for radical change in the capitalist nations, especially the United States. Although it is little more than an introduction to his work, David Harvey’s The Ways of the World can easily be classified as one of the more important expositions of contemporary Marxist thought.

Stamping Out Hunger

Photo by osseous | CC BY 2.0

I lived in the woods north of Santa Cruz, CA. for part of the summer in 1978.  The rest of those five or six months (it was California) I either lived on the beaches north of the town or was on the road.  Living was cheap and living was easy.  Mostly, my friends and I had to stay a couple steps ahead of the cops and away from the straight and rich white folks.  We weren’t alone in that.  I lived off of fifty bucks worth of food stamps per month and money I made doing odd jobs.  Back then it was very easy to get those stamps.  One just had to show up at the food stamp office with some kind of identification, fill out some forms, talk to a worker and wait a couple hours.  Then, a clerk called your name, had you sign a paper and gave you the stamps.  It wasn’t socialism, it wasn’t fraud, it wasn’t government largesse; it was just a different understanding of government responsibility.

Then it was off to the grocery store and then back to the camp in the woods or on the beach.  Since fifty dollars didn’t really cover a person’s food costs even then (and even though we ate lots of beans, rice, cheese and potatoes), we usually pooled our resources with other folks living in the encampments, conjuring up some dandy meals of the aforementioned foods.  Spices can work wonders, as any cook knows.

The stamps were portable, so when I was on the road I could buy bread and lunch meat for sandwiches to gnaw on while I waited at some exit ramp anywhere in the USA.  The only town I was ever in where food stamps were not viable tender was Vail, CO.  My traveling companions and I tried four different grocers in the town with no success.  Finally, a friendly clerk in the fourth store told us that there were no stores in the town that took food stamps.  They also told us it was intended to keep poor people and hippies out of the town.  Let me tell you, after being told this by the clerk and then being rousted by three carloads of cops, it was clear the combination of tactics worked quite well.  I have never been back to that bourgeois burg.  Hell, even if I became a millionaire, Vail wouldn’t get my cash.  I felt fortunate that the cops gave us a day to leave town instead of throwing the bunch of us in jail.

As the post-Vietnam recession deepened the stamps began to get harder to obtain, even though it was the Pentagon that was trashing the economy, not the folks buying food with food stamps.  When Ronald Reagan and his coven of crooks took over the White House, it became exponentially more difficult to get food stamps.  I was working more regularly and made too much money to get them, even though I barely made 3000 dollars a year.  Instead, when friends would go to Social Services for food assistance, most of them would get vouchers for what were essentially food items that the government bought from big farmers to maintain price levels–a subsidy to big business.  The five pound blocks of cheese that were always part of this deal became known as Reagan Cheese.  One could only eat so much of this substance before their intestines became bound as if they were eating carpenter’s glue by the gallon.  The other foods were often of a lower grade than what was sold in stores.  Since it was only poor people getting the goods, the White House and most of Congress did not care.  Nor did much of the US population.  Government food assistance for hungry US residents had been stigmatized by the right wing since its inception.  In the 1980s during Reagan’s reign that stigmatization was closely identified with North Carolina senator Jesse Helms—a white supremacist, anti-women homophobe who saw communists behind every liberal.  Helms was a vociferous opponent of the food stamp program and other social welfare and did his best to destroy those programs.  Despite his best efforts he didn’t destroy them but did diminish their ability to lift people from poverty.

As head of the Senate Agriculture Committee Helms made a series of proposals concerning the program, including a work requirement, a forty percent cut and a reduction to families whose children got a free lunch at school.  Although there was not an immediate forty percent cut, the push to cut the program has continued, with success under both Republican and Democratic administrations.  Furthermore, the  workfare requirement has not gone away nor has the drive to end the program entirely.

This brings us to the current moment.  The most recent cuts to the food stamp program (now known as SNAP) took place while Obama was in office.  The cuts were the result of an all too typical legislative compromise that traded the hunger of the US poor for some benefits to the capitalist class that Congress owes its individual riches to.  The compromise was sold to the Democrats and their supporters in a manner that implied that some hungry people in the USA deserved to be hungry and were going to get hungrier.  As the brief history summarized above makes clear, these Obama-era cuts were merely the latest in a long term campaign to end the program entirely.

Under Trump, that end may well take place.  In its place would be a program that involved the government providing certain food commodities to those deemed worthy by and increasingly hateful bureaucracy.  A similar program currently exists in several US states and on most “Indian reservations.”  That program is called the Commodity Supplemental Food Program.  Its offerings are a laundry list of what are considered basic food in the US diet.  The corporations that sell most of the food to the government are the top names in the world of agribusiness. The average dollar amount spent on each participant is just under 75 dollars per year.  Anyone who has ever received a food box from a food bank has probably received some of these foodstuffs.

If this attempt to end the SNAP program is successful, hunger will almost certainly intensify in the United States.  Churches and other nonprofits involved in charity work will see their programs overwhelmed and falling short.  No god or saints will be able to provide for the greater need likely to be created.  Grocery stores that depend on SNAP purchases for a fair amount of their income will suffer financially, possibly leaving many communities in the United States without a supermarket.  If this program does replace SNAP, the meals provided will not be quasi-gourmet like those Blue Apron sells.  Instead, they will be the leftovers from the rich person’s table.

Bob Marley once sang “A hungry mob is an angry mob.”  One can only hope.

Re-Visiting Gonzo

I was going into my senior year of high school in 1972. The school I attended was on a military installation in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. When classes were done for the day, I would usually go to the base library to hang out. The library was right next to the high school. The librarian was a draftee whose number was too low to avoid being drafted into the army. He was thankful to be in Germany and not Vietnam. Anyhow, we became friends over our shared love of books and rock music. So, he always set aside the latest issue of Rolling Stone magazine for me. When I was done with the issue he put it on the shelf. In 1972, the main reason for reading Rolling Stone was Hunter S Thompson’s coverage of the US presidential campaign. George McGovern was my candidate, if I had one, but Hunter S. Thompson was my man. His commentary raged, ravaged and saw beyond the bullshit put out in the press by the candidates. The writing was angry, humorous and even psychedelic at times. Campaign journalism has never been as much fun to read since that 1972 campaign.

I was reminded of this while reading a newly-published collection of interviews featuring Thompson. Titled Hunter S. Thompson: The Last Interview and Other Conversations, the book is a quick study of the political and cultural tempests of the past fifty years. Although he died in 2006, Thompson’s comments are even truer today than when he first uttered them. Like the novelist Philip K. Dick, Thompson observed the times he lived in and, wittingly or not, ended up predicting the future. Also, like Philip K. Dick’s, that future (which is our present) is brutal, crude and under the yoke of a technological authoritarianism. Perhaps the most prescient such example of this is Thompson’s response to a question from his interviewer, the great Studs Terkel, in 1967. “The people who are being left out, “says Thompson. “And put behind won’t be obvious for years. There will be a million Hells Angels. They won’t be wearing the colors but they’ll be people who are looking for vengeance because they’ve been left behind.” (p. 10) Every single person reading this review must know at least a couple folks like this. Indeed, as the editor points out in his introduction, those are the people who voted for Trump.

Thompson’s two greatest (and best known) books were published in a matter of perhaps three years. The first, which has become a text right up there with The Great Gatsby, is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. This book deserves the comparison to Gatsby because it too, is an examination of the greatest of all American myths—the myth of the American dream. Where The Great Gatsby has the green light on the dock opposite Gatsby’s mansion, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has the receding wave of Sixties innocence in the face of the US death cult the American Dream had long become. The second book is titled Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1972. As noted above, political campaign reporting has never been as interesting to read ever since. Both of these books are discussed quite a bit in this collection of interviews. So is Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga. Other conversations about Thompson’s later work as a sportswriter opinion writer that fill out the book; so do a few comments about his media personality.

Of the latter conversations, it is the one titled “Fear and Loathing after 9/11” that seems the most important. Nominally a discussion about his 2003 book Kingdom of Fear, Thompson discusses the George W. Bush administration, the buildup to the upcoming invasion of Iraq, and the end of any real democracy in the United States. He savages Bush, calling him worse than Nixon and points out the impending fascism the Dubya administration represented. It is not a hopeful conversation. Then again, those were not hopeful times. (Of course, Obama proved how little hope matters in the twenty-first century—some folks are still digesting that.)

Earlier in the book, Thompson takes on Bill Clinton, showing him to be the shallow money-grubbing liar that he is. God only knows what he would have to say about Trump. However, given that Thompson is thirteen years dead, he’s not talking. It is up to today’s journalists to carry on. This text can provide the inspiration to do that.

In the Spirit of the Tsar: FBI Informants on the Central Committee

Anyone who has been involved in activities opposed to the desires of their nation’s government and those it serves has probably joked about being surveilled. Those who have joined organizations and helped organize protests and other actions against those in power have probably been observed by agents of the government, even if the group whose meeting they attended was completely above board and legal. Sometimes, as the book A Threat of the First Magnitude: FBI Counterintelligence & Infiltration From the Communist Party to the Revolutionary Union – 1962-1974 discusses, those agents actually help determine a group’s actions and politics.

A Threat of the First Magnitude begins with the precautionary tale of Roman Malinovsky, a police informant in the Bolshevik Party whose role in the party ironically included the ferreting out of police informants. Indeed, write the authors, if it hadn’t been for the February revolution and the seizure of the Tsar’s secret police files by the revolutionaries, his undercover role may have never been discovered. Malinovsky’s story is important to this book in part because the story these two men uncover includes the infiltration of the Revolutionary Union/Revolutionary Communist Party by informants who would make their way to the organization’s central committee.

Drawing from FBI documents, personal recollections and various news sources, the authors Aaron Leonard and Conor Gallagher unearth a government plot that reads like the inspiration for an espionage novel. It is a story that includes agents and double agents infiltrating the Central Committee of one of the largest communist organizations in the United States of the 1970s, influencing both the strategy and theoretical understandings of the group.

Simultaneously, they tell of another supposedly communist organization that turns out to be nothing more than the contrivance of a small group of federal agents hoping to lure potential radicals into their lair. According to the text, the latter effort was slightly successful. Although it was usually little more than a post office box and a couple agents working the scam, it did attract potential radicals into its trap.

The book, titled Threat of the First Magnitude, begins its tale of infiltration and deceit in the Communist Party USA. Two informants from the Party’s earlier years are discussed. Their training and their manner of spying are presented and the damage they did to the party is assessed. Naturally, the national party was subject to decisions made by the international, which was subject to the dictates of the party in the Soviet Union. When the Chinese and Soviet Communist parties broke apart from one another, the national Communist parties around the world began to divide amongst themselves, as well. It was around this time that the FBI created the aforementioned faction and gave it the name Ad Hoc Committee for a Marxist-Leninist Party. This committee portrayed itself as more Maoist than anything else. It would remain in existence for several years, misleading and subverting the growing number of Marxist political organizations in the United States. It was during the period of the Ad Hoc Committee’s existence that other genuine Maoist political organizations would also develop in the US. The most notable such groups were the October League, the Progressive Labor Party and the Revolutionary Union/Revolutionary Communist Party (RU/RCP).

Author Aaron Leonard was once a member of the latter organization. Indeed, one assumes it was his membership in the group that furthered his interest in the subject of this book and his previous one (Heavy Radicals). One of the personalities both of these texts discuss is the communist organizer Leibel Bergman. Bergman was a longtime communist and one of the founders of the Revolutionary Union. His connections to the Chinese Communists and other international organizations are but one of the reasons his FBI file is one of the largest the authors of Threat of the First Magnitude requested. Unfortunately, most of his file was not released and consequently little is publicly known about his activities prior to his work with the Bay Area Revolutionary Unions–predecessors to the RU/RCP.

The book’s use of FBI files does bring up an important question. While it seems safe to assume that much of what was written in these files is true—especially the direct reports of physical movements and direct quotes from meetings—my research using said materials has always left me with the nagging question of whether or not I was being manipulated. I asked myself this for a couple reasons: the interpretation of the words and events by FBI agents is suspect if only because their politics are so alien to the politics of the people they are informing on. Also, informants often have their own agenda which are often based on personal jealousies and prejudices. Lastly, after one has the FBI materials, there is much that is not included or redacted, leaving me to wonder about the intentions implied in those omissions. A recent discussion that ripped through the US Left regarding the Black Panther/FBI informant Richard Aoki brought many of these issues back into the open. As for me, I have found that it is useful to consider the political intent of the person(s) writing the article or book utilizing the FBI’s information.

That being said, the approach taken by Leonard and Gallagher comes across as analytically astute, fair-minded and quite clear about the misdeeds and skullduggery of the FBI and its cohorts in law enforcement. An understanding of how the revolutionary left actually functioned is present throughout the book. This is no doubt in part due to Leonard’s participation in such groups in the 1970s and 1980s. Furthermore, the authors’ contention that the groups discussed in the book failed was in part due to a “mistaken view that a correct political line, the supremacy of their ideals, was sufficient to withstand the attacks….” is an honest, albeit painful acknowledgement of the US revolutionary Left’s own role in its irrelevance by the end of the 1970s. Then again, given the often prominent role played by FBI informants in various leftist groups, one can only wonder how much of that irrelevance was due to the promulgation of incorrect political lines by those agents; political lines virtually guaranteed to alienate the radicals from the very people they were hoping to organize.

Threat of the First Magnitude is a first-rate history lesson in what the US power structure will do to those who threatened left wing revolution. At the same time, it is a warning to those who do so in the future.

A History of Resistance

Martin Luther King Jr.’s last campaign was a battle for worker’s rights. His support of the Memphis Sanitation workers demand for fair wages and a union highlighted the essential connection between the struggle for African-American rights and the rights of working people. Furthermore, he and a coalition of civil rights and labor organizers were working on the Poor People’s Campaign, a march and occupation of Washington DC designed to put forth a new and fairer economics than the racially-influenced monopoly capitalism system in place then and now. In a manner that is not necessarily well understood by much of what is considered the Left in the United States, King’s work in his final year made crystal clear the link between white supremacy and the exploitation of working people by the capitalist class.

In doing so, King upset those forces invested in maintaining the falsehood that white workers in the US fared better because Black workers fared worse than they did. After all, the profiteers and the overseers/managers who performed their dirty work not only counted on white racism to keep the workers divided, they perpetrated that racism. This had been true since the beginning of the European invasion of the Americas. It had been refined in the fields and factories of the United States. Indeed, it was essential to the history of the nation.

Despite this essentiality, most US residents remained unaware of this aspect of US history. History books in school certainly never mentioned it. Even most labor histories only told the story of white workers and their struggles. One assumes that this was intentional in some cases and, in other cases, the result of the dominant narrative in the US—a narrative based in white supremacy. By the time King was assassinated in April 1968, fissures had begun appearing in that narrative. Mr. King’s lectures and sermons were part of the reason for those fissures. So were books by the likes of Herbert Aptheker and Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture); and so was the activism of millions in the numerous movements for human rights, national liberation and against war. Yet, there was no single text, no one accessible work that presented US history from the perspective of the non-white worker. Consequently, many high school and college students whose understanding of their nation would have benefitted from such a book left school without any comprehensive exposure to this take on history.

This vacuum no longer exists thanks to writer, activist and historian Paul Ortiz. His newly published book An African American and Latinx History of the United States is a work that combines historical detail with a perspective that challenges the common narrative of US history. Part of a group of texts published by Boston’s Beacon Press that challenge conventional narratives (the most recent being Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples History of the United States), Ortiz’s work draws on multiple sources that include historical Black newspapers, numerous historical texts, personal memories, and reminiscences and stories told to Ortiz while he and fellow researchers compiled narratives for different oral history projects.

Ortiz’s history relates events deemed important in conventional US histories (those championing the role played by European settlers and their descendants) like the Civil War and the New Deal. In his discussion of such moments he tells a more complete story. It is a story that points out how Black and Latinx working people were left out of many of the promises of the New Deal in order to ensure its passage by white supremacist congressmen. When this book discusses slavery in the US and the war that eventually destroyed that institution, it is a telling that properly emphasizes the leadership of the Black slaves and freedmen. It is the other events discussed in An African American and Latinx History of the United States that do the most to make this history unique, however. The fact that the first chapter is about the Haitian revolution makes this quite clear. While the rebellion of Toussaint L’Ouverture and his fellow Haitians is one that most histories of the European colonization of the Americas would like to forget, Ortiz’s highlighting of that struggle sets the tone for the rest of his book.

An African American and Latinx History of the United States is a historical refutation of the imperialist and white supremacist myths most US residents accept as fact and history. As Ortiz makes clear, such a history could not be written any other way, given that it is told through the words and perspective of the African American and Latino people of the United States. It also makes clear that these myths continue to do their work in maintaining the historical status quo in the present day. The educator Paulo Freire wrote in his most famous text The Pedagogy of the Oppressed the following words: “Looking at the past must only be a means of understanding more clearly what and who they (the oppressed) are so that they can more wisely build the future.” Ortiz has assumed this understanding into his text. In doing so he has composed a work of liberation.