Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Days of Rage review


    The Vietnam anti-war movement of the 1960s and 1970s was a mixed bag, populated by individuals who were pacifists, socialists, activists, young, old, mainly white, but with strands of people of color, since its roots, though tangled, were deep in the Civil Rights movement that preceded it.  Days of Rage, though, is not mixed at all. It covers only the violent side of the anti-war movement, beginning in 1969 with Sam Melville, “the man who started it all,”a white, thirty-something, long-haired New York City bomber, famously gunned down two years later during the Attica prison revolt.  It’s a curious place to begin, but one must start somewhere.

    Bryan Burrough has published five other books, three covering financial figures, one on NASA, another on the early years of the FBI.  He is an odd author to tell this tale, given his attachment to the magazine Vanity Fair (he effusively thanks its editor, Graydon Carter, “the best in the business”).  VF has perfected a sort of celebrity journalism featuring the rich and the powerful behaving badly.  There’s a lot of that going on.  But Days of Rage doesn’t escape VF’s personality-centric style.  The book lists a “Cast of Characters,” 54 people, members of six groupings Burrough’s assembles, such as the Weather Underground, the Black Liberation Army, the FALN (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberaction Nacional Puertorriquena), and others, some little known.  Given the span of history the book covers (roughly late 60s, early 80s), this is actually a small amount of people; Burrough seems to ascribe to the theory that history is driven by individuals, rather than so-called larger forces.

    Indeed, Burrough’s object, he states, was to write a “straightforward narrative history of the period and its people.”  He means to keep his judgments “to a minimum.”  Earlier, he criticizes John Castellucci’s dense book on the Brink’s Robbery of 1981, The Big Dance, for being “so loosely structured it is often hard to follow.”

    The world of the not loosely, but tightly, structured, straightforward narrative, is meant to be fast-read history – if any book of nearly 600 pages can be said to be read fast. A number of odd revelations stand out with this method.  Burrough alternates white groups followed by black groups and Puerto Rican groups (the FALN), then mixed racial groups, concluding with the strange (though all the stories are strange) account of two white couples, plus children, merry bombers and eventual cop killers.

    Being so schematically structured, Days of Rage presents the White/Black/Puerto Rican worlds as separate, occasionally invaded by the practically all-white FBI, and other law enforcement groups with sparse minority representation, looking for the diverse underground perpetrators. Burrough thus sets up, perhaps unconsciously, a weird race-based story.  Succinctly put (which he seldom attempts, brevity-being-the-sister of art not being his strength), he shows that the white radicals went to college, the black radicals went to prison, and the Puerto Ricans did a bit of both, for their sessions of radicalization.   

    That’s the trouble with fast-read  history; it often leaves out nuance.   Burrough’s caused cause for all the depicted mayhem is White students’ guilty solidarity with Black struggles: “What the underground movement was truly about – what it was always about – was the plight of black Americans.” He downplays the Vietnam war, the draft, etc.; but the history is more complicated than he allows.  He never notices, it seems, that righting wrongs heaped upon Black Americans was not so much the reason for the conduct described, as it was a justification. Not coming from the generation he writes about, Burrough misses other motives, including the effect of WWII’s Holocaust, being fitfully revealed as these kids grew up, on their consciences.

    So, beyond the great “man” theory of history, we get the violent theory of history, which is that nothing of importance happens in the world without violence.  It’s the “American as cherry pie” analysis of social change, from the street philosopher and former head of SNCC H. Rap Brown, whom Burrough’s quotes. In Days of Rage you will read the Top 10 quotes of the era; he doesn’t miss those beats.  His book has been assembled from research, other people’s books, a lot of memoirs, and a few important interviews he undertook with prominent movement veterans.  This is the method of magazine journalism, yet Burrough’s most important contribution is those interviews – especially the ones with Liz Fink (nomen est omen), a radical lawyer active in the circles described since the late 1960s, Cathy Wilkerson, the Weatherman who survived the 1970 11th Street townhouse explosion, Ron Fliegelman (Burrough’s chief scoop), Wilkerson’s partner in crime and father of her child, and a few peripheral others, plus a handful of talky former FBI agents.

    From a writer of three books dealing with the modern financial world, I was surprised Burrough didn’t have any sort of political economy analysis to offer, even of the Freakonomics sort: Why were all those college kids able to drop things and run off to protest, both in the Civil Rights arena and the anti-war movement?  He still doesn’t seem to know.  It’s the economy, stupid.  The 60s and early 70s still had enough surplus capital floating around to allow for youthful leisure, this being before Ronald Reagan made sure all that money went into the right hands. It’s one of the larger forces Burrough neglects.

    Burrough keeps saying throughout, in one version or another, that the world the underground bombers occupied, began to “change”.  No one cared anymore, “America yawned.”

    The book ends with a Where-are-they-now? Epilogue.  I enjoy that sort of thing as much as anyone, but still there is no hard reckoning of how the world changed. That might have forced the author to make “judgments”.  But, Burrough should know:  His most recent previous book is titled The Big Rich.

    Days of Rage is full of period highlights and if one is well versed in the history Burrough doesn’t cover, it’s easy to add context. (The name Berrigan isn’t found in the Index or the text, though Burrough refers once to the “Catholic underground,” though that too missed the Index.)

    Fresh ruminations, though, can arise from his depictions:  One: The black, violent revolutionaries were among the first to be globalized, to travel abroad, to see their plight in a geo-political context (see Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, etc.).   Two: That as the underground and the bombings continued for over the decade of the 70s women became more central, yet remained at the beck and call of the men – their feminism increased, but remained paradoxical because of what they would let the men get away with.  An early form of this was Weather-woman Bernardine Dohrn’s hybrid persona of sex-pot and conflicted proto-feminist. This internal volatile dynamic finally helped implode the remaining straggling violent groups.   

    Heavy on facts and light on analysis, readers not familiar with this material will read Days of Rage chiefly as a lurid tale, a text-movie un-spooling before their eyes: The sexual revolution as adapted by radicals, the boyfriend/girlfriend world of political motives and decisions (though Bill/Hillary are not discussed), the fun of blowing things up (Made it, Ma, top of the world!), thrills and chills, the Patty Hearst circus revisited once again, wild ironies on display and jaw-dropping episodes of coincidence, how drugs fueled so much of the late violent manifestations, and all along the “feckless” FBI fumbling through. Burrough, preposterously, speaks admiringly of J. Edgar Hoover, but the FBI doesn’t come off well, as usual, in this account. But, however flawed, I hope Days of Rage secures a wide readership, especially among the uninformed young.

    Though Burrough’s book doesn’t tell you, the Black Panthers’ outbursts led to the militarization of our country’s police forces. The flirting with violence of the Catholic Left led to the Catholic Right’s attacks on abortion clinics and physicians. History was upended; those most prone to violent protest switched sides.

    Burrough’s central thesis is all this past has been “forgotten”.  But by whom? 

    America’s talent for forgetting can be salubrious. The problem is not what we forget, but what we remember. That propensity produces many grim examples, one being what the recent Stars-and-Bars-waving young killer, Dylann Roof, chose to remember in Charleston, SC.  He murdered nine – no radical bomber in Days of Rage killed nine people at once.   Look out for what you remember.

A shorter version of this review ran in the October 23-November 5, 2015 issue of the National Catholic Reporter.


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

To Kill a "Second" Novel

Most of what has been written about the “To Kill a Mockingbird”/”Go Set a Watchman” controversy has been wrong — at least in one important way. Harper Lee’s second novel, just published, “Go Set a Watchman,” keeps being referred to as an early draft of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It obviously isn’t a “draft,” as almost any published writer could tell you.

It’s clearly a first novel, a first book. And it was sent in 1957 to an editor who, though not wanting to buy it, suggested Lee write another book. A draft is an earlier version of the same novel, one eventually published. It may often have a different title. Authors are not always the best title-ers.

But the editor wanted a different book. Most editors, strange as it may sound, want books that sell. Tay Hohoff, Lee’s editor, thought “Go Set a Watchman” wouldn’t. Why? Even from the reviews, it is quite clear why: Who in the late 1950s wanted to read about a young woman who fled to New York City from a dreary Southern town with a racist father and unpleasant friends? But, Hohoff saw a way out. There was this character Scout, the book’s protagonist when she was a young girl. A novel in her voice might do the trick.

Back in the 1950s/60s, Southern racism was in the news and wasn’t news to many. Large numbers of Americans do not like to read realistic fiction about the unpleasant here and now. I should know, since I published one of the earliest anti-Vietnam War novels in 1974, while that war still raged. No one, as I wrote long ago, wants to discuss fire in the middle of a conflagration. There were a number of advantages Lee’s editor saw in a novel told with a child’s precocious voice. The events recounted moved back in time, whereas “Go Set a Watchman” was too contemporary, too much of the times in the late 1950s.

Lee’s editor functioned as some modern editors do today. Writers I know have, occasionally, succumbed to them. When a manuscript is offered up and these (mainly) young editors see talent and possibility, they will ask for “revisions.” But what the editor really wants is a different work: a novel that will sell. In extreme cases, like Lee’s, that creates an entirely new book. New last chapters. New first chapters. New characters. New protagonists.

Hack authors of the past have been accused of writing to formula: westerns, police procedurals, etc. Today, it is the editors who want to impose a formula: likable characters, happy endings, general uplift, rather than dour downers.

They think they know what sells. Look at the tables of trade paperback novels at the bookstores. Do their covers all look alike? They do. There’s a reason.

Lee’s editor was ahead of her time. She wanted Lee to write then what today is one of the few flourishing fiction genres left. A Young Adult novel, a YA. One with uplift. Uplift is important. The Pulitzer Prize in fiction historically is given only to uplifting works. Novels thought to be leading candidates for the prize, even when presented to the board, have been denied the prize for supposed lack of uplift. Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow,” for instance.

Nonetheless, quite a few second books published by young authors don’t achieve the same success as the first. That is because the second book published is often the first book written, published because of the success of the first book. It happened to me. My first book (“The Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left”) was successful enough to cause my second (“The Meekness of Isaac”), which I had written before the Harrisburg book, to be published. It happens enough to be noticed as a second-book letdown. It’s because the second book was actually the first.

But that didn’t happen to Harper Lee. In her case, her (unedited!) second novel, actually her first, is a flabbergasting success, over a million copies sold. But that is only because she waited — if that’s the word — over 50 years to let it be published. She got that right.

A version of this ran Sunday, July 26, 2015 in The South Bend Tribune.


Monday, January 12, 2015

Torture? What Torture?

Torture? What Torture?

Americans have a rather baroque view of what constitutes torture.  That is easily seen in the 2 - 1 endorsement of the conduct that went down under the Bush II administration at various CIA black sites during the first two wars Bush and Company ran.  So many fellow Americans are ready to agree with Dick Cheney, and a small segment of the legal community, that all of that was merely enhanced interrogation.  All societies, it seems, define torture with some specificity, based on their own ideas of cultural norms, what the general public thinks is cruel and unusual punishment. And our country’s moderate and modulated response to the early December release of the Senate CIA torture program report bears this out.

When I was a very young man, hardly a teenager, some decades ago I used to look at so-called men’s magazines that some older boys and fathers had left around.  These were not girlie magazines, but men’s magazines, full of manly subjects.  One of the most compelling was the often used spread on “Arab” crime management, the cutting off of hands and sometimes heads for minor infractions, or what I thought of at eleven as minor.  Now that was what I would have classified as torture.

What the Saudis may think of such acts I do not know, though they apparently continue to this day.

No, what Americans think of when they think of torture usually involves chain saws, or sledge hammers, or the like.  Walk though any of the mega-hardware stores of the modern period, as Hollywood producers often do looking for new ways to kill people in movies, and you can gather what constitutes torture to most of the population.

It’s usually entails cutting, smashing, gouging, body parts lost, whatever carnage that  has appeared over the last couple of decades at the local multi-plex.

I have always thought it curious that waterboarding has taken pride of place in the torture sweepstakes that have been roundly condemned of late.  Americans have very conflicted views about water and it has been seldom looked at as outright torture.  True, it has been seen as a vehicle of catastrophe, of peril, but not necessarily as an instrument of torture:  Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, for instance. But that of course, is weather. Various myths about water have taken hold in the American psyche: parents, particularly fathers, throwing children into pools as a means of instruction to either sink or swim.  Sharks in the ocean are scarier than the ocean itself.  Backyard pools were always a luxury to aspire to.  Everyone, or a lot of people, have found themselves at one time or another choking on too much water, either learning how to swim, or because of some other mishap when at play. Water water everywhere.

Former Vice President Cheney on Meet the Press made one odd concession to our country’s most recent form of waterboarding, in order to differentiate it from the WWII Japanese sort, for which perpetrators were hung by the neck till dead, Cheney said that we “elevated” the feet of the waterboarded, so they wouldn’t actually drown.  I had never heard that before, the elevated feet business, and I’ve paid attention over the years to the placating statements that the overly involved have made.

And all the business of slamming people into walls, and other sort of rough treatment.  Americans seem to give that a pass too, as official torture, given that NFL stars are knocking out their wives in casino hotels’ elevators and beating their children with switches, to say nothing of all the non-stars bad treatment of wives and children we all see about us.  Torture?  Almost usual behavior of some alarmingly high percentage of our fellow Americans.

But it is the waterboarding that people keep coming back to.  Somehow water’s properties are too conflicted, so many good, so few bad, for Americans to see water as real torture.  It is something: EIT.  Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.  George Orwell is spinning in his grave. Hanging from ceilings, sleep deprivation, so much of that sounds too familiar to too many people, something they have put up with. Rectal feeding?  Apparently, some folks have enemas for fun.

It does seem that Americans, at least 2 - 1, roughly 70 percent, are ready to give the CIA and the Bush II administration a pass on the torture question, as long as they don’t turn up at their doors someday with chain saws and sledge hammers, or gardening scissors and red hot pokers.

A version of this ran in the South Bend Tribune, January 10, 2015:

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Oak Ridge 3

Last year, in April, there was a weekend event in Harrisburg, PA, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the trial of the Harrisburg 7, which had ended in 1972, with a hung jury on the major counts – conspiring to kidnap Henry Kissinger and blow up heating tunnels in Washington, D.C. – and convictions on minor contraband counts, smuggling letters in and out of a Federal prison in Lewisburg, PA. The Harrisburg trial became the capstone of a number of anti-war trials that had begun in the 1960s, some involving the Berrigan brothers, Daniel and Philip, most notably the case of the Catonsville 9; these trials had marked the new Catholic Left’s ascendancy in the public eye as symbols of “nonviolent” resistance to the Vietnam war. Though the government “lost” the Harrisburg 7 trial, its fomenters, J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI, won what they were after: to besmirch the reputations of the Berrigans and the larger Catholic Left resistance movement and to knock them from the high moral pillar they occupied.

A reissue of my 1972 book, The Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left, had appeared a month before, so I gave the keynote address following a panel on the case, held at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore in Harrisburg. One of the original defendants, the former nun Elizabeth McAlister and spouse, now widow, of Philip Berrigan, had been on the panel and was in attendance. It was a large crowd of some 200 filling the bookstore, the size of a warehouse, where we all convened, the average age 60 plus. (A podcast of the event can be found here: http://famousreadingcafe.podomatic.com/). I began my remarks saying that when I had written the new Afterword for the Harrisburg book I had never imagined that I would be reading parts of it aloud to Elizabeth McAlister.

Three months after that event, another nun, Sister Megan G. Rice, along with two men some decades’ younger – she was 82 in July of 2012, the men in their 50s and early 60s – were arrested after breaking into Y-12, our nuclear storage facility of storied history in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. They came with the usual Plowshares movement equipment: hammers, spray paint, human blood, but also a hefty bolt cutter. The Oak Ridge 3. They were tried in Knoxville, TN, in early May, and, after a two-day trial, were convicted on two counts, one of obstructing the national defense and the second of “depredation” of a government facility. The former, the sabotage count, carries a potential penalty of 20 years.

There was very little coverage of the trial itself, nothing like the Harrisburg case received four decades ago, and the Knoxville local news and the AP, in their reporting, kept referring to the defendants as the Y-12 trespassers, not the Oak Ridge 3, thereby de-nationalising the case. Sentencing for the Oak Ridge 3, who currently remain in jail, is scheduled for September. The Washington Post did run a mini-book report on the case before the trial, on April 29th, in its Style section, complete with 14 “Chapters,” (all very short, Dan Brown-like), written by Dan Zak, with many web-friendly photos and extras. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/style/2013/04/29/the-prophets-of-oak-ridge/). The Post is fly-fishing for a Pulitzer.

In 2012 the Nuns on the Bus had received more coverage than the Oak Ridge 3 (many things get more publicity), but beating swords into plowshares doesn’t get a lot of traction these days. It’s hard, in the Age of Obama, when the “anti-war” former presidential candidate continues to oversee the two wars his predecessor began, and Gitmo remains open (though the president really, really wants to close it), to push through all the noise with this type of anti-nuclear protest. The Plowshares movement rose from the ashes of the Harrisburg trial, nurtured and populated by both Berrigans, Philip and Dan, along with Philip’s wife, Elizabeth McAlister. Its protests began, more or less, in 1980, with the King of Prussia, PA, action at the GE Missile Re-entry Division. More hammers and blood. Eventually, after a number of protests, the Berrigans and Elizabeth spent time in jail, some shorter, some longer, as did others.

These days activists have taken to calling such events as the Y-12 prophetic acts, rather than protests, thereby sidestepping the endemic futility found in this sort of protesting. The participants have been mainly the remnants of the Catholic Left, carrying out their never-ending mission. Protest movements in the secular protest world, and their general fecklessness, were demonstrated most starkly by the Occupy movement, the marathon sitting-in sort in a park near the heart of the beast on Wall Street in 2011. Other moments of occupation have occurred elsewhere in the country with little effect, as well as the more anarchistic protests at G8 meetings (held infrequently in the US). One secular protest movement with teeth, though, has been the Tea Party, a largely astro-turf creation, though anchored in the small hardcore anti-tax groups of long standing, but was hatched into its current form by high-end Republican organizations with the bright idea of creating a “third” party within a party -- the GOP -- avoiding that way all the shortcomings of traditional third parties.

Coincidentally, a new documentary, Hit & Stay: A History of Faith and Resistance, which premiered at the Chicago Underground Film Festival last March, focuses on the Catholic anti-war movement, largely the draft-board raiding contingent, of the 60s, 70s. (Its web site: http://www.hitandstay.com/ ). At a panel after the premiere, the usual question was asked: why weren’t more young people out in the streets protesting? My answer was that they were saddled with so much educational debt they don’t dare. And, there is the continuing influence of the Democrat anti-war president whose earnest rhetoric tamps down youthful fervor to protest the government he represents.

One often overlooked reason of why the late 60s and early 70s became the golden age of protest was the state of the economy back then. There was both an excess of surplus capital and, briefly, recession, which allowed a lot of youth the time to be both fancy free and willing to take a stand. Reagan economics and the transfer of most of the wealth to the top had yet to take place. Today’s economics perversely put a choke-hold on large-scale protests. The current volunteer army was not forced upon the government by the anti-war protestors of the time; the war makers longed for it, and got it in 1973. 1973! The one statistic that has changed in the wars we now fight is the average age of the dead. It has risen. We’re no longer killing the footloose teenage males we had such an oversupply of in the Vietnam period. Those who die now have marriages, families, some experience of real life, however truncated.

When the Plowshares people turned to anti-nuclear protests, going from protesting the humble starting point of organized warfare – draft boards, the recruitment of soldiers as good ol’ cannon fodder – the Berrigans jumped to the end of the process, protesting the technological height of the military-industrial complex, its most sacred and scary weapons, its nuclear stockpile. If Gandhi could end the British Empire’s colonial domination of a country, why couldn’t the Berrigans end our reliance on nuclear weapons? They chose to go from the limited and symbolic to the purely symbolic and sorely limited. Prophetic actions, indeed. The history of protest has many rooms, but these symbolic acts are demonstrations of resistance, idealized pleas for actual magic, as if spray paint and human blood and the marks of hammers could actually turn an article of war (a nuclear sword) into a helpful tool of humanity (a plow). Prest-O Change-O.

The general public might not have much reaction or exposure to octogenarian nuns spray-painting a building filled with enriched bomb-grade uranium, but Congress certainly did, and hearings on the Oak Ridge incident quickly were held. A number of representatives thanked Sister Rice for pointing out the deficiencies in its security systems. The thorough Lax account, courtesy of the Washington Post, points out the usual laughable lapses, the sort you get when you privatize the military. One of the horrors of nuclear weapons is how they wedded the greatest intellectual minds to the greatest amount of destruction. Our cultural DNA since the 1940s has been tainted, given this arranged marriage of science and war. It can be argued, though, it has always been so.

The Nobel prizes, the awards for the highest rarefied sort of thinking, were founded atop a pile of dynamite, or, rather Alfred Nobel’s patented dynamite and detonator. The first Nobel prizes were awarded at the start of the 20th century, in 1901. So many symbols speak for us, there is no quiet on the earth. The events of 9/11 are both symbols and facts. Though, in war, the presumption that you might die is a given, there is a stark difference when to die is the participants’ desire. The way our country and government has reacted to what we call suicide bombers is to redefine what war is and what we are willing to do in such a war. President Obama’s speech on counter-terrorism to the National Defense University on May 23rd tried to acknowledge that he, if nothing else, is aware that the not-so-brave new world we are now in cannot go on forever. But he may be wrong, for as he pointed out the contradictions between what we say and what we do, he also demonstrated neither the will nor the power to change it.

The Oak Ridge 3 may have carried out a profound prophetic action, certainly it was courageous, but it is our own government’s symbols and actions that contain the most alarming prophecies.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Oh, Rush, Poor Rush

Rush Limbaugh, as far back as 1989, named his fans “dittoheads”, though he is the chief dittohead himself. I’ve been listening to Limbaugh since 1996, when he played a role in a book I was writing, Campaign America ‘96: The View From the Couch, a book on the Clinton-Dole presidential race, from the consumer, not the producer, side. Happily, when I finished the book, I didn’t have to listen to him anymore and I stopped, except, occasionally over the years, when I turned him on while driving through radio-deprived areas of the country, where the only thing you could find were evangelical programs or Rush. None of my cars had the new satellite connections, where all stations are possible.

I am an absolute free-speech advocate for a variety of reasons. Though there are many people I would like to be able to shut up, let them all blather on is my attitude and that includes Rush. The transactions here are complicated. I grew up with George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” you couldn’t say on the radio, much less the TV. In 1978 the Supreme Court decided F.C.C. v. Pacifica Foundation in favor of censorship (aka regulation) in a 5-4 decision. Sound familiar? 5-4 is the current far-right censoring vote on the Roberts Court.

Now it’s Erectile Dysfunction ads on all the channels and what is on Cable is anyone’s delight or cause for dismay. OK, back to Rush. After my campaign book appeared I was on the Michael Feldman show, Whad’Ya Know? Feldman, a funny guy, was miffed I seemed sympathetic at times to Rush (and not to him, a misreading) and I replied, “I have a soft spot for overweight overachievers,” and Feldman shot back, “Oh, and not underweight underachievers?” Feldman is skinny. Rush, of course, is a big fat pig.

The young Rush had been the underachiever of a substantial mid-Missouri family, the almost ne’er-do-well son with successful siblings. Rush’s biggest job back then was working PR for the Kansas City Royals. He was one bloated bumpkin. Then he got on the radio and found his fortune and his shtick: finally an overachiever! When I caught up with him in 1996 he was close to the zenith of his influence. Bill Clinton had energized him, along with Newt Gingrich, the contract on America, etc., the first rising of the New Republican Party, the one that has now reached its apotheosis in 2012.

By the time I was on the Feldman show Rush had gone into eclipse and, as I told my host, that was cyclical: Rush would wax and wane. The waning included his drug scandal in 2003. A number of media figures have survived these life-style scandals (such as Bill O’Reilly), and Rush did too. His subsequent hearing problems seemed punishment enough to the general public. Now he’s been waxing again, during these crackpot months of the Republican primaries. But once again he’s gone too far.

Or so many think. I’m not for silencing people. Let Rush say what he wants. Let the people see it, hear it – judge it. Rush is listened to, mainly, by white guys who drive a lot, salesmen, truck drivers, God knows who? (And God and the ratings people do know.) Dittoheads. When Rush’s current victim, Sandra Fluke, expressed surprise that it seemed “acceptable in today’s society to say these things about women,” one wonders where’s she’s been the last twenty years.

Rush was doing his best to be clever, lecturing the “feminazis” (one of his earliest coinages which he employed during his current remarks) on the notion that free contraception was payment for having sex and he used the words “slut” and “prostitute” to insult Ms. Fluke. (Then he continued, really letting his id out, imagining videos on You Tube.) What struck me, hearing reports on what he said (I, thankfully, was not listening to Rush) was that was just what many others were calling sexually active women lately, given the debate over contraception waged by the Catholic Bishops, Virginia lawmakers, and the Republican candidates, especially Rick Santorum. Or, at least, what was implied, the unspoken words that traveled under the conversation, not above, except in the case of Limbaugh. Again, let free speech reign, let us hear what they really think.

The last First Amendment case I wrote about (in The Nation and elsewhere) was Barnes v. Glen Theatre, which was about go-go dancers in strip bars claiming that their dancing should be granted protection as speech. I agreed, but not the Rehnquist Court, which, in 1991, decided 5-4 (again!) in favor of police power, rather than artistic expression. Rehnquist wrote the majority opinion, but the swing vote then was Justice Souter, who held that Indiana’s (the case started in South Bend, of all places) statute helped prevent secondary effects, such as prostitution. Souter was more or less calling the dancers prostitutes, not to say sluts. But that was the implication. Since Ms. Fluke is a law student at Georgetown she should look up the case. If only one of the dancers had ended her routine making the black power fist, the Court would have been stymied.

Just as the public has profited from seeing the slap-stick show of the Republican primary candidates, it actually helps to see what men like Rush Limbaugh actually think – when he can be said to think. Sunlight is still the best disinfectant.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Barney Rosset U.

Upon his recent death, I realized I had matriculated in the Barney Rosset School of Literature, or, more correctly (since I didn’t know who Barney Rosset was when I started), The Grove Press University of the Arts. I also went on to graduate school at New Directions U., founded by James Laughlin. I didn’t know him, either, back then, in my teens and early twenties.

There’s been a lot of bemoaning over the decades of how badly students are being educated, how little they know. Leave Most Everybody Behind, etc., has been the general rule. Since I came along at the pre-dawn of the Baby Boomers (born in December of 1945), my generation benefitted enormously from the paperback revolution that was underway. Why? Not just because of the cheapness of paperbacks, which took hold via the military, since they were distributed to WWII soldiers, but because of the authors they published. It wasn’t altruism, even in the case of Barney Rosset; it was because the great authors, or Dead White Males of yore, were out of print, not afflicted by copyright, and the publishers didn’t have to deal with even the minimum problem of royalties.

So, who did my generation get to read? What were the mass paperback books filling up newsstand racks (not the snooty “trade” paperbacks of today)? Oh, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Homer, Balzac, Victor Hugo, those guys. And cheap. Less than a buck. The first book Barney Rosset published at Grove Press was Henry James’ The Golden Bowl. That cost more than a dollar.

Try to find any of the above at an airport bookstore these days. And people wonder why everyone has gotten more stupid over the years. Take a look at the dates when the SAT scores turned downward. By 1972 the shelves began to be full of other sorts of books.

Publishers played an unique role for the 60's decade – and some of the 70's. They set the curriculum for a generation of curious and avaricious readers such as myself. It might all be called pornography now, but Rosset brought me D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the mid-sixties, which, of course, led me to other Lawrence titles. Rosset made available to my cohort almost the entire reading list of modernism, even as it swerved toward post-modernism. And it wasn’t just international. He championed Henry Miller, became the publisher of the sexual revolution of the time, literary division, and made a lot of young people eager readers. Now they have, alas, Harry Potter.

Grove Press led me to New Directions, which carried on the same tradition, though more thoroughly continental, Sartre, etc., but also the new expatriate American generation, Paul Bowles and his crowd, along with Tennessee Williams, authors who filled the list of doctoral dissertations to come and come.

When I got older and more established, I met an early Grove Press author, the world-class translator Anthony Kerrigan, who introduced Borges to the English speaking world, or, certainly, to Americans, with the publication by Grove Press of Ficciones in 1962. Tony told me Barney Rosset had asked him whether he wanted royalties, or cash now, a “for hire” contract, for his translations. Tony, being of the older generation of writer/bohemian, took the cash up-front. If he had waited for royalties, instead, he would have had an annuity for life – and he sorely needed one, which he didn’t have.

Of course, this super tutorial that two publishing houses carried out for so many students and writers-to-be didn’t last forever. But, it certainly helped fuel a good bit of what has become to be known as “the Sixties.” Yet when you’re filling a void, it sooner or later is no longer a void. Now, it’s a matter of oversupply. Publishers today are no longer playing that guiding role.

Now, with Amazon and other outlets, any book ever published is available for purchase. But when you can have everything, there is often no way to choose anything. Or too many ways. It was limitation, back in the ’60s, that had power. Grove Press and New Directions opened the literary world’s doors for me and many others. Now, there are nothing but doors open and, alas, very little (or far too much) awaits beyond them.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Contraception Wars and Woes

I share at least one attribute of the Catholic Bishops, now at war with the Obama administration: I don’t want to talk about contraception, either.

I’ve taught for over three decades at the university which some characterize as the place where the American Catholic Church “does it’s thinking.” Well, here are some thoughts on the matter. The first is the one above: the Catholic Bishops are really put out, miffed, because they don’t want to talk about contraception, but the Obama administration, allegedly, has forced their hands.

The Bishops don’t mind talking about abortion. They find some purchase on that topic, some sympathy with the larger American public, along with a good many of the “faithful”. Indeed, most everyone wants the number of abortions decreased to as close to zero as possible. But a debate over contraception puts the Bishops in another place altogether.

Had the Obama administration announced their “compromise” first, rather than second, after a bit of clerical harrumphing, the issue may have left the public square and gone away. Indeed, more than half the states, as it’s been pointed out, already have similar mandates, and Catholic universities and hospitals have been dispensing “birth control” for a variety of reasons for many years.

It’s not clear whether the Obama administration took this strategy – getting the Bishops all exercised – deliberately, or accidently, by mishandling the policy rollout. Regardless, it’s out there now. The Bishops don’t want to talk about contraception, because it puts a spotlight on one of the Church’s least defensible, and most paradoxical, strictures.

Oh, it can be defended alright: as a matter of faith. A show of loyalty demanded of the flock, an act of hazing and abnegation, aka sacrifice. My generation wasn’t to eat meat on Fridays, though this dietary no-no eventually just went away. But religions require this sort of thing on the part of their co-religionists; the secular version pops up in the news now and then when fraternity members die because their hazing rituals had become too intense.

And speaking against contraception in the 21st century makes the Bishops look anti-science. Catholics are not anti-science, though a number of their evangelical supporters certainly are. It puts Catholics in a crowd that they don’t necessarily want to be in: All those anti-evolutionary troglodytes scraping their knuckles on the ground, the we-don’t-descend-from-apes crowd.

Whenever the word “abortifacient” is uttered, the attack-on-science banner is raised. We’re down to molecules and bio-chemistry at that point. But, it is an attempt to drag contraception onto safer ground, or, at least, ground they have captured, the well-tilled anti-abortion fields.

But another important, but hardly mentioned, reason the Bishops don’t want to talk about contraception is it makes them talk about themselves, which highlights, in the starkest ways, the all-male hierarchy of the Catholic Church and its women problem. The control of women. And the Bishops did not want to get into any of that, since it is obvious to all that a totally male clergy, saddled with a vow of celibacy, wants its parishioners to be like them, mostly celibate, however preposterous that sounds today. Abortion, however, lets the Bishops talk about two people, one of whom might be male.

The pro-abortion movement has been saddled with a all-too-focused name. It’s actually a pro-woman movement, insofar it was always women who took the lead to change the laws of the land. The pro-“life” anti-abortion movement, began as a male-dominated movement and male figures are featured most prominently still. You should have seen the odious figures who showed up at Notre Dame when President Obama’s commencement speech was announced: Alan Keyes and Randall Terry, grubbing for attention (which they got).

Since the early 70s and the passage of Roe v. Wade the term Catholic Right has been more or less coined. Back when I originally published The Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left–there is a new edition with a fresh Afterword out – what was new was the Catholic Left. There had been the old Dorothy Day Catholic Left, but the anti-war priests and nuns of the Vietnam period were the New.

They were in opposition to the Bishops back then, too; but the Catholic Church wasn’t thought of as the “Right” back then. The Bishops were, of course, that, but then there was no need for labels. But over the decades a Catholic Right was created, or, rather, more pertinently, a religious right was hatched, to try to ecumenically turn back the progressive impulses that reared their multiple heads throughout the period. The Catholic Bishops being the repository of authority does not go unchallenged, as Gary Gutting effectively points out.

Natural law, of course, is full of contraception. Garry Wills goes into the theological background of “natural law,“ but I prefer a more pragmatic approach: Fertilized eggs are lost in the thousands, if not millions, world-wide by couples trying to get pregnant. (There is always a poignance in the case of couples trying to get pregnant and the majority who are trying to avoid it, or those who become pregnant at the drop of a hat.) And Natural law also includes the ever-present, it seems, tried-and-true, centuries old, methods of birth control that include famine, pestilence, natural disasters; and, in place of abortion, we have infanticide. You see where all this sort of logic can lead.

Catholics have wrestled with contraception and the Church’s teachings on it over the decades, generation by generation. The younger generation seems to be wrestling less, given the advances in the methods of contraception now available. One of my sisters (I’m from a family of eight children) got birth control pills back in the 1960s when the doses involved would choke a horse (or, at least, make a horse infertile), because of her “irregular” periods, before she went off to a nunnery for a couple of years.

My mother, at the same time, had three painful, late miscarriages in a row, after having her eighth child, when a friendly priest finally permitted her to use birth control, saying she had brought enough Catholic children into the world. Such stories of my mother’s generation are legion – and often heartrending.

But, enough. Religion may no longer be the opiate of the people, but it is certainly the father – not the mother – of all political wedge issues.