Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 10, 2009

Jared Diamond, the New Yorker Magazine, and blood feuds in PNG: part 3

Filed under: Academia,anthropology,indigenous,Jared Diamond,racism — louisproyect @ 7:07 pm

Anthropologist Rex preparing for a field study

Anthropology studies primitive peoples: a mixed record

Even under the best of circumstances, the study of “primitive peoples” formalized in the academy as anthropology has had a troubled past. This is a function of the power relationships that existed between the conqueror and the conquered as well as the emergence of a social Darwinism in the 19th century that served as the intellectual backdrop for the new discipline.

Major John Wesley Powell, the subject of an admiring biography by radical environmentalist Donald Worster, was named director of a newly created Bureau of Ethnology in 1879 whose task it was to collect data on indigenous peoples. General Francis Walker, former Commissioner of Indian Affairs, supported the initiative wholeheartedly since it was essential for administering the tribes.

Another seminal figure was Frederick Ward Putnam who was the driving force behind Harvard’s Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology until his death in 1915. In 1891 he was asked to collaborate with experts from Powell’s Bureau of Ethnology and the Smithsonian Institution on displays for the Chicago World’s Fair. Indians would be recruited to live in a diorama-like village in the style of the Museum of Natural History in New York, where they would go about their daily lives while the paying customers would watch them like zoo animals.

Another mover and shaker was Daniel G. Brinton, a professor of Ethnology and Archaeology at the Academy of Social Sciences in Philadelphia. He lectured on American Indian linguistics and ethnology from the 1860s onward. Although he paid lip-service to the idea of racial equality, he still managed to claim in an 1895 address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science that “the black, brown and the red races differ anatomically so much from the white…that even with equal cerebral capacity they never could rival its results by equal efforts.”

Against the social Darwinist prejudices of the most powerful figures in the anthropology establishment, Franz Boas rose to the challenge. Arriving in the United States in 1887, he wrote articles rejecting the idea of a linear process from savagery to civilization, a notion that existed unfortunately in cruder versions of Marxism, from Kautsky to Plekhanov. Two years after Brinton’s talk, Boas gave a speech to the same body that delinked racial type and cultural development. He was an outspoken opponent of immigration restriction laws based on racist conceptions of “inferior” peoples invading American society. He was also opposed to anti-Black racism, so much so that he attempted to establish a African-American Museum in Harlem. In 1915, he wrote a letter to a U.S. Senator arguing that woman should enjoy the same privileges as men.

Foreshadowing the way in which anthropologists are being “embedded” in the military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan today, Sylvanus Morley, who researched early Mexican society for the Carnegie Institution, spied against the Germans during WWI using his work in Mexico as a cover. Boas, who had already denounced WWI as an imperialist war in the pages of the N.Y. Times, was outraged to discover what Morley and some of his colleagues were up to. He wrote an article in the December 20, 1919 Nation Magazine that did not mince words: “The point against which I wish to enter a vigorous protest is that a number of men who follow science as their profession, men whom I refuse to designate any longer as scientists, have prostituted science by using it as a cover for their activities as spies.”

The American Anthropological Association voted for a motion of censure prepared by W.H. Holmes, a director of the Smithsonian Institution. It stated, among other things, that “To question the honor of the President of the United States is a disloyal act.”

Given Boas’s commitment to progressive values, it must be reported that he was capable of the same type of abuse of native peoples that his social Darwinist colleagues routinely engaged in. While at the Museum of Natural History, Boas decided that Eskimos were suitable objects for study, because they represented a kind of “living fossil” that demonstrated a connection to Ice Age hunters in Europe. So eager was he to have some useful specimens that he commissioned Robert Peary to bring back some back from an Arctic expedition on his ship “The Hope.” Some 30,000 New Yorkers paid 25 cents each in 1896 to view the six Eskimos that Peary retrieved from their home. Later on they were transported to the basement of the Museum in order to be studied. When a reporter asked Boas how they were kept busy, he replied:

Oh, we try to give them little things to keep them busy. Their work doesn’t amount to much, but they have made some carvings, and occupied themselves either indoors or around the place with any employment that suggested itself to them. They do not seem discontented.

Apparently, even someone as enlightened as Franz Boas was capable of descending to the point of view exhibited by Napoleon Chagnon who described his research on the Yanomami as follows:

I don’t look at ‘first contact’ as a coup similar to raping a virgin. It’s a privileged opportunity to learn something precious about another people before they’re snuffed out. I would have given my left testicle to see the Plains Indians in the 15th century, to see what they did, to see what their society was like.

Needless to say, given the power relationships that exist between colonizers and colonized, it is never the Yanomami or the Inuit who come to study Connecticut venture capitalists on the golf course or at their Presbyterian Church. It is always the other way around.

Despite the fact that Jared Diamond’s article on blood feuds was titled “Annals of Anthropology”, there is very little evidence of professional anthropology in the article, a fact that has been alluded to repeatedly on the leftish Savage Minds group blog, a site owned by professionals in the field. To my dismay, the objection to Diamond has seemed more like an expression of professional proprietorship there than sensitivity to indigenous peoples. As Rex puts it (more about him below), “It is one thing to have Diamond’s book show up on the shelves of airport bookstores, but quite another for it to be described as ‘anthropology’ in the subheading of a story in the New Yorker.”

Savage Minds, as you might expect, has been devoting a lot of attention to the Jared Diamond/New Yorker scandal, most of it coming from Alex Golub, the “Rex” above who teaches anthropology at the University of Hawai’i. His dissertation was on mining and indigenous people in highlands Papua New Guinea.

Given his background, it was logical for him to be contacted by the New Yorker Magazine as a kind of outside consultant fact-checker for the Diamond piece. Since the Diamond article is such a mess, inquiring minds might want to know how Rex managed to give this article a clean bill of health. He explained it as a function of having spent only 10 minutes on the phone with the New Yorker.

Indeed, right after it was published, Rex blogged about the article taking issue mostly, as one might expect, with Diamond’s failure “to think anthropologically”. This was manifested by Diamond not having a proper appreciation of pigs in PNG culture, a failure to see that a state structure did exist at the time of the “wars”, etc. Having seen Diamond’s article, my own reaction to it right off the bat was that Diamond was spinning a tale, the biggest tip-off being the words that supposedly came out of Daniel Wemp’s mouth:

I admit that the New Guinea Highland way to solve the problem posed by a killing isn’t good. Our way disturbs our day-to-day life; we won’t be comfortable for the rest of our lives; we are always in effect living on the battlefield; and those feelings go on and on in us. The Western way, of letting the government settle disputes by means of the legal system, is a better way. But we could never have arrived at it by ourselves: we were trapped in our endless cycles of revenge killings.

Now I don’t have a PhD in anthropology, but I have an advanced degree in street smarts. If you believe that a native in the highlands of Papua New Guinea said anything to Jared Diamond that remotely resembles this, then I have a bridge spanning the East River that I can sell you at a cut rate.

Rex officially took note of the Jared Diamond scandal on April 22nd,  just after the news broke. He starts off by distinguishing himself from the view the affair is about “powerful white outsiders” and “(relatively) supine brown people”. Jeez, I don’t know, but that’s kind of the way it sounds to me. Instead, he feels that it is really about “the radical answerability that researchers increasingly have to the people they depict.” Well, I suppose I have no problems with that either but I can’t get that business about powerful white outsiders out of my mind, especially in light of the history I tried to cover in the beginning of this piece.

In the penultimate paragraph, Rex reveals his real interest in the controversy which strikes me as a bit postmodern. The question of right and wrong is almost secondary, when it comes to the far more interesting question of “reentextualization”, a neologism straight out of that wing of the academy drenched in Bakhtin studies:

Anthropologists understand that social life is a constant process of narration and renarration—and I’ve always felt this is particularly true of highlands PNG, somehow. I am not Melanesian (obviously) but looking at this case through a Melanesian lens it seems to me that there is something complex and fascinating about the way Shearer’s report has elicited a whole series of responses from people in PNG and is yet another step in the ongoing reentextualization of events that happened a decade ago in Southern Highlands as it twists and turns into various forms of compensation/litigation.

More recently, on May 8th, Rex came up with another way to understand the issues that once again elided the question of “powerful white outsiders”. He thought that the suit against the New Yorker was following a certain “Melanesian logic”:

In Papua New Guinea, sometimes you take people to court as part of the process of dispute resolution, and I suspect that Kuwimb’s statment that “Mr Mandingo and Mr Wemp were hoping for an apology and a cash settlement” indicates not opprtunism [sic] on their part, but a different sense of what counts as closure (or at least the next step in the ongoing relationship) than we in the states might have.

I don’t know whether there is anything particularly “Melanesian” about taking the New Yorker to court. Jeffrey Masson sued journalist Janet Malcolm for writing what he maintained were lies about him in the pages of the magazine some years ago. I think it is pretty universal to want to make a libelous publication pay for its sins.

Even more disconcerting was Rex’s willingness to take seriously a malignant troll who has been posting anonymously on Savage Minds and who has called Rhonda Shearer a “bag lady” for having the temerity to disagree with him. This character, who goes by the tag “JohnSo” and who represents himself as a journalist at a major magazine, stated in one of his comments that: “We don’t know what kind of quotes Diamond had: we only know what was printed. I often get all sorts of back up quotes that I give to my editor but leave out of the piece. The flow of the story tends to be more important to magazines than it is to newspapers.”

That prompted Rex to muse somewhat postmodernistically:

A lot of the substantive and important issues raised by JohnSo come from the fact that we have the history of these stories as the originated in Nipa, and ended up being told to Jared Diamond in a pickup truck. But what we do not have is the story of their reformulation, verification, and editing as Diamond retold them to The New Yorker. That is a black box that, ethnographically, I feel really needs to be opened up.

The idea that anything coming from this malignant troll is “substantive” and “important” is dismaying to say the least. But to throw a cloud over everything as if it were children playing Telephone is an invitation to treat all participants—Diamond, Wemp, Shearer—as equally culpable. If the truth is relative, then what is the big deal if you embellish it?

Rex’s comment prompted Rhonda Shearer to reply to Rex: “Your selective praise and silence on his clearly out-of-bounds troll behavior rings of—unfortunately for you and me and everyone who reads this blog—your acceptance of such behavior, if not, worse, an endorsement by omission.”

At the risk of being reductionist, I think that the issues are rather clear-cut in this case. There is no “black box” that needs to be opened. The key to understanding how and why Jared Diamond concocted a fiction is in his underlying sociobiological framework, something I am going to explain in my final post in this series.

From Jack Weatherford’s “Indian Givers”

Filed under: indigenous — louisproyect @ 1:38 pm

Jack Weatherford

Jack Weatherford, “Indian Givers“:

Freedom does not have a long pedigree in the Old World. When it appears in the ancient literature of the Mediterranean, freedom usually refers to the freedom of a tribe, a nation, or a city from the domination of another such group, as in the freedom of the Jews from Egyptian bondage or the freedom of the Greek cities from Persian rule. In this sense the word echoes our contemporary notion of national sovereignty, but it resembles only slightly our concept of freedom as personal liberty. Occasionally, this sense of the word appeared in connection with a Roman or Greek slave who was freed, but this was a very specialized use that meant a person became human and was no longer merely the property of someone else.

After the people of the Old World learned to accept the strange animals reported from America and had at least a slight acquaintance with the new plants, they began to examine more closely the people and their culture. By this time the Spanish had virtually decapitated the native societies that they had encountered, and they had then grafted the Spanish monarchy, the Spanish language, and Spanish Catholicism to the native roots of American culture. In contrast, the more marginal areas of America that fell into the hands of the French and British still had flourishing native societies.

The most consistent theme in the descriptions penned about the New World was amazement at the Indians’ personal liberty, in particular their freedom from rulers and from social classes based on ownership of property. For the first time the French and the British became aware of the possibility of living in social harmony and prosperity without the rule of a king.

As the first reports of this new place filtered into Europe, they provoked much philosophical and political writing. Sir Thomas More incorporated into his 1516 book Utopia those characteristics then being reported by the first travelers to America, especially in the much-discussed letters of Amerigo Vespucci. More made his Utopia one of equality without money. The following year, More’s brother-in-law John Ratsell set out in search of some such paradise in America. Although his trip failed, he continued to advocate the colonization of America in his writings, and his son did make the trip in 1536.

More’s work was translated into all the major European languages and has stayed in print until the present day. His thought carried influence throughout the European continent, and in the following century, other writers strengthened and developed the idea of freedom that he described and the ways that the Indians in America maintained it.

Writing a little later in the sixteenth century, the French essayist Michel de Montaigne presented a similar description of American Indian life based primarily on the early reports from Brazil. In his essay “On Cannibals,” Montaigne wrote that they are “still governed by natural laws and very little corrupted by our own.” He specifically cited their lack of magistrates, forced services, riches, poverty, and inheritance. As in More’s Utopia, Brazil emerged as the ideal place and Indians as having created the ideal society. Most of these early writings contained strongly satirical veins-the writers indicated that even so-called savages lived better than civilized Europeans-but the satire grew out of the unavoidable truth that the technologically simple Indians usually lived in more just, equitable, and egalitarian social conditions.

Not until a century after Montaigne did the first French ethnography on the North American Indians appear. Louis Armand de Lorn d’Arce, Baron de Lahontan, wrote several short books on the Huron Indians of Canada based on his stay with them from 1683 to 1694. An adventurer far more than an anthropologist, Lahontan nevertheless managed to rise above the genre of adventure stories to give the French reader the worldview of the Hurons from inside the Indian mind. By the time of Lahontan’s sojourn among the Hurons, they had already survived several decades of sporadic interaction with European explorers and traders, and they had been the subject of numerous commentaries by Jesuit missionaries. From these interactions the Hurons were able to compare their own way of life and the Europeans’. The Indians particularly decried the European obsession with money that compelled European women to sell their bodies to lusty men and compelled men to sell their lives to the armies of greedy men who used them to enslave yet more people. By contrast, the Hurons lived a life of liberty and equality. According to the Hurons, the Europeans lost their freedom in their incessant use of “thine” and “mine.”

One of the Hurons explained to Lahontan, “We are born free and united brothers, each as much a great lord as the other, while you are all the slaves of one sole man. I am the master of my body, I dispose of myself, I do what I wish, I am the first and the last of my Nation . . . subject only to the great Spirit”. It is difficult to tell where the Huron philosopher speaks and where Lahontan may be promoting his own political philosophy, but still the book rested on a base of solid ethnographic fact: the Hurons lived without social classes, without a government separate from their kinship system, and without private property. To describe this political situation, Lahontan revived the Greek-derived word “anarchy,” using it in the literal sense meaning “no ruler.” Lahontan found an orderly society, but one lacking a formal government that compelled such order.

After the appearance of Lahontan’s New Voyages to North America in 1703 in The Hague and his Curious Dialogues soon thereafter, Lahontan became an international celebrity feted in all the liberal circles. The playwright Delisle de la Drevetiere adapted these ideas to the stage in a play about an American Indian’s visit to Paris. Performed in Paris in 1721 as Arlequin Sauvage, the play ends with a young Parisian woman named Violette falling in love with the Indian and fleeing with him to live in the liberty of America beyond law and money.

As usually happens in the theatrical world, this success initiated dozens of imitations, and there soon followed a spate of plays, farces, burlesques, and operas on the wonderful life of liberty among the Indians of America. Impresarios brought over Indians in droves to tour the European capitals and entertain at parties with their tales of liberty and freedom in the American paradise. Plays such as Indes Galantes and Le Nouveau Monde followed in the 1730s. The original play Arlequin Sauvage had a major impact on a young man named Jean Jacques Rousseau, who set about in 1742 to write an operetta on the discovery of the New World featuring Christopher Columbus’s arrival with a sword while singing to the Indians the refrain “Lose your liberty!”. This contrast between the liberty of the Indians and the virtual enslavement of the Europeans became a lifelong concern for Rousseau and eventually led to publication of his best-known work, Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, in 1754.

Despite the excessive literary commercialization of the notion of American liberty, a number of good ethnographic studies of the Indians also appeared during this period. The social descriptions of Lahontan found subsequent corroboration in the more ethnographic but less dramatic writings of the Jesuit Father Joseph Frangois Lafitau, who published in 1724 Customs of the American Savages Compared with Those of Earliest Times, describing the Mohawks. The virtues of Indian society so impressed Lafitau that he saw in it a reflection of ancient Greek society. He intimated that the Indians actually might be descendants of refugees from the Trojan wars who managed to transfer their Greek ideals to America.

During this era the thinkers of Europe forged the ideas that became known as the European Enlightenment, and much of its light came from the torch of Indian liberty that still burned brightly in the brief interregnum between their first contact with the Europeans and their decimation by the Europeans. The Indian, particularly the Huron, became the “noble savage,” the man of liberty living in the “natural state.” While a few Europeans chose the path of Violette and left the corrupt world of Europe for America, others began working on ideas and plans to change Europe by incorporating some of the ideas of liberty into their own world. Almost all of the plans involved revolutionary changes to overthrow the monarchy, the aristocracy, or the church, and in some cases even to abolish money and private property.

The greatest political radical to follow the example of the Indians was probably Thomas Paine (1737-1809), the English Quaker and former craftsman who arrived in Philadelphia to visit Benjamin Franklin just in time for Christmas of 1774. Because the Quakerism of his family restricted his study of Latin, the language of learning, Paine was not an intellectual trained in philosophy. He left school at age thirteen to become an apprentice staymaker. He earned his education in life, something that many people have attempted and few have accomplished. His experiences made him a radical proponent of democracy.

After arriving in America he developed a sharp interest in the Indians, who seemed to be living in the natural state so alien to the urban and supposedly civilized life he encountered around himself. When the American Revolution started, Paine served as secretary to the commissioners sent to negotiate with the Iroquois at the town of Easton near Philadelphia on the Delaware River in January 1777. Through this and subsequent encounters with the Indians, Paine sought to learn their language, and throughout the remainder of his political and writing career he used the Indians as models of how society might be organized.

In his writings, Paine castigated Britain for her abusive treatment of the Indians, and he became the first American to call for the abolition of slavery. He refined his knowledge and opinions in order to disseminate them to the world in eloquent works bearing such simple titles as Common Sense, which he issued in January 1776 as the first call for American independence. Subsequently he became the first to propose the name “United States of America” for the emerging nation. After the revolutionary victory in America, he returned to Europe in 1787 to carry the Indian spark of liberty. The French made him an honorary French citizen, and they offered him a seat in the National Assembly in order to help draft a just constitution for their nation. He fought hard for the French Revolution, but despite his belief in revolutionary democracy, he abhorred terrorism, including the French reign of terror. Despite these excesses of the French, Paine laid out his logical defense of revolution in The Rights of Man in 1792, and then turned his attention to the role of religion by writing the book that gave its name to the whole Enlightenment, The Age of Reason (1794-95).

After this life of activism and writing, Paine wrote Agrarian Justice (1797), in which he asked a question that still haunts our own time: can civilized society ever cure the poverty it has created? He was not entirely optimistic that it could. He returned once again to the Iroquois, among whom he had learned democracy, when he wrote, “The fact is, that the condition of millions, in every country in Europe, is far worse than if they had been born before civilization began, or had been born among the Indians of North-America at the present day”. Unfortunately, however, Paine concluded that “it is always possible to go from the natural to the civilized state, but it is never possible to go from the civilized to the natural state”.

When the French so ardently embraced Napoleon as emperor, Paine felt that they had betrayed everything he had been preaching, and he left France in disgust in 1802 to return to America, which still struggled with the implementation of liberty. He found the citizens of America now more complacent. Following their revolution they seemed intent on settling down, making money, and enjoying the pursuit of happiness. They showed no tolerant mood for an aging radical who held up savage Indians to them as paragons of the proper human values.

By the time Paine died, the Indians had been permanently enshrined in European thought as exemplars of liberty. In the next generation, Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in the first volume of Democracy in America, repeatedly used phrases such as “equal and free.” He said that the ancient European republics never showed more love of independence than did the Indians of North America. He compared the social system and the values of the Indians to those of the ancient European tribes prior to becoming “civilized” and domesticated.

Even in the twentieth century, French anthropologists continued the analysis of liberty and equality among surviving American Indian groups, particularly those in the jungles of South America. Describing it as “society against the state,” Pierre Clastres analyzed political institutions in Indian America to determine anew whether society could function without political oppression and coercion. He found that even in societies with chiefs, “the chief’s word carries no force of law.” He quoted the great cacique, or chief, Alaykin of the Argentine Chaco as saying that “if I were to use orders or force with my comrades, they could turn their backs on me at once.” He continued, “I prefer to be loved and not feared by them.” Clastres summed up the office of chief by observing that “the chief who tries to act the chief is abandoned”.

From the moment the notion of democracy and the noble savage appeared in Europe, some skeptical thinkers rejected it entirely. Thomas Hobbes launched one of the first attacks against this primitivism. Although he had never been to America, he claimed in his Leviathan (1651) that the savage people in many places of America led a life that was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” He then went on to attack the ideas of liberty. For Hobbes the natural state of man was the horror of “war of all against all,” and only through total subjugation of everyone to a ruler could the individual be protected from the perfidy and savagery of others.

In the next century a philosopher as eminent as Voltaire joined Hobbes in belittling the American Indians, but he used Indian characters in several of his works. Even the German philosopher Immanuel Kant attacked the idea of the noble Arfierican savage. In his 1772 lectures on philosophical anthropology at the University of Konigsberg, Kant proclaimed that the American Indians “are incapable of civilization.” He described them as having “no motive force, for they are without affection and passion. They are not drawn to one another by love, and are thus unfruitful. They hardly speak at all, never caress one another, care about nothing, and are lazy.” In a note in his lecture he foreshadowed two long centuries of racist thought in Germany when he wrote that the Indians “are incapable of governing themselves” and are “destined for extermination”.

As the eighteenth century closed in the bloodshed of the French Revolution, Europeans momentarily tired of constant political debate and the question of the natural social or political state of man. They turned away from the American Indian and let their fantasies flow to the South Pacific, where they envisioned a paradise of sensuality. Unlike the Indians who had suffered no rulers, many of the island people of Polynesia had rulers, and yet they seemed to be happy and to have found sexual, if not political, liberation. The notion of the noble savage took a new turn away from politics and into a frivolous image that still persists in some writings today.

Egalitarian democracy and liberty as we know them today owe little to Europe. They are not Greco-Roman derivatives somehow revived by the French in the eighteenth century. They entered modern western thought as American Indian notions translated into European language and culture.

In language, custom, religion, and written law, the Spaniards descended directly from ancient Rome, yet they brought nothing resembling a democratic tradition with them to America. The French and Dutch who settled parts of North America also settled many other parts of the world that did not become democratic. Democracy did not spring up on French-speaking Haiti any more than in South Africa, where the British and Dutch settled about the same time that they settled in North America.

Even the Netherlands and Britain, the two showcases for European democracy, had difficulty grafting democracy onto monarchical and aristocratic systems soaked in the strong traditions of class privilege. During the reign of George III of Great Britain, while the United States was fighting for its independence, only one person in twenty could vote in England. In all of Scotland, three thousand men could vote, and in Ireland no Catholic could hold office or vote. In their centuries of struggle to suppress the Irish, the British possibly encumbered their own democratic development.

American anglophiles occasionally point to the signing of the Magna Carta by King John on the battlefield of Runnymede in 1215 as the start of civil liberties and democracy in the English-speaking world. This document, however, merely moved slightly away from monarchy and toward oligarchy by increasing the power of the aristocracy. It continued the traditional European vacillation between government by a single strong ruler and by an oligarchic class. An oligarchy is not an incipient democracy, and a step away from monarchy does not necessarily mean a step toward democracy. In the same tradition, the election of the pope by a college of cardinals did not make the Vatican into a democratic institution, nor did the Holy Roman Empire become a democracy merely because a congress of aristocrats elected the emperor.

When the Dutch built colonies in America, power in their homeland rested securely in the hands of the aristocracy and the burghers, who composed only a quarter of the population. A city such as Amsterdam fell under the rule of a council of thirty-six men, none of whom was elected; instead each council member inherited his office and held it until death.

Henry Steele Commager wrote that during the Enlightenment “Europe was ruled by the wellborn, the rich, the privileged, by those who held their places by divine favor, inheritance, prescription, or purchase”. The philosophers and thinkers of the Enlightenment became quite complacent and self-congratulatory because the “enlightened despots” such as Catherine of Russia and Frederick of Prussia read widely and showed literary inclinations. Too many philosophers became court pets and because of that believed that Europe was moving toward enlightened democracy. As Commager explained it, Europe only imagined the Enlightenment, but America enacted it. This Enlightenment grew as much from its roots in Indian culture as from any other source.

When Americans try to trace their democratic heritage back through the writings of French and English political thinkers of the Enlightenment, they often forget that these people’s thoughts were heavily shaped by the democratic traditions and the state of nature of the American Indians. The concept of the “noble savage” derived largely from writings about the American Indians, and even though the picture grew romanticized and distorted, the writers were only romanticizing and distorting something that really did exist. The Indians did live in a fairly democratic condition, they were egalitarian, and they did live in greater harmony with nature.

The modern notions of democracy based on egalitarian principles and a federated government of overlapping powers arose from the unique blend of European and Indian political ideas and institutions along the Atlantic coast between 1607 and 1776. Modern democracy as we know it today is as much the legacy of the American Indians, particularly the Iroquois and the Algonquians, as it is of the British settlers, of French political theory, or of all the failed efforts of the Greeks and Romans.

The American Revolution did not stop with the thirteen Atlantic colonies; it soon spread around the world. As Thomas Paine wrote in The Rights of Man, “from a small spark, kindled in America, a flame has arisen, not to be extinguished.” He went on to say that the flame “winds its progress from nation to nation, and conquers by silent operation”.

Although today the notion of the noble savage usually reaps only scorn and historical footnotes as a quaint idea of a less-informed era, the idea had ramifications of great width and magnitude. The noble savage represented a new ideal of human political relations that mutated into the hundreds of political theories that have swept the world in the past five hundred years. The discovery of new forms of political life in America freed the imaginations of Old World thinkers to envision Utopias, socialism, communism, anarchism, and dozens of other social forms. Scarcely any political theory or movement of the last three centuries has not shown the impact of this great political awakening that the Indians provoked among the Europeans.

The descriptions of the Baron de Lahontan and other New World travelers of the so-called anarchy among the American Indians contributed to several different brands of anarchistic theory in the nineteenth century. Today, anarchism is often equated with terrorism and nihilism, which denies any values, but early anarchism lacked both of these qualities. Pierre Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865), the father of modern anarchistic theory, stressed the notion of “mutualism” in a society based on cooperation without the use of coercion from any quarter. This was to be brought about peacefully through workers helping one another in labor associations.

>From these simple ideas about the noble savage, there followed a wild array of theories as varied and exotic as the different types of birds in the Amazon. Michael Bakunin developed anarchist collectivism. Peter Kropotkin became associated with the ideas of anarchist communism that achieved popularity in Spain, while in France anarcho-syndicalism helped inspire the work of Georges Sorel. Pacifist anarchism developed around the ideas of the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy and the Dutch political philosopher Domela Nieuwenhuis.

In one of its mildest expressions, these ideas of pacific anarchism showed up in America in the writings of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). Worshiping the New England countryside by then denuded of its aboriginal Indian inhabitants, Thoreau withdrew from society in order to practice his individualistic anarchism. In 1849 these ideas of the individual’s right to refuse cooperation with the state received its highest expression in his essay “Civil Disobedience.” In the twentieth century the ideas of Thoreau came to play almost as important a role in world politics as did the many revolutionary theories that developed from more activist brands of anarchism. In 1907 Thoreau’s essay helped Gandhi to select the appropriate means of struggle for Indian independence from Britain. Rather than launch a war of liberation, he launched a peaceful movement of civil disobedience. This movement eventually liberated Pakistan and India, and in so doing, sealed the fate of colonialism everywhere in the world. The peaceful movements of Gandhi did more to bring independence than did all the twentieth-century wars of independence.

Thoreau and Gandhi together inspired many different versions of their struggle, one of the most notable being that of the civil rights movement in the United States. Opting for the same peaceful struggle and for civil disobedience, the movement under Martin Luther King, Jr., ended virtually all legal forms of racism in the United States.

Like the American plants that spread all over the world and changed forever the economic, social, and demographic patterns of the world, the Indian love of liberty, freedom, and individuality have also spread. Even though the Indians never had a monopoly on these values, they did achieve the highest cultural development of them. Thus, today in the ordered anarchy of a powwow in North Dakota these same values are articulated even better and more eloquently than in the writings of Paine, Rousseau, Thoreau, and Gandhi.

May 8, 2009

Jared Diamond, the New Yorker Magazine, and blood feuds in PNG: part 2

Filed under: Academia,anthropology,indigenous,Jared Diamond,racism — louisproyect @ 7:41 pm

More violent than the Nazis and the Khmer Rouge?

Violence and indigenous peoples

While nobody but the unfortunate Professor Diamond could possibly explain the origins of the monumental work of fiction in the pages of the New Yorker Magazine under his byline, an article supposedly in pursuit of The Truth, one might surmise that he was driven to tailor the facts to a conclusion that he had worked out in advance, namely that under duress “modern state systems” devolve into bloody killing sprees such as the kind that Daniel Wemp supposedly took part in.

Even when modern state societies wage war, they are not nearly as bloodthirsty as indigenous peoples such as the ones that feuded in Papua New Guinea. Diamond states “the actual percentage of the population that died violently was on the average higher in traditional pre-state societies than it was even in Poland during the Second World War or Cambodia under Pol Pot.

So brutal and inhumane were the Papuan tribesmen to each other that when the European colonizers arrived, they submitted to their own “pacification” happily. Finally, the blood feuds would be eliminated by the more civilized representatives of modern state societies. Despite Diamond’s carefully crafted image of himself as an enlightened “multiculturalist”, this analysis is not that different from the ones put forward during the Victorian era. The bloody natives had to be rescued from themselves.

The problem with Diamond’s case is that it rests on bogus history. He deploys Daniel Wemp as an expert witness in describing a savage tribal war that went on for years, when in fact the only fighting that took place in recent years was a rather tame affair described by Mako J. Kuwimb, one of Rhonda Shearer’s PNG consultants and a model of restraint in his debunking of Diamond’s version.

The “war” in question did not take three years and cost 29 lives, as Diamond asserts. It was instead a fight between two youths over a couple of dollars that went missing during a card game that got out of hand after one had his jaw broken. Fighting lasted for three months and only four men died. Daniel Wemp, who Diamond described as a warlord seeking revenge for his tribe, was not involved in this affair at all. Apparently, Diamond wove together some actual incidents and others that were cooked up, all the while exaggerating the severity of the conflict so as to turn the PNG highlands into something on a par with contemporary Congo. Meanwhile, Daniel Wemp and the other participants are described as having almost as much fun killing each other as if it were a sport.

You can read Mako J. Kuwimb’s entire rebuttal of Jared Diamond on the Savage Minds blog, but this one brief excerpt demonstrates that the indigenous person is every bit as civilized as the famous UCLA professor, if not more so:

The comparison between international European war and tribal fights is too farfetched. Killing of enemies are never paraded; some old men who speared their enemies told me of nightmares. Killing is not fun at all as the article seems to suggest.

Jared Diamond is not the first white man in a pith helmet who has descended into the rain forest in search of a savage that only existed in his mind. In 1998, anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon published “Yanomami: The Fierce People”, a book that described the beleaguered denizens of the Amazon rainforest as being almost as bloodthirsty as Jared Diamond’s representation of the PNG’ers. Some anthropologists would believe that Chagnon is as trustworthy as Diamond’s New Yorker article.

The fierce people?

Not surprisingly, Changon’s version of Yanomami reality is shared by those in the profession who line up with him ideologically, while his detractors uphold a less bellicose version of the indigenous people. In a December 10, 2000 Washington Post review by Marshall Sahlins of Patrick Tierney’s “Darkness in El Dorado”, a book that is highly critical of Chagnon and that has polarized scholars in the field, we see anthropology of the sort that gives the profession a bad name:

Needing blood and information quickly, Chagnon would announce his visits to a village in the guise of a Yanomami warrior: dressed only in loincloth, body painted red, feathered–and carrying a shotgun. His field kits have been known to contain chemical mace and an electric stun gun. He tried to cultivate a reputation for dangerous magical power by engaging in narcotic shamanistic séances. When someone stole from him, he got children to inform on the thief; then he returned the favor by carrying off the latter’s hammock until he got his stuff back. But when it came to the reciprocity of food sharing, he protested that he could not feed the whole village. On the contrary, he disgusted curious Yanomami by telling them the canned frankfurters he was eating were animal penises, and peanut butter likewise was just what it looked like. Unselfconsciously, he acknowledges that his unwillingness to share food generously or widely made him “despicable in their eyes.”

After Chagnon retired, he relocated to the North Woods of Michigan, a region seemingly in sync with his personality and prejudices. He told Scott Wallace, a producer from the National Geographic Channel who was preparing a documentary on the Yanomami:

I don’t look at ‘first contact’ as a coup similar to raping a virgin. It’s a privileged opportunity to learn something precious about another people before they’re snuffed out. I would have given my left testicle to see the Plains Indians in the 15th century, to see what they did, to see what their society was like.

I guess that’s what native peoples ultimately get reduced to in the world of a Jared Diamond or a Napoleon Chagnon, a kind of opportunity to see an exotic species before it dies off. It also helps when the species under examination are a bunch of savages. It makes their domination by more “civilized” species more tolerable.

When news of Daniel Wemp’s suit against the New Yorker broke, I was in the midst of my own debunking project about the purported savagery of indigenous peoples. In November 2007, I wrote a review of the movie “No Country for Old Men” that was based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, the second coming of Herman Melville in the eyes of some more credulous critics.

Curious to find out more about the author, I went to the Cormac McCarthy Society website and discovered that his 1985 “Blood Meridian”, a work described as his masterpiece by Yale’s Harold Bloom, amounted to a dismantling of “the politically correct myth of aboriginal victimization, so that victims and their antagonists become indistinguishable.”

While a fictional work, “Blood Meridian” purportedly describes native peoples of the Southwest during the 1840s as no better than the white men who were trying to exterminate them. Like Napoleon Chagnon, Cormac McCarthy would reject the notion that such peoples were “noble savages”. One of three epigraphs that open the book is from a 1982 Yuma Sun new clipping about a 300,000-year-old human skull being found in Ethiopia that showed the first evidence of a scalping. The moral, of course, is that evil is inherent in the human species.

“Blood Meridian” is focused on the predations of a group of scalp-hunters led by John Joel Glanton, a historical figure but the Apache and Comanche play key secondary roles. The Indians and the mercenaries take turns killing each other in the most unimaginably vicious manner, described by McCarthy in a manner that amounts to a more elevated version of the “Itchy and Scratchy” cartoons on “The Simpsons” television show.

In many respects, McCarthy’s version of 1840s reality is a throwback to the movies of the 1940s and 50s when the Apache and the Comanche were depicted as cold-blooded killers. Like Jared Diamond’s “modern state societies”, the cavalry led by John Wayne was just the ticket for “pacifying” a savage people involved with killing whites and fellow Indians alike.

A selective reading of American history might reinforce this interpretation since it is a fact that the Comanche drove the Apache from Texas, while both tribes raided Mexico to capture horses and slaves—events that led Mexican authorities to hire scalpers like John Joel Glanton.

But I wanted to know the background to the violence. What led Indians to steal horses and attack Mexican villagers? Are we simply dealing with the case of people doing it out of blood lust of the kind that supposedly led Daniel Wemp to shoot an arrow into an enemy’s spine (at least according to the fiction set down by Jared Diamond)? Is the subduing of native peoples, even by the predatory capitalist colonizers of the British Empire or their rivals in the New World, a necessary step toward progress?

Over and over I have seen attempts by anthropologists and historians to put the worst possible face on native peoples in what amounts to an attempt to legitimize existing power relationships. In response to the evidence of white hunters wantonly killing bison, some historians feel it their duty to remind us that the Indians drove the same animals over cliffs, killing many more animals than they can possibly eat.

Such questions led to a deeper examination of the nature of progress. Are there lessons to be drawn from the “savages” of the world that will help us resolve the deeper problems humanity faces as “civilization” sweeps the world, threatening to destroy all living things in its pursuit of profits?

When considering these questions, I always find it useful to keep anthropologist Jack Weatherford’s books close at hand since they have a way of reminding us of our debt to those we have vanquished. Read this to appreciate the perspective that is missing entirely in Diamond and Chagnon’s accounts.

May 7, 2009

Jared Diamond, the New Yorker Magazine, and blood feuds in PNG: part 1

Filed under: Academia,anthropology,indigenous,Jared Diamond,racism — louisproyect @ 8:32 pm

Jared Diamond

Background on the New Yorker and Jared Diamond

When news about the New Yorker Magazine being sued by a Papuan New Guinean for $10 million broke on April 22nd, I was ecstatic. A year earlier the magazine had published an article by Jared Diamond about blood feuds in PNG (Papua New Guinea) that had identified Daniel Wemp, his main interviewee and former driver, as a self-confessed rapist and murderer. Wemp was not informed in advance that the magazine would identify him by name. But, more to the point, the crimes he supposedly confessed to in the article never happened.

Rhonda Shearer, the widow of Stephen Jay Gould, was instrumental in setting the wheels in motion that would finally lead to the magazine and Jared Diamond being exposed. As reported in the New Zealand Herald on May 2nd, Shearer became suspicious over the reference to one of Wemp’s victims being restricted to a wheelchair as a result of Wemp’s arrow lodging in his neck:

Her initial response on reading Diamond’s piece was, “how do you keep someone with likely not the best medical care alive as a paraplegic in a wheelchair in that area? We can’t keep Superman [Christopher Reeve] alive in New Jersey with millions of dollars? … It just didn’t make sense.”

After she made an inquiry to the New Yorker about this and other glaring inconsistencies in the article, she was brushed off. After all, they were the New Yorker and she was just an ordinary mortal. Eventually she hired investigators, including a PNG scholar who lived in the area where the blood feud took place, and discovered that Daniel Wemp’s “victim” was getting about on two feet with no problem. The only victims in this case unfortunately were the libeled Daniel Wemp and journalistic standards.

A word or two about the New Yorker’s reputation is in order. Traditionally the magazine has prided itself on fact-checking and paid people in this department a higher salary than their counterparts at other magazines. Supposedly, higher standards for fact-checking would not only make their articles more credible; they would also protect the magazine against law suits. However, there was one occasion when the magazine’s standards were challenged.

In 1991, Janet Malcolm wrote a highly damaging profile of Jeffrey M. Masson, a Bay Area psychoanalyst. He sued The New Yorker and Malcolm for $10 million, the same amount ironically (or perhaps not!) sought by Daniel Wemp. The issues the jury had to decide on in the Masson/Malcolm case included whether or not Masson actually described himself as an “intellectual gigolo” and had slept with more than 1000 women as Malcolm claimed. The jury eventually decided on Malcolm’s behalf even though her reputation suffered to some degree because of some sloppiness not caught by the fact-checkers. In light of Wemp’s paraplegic victim being as sure-footed as Mr. Diamond himself, one can only assume that the magazine will be in need of the best attorneys money can buy.

It also must be recognized that the magazine has deteriorated politically as well. Once a bastion of principled liberalism (it published Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in the 1950s), the magazine became more centrist and superficial starting with Tina Brown’s tenure as editor from 1992 to 1998. Brown came to the New Yorker from Vanity Fair and sought to inject the magazine with the kind of celebrity-worshipping panache and glibness of her previous stint.

Brown was succeeded by David Remnick, the author of “Lenin’s Tomb”, a book with no connection to our friend and comrade Richard Seymour, to be sure. Remnick is a frequent guest on shows like Charlie Rose’s and can best be described as a purveyor of inside-the-beltway banalities. One of his most noteworthy hires was Jeffrey Goldberg, the Likud supporter who wrote a nearly 18,000 word article on Iraq in 2002 that was very close in spirit to what Judith Miller was cooking up at the N.Y. Times. Goldberg’s last paragraph read:

There is little doubt what Saddam might do with an atomic bomb or with his stocks of biological and chemical weapons. When I talked about Saddam’s past with the medical geneticist Christine Gosden, she said, “Please understand, the Kurds were for practice.”

Nowadays Goldberg writes his war propaganda at Atlantic Monthly, except it is directed at Iran.

For a truly penetrating analysis of how the magazine ended up embedded in George W. Bush’s crusade, read Daniel Lazare’s “The New Yorker’ Goes to War: How a Nice Magazine Talked Itself Into Backing Bush’s Jihad” in the May 15, 2003 Nation Magazine. Lazare observes:

How does a magazine bring itself to such a pass? The process probably began when Tina Brown took over in 1992. Politically, Brown wasn’t left wing or right wing so much as no wing. She fawned over Ronald and Nancy Reagan in Vanity Fair and then, a dozen years later, fawned over Bill Clinton in The New Yorker (“his height, his sleekness, his newly cropped, iron-filing hair, and the intensity of his blue eyes…”). While publishing the occasional exposé, such as Mark Danner’s memorable “Massacre at El Mozote,” she was more concerned with putting the magazine in the swim. David Remnick, who succeeded her in 1998, is a different case. Where Brown is catty and mischievous, his style is earnest and respectable. Although a talented reporter and a graceful writer, he lacks Brown’s irreverent streak. (One can hardly imagine him writing a first-person account of dancing topless in New Jersey, or whatever the male equivalent might be, as Brown famously did at the beginning of her career.) Remnick’s 1993 book, Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, dutifully followed the Washington line in reducing a complex historical event to a simple-minded melodrama about noble dissidents versus evil Communist apparatchiki. Under his leadership, The New Yorker has never seemed more like a tame, middle-of-the-road news magazine with cartoons, which may explain why its political writers, people like Nicholas Lemann, Jeffrey Goldberg and Remnick himself, have never enjoyed more airtime on shows like Charlie Rose. In traveling from irreverence to reverence, it helps to have someone in charge with a heat-seeking missile’s ability to home in on the proper establishment position at any given moment. But it also helps to have someone who knows when to ask the tough questions and when to turn them off.

In a way, Jared Diamond is the perfect contributor to the New Yorker since he too is a frequent guest on Charlie Rose’s PBS talk show and has hosted a PBS series based on his best-selling “Guns, Germs, and Steel”. For middle-class households, a sustainer to PBS and a subscription to the New Yorker are signs that you are “enlightened”. And Jared Diamond is the perfect figure to help an anxious middle class deal with a resentful world. Unlike the late 1890s, when Anglo-American imperialism’s right to rule the world was explained in terms of racial superiority, Diamond is far more “multicultural”. He says that it is an accident of history that Wall Street ruins Latin America, for example. If the Incas had cattle and the English had llamas, then Lima might be ruling the world today. It is all a question of being “geographically blessed”, as the PBS documentary put it:

Diamond has already shown that crops and animals could spread easily east and west across Eurasia. Because places the same latitude automatically share the same day length and a similar climate and vegetation. But the American continents were the opposite of Eurasia. A journey from one end of the Americas to the other is a journey from north to south, a journey through different day lengths, different climate zones, and dramatically different vegetation. These basic differences hindered the spread of crops and animals as well as people, ideas and technologies. The people of the Andes were chronically isolated, without access to writing or almost any other innovation from elsewhere in the Americas. By contrast, Pizarro and his men were geographically blessed. As Spaniards, they enjoyed the benefit of technologies and ideas that had spread easily across Eurasia.

Some on the left have regarded Diamond as “one of us” because he takes exception to the old style colonialist ideology which saw European domination as a sign of innate superiority. For a point-by-point refutation of Diamond’s geographical/environmental determinism, Jim Blaut’s essay “Environmentalism and Eurocentrism: a Review Essay” is indispensable.  He concludes by noting:

Guns, Germs, and Steel is influential in part because its Eurocentric arguments seem, to the general reader, to be so compellingly “scientific.” Diamond is a natural scientist (a bio-ecologist), and essentially all of the reasons he gives for the historical supremacy of Eurasia and, within Eurasia, of Europe, are taken from natural science. I suppose environmental determinism has always had this scientistic cachet. I dispute Diamond’s argument not because he tries to use scientific data and scientific reasoning to solve the problems of human history. That is laudable. But he claims to produce reliable, scientific answers to these problems when in fact he does not have such answers, and he resolutely ignores the findings of social science while advancing old and discredited theories of environmental determinism. That is bad science.

May 6, 2009

Red Diaper Baby

Filed under: Gay,socialism — louisproyect @ 6:14 pm

Allen Young
(photo by Robert Giard, copyright 1992)

Not long after I posted the Robert Duncan essay on “Homosexuality and Society” on my blog, Allen Young showed up to post a comment:

Dear Louis, One of my gay email friends brought this to my attention. Recent comment on your blog is by Giles Kotcher, a friend of mine from the NY Gay Liberation Front (early 1970s). When I tell friends about my childhood, I sometimes remark about your father’s store and especially the pickles. I think the last time we were in touch was around the time of the “Weatherman” film. Naomi Jaffe, whom you mentioned at that time because she is in the film, has recently joined a rather extreme pro-Palestinian group of Jews who reject the right of Israel to exist. My views are different from hers on this topic, and others. So life goes on. Stay in touch.

I imagine that Allen does not hold my own extreme pro-Palestinian views against me since we have had amiable email exchanges since he got in touch. Both Allen and his cousin Naomi Jaffe figure in the comic book about my life that will be published within the year unless Random House goes out of business.

As will be clear from the mini-memoir by Allen that appears below, he (and Naomi as well) was a red diaper baby in the tiny village next to mine and three years ahead of me in school. Both became leading SDS’ers in the 1960s. Naomi joined the Weatherman and Allen went on to become a theoretician and activist in the gay liberation movement.

In chapter one of the comic book about the unrepentant Marxist, you will find all sorts of interesting anecdotes about the Communist subculture in the Borscht Belt. In addition to the Young and Jaffe family, there was my piano teacher Henrietta Neukreug who like Allen’s parents kept copies of Soviet magazines on her living room coffee table. Sid Caesar, who got started in show business in a nearby hotel, was performing Odets plays there in the 1940s. And so on.

I have a feeling that Allen’s article is a bit tougher on extremists like me than the original talk he gave at a conference on the 1960s at Eastern Connecticut University in 1994 that I attended. Whatever problems I have with his current-day political views, I have nothing but admiration for Allen’s life-long dedication to the cause, his elegant writing style, and his piquant sense of humor (his anecdote about discussing the Butcher Franco in high school lasted with me since I heard it in 1994.)

Red Diaper Baby
By Allen Young

©1994 by Allen Young

My parents were members of the Communist Party (CP), so that makes me a ‘red diaper baby.’ If I had to sum up my political evolution, I could summarize it this way: I started out in the Old Left, became involved with unbridled enthusiasm in the New Left, and now just feel pretty much left out.

Actually, I don’t feel so much ‘left out’ as unwilling and unable to find a label that works for me. There are political ‘causes’ that I care about and I am an avid believer in the concept of democracy, but I am by no means a ‘political junkie’ and I am turned off by zealotry. I still have some radical ideas but I don’t want to be as marginalized as I was earlier in my life. I am a registered Democrat though sometimes disappointed by Democratic office-holders, write letters to my elected officials, and I still vote without fail in every election.

Growing up in a Communist Party household when McCarthyism reigned in America was a challenge. I was, like most children, strongly influenced by my parents’ way of looking at the world. It’s important to note that they did not identify openly as Communists. This was due to a mixture of fear, discretion and party policy. During this historical period of crude repression, ‘rank and file’ members were encouraged to keep their membership secret while CP officers were open. My parents and their friends described themselves most often as ‘progressive’ and on occasion as ‘socialist,’ but I sensed in my childhood that they were pro-Communist, and eventually learned from them that they were actual members. The media used to refer to ‘card-carrying Communists,’ but I neglected to ask them if they ever carried a membership card.

It took some time for me to diverge from my parents’ political views and develop my own. This first occurred in the early 1960s when I left home to go away to college. Only then did I become aware of other left-wing groups and especially a development called the New Left. One of the New Left’s leading thinkers, an iconoclastic Texas-born sociologist and prolific writer named C. Wright Mills, was one of my teachers at Columbia. My political development continued in the late sixties when the New Left took on a more activist form and I dived in with fervor and apparently limitless conviction.

How did ‘nice people’ like my parents, Rae and Louis Young, become Communists, affiliated with a group of people which society hated and scorned during my formative years? Living in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s, my parents completed high school, but due to family finances, they had to get jobs and were unable to attend college. Predictably, both became involved in the burgeoning and highly successful labor movement. My father worked as a printer, my mother in the retail clothing trade. Many in the labor movement joined the Communist Party because of its strong commitment, both ideologically and in practical terms, to workers’ rights. Furthermore, the CP took a strong stand against anti-Semitism and against the racist Jim Crow laws in the U.S. south. The party advocated socialized medicine while some of its proposals, most notably social security system, were adopted by the New Deal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The CP grew to tens of thousands of members in the 1930s, but by the 1950s the numbers had dwindled. My parents were among those few thousand nationwide who remained steadfast.

One reason for the decline of the CP was the lack of internal democracy in the party. Indeed, my father complained occasionally about the egotistical and autocratic party leaders. Another reason for the party’s decline was its insistence on the Soviet Union under Stalin as a role model. The CP faithful refusd to take seriously reports in the press about Stalin’s crimes; this was seen as ‘the bourgeois press’ trying to undermine the much-admired ‘first socialist nation.’ Soviet foreign policy was especially troublesome, and many left the party after Stalin signed a pact with Hitler. More left after World War II when Communist governments consolidated power, with the help of the Red Army, throughout Eastern Europe. The ranks were thinned further when Khrushchev gave significant revelations of Stalin’s crimes, of the murders of millions. And they left when Hungary was invaded by Red Army troops in 1956. My parents did not leave, however, continuing their membership well into the late 1950s. Although I think they were seriously disillusioned, they did not leave voluntarily but were expelled as the result of bogus charges of racism. Expulsion of people from the CP on various charges was not unusual; as the party weakened, a sort of cannibalization occurred.

While Communism was so vilified by society in the 1950s, what I saw of Communists, as a child, was quite benign. My father was an active member of a farmers cooperative and both of my parents were active in the American Labor Party, considered a front group for the Communist Party (though the term “front group” was essentially a hostile epithet that was rejected by my parents). My mother’s most memorable and admirable activity was a successful campaign to improve the living conditions of migrant African-American laundry workers who cleaned the sheets and towels for the famous resorts of the Catskill Mountains. I grew up with a great sense of pride in the political struggle waged by my parents and their friends. I did not identify their politics as ‘Communist’ but it was all thinly veiled. CP publications were always in our house. There were many meetings and film-showings at party meetings in our home. I quietly perched at the top of the stairs and tried to hear everything. At one meeting, my parents called to me and asked me to look in our (hopelessly outdated) encyclopedia to find out about the height of wheat grown in the United States. Someone was asserting that wheat in the Soviet Union grew taller.

My parents called themselves and their friends “progressives,” a kind of closet terminology that I find irksome, causing me to dislike the use of the term today despite its return to popularity. My pride in my parents was based on their defense of working people, their opposition to racism and fascism, their reverence for peace. Part of the pride resulted from the sense of being different, being special. Some red diaper babies have written about how this “difference” was an unpleasant, sometimes horrible and alienating experience, but for me, it was more thrilling and self-satisfying than scary. There were a few instances where I was hassled; someone once asked me Stalin’s wife’s first name, which of course I did not know. In that incident, what frightened me was the towering older boy was who was questioning me.

Being raised in a Communist Party household had advantages and disadvantages for a curious young man. It was not as ‘cool’ as some people think, for after all my parents were not bohemians or anarchists; in fact, despite all the Marxist-Leninist tracts and dedication to socialism, their values and especially their ambitions for me were quite middle class (or ‘bourgeois,’ as the jargon goes).

I was essentially indoctrinated into left-wing dogma. I was not encouraged to think for myself, and I was not particularly well educated in the more controversial and complex aspects of left-wing politics. I knew ‘Trotskyite’ was an epithet, but I had no idea until I was a college student who Leon Trotsky was or what his followers stood for. In some areas, what I learned was useful at times though harmful in its absolute tone — for example, I was taught to mistrust the U.S. press and government authority. Communists gave a great deal of importance to Negro History Month, and I learned about Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass (not part of any public school curriculum in those days) — but I didn’t learn that Richard Wright, the great Negro novelist, had bitterly broken with the Communist Party. It wasn’t until several years later that I read the accounts by Wright and others in the aptly titled book The God That Failed. I learned a lot of labor history and knew about Joe Hill and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, but it took me years to accept the idea that labor unions might be corrupt or labor leaders self-serving. In social studies class, I was a tiger when it came to defending the faith, though now some of this seems foolish. When my teacher used the term “satellite” to describe Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria, I protested vociferously. I remember once referring in class to the leader of Spain as “Butcher Franco,” thinking that “Butcher” was his first name, when in fact it was an epithet I had read in an American Labor Party leaflet.

While I was committed to my parents’ political views and did not squelch my own radicalism, it is also true that McCarthyism and the Cold War ‘Red Scare’ were threatening to me and to my parents. My mother was foreign born and had to get a lawyer to help her obtain documentation requested by the government, so that she could avoid deportation. My parents burned many of the pamphlets they owned, much of it CP literature praising the Soviet Union. I remember being frightened and upset at this book-burning. They were horrified and saddened by the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and they raised money to free Morton Sobell, who was sentenced to 30 years in a Federal prison for a related conspiracy charge. I became friends with Michael Meeropol, the son of the Rosenbergs, in 1958 when I was a freshman at Columbia and, by coincidence, his adoptive parents living in Manhattan were neighbors of family friends. This was only five years after his parents’ execution.

The friendship of other red diaper babies was important during my youth. We were a special community, and we banded together against a hostile outside world. We rarely, if ever, expressed doubts about our parents’ political views. We were kids, for sure, but we were different from other kids because we knew so much about politics and what we knew was in such stark contradiction to the majority viewpoint. I remember once, at age 10 or 11, hiding behind a hedge along Riverside Drive in New York City with my friend Michael Lessac. We were usually good boys, but this time, to entertain ourselves, we had water pistols and were squirting people who walked by. But when a black woman walked by, neither of us squirted. Later, we had a discussion about which was the right thing to do: show our belief in equality by squirting the black woman the same way we squirted white people, or refrain from squirting because we knew she was a victim of racism. You could say our decision to not squirt was an early version of affirmative action.

When I left home and arrived at Columbia University in the fall of 1958, my political outlook began to shift but one would be hard put to say I was in rebellion against my parents’ views. The process of change was more subtle than that. The New Left began in the late 1950s with British pacifists who objected to Soviet nuclear program as much as to the Western nuclear program. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, there were various new publications expressing the ideas of the New Left, magazines like Studies on the Left (Madison, Wisc.), New University Thought in Chicago and Root and Branch in Berkeley, all of which I read. The policies of the Soviet Union were beginning to be questioned, especially the militarism and the lack of democracy, also the specific brutality and the anti-Semitism of the Stalinist regime. Stalin had been a heroic figure for my parents in the 1940s and even up to his death in 1953, but now things were starting to change. Away from home, I met other kinds of socialists, those who supported Norman Thomas (the so-called right wing socialists or social democrats), the Trotskyists, and others. I went to meetings and heard speeches by a variety of people: Norman Thomas, Bayard Rustin, Mike Harrington, Eleanor Roosevelt, Benjamin Davis (a leader of the CP). None of the other groups in the Old Left appealed to me, however, even though they were actively recruiting (unlike the CP, which was laying low). The anti-communism of these groups bothered me, and some of the people seemed a little nutty. I’m convinced that people who are very needy psychologically, some even mentally disturbed, gravitate toward certain political and religious groups. In this regard, leftist sects are not unlike religious cults.

In 1959, Fidel Castro and the guerrillas he led came to power in Cuba, and this was a watershed event for me. Here was a real independent revolutionary, someone challenging capitalism and the United States but not subservient to the Soviet Union and clearly not dogmatic. The Cuban revolution also had an element of irreverence and fun to it. My professor, C. Wright Mills, visited Cuba and returned to write a strongly pro-Castro book, Listen Yankee. Mills, through his lectures and his other major books, White Collar, Power Elite, The Causes of World War III, had a profound influence on me. Like Fidel sporting a beard, Mills rode a motorcycle and refused to wear a jacket and tie, the only professor I knew who rebelled in this way. I met some dynamic individuals on the Columbia campus who became outspoken defenders of the Cuban Revolution, among them the economist James O’Connor (then an instructor at Barnard, where he had a reputation for dating college girls) and Electa Rodriguez, a Mexican-born Spanish teacher who was smart and beautiful. The CP was lukewarm at best toward Castro, who was supported by the Cuban Partido Socialista Popular (as the Cuban Communists were called) only when his insurrection was about to succeed.

There was no magic moment that turned me into a New Leftist; it was a gradual process that led me to change my views. I like to say that I began to think for myself. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that I began to listen to ideas other than the ones presented by my parents and their friends and the left-wing periodicals that came into my childhood home.

I developed decidedly critical ideas about the Soviet Union, realizing that it was not democratic, also seeing its leaders as stodgy and boring, and also concerned about the Soviets’ lack of support for Cuba and for armed revolution elsewhere in Latin America. The Old Left was quick to label the New Left as infantile leftist or adventurist or to dismiss it as ideologically weak, while I and my new friends considered the Old Left to be, well, old and tired and boring and increasingly irrelevant and dishonest. My political activities in the period from 1958-64, when I was in college and graduate school, ranged from the Youth March for Integrated Schools (1958), picketing Woolworth store at 110th Street and Broadway because Woolworth lunch counters in the south refused to integrate, writing and passing out leaflets for the Student Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (to warn of the danger of strontium 90, the result of fallout from above-ground tests). I canceled my subscription to the National Guardian when the newspaper made excuses for the Soviet testing, but I quietly returned to the paper because I was so used to it and did not have a good alternative. I was decidedly not attracted to ordinary liberal politics because it was too sedate and not committed to radical change. I was ready for the New Left, but it really wasn’t quite off the ground at this point. I was part of a group called ACTION at Columbia, comparable to other campus activist groups in the early 1960s — many of us were red diaper babies, but our focus was the campus. I was the editor of the Columbia Daily Spectator and used that position to promote some radical ideas. Spectator ran my editorial on the Sobell case, which was attacked by Prof. Daniel Bell, a liberal sociologist who not coincidentally hated C. Wright Mills.

My career development at this point was greatly influenced by the turn of events in Cuba. I took my existing interest in journalism a step further and decided I wanted to become a foreign correspondent specializing in Latin America. I had already fulfilled my college’s foreign language requirement, but decided to study a new language: Spanish. I also decided to obtain a master’s degree in Latin American Studies, choosing an institute at Stanford University in California which had obtained a lot of publicity for exposing secret CIA training camps for Cuban exiles in Guatemala. At Stanford, I studied yet another foreign language, Portuguese, the language of Brazil.

I was in California at Stanford in October 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis and I was one of three speakers (along with Peter Eisenberg and Saul Landau) at a public forum to criticize President Kennedy because I felt Castro was justified in doing what he needed to do to stop a U.S. invasion. That was a scary moment — the three of us were all Jewish and we had to endure anti-Semitic taunts. While at Stanford, I studied Marxist economics with Paul Baran, and made friends with other leftists including Marvin and Barbara Garson and Landau. I also began to get in touch with the cultural changes that were taking place, and among the people I met was Ronnie Davis, leader of the San Francisco Mime Troupe (founded in 1959).

My first public action on Vietnam came early in the war — on May 2, 1964, when I attended a demonstration against U.S. intervention in Vietnam. I surely would not have known about this small demonstration if I were not in touch with the left in New York. I was at this time a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, working on my second masters degree. This May 2 action took at the intersection of 110th Street and Central Park West and was sponsored by an obscure Maoist group, soon to be called the May 2 movement in honor of this event. My gut reaction against the war was a reflection of my Old Left allegiances, but my understanding of the war deepened when I read a 1964 pamphlet by the New Left journalist Robert Scheer, entitled ‘How the U.S. Got Involved in Vietnam’ and published by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.

I spent three years in Latin America, 1964 to 1967, the first year as a Fulbright scholar to Brazil. A crucial point in my personal life was the curious dichotomy between my radical ideas and my mainstream ambitions for my personal life. At the point of my departure from the U.S. for Rio de Janeiro, I vaguely assumed I would get married and have children, even though I knew my inclinations and most of my experiences were homosexual. Similarly, though my inclinations were toward socialist revolution, I assumed I deserved a Fulbright scholarship (administered, after all, by the U.S. Department of State), and I also assumed I would have a career as a foreign correspondent, preferably for The New York Times. Looking back on this phase of my life, I see a basic contradiction in the message I got from my parents: on the one hand, I was supposed to admire socialist heroes and values; on the other hand, seek a successful middle class professional life. My parents wanted me to be a doctor, precisely because they felt a doctor could be a radical while a journalist would be deprived of freedom of expression.

In Brazil, I benefited from friendships I had made with some Brazilian student radicals who trusted me because they knew I was a student of Marxist economist Paul Baran. Professor Baran was widely known and respected in Latin America, though he was vilified by Stanford alumni and virtually ignored by the U.S. economic profession. In Brazil, Chile, Peru, Uruguay and Argentina, I traveled widely and met people of many political stripes, but I was closest to independent leftists. I identified as a New Leftist and as a supporter of the Cuban Revolution, and that enabled me to overcome the widespread anti-American prejudice I found throughout the region. Of course, there were exceptions, people who couldn’t tolerate any norteamericano, people who may even have thought I was an agent for the Central Intelligence Agency.

At one point, I got myself into trouble when I spoke against the Vietnam War at a rally sponsored by a Communist youth group at the University of Chile. Ralph Dungan, U.S. ambassador to Chile (Kennedy appointee), called me and another American, Peter Roman, into his office to express his outrage at us for speaking out against U.S. policy at a rally sponsored by Communist students. He said we should go home and run for Congress rather than criticize our own country. He threatened us with deportation and frankly he scared both of us, not into silence exactly, but he scared us for sure. I was on a scholarship and effectively dodging the draft, and I was afraid I would be drafted if my scholarship were canceled! In 1965, while in Chile, I also launched the international “Committee of Americans Abroad For An Honorable Foreign Policy.’  I had hoped to obtain enough signatures and money to buy an ad in the New York Times to express the point of view that U.S. military action in Vietnam was making people around the world hate the United States, but unfortunately my effort was not successful. I later obtained my file from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, wherein an informant described this effort as ‘recognizable Communist propaganda.’

I kept in touch with events in the U.S. by subscribing to the National Guardian and to New Left Notes, the newsletter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In Brazil, my sexual expression as a gay man became a big part of my life (I was in the stage of self-acceptance for the first time), and I also danced a lot, smoked a lot of pot, sun-bathed on the beach, and traveled widely, taking in everything I could, expanding my horizons. During this time, I had many articles published in the New York TImes and the Christian Science Monitor, and a few in European left-wing magazines such as the International Socialist Journal and New Left Review.

When I returned to the U.S. in the summer of 1967, I hunted for a job on both the East and West Coasts. I was in San Francisco for the famous Summer of Love, and I remember feeling rather confused. I smoked pot, but I wasn’t a hippie. I visited the Haight-Ashbury with a curious look in my eye, but I wasn’t a tourist with a camera. I saw hippies asking for money from mid-Westerners with cameras, much as I had seen Indians in Guatemala ask me for money to take their picture.  You know that line from the Bob Dylan song, “Something’s happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” Well, the truth is, I was no Mr. Jones. I had a pretty good idea that the hippies were rebelling against the status quo, and like me, they were for peace and they smoked pot. However, I also was in California to interview for a job at the Los Angeles Times, and my career ambitions and mentality made me pretty straight compared to the spaced out freaks on the streets of the Haight-Ashbury.

After landing a job as a reporter for the Washington Post, I was back on a fast track in my career. But the year was 1967. It was the year of “Battle of Algiers,” a movie about the commitment of radical, armed revolutionaries, also the year that Che Guevara died fighting in the jungles of Bolivia, the year the movement against the war in Vietnam achieved major advances especially the march on the Pentagon in October, and the year that the underground press spawned its own Liberation News Service. Uncomfortable in my role as a reporter for the establishment media, and increasingly aware of the limitations placed on me because I was gay (still secretly, at this time), I quit the Washington Post and began to work full-time in the underground press. I also became active as a member of Students for a Democratic Society and encouraged my friends to become involved in SDS, which I saw as leading the movement through its unfocused mixture of activism and vague leftist ideology.

My Old Left background motivated me in a couple of crucial areas. First, I did not feel comfortable with the pacifists who had an ideological bent against armed struggle and therefore did not entirely approve of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam. I followed Lenin’s maxim that the ruling class would not give up power without a fight, though I was never quite sure how I could be a warrior in such a fight because many of my instincts were indeed pacifistic — that is, I hated violence and was somewhat cowardly. Second, I wanted to influence others toward a “complete” ideological program that involved socialist values, anti-racist principles, in other words, an all-purpose movement toward radical change and social justice.

I immersed myself full-time in SDS and LNS, living at first off money I had saved from scholarship and freelance journalism while in Latin America; later helping to developing a system of subsistence salaries for LNS staff ($35 a week salary plus meals bought with LNS money). LNS, by the way, raised a significant amount of money from left-wing sectors of Protestant churches. In retrospect, I think these Christians saw us as good-hearted young idealists working against war, while I think we saw them as an easy mark for money. We were lucky to get their money, and, as I think about it now, I regret that I didn’t interact more honestly with these good church people. I wonder why they were so generous to us; they must have read the LNS packets with occasionally crude rhetoric (calling cops “pigs” and glorifying violence in the Third World). I also regret not interacting more honestly with the Black Panthers, who hung around LNS from time to time because we had printing presses and did work for them at virtually no cost. We at LNS were proud to have the Panthers on our premises because they validated our politics; in fact, we knew little of them except as cardboard political figures, and I had liberal friends who had much deeper relationships with black people.

I saw myself as propaganda specialist for the New Left, even arguing that “propaganda” should be seen as something good, that is, propagating ideas and information that were being hidden by the establishment media, and encouraging people to demonstrate and take action — like the term ‘agitprop’ used in the Old Left. I served as a kind of press attaché at some national SDS meetings. There was a ‘giddy joy’ (a term used by my LNS colleague Nina Sabaroff) to a lot of what we did, but much of it was deadly serious. I don’t think I had a reputation for having a great sense of humor, but I do remember, somehow, a lot of laughs and fun and silliness. Communal living, travel and street actions helped to create a big part of this camaraderie.

An aside: four years of college, two years of graduate school, three years in Latin America, and three years of intensive involvement in the New Left — this adds up to 12 years of practically no television viewing. I don’t do well when people comment about “Gilligan’s Island” or “Leave it to Beaver.”

I went to many SDS meetings in New York and all over the United States — plus dozens of demonstrations. On two occasions in the late 1960s, I was arrested, once at Columbia University with 800 others during the April 1968 occupation, once on a New York City subway station platform when I intervened, with a friend, on behalf of a black man who was being unjustly arrested by a white police officer. I had many other opportunities to be arrested, at demonstrations where some people engaged in civil disobedience, but I declined to go through that again, doubting its value. I wasn’t particular sympathetic to the Catholic leftists who were constantly engaging in civil disobedience and getting themselves jailed. Later, in the 1970s, I was prepared to be arrested during a demonstration at the Seabrook, N.H., Nuclear Power Plant, but a deal was struck with the authorities and there were no arrests. In1980, I was arrested one more time — the charge was growing marijuana.

I once heard someone say, perhaps in the early 1970s, that the New Left was pretty much the same thing as the Old Left. We may have smoked pot and absorbed new issues, such as feminism and even gay liberation, but the dogmatism and the rigidity was reminiscent of Stalinism. I also heard people say, often, that my Marxism was “just like religion,” a charge that I absolutely hated, since I was so resolute in my atheism. But today I believe that leftists like myself were indeed a lot like religious zealots, with our union songs akin to hymns, our political chants reminiscent of prayers and our leftwing tracts not unlike the Bible.

Today, I no longer consider myself a Marxist or even a leftist. In 1969, I loved calling myself a “revolutionary communist,” but I don’t believe in either revolution or communism and I can’t think of any label I’m entirely comfortable with. Libertarians tend to be overly ideological in their views and liberals tend to be too predictable, while conservatives tend to be mean-spirited.  So I muddle through and try to be a good person, while avoiding the notion, once so dear to me, that life should be organized around a movement to change the world. I still believe in the need for change, but I don’t make it my mission in life. I have a house and garden and a circle of friends. I am enrolled in the Democratic Party,  and I belong to the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Massachusetts Audubon Society. I do not regret the collapse of the Soviet Union, even though it has been a difficult adjustment for the people of Eastern Europe. I do not trust the people who still admire Fidel Castro or the Cuban Revolution, simply because I think there is no basis in fact for this admiration. While I am uncomfortable when people say that the U.S. “is the greatest country in the world,” I do admire a lot about this country, especially our Constitution. While I flirted with the idea of armed struggle and violent revolution for a while, I am glad my better instincts kept me out of the Weatherman faction of SDS (where many of my friends ended up). Confession time: I threw mud at mounted police during Nixon’s Counter-inaugural. That same night, outside the ball where Spiro Agnew was being feted, I ran toward a cop who had just arrested one of my co-demonstrators — I pulled with all my might to successfully free the demonstrator and I kicked the cop. Instead of armed struggle, I call it ‘legged struggle.’ I also practiced target shooting with a .22 for a while. That was the extent of my involvement with violence.

The crucial years in my political evolution away from leftwing hardliner were 1969-71, including the birth of the gay liberation movement and two trips I took to Cuba. In Cuba, I discovered (not in a well-lit moment, but gradually, with thought) that the revolution I loved so dearly was built on lies, repression and tyranny. The focal point for me was the persecution of gay men and lesbians in the Castro regime, but there was much more than that. The highly touted literacy campaign was a joke considering the powerful propaganda machine maintained by the government, featuring a lack of freedom of the press and the rote educational system where few questions could be asked, no doubts expressed.

In 1969 and 1970, I was part of a committee that formed the original SDS brigade, had my picture taken in the cane fields which appeared on a poster advertising the Venceremos Brigade, a group of Americans who went to Cuba to cut sugar cane in solidarity with Cuban workers, and I signed checks as the treasurer of the Venceremos Brigade organization.

All that changed quickly and I began to write and speak about the persecution of gay people in Cuba, which had adopted a Stalinist line and was engaged in serious repression of not only homosexuals, but also the Cuban variation of hippies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, black nationalists, Trostkyists and dissidents of all stripes.

My experience with gay liberation was exhilarating. I began to live with other gay men, and I made many gay friends, male and female, around the country. I was struck at the variety of people I met in the gay movement, especially the diversity in regard to race and class — more diversity than in the New Left, which was essentially a white middle-class intellectual or student phenomenon. As a gay activist, I participated in and helped organize many marches and demonstrations, and initially these were more frightening, psychologically at least, than anything I had done as an Old Leftist or a New Leftist. As an author and editor, I helped spread the word about gay oppression and liberation. Partly under the influence of psychedelic drugs that helped me get in touch with my love of nature, and partly in response to dogmatic tendencies emerging in the gay and lesbian movement, I left New York City and relocated in rural Massachusetts. There, I continue to spend some of my time in an activist frame of mind, but I have had a more ordinary life as a reporter and assistant editor of the Athol Daily News (circulation around 5,500) and later, the director of community relations for the 30-bed Athol Memorial Hospital.

From my upbringing in the Old Left, to my experience and adventures in the New Left and gay liberation, and finally to a more sedate life in a rural community — I look back and see more continuity than contradiction. I retain an ethical system of caring for and sharing with my fellow human beings that is at the core of socialism.

However, I realize stifling dogmatism or political correctness in today’s society, even within so-called progressive circles, reflect Old Left values, and these are inimical to me. Communist Party theoreticians had answers for everything, but now I am on the side of those who admit there may not be answers. I remember clearly that these same CP dogmatists spread the line that homosexuality was related to bourgeois decadence and could not be tolerated in a revolutionary society. These commissars analyzed each and every play, movie and painting to decide whether or not it served the interest of the proletariat or the bourgeoisie. Time and again, they were so sure of themselves. They intellectualized every move and every moment. Today, I don’t have to immerse myself in dogma. I’m more concerned about living in harmony with nature and being kind to friends, neighbors and family, than I am with feeling part of a self-congratulatory political movement.

The above essay is based on:

“Red Diaper Baby: From a Jewish Chicken Farm in the Catskillls, to the Cane Fields of Cuba, to the First Gay Protests in New York City”

Paper presented at the conference on the Sixties sponsored by Vietnam Generation, Inc. Eastern Connecticut State University, Danbury CT, Nov. 5, 1994.

(Allen Young, Liberation News Service, 1967-70; Gay Liberation Front, 1970-71.)

Copyright © 1994 by Allen Young

May 4, 2009

Tarkan: the world’s greatest pop musician

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 8:09 pm

Bright Leaves

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:31 pm

While not exactly a household name, Ross McElwee has a tremendous reputation in critical circles as a groundbreaking film documentarian specializing in autobiographical material about love and loss focused geographically in North Carolina, where he grew up.

My first exposure to McElwee was his 1986 “Sherman’s March” that I described thusly:

Ross McElwee’s 1986 “Sherman’s March” is now available in DVD. The alternative but unwieldy title is “A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation” conveys the film-maker’s deeper motivation in making this quirky but brilliant documentary. Starting out as a project on General William Tecumseh Sherman’s bloody march through his native South, the film rapidly turns into a meditation on the difficulty of finding love under the shadow of the bomb.

The film is structured around a series of encounters between the diffident, tall, bearded and bespectacled film-maker and Southern belles who friends and family hook him up with on blind dates. He also looks up old flames. This becomes his own march through the South with a lot less bloodshed but a lot more angst.

Although I never reviewed his 1994 “Time Indefinite”, I can only agree what the always perceptive Stephen Holden wrote in the N.Y. Times:

When Mr. McElwee reaches the nadir of metaphysical angst, he interviews himself and offers reflections that sound like the musings of a WASP Woody Allen, minus the ego and epigrammatic wit of an Allen character.

What makes “Time Indefinite” a rich and compelling cinematic experience isn’t the story, which is really everyone’s story at a certain time of life, nor is it Mr. McElwee’s drily witty commentary. It is the movie’s visual appetite for life. “Time Indefinite” conveys a sensuous appreciation of the physical world that is so acute that the environment is almost as important as the people. The season, the weather, the time of day and the light and spatial dimensions of a room are so palpable that the movie often gives the feeling of being there. Again and again, the film pauses to study the faces of people who, for all their problems, radiate a deep, poignant enjoyment of life.

Made in 2003, “Bright Leaves” is now available in home video and is a worthy addition to the McElwee oeuvre, as they put it. McElwee got the inspiration for this movie after visiting a cousin in North Carolina who kept a basement full of film memorabilia, including a poster for “Bright Leaf”, the 1950 movie starring Gary Cooper as tobacco grower Brant Royle. As it turns out, the director was Michael Curtiz, who was also responsible for the Stalin-worshiping “Mission to Moscow“.

The film was based on a 1949 novel of the same name by Foster Fitzsimmons that, according to McElwee’s cousin, fictionalized the struggle between Ross’s grandfather George McElwee and James Duke, the founder of the American Tobacco Company.

They ran rival tobacco companies in Charlotte, North Carolina until James Duke stole George McElwee’s formula for Bull Durham tobacco and destroyed his business. That, at least, was McElwee family lore and supported by the 1950 movie, at least in the opinion of Ross’s cousin.

This leads Ross to conduct an Inspector Clouseau type investigation into the case, which involved an interview with the 90 year old widow of the author of “Bright Leaf” the novel and an equally elderly Patricia Neal who had a starring role in the 1950 movie. Both women are extremely witty and knowledgeable even in their advanced years. Fitzsimmons’s widow adds that the story was totally made up and had nothing to do with the McElwee family history.

If “Sherman’s March” provided an entry point for the examination of nuclear war, so does “Bright Leaves” reflect on another social ill, namely the social costs of smoking. Ross’s physician father treated lung cancer cases all his life, including people who worked the tobacco fields or in the Duke factories. If he resents the Dukes for ruining his grandfather economically, there is at least the consolation in knowing that the McElwees were not responsible for the deaths of perhaps millions.

The movie includes McElwee’s puts sardonic humor on display as he wanders through the Duke Tobacco museum and various other landmarks in his home town. Unlike any other film documentarian working today, McElwee uses his own narrative voice to deepen the impact of the images. His voice is unmistakable, combining ruefulness with a self-deprecating sense of humor. On McElwee’s website, you can read transcripts of the three films mentioned here, as well as others. As should be obvious from this excerpt from “Bright Leaves”, you will be in touch with an uncommon intelligence when watching these jewels of a film:

My father began his medical practice not long after my grandfather died.

I filmed him at work a few times.

And at play.

Here he is at an earlier family reunion.

I wish I’d made movies of my mother, but she died before I began shooting film.

I say I wish I had movies of my mother, but in another way, I wonder what difference it would make…

I mean, even in these images, as time goes by, my father is beginning to seem less and less real to me – almost a fictional character.

I want so much to reverse this shift. the way in which the reality of him is slipping away.

Having this footage doesn’t help very much – or at least not as much as I thought it would.

What does help is the land itself – being back here again. This little valley is about an hour from where I grew up.

North Carolina still seems, in a kind of understated way, like the most beautiful place in the world to me.

And woven right into this landscape that I’m so fond of is tobacco…

So many people I know down here have their own complicated relationship to tobacco, their own tobacco stories, and I set out to visit some of them.

When Skateboards Will be Free

Filed under: anti-Communism,literature — louisproyect @ 1:55 pm

Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s When Skateboards Will Be Free
by Louis Proyect
Book Review

Sayrafiezadeh, Saïd: When Skateboards Will Be Free, Dial Press, March 2009, ISBN 978-0-385-34068-7, 287 pages, $22.

(Swans – May 4, 2009) When Skateboards Will Be Free is a memoir by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh about growing up with parents who were devoted members of the Socialist Workers Party. The mother is Martha Harris, a Jew who finally leaves the party at the end of the book. The father is an Iranian math professor named Mahmoud Sayrafiezadeh, who remained a member and broke with his son over the memoir. Saïd never became a member, a fact that does not stand in the way of him devoting 287 pages to an angry denunciation of the party.

Martha and Mahmoud not only forced their political beliefs on their son but were responsible for him living in poverty. The title of the memoir derives from an incident that took place over the purchase of a skateboard that she deemed too dear at $10.99. She consoled him with the assurance that “Once the revolution comes, everyone will have a skateboard, because all skateboards will be free.” Their poverty was a result of the father abandoning the family when Saïd was 9 months old plus his mother’s refusal to get better jobs, despite her college education.

One can certainly understand why The New York Times and The Washington Post raved about this memoir. For the price, you get two books in one. It is a neo-Dickensian tale of childhood deprivation with the young Saïd begging for a skateboard rather than more gruel. It is also a melodrama inspired by those 1950s Red Scare movies like My Son John but turned upside down. Now it is the son (Saïd) who is the good American and the mom and dad ruthless fanatics.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art15/lproy54.html

May 3, 2009


Filed under: Jewish question — louisproyect @ 7:10 pm

Me and mom from the mid-80s

In early April I received a letter from Victor, my late mom’s 94 year old long-time companion. (They did not live together nor were they intimate, but their bonds were as strong as any couple’s.) He sent me a Yahrtzeit schedule, which indicates when Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, should be said for my mother and explained: “The enclosed [schedule] should be very clear. Your mother would be very happy if she knew you would say Kaddish over her.” The irony, of course, is that I have only decided to step foot in a temple after my mother’s death. In the past 25 years or so, she had pressured me constantly to become observant but in my own stubborn way (inherited from her), I refused.

As it turned out, I had plans to do this without any prompting from Victor, as I stated not long after my mother’s death.  So yesterday my wife and I went down to Temple Shaaray Tefila, a Reform Synagogue on Second Avenue and 79th Street, for 10:15 Minyan services. (A Minyan means ten, a kind of quorum for Jewish services.) I had called the temple on Thursday to check out whether you had to be a member to attend. This synagogue is in the middle of prime NYC real estate and I had a feeling that it might operate as private club. There’s a funny “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode when Larry David tries to get entry to a ritzy Beverly Hills Synagogue for Yom Kippur using a ticket he bought from a scalper. The Shaaray Tefila receptionist said that there was no need to be a member—just show up.

The Minyan service was led by a Cantor and was sort of a side attraction on Saturday, with the main service taking place on the ground floor. He began by singing some prayer as he played the guitar, which is fairly typical for the Reform movement. My wife and I sat patiently while the group of about 20 worshippers said prayer after prayer, mostly in Hebrew, praising god. At one point, a line of a prayer was recited in English row by row. When they got to our row, I signaled to my wife to recite the line. It was probably the first time a Turk of Muslim descent (she is named after one of Mohammad’s wives) had ever participated in a Minyan there.

Toward the end of the 90 minute service, the Cantor asked us to read verses from Leviticus 18, the passage in the Old Testament that has the business about homosexuality being an “abomination” that rightwing Christians harp on. As has been pointed out by the more enlightened students of scripture, there are lots of other abominations, like wearing clothing made from blended textiles (cotton-polyester blends) and cross-breeding livestock. Nobody seems to get upset about those abominations for some reason.

The Cantor had the good sense to gloss over the business about homosexuality, but the verses we read were just as repellent to me since they expressed the view that you should do unto “fellow Israelites” as you would have them do unto you, a kind of tribal understanding of the Golden Rule. As the worshippers discussed the meaning of this, one man expressed some reservations about the idea that mercy and goodness only applied to fellow Jews. I kept my mouth shut because my only purpose in being there was to say Kaddish for my mom.

If in fact I decided to say something the words would come out like molten lava from a volcano. I would have repeated the words of rightwing radio host Rabbi Yaakov Spivak from Thursday night. Late at night, just before going to sleep, I scan through various talk radio stations just to hear what is on peoples’ mind. The politics do not matter to me that much, I just enjoy the rawness and the intensity of ordinary people talking about Obama, the New York Mets, or whatever.

Spivak runs a seminary to train Orthodox rabbis in Monsey, New York, an orthodox enclave, and has politics that can best be described as in the tradition of Meier Kahane. In other words, he is a fascist. On Thursday he expounded on his “two state” theory. He said that Palestinians, including those that live in Israel, should have their own state in Gaza and the Sinai desert and if they don’t agree to move there, trucks should come at night and pick them up. In other words, Spivak was talking up the kinds of proposals that are now being made by Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s new Minister of Foreign Affairs.

I could not shake the image of trucks coming in the middle of the night. Despite whatever Spiked online and the American SWP say, this sounds Nazi-like to me.

I wondered what the guitar-playing Reform Cantor would make of this, but I assumed that if the Labor Party in Israel could operate in a coalition with the ultraright he would be able to justify any new round of ethnic cleansing coming out of Israel.

That remained my big problem with Judaism, leaving aside the deeper problem of the lack of evidence for a Supreme Being. Even when I was 12 years old, I could not understand the basis for a religion treating “fellow Israelites” differently than the “Goyim”, the word for non-Jews. This kind of tribalism struck me as backward and idiotic. That is one of the main reasons I began to stay away from synagogues after being Bar Mitzvahed, not to speak of having Saturday mornings free to read or watch TV—the Homer Simpson approach to religion, so to speak.

My mother was a diehard Zionist and Reform Jew. She hated the orthodox branch of the religion for turning people off (my own synagogue growing up was orthodox) but had little sense of the more universalist leanings of the Reform movement. As she grew older, her advocacy for Israel and her Reform Judaism became more and more cranky. I suppose that my own feelings about Marxism will take on that character as I reach my seventies and later.

Norman Cantor’s “The Sacred Chain: the History of the Jews” is a good overview of Jewish history and even betrays a certain familiarity with the Marxist method, although his reputation is much more that of a mainstream scholar (he died in 2004 at the age of 74). In chapter 9, he deals with “The Response to Modernity and Modernism”, part of which was the emergence of Reform Judaism during the Enlightenment.

In a way, the pioneers of Reform Judaism were motivated by the same instincts that led to my break with “Marxism-Leninism”. They viewed their traditional institutions as narrow and sectarian, as did I. The Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, started in 18th century Germany and sought to integrate Judaism with Kantian philosophy. As opposed to the mysticism and cultishness of the Hasidic movement, Reform stressed rationality, justice and learning.

The German Jewish émigrés to the United States brought their religion with them. For an educated businessman, it was much more appropriate to go to a Reform synagogue where the services were much shorter and less ritualistic. Sermons were much less about how to interpret a biblical text but how to better one morally and spiritually. In a way, the Reform movement was trying to accomplish the same sort of thing as mega-Churches today, which is to become more relevant.

As is always the case with “improving” religion, there is a risk that it will no longer have the same kind of hold on one’s life that a more orthodox sect does, especially when the deity is turned into some kind of Kantian transcendental spirit. In reality, the Reform movement has hastened the assimilation process in the U.S., even if it was intended to stave off the deadening irrelevancy of the Orthodoxy.

As Cantor points out, the Reform Movement was geared to the class/ideological needs of a rising Jewish bourgeoisie:

For emancipated and well-educated Jews, the market economy was among the most readily identifiable and presently shaping structural segments in this God-created, rationally explicable, phenomenal world  they experienced.

The prime theorist of the market economy for the nineteenth century, whose economic theory is still canonical in most economics departments and all business schools, was a Sephardic English banker, David Ricardo, writing in London in the 1820s. There is a direct line from Ricardo to Milton Friedman, the Chicago Jewish market theorist of the 1980s who was the guru of the Reaganites in the United States and the Thatcherites in Britain.

Ricardo lives. He owed much, of course, to the clever Glasgow moral philosopher Adam Smith, writing in the 1770s. But it was Ricardian economic theory that became and remains the theoretical foundation of that market capitalism in which so many nineteenth-and twentieth-century Jews made their fortune and general fame, or at least found the means for a satisfying private family life. Ricardo was the Moses of Jewish capitalism, who brought down the tablets of truth to show to the chosen people and the admiring Gentiles as well.

The main point of Ricardian economics is identical with that of Reform Judaism’s Haskalah-Kantian theology. Just as God in the latter is a creator whose majesty is humanly unapproachable, so the market is a universal, rationalizing structure that cannot be modified by human will or sentiment, such as by paying wages beyond the minimum with which the market can operate, or by state interference with the business cycle or capital accumulation. Leave God and the market alone and attend to your personal, family, and communal lives and business interests.

The phenomenological Kantian message parallels Ricardo’s demonstration that the market economy must be left alone by ethics and politics to maximize and distribute wealth. Trying for a close encounter with the deity leads to uncouth Hasidic practices and superstition and threatens a return to the ghetto. Trying to rectify the market’s distribution of wealth and poverty by government intervention will produce not only social anomalies but also severe economic underdevelopment and therefore much more poverty than the minimally necessary amount that liberal capitalism allots.

Both Ricardian economics and Reform Judaism can be seen as partisan self-promotion for the entrepreneurial and professional classes. Their wealth, ease, learning, and power are allegedly the result of privilege and power rather than divine and scientific revelations of truth in cosmology and sociology. There is inevitably a degree of self-justification involved in the mutually interactive Reform Judaism Haskalah-Kantian theology and Ricardian economics.

But there is also involved the austerity, the asperity, the social aspiration of the postmedieval Jew who has found stability, comfort, and reason in modernity in its cultural and fiscal aspects, and has no desire or motive for going beyond this resting place in the Jewish historical pilgrimage and wants to make it a permanent home.

Both Reform Judaism and liberal capitalism, whatever their limits intellectually as doctrines, whatever their propensity to cut off spiritual exaltations and impede social revolutions, are quiet havens at last for the Jews where they can be at peace with their Gentile neighbors, within the Christian state, and draw upon their comfortable bank accounts and investments and cultivate the material and behavioral amenities of life. It is a dry, quietly happy world of bourgeois learning, security, and wisdom. There is no need to seek further. Here world history and Jewish history putatively end.

They say that by mid-century the only observant Jews will be those in the Orthodoxy. With their fanaticism and their willingness to impose their beliefs on children (imagine if Said Sayrafiezadeh had grown up in a Hasidic household, we never would have heard the end of it!), it is easier to resist assimilation.

I tend to agree with my friend Paul Buhle, a scholar of Jewish culture although not Jewish himself, that what will define Jewry is a sensibility more than anything else. Despite my antipathy to Israel and to the narrow “fellow Israelites” view of Judaism, I remain Jewish to the core. This morning after eating Matzoh brei and pickled herring, I sat down to watch television through my “rootless cosmopolitan” perspective. And if I had my choice of what Kaddish to recite yesterday, my preferences would have been with Allen Ginsberg’s poem excerpted below than the traditional Jewish liturgy since it is Ginsberg’s non-Jewish Jewishness that I feel the most affinity with:

In the world, given, flower maddened, made no Utopia, shut under
pine, almed in Earth, blamed in Lone, Jehovah, accept.
Nameless, One Faced, Forever beyond me, beginningless, endless,
Father in death.  Tho I am not there for this Prophecy, I am unmarried, I’m
hymnless, I’m Heavenless, headless in blisshood I would still adore
Thee, Heaven, after Death, only One blessed in Nothingness, not
light or darkness, Dayless Eternity–
Take this, this Psalm, from me, burst from my hand in a day, some
of my Time, now given to Nothing–to praise Thee–But Death
This is the end, the redemption from Wilderness, way for the Won-
derer, House sought for All, black handkerchief washed clean by weeping
–page beyond Psalm–Last change of mine and Naomi–to God’s perfect
Darkness–Death, stay thy phantoms!

May 2, 2009

Robert Duncan’s “The Homosexual in Society”

Filed under: Gay,literature,Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 9:03 pm

In my review of Paul Buhle and Harvey Pekar’s “The Beats”, I referred to Robert Duncan’s essay “The Homosexual in Society” that appeared in Dwight Macdonald’s journal Politics in 1944. This seminal gay liberation document certainly deserves to be available on the Internet and so I have scanned it in from Duncan’s “A Selected Prose” that was published in 1990.

A word or two about Dwight Macdonald is in order. He was a Shachtmanite who eventually dropped any pretensions to Marxism and embraced a mixture of anarchism, liberalism and pacifism. He was also bitterly anti-Communist and even hooked up for a while with the CIA-backed Congress for Cultural Freedom. When the 60s radicalization began, Macdonald reverted to the radical politics of his youth to some extent and became part of a cadre of high-profile intellectuals who opposed the Vietnam War (Norman Mailer and Mary McCarthy were two other notables.)

The inclusion of Duncan’s essay in Macdonald’s journal in 1944 opens up some interesting avenues for research. As far as I know, the Trotskyist movement was pretty bad on gay issues. Cannon’s group was worse than Shachtman’s—at least that is what I would suspect. If Macdonald was open-minded enough to challenge the prevailing homophobia on the left, you have to wonder what else was appearing in the pages of his magazine.

Leon Trotsky supposedly once said that “Everyone has the right to be stupid, but comrade Macdonald abuses the privilege”. This remark reportedly delighted Macdonald. I can only say that at least on the gay question, Macdonald holds up very well.

Duncan’s essay anticipates many of the gay liberation themes that would be articulated after the Stonewall rebellion, despite a certain defensiveness expressed in terms of his disapproval of the “homosexual cult” and “camp”.

The Homosexual in Society


Originally appeared in Politics, I, 7 (August 1944). The revisions were made in 1959. The expanded version was first published in Jimmy & Lucy’s House of “K,” 3 (January 1985).

Seymour Krim has urged me to reprint this early essay as “a pioneering piece,” assuring me “that it stands and will stand on its own feet.” At the time it was printed (Politics, August 1944) it had at least the pioneering gesture, as far as I know, of being the first discussion of homosexuality which included the frank avowal that the author was himself involved; but my view was that minority associations and identifications were an evil wherever they supersede allegiance to and share in the creation of a human community good—the recognition of fellow-manhood.

Blind lifeliness—what Darwin illuminates as evolution—has its creative design, and in that process a man’s sexuality is a natural factor in a biological economy larger and deeper than his own human will. What we create as human beings is a picture of the meaning and relation of life; we create perspectives of space and time or a universe; and we create ideas of “man” and of “person,” of gods and attendant powers—a drama wherein what, and who we are are manifest. And this creation governs our knowledge of good and evil.

For some, there are only the tribe and its covenant that are good, and all of mankind outside and their ways are evil; for many in America today good is progressive, their professional status determines their idea of “man” and to be genuinely respectable their highest concept of a good “person”—all other men are primitive, immature, or uneducated. Neither of these perspectives was acceptable to me. I had been encouraged by my parents, by certain teachers in high school, by friends, through Socialist and Anarchist associations, and through the evidence of all those artists, philosophers and mystics who have sought to give the truth of their feeling and thought to mankind, to believe that there was an entity in the imagination “mankind,” and that there was a community of thoughtful men and women concerned with the good of that totality to whom I was responsible. The magazine Politics represented for me during the Second World War an arena where intellectuals of that community were concerned, and I came to question myself in the light of the good they served.

It was not an easy essay to write. As a form an essay is a field in which we try ideas. In this piece I try to bring forward ideas of “homosexual,” “society,” “human” and, disguised but evident, my own guilt; and their lack of definition is involved with my own troubled information. Our sense of terms is built up from a constant renewed definition through shared information, and one of the urgencies of my essay was just that there was so little help here where other writers had concealed their own experience and avoided discussion.

Then too, the writing of the essay was a personal agony. Where we bear public testimony we face not only the community of thoughtful men and women who are concerned with the good, but facing the open forum we face mean and stupid men too. The involved disturbed syntax that collects conditional clauses and often fails to arrive at a full statement suggests that I felt in writing the essay that I must gather forces and weight to override some adversary; I have to push certain words from adverse meanings which as a social creature I share with the public to new meanings which might allow for an enlarged good. In the polemics of the essay it is not always possible to find the ground of accusation unless we recognize that I was trying to rid myself of one persona in order to give birth to another, and at the same time to communicate the process and relate it to what I called “society,” a public responsibility. I was likely to find as little intellectual approval for the declaration of an idealistic morality as I was to find for the avowal of my homosexuality. The work often has value as evidence in itself of the conflict concerned and of the difficulty of statement then just where it is questionable as argument. I had a likeness to the public and shared its conflicts of attitude—an apprehension which shapes the course of the essay.

I feel today as I felt then that there is a service to the good in bringing even painful and garbled truth of the nature of our thought and feeling to the light of print, for what I only feel as an urgency and many men may condemn me for as an aberration, some man reading may render as an understanding and bring into the wholeness of human experience. Reading this essay some fifteen years later, I need courage to expose the unhappiness of my writing at that time, for I am not today without conflicting feelings and have the tendency still to play the adversary where I had meant only to explore ideas. In preparing the text then I have eliminated certain references that were topical at the time but would be obscure now and have cut where economy was possible without losing the character of the original; but I have not sought to rewrite or to remedy the effect.

[Robert Duncan’s footnotes for the 1944 publication of this essay have been indicated by asterisks and set in a typeface different from the rest of the text. Duncan also added footnotes when he made revisions to the text in 1959. These notes have been indicated by numbers.]


I propose to discuss a group whose only salvation is in the struggle of all humanity for freedom and individual integrity; who have suffered in modern society persecution, excommunication; and whose intellectuals, whose most articulate members, have been willing to desert that primary struggle, to beg, to gain at the price if need be of any sort of prostitution, privilege for themselves, however ephemeral; who have been willing rather than to struggle toward self-recognition, to sell their product, to convert their deepest feelings into marketable oddities and sentimentalities.

Although in private conversation, at every table, at every editorial board, one knows that a great body of modern art is cheated out by what amounts to a homosexual cult; although hostile critics have at times opened fire in attack as rabid as the attack of Southern senators upon “niggers”; critics who might possibly view the homosexual with a more humane eye seem agreed that it is better that nothing be said.1 Pressed to the point, they may either, as in the case of such an undeniable homosexual as Hart Crane, contend that he was great despite his “perversion”*—much as my mother used to say how much better a poet Poe would have been had he not taken dope; or where it is possible they have attempted to deny the role of the homosexual in modern art, defending the good repute of modern art against any evil repute of homosexuality.

(* Critics of Crane, for instance, consider that his homosexuality is the cause of his inability to adjust to society. Another school feels that inability to adjust to society causes homosexuality. What seems fairly obvious is that Crane’s effort to communicate his inner feelings, his duty as a poet, brought him into conflict with social opinion. He might well have adjusted his homosexual desires within society as many have done by “living a lie” and avoiding any unambiguous reference in his work.)

But one cannot, in face of the approach taken to their own problem by homosexuals, place any weight of criticism upon the liberal body of critics for avoiding the issue. For there are Negroes who have joined openly in the struggle for human freedom, made articulate that their struggle against racial prejudice is part of the struggle for all; there are Jews who have sought no special privilege or recognition for themselves as Jews but have fought for human rights, but there is in the modern American scene no homosexual who has been willing to take in his own persecution a battlefront toward human freedom. Almost coincident with the first declarations for homosexual rights was the growth of a cult of homosexual superiority to heterosexual values; the cultivation of a secret language, the camp, a tone and a vocabulary that are loaded with contempt for the uninitiated.

Outside the ghetto the word “goy” disappears, wavers, and dwindles in the Jew’s vocabulary as he becomes a member of the larger community. But in what one would believe the most radical, the most enlightened “queer” circles, the word “jam” remains, designating all who are not wise to homosexual ways, filled with an unwavering hostility and fear, gathering an incredible force of exclusion and blindness. It is hard (for all the sympathy which I can bring to bear) to say that this cult plays any other than an evil role in society.2

But names cannot be named.3 There are critics whose cynical, backbiting joke upon their audience is no other than this secret special reference; there are poets whose nostalgic picture of special worth in suffering, sensitivity, and magical quality is no other than this intermediate “sixth sense”; there are new cult leaders whose special divinity, whose supernatural and visionary claim is no other than this mystery of sex.4 The law has declared homosexuality secret, inhuman, unnatural (and why not then supernatural?). The law itself sees in it a crime—not in the sense that murder, thievery, seduction of children, or rape are seen as human crimes—but as a crime against the way of nature.* It has been lit up and given an awful and lurid attraction such as witchcraft was given in the 17th century. Like early witches, the homosexuals, far from seeking to undermine the popular superstition, have accepted and even anticipated the charge of demonism. Sensing the fear in society that is generated in ignorance of their nature, they have sought not understanding but to live in terms of that ignorance, to become witch doctors in the modern chaos.

(* “Just as certain judges assume and are more inclined to pardon murder in inverts and treason in Jews for reasons derived from original sin and racial predestination.” Sodom and Gomorrah, Proust.)

To go about this they have had to cover with mystery, to obscure the work of all those who have viewed homosexuality as but one of the many ways which human love may take and who have had primarily in mind as they wrote (as Melville, Proust, or Crane had) mankind and its liberation. For these great early artists their humanity was the source, the sole source, of their work. Thus in Remembrance of Things Past, Charlus is not seen as the special disintegration of a homosexual but as a human being in disintegration, and the forces that lead to that disintegration, the forces of pride, self-humiliation in love, jealousy, are not special forces but common to all men and women. Thus in Melville, though in Billy Budd it is clear that the conflict is homosexual, the forces that make for that conflict, the guilt in passion, the hostility rising from subconscious sources, and the sudden recognition of these forces as it comes to Vere in that story—these are forces which are universal, which rise in other contexts, which in Melville’s work have risen in other contexts.

It is, however, the body of Crane that has been most ravaged by these modern ghouls and, once ravaged, stuck up cult-wise in the mystic light of their special cemetery literature. The live body of Crane is there, inviolate in the work; but in the window display of modern poetry, in so many special critics’ and devotees’ interest, is a painted mummy, deep sea green. One may tiptoe by, as the visitors to Lenin’s tomb tiptoe by, and, once outside, find themselves in a world in his name that has celebrated the defeat of all that he was devoted to. One need only point out in all the homosexual imagery of Crane, in the longing and vision of love, the absence of the private sensibility that colors so much of modern writing. Where the Zionists of homosexuality have laid claim to a Palestine of their own—asserting in their miseries their nationality; Crane’s suffering, his rebellion and his love are sources of poetry for him, not because they are what makes him different from his fellow-men, but because he saw in them his link with mankind; he saw in them his share in universal human experience.5

What can one do in the face of this, both those critics and artists, not homosexual, who are, however, primarily concerned with dispelling all inhumanities, all forces of convention and law that impose a tyranny over man’s nature, and those critics and artists who, as homosexuals, must face in their own lives both the hostility of society in that they are “queer” and the hostility of the homosexual elite in that they are merely human?

For the first group the starting point is clear, that they must recognize homosexuals as equals, and, as equals, allow them neither more nor less than can be allowed any human being. There are no special rights. For the second group the starting point is more difficult, the problem more treacherous.

In the face of the hostility of society which I risk in making even the acknowledgment explicit in this statement, in the face of the “crime” of my own feelings, in the past I publicized those feelings as private and made no stand for their recognition but tried to sell them as disguised, for instance, as conflicts arising from mystical sources.6 I colored and perverted simple and direct emotions and realizations into a mysterious realm, a mysterious relation to society. Faced by the inhumanities of society I did not seek a solution in humanity but turned to a second outcast society as inhumane as the first. I joined those who, while they allowed for my sexual nature, allowed for so little of the moral, the sensible, and creative direction which all of living should reflect. They offered a family, outrageous as it was, a community in which one was not condemned for one’s homosexuality, but it was necessary there for one to desert one’s humanity, for which one would be suspect, “out of key.” In drawing rooms and in little magazines I celebrated the cult with a sense of sanctuary such as a medieval Jew must have found in the ghetto; my voice taking on the modulations which tell of the capitulation to snobbery and the removal from the “common sort”; my poetry exhibiting the objects made divine and tyrannical as the Catholic church has made bones of saints, and bread and wine tyrannical.7

After an evening at one of those salons where the whole atmosphere was one of suggestion and celebration, I returned recently experiencing again the aftershock, the desolate feeling of wrongness, remembering in my own voice and gestures the rehearsal of unfeeling. Alone, not only I, but, I felt, the others who had appeared as I did so mocking, so superior in feeling, had known, knew still, those troubled emotions, the deep and integral longings that we as human beings feel, holding us from archaic actions by the powerful sense of humanity that is their source, longings that lead us to love, to envision a creative life. “Towards something far,” as Hart Crane wrote, “now farther away than ever.”

Among those who should understand those emotions which society condemned, one found that the group language did not allow for any feeling at all other than this self-ridicule, this “gaiety” (it is significant that the homosexual’s word for his own kind is “gay”), a wave surging forward, breaking into laughter and then receding, leaving a wake of disillusionment, a disbelief that extends to oneself, to life itself. What then, disowning this career, can one turn to?

What I think can be asserted as a starting point is that only one devotion can be held by a human being seeking a creative life and expression, and that is a devotion to human freedom, toward the liberation of human love, human conflicts, human aspirations. To do this one must disown all the special groups (nations, churches, sexes, races) that would claim allegiance. To hold this devotion every written word, every spoken word, every action, every purpose must be examined and considered. The old fears, the old specialties will be there, mocking and tempting; the old protective associations will be there, offering for a surrender of one’s humanity congratulation upon one’s special nature and value. It must be always recognized that the others, those who have surrendered their humanity, are not less than oneself. It must be always remembered that one’s own honesty, one’s battle against the inhumanity of his own group (be it against patriotism, against bigotry, against—in this special case—the homosexual cult) is a battle that cannot be won in the immediate scene. The forces of inhumanity are overwhelming, but only one’s continued opposition can make any other order possible, will give an added strength for all those who desire freedom and equality to break at last those fetters that seem now so unbreakable.


In the fifteen years since the writing of “The Homosexual in Society,” my circumstances have much changed. Life and my work have brought me new friends, where the community of values is more openly defined, and even, in recent years, a companion who shares my concern for a creative life. Distressed where I have been distressed and happy where I have been happy, their sympathy has rendered absurd whatever apprehension I had concerning the high moral resolve and radical reformation of character needed before I would secure recognition and understanding. It is a kinship of concern and a sharing of experience that draws us together.

The phantasmic idea of a “society” that was somehow hostile, the sinister affiliation offered by groups with whom I had no common ground other than the specialized sexuality, the anxiety concerning the good opinion of the community—all this sense of danger remains, for I am not a person of reserved nature; and conventional morality, having its roots in Judaic tribal law and not in philosophy, holds homosexual relations to be a crime. Love, art, and thought are all social goods for me; and often I must come, where I would begin a friendship, to odd moments of trial and doubts when I must deliver account of my sexual nature that there be no mistake in our trust.

But the inspiration of the essay was toward something else, a public trust, larger and more demanding than the respect of friends. To be respected as a member of the political community for what one knew in one’s heart to be respectable! To insist, not upon tolerance for a divergent sexual practice, but upon concern for the virtues of a homosexual relationship! I was, I think, at the threshold of a critical concept: sexual love wherever it was taught and practiced was a single adventure, that troubadours sang in romance, that poets have kept as a traditional adherence, and that novelists have given scope. Love is dishonored where sexual love between those of the same sex is despised; and where love is dishonored there is no public trust.

It is my sense that the fulfillment of man’s nature lies in the creation of that trust; and where the distrusting imagination sets up an image of “self against the desire for unity and mutual sympathy, the state called “Hell” is created. There we find the visceral agonies, sexual aversions and possessions, excitations and depressions, the omnipresent “I” that bears true witness to its condition in “Howl” or “Kaddish,” in McClure’s Hymns to St. Geryon or the depressive “realism” of Lowell’s Life Studies. “We are come to the place,” Virgil tells Dante as they enter Hell, “where I told thee thou shouldst see the wretched people, who have lost the good of the intellect.” In Hell, the homosexuals go, as Dante rightly saw them, as they still go often in the streets of our cities, looking “as in the evening men are wont to look at one another under a new moon,” running beneath the hail of a sharp torment, having wounds, recent and old, where the flames of experience have burned their bodies.

It is just here, when he sees his beloved .teacher, Brunetto Latini, among the sodomites, that Dante has an inspired intuition that goes beyond the law of his church and reaches toward a higher ethic: “Were my desire all fulfilled,” he says to Brunetto, “you had not yet been banished from human nature: for in my memory is fixed . . . the dear and kind, paternal image of you, when in the world, hour by hour, you taught me how man makes himself eternal. .  . .”

“Were my desire all fulfilled …” springs from the natural heart in the confidence of its feelings that has often been more generous than conventions and institutions. I picture that fulfillment of desire as a human state of mutual volition and aid, a shared life.

Not only in sexual love, but in work and in play, we suffer from the dominant competitive ethos which gives rise to the struggle of interests to gain recognition or control, and discourages the recognition of the needs and interests which we all know we have in common. Working for money (and then, why not stealing or cheating for money?) is the “realistic” norm, and working for the common good is the “idealistic” exception. “I have always earned my living at manual labor,” an old friend writes. And his voice breaks through, like a shaft of sunlight through an industrial smog, the oppressive voices of junkies and pushers, petty thieves and remittance men of social security with their need and misery set adrift of itself. Oppressive, because these are sensitive young men and women I am thinking of, some of them the artists and poets of a new generation. The sense of this essay rests then upon the concept that sexual love between those of the same sex is one with sexual love between men and women; and that this love is one of the conditions of the fulfillment of the heart’s desire and the restoration of man’s free nature. Creative work for the common good is one of the conditions of that nature. And our hope lies still in the creative imagination wherever it unifies what had been thought divided, wherever it transforms the personal experience into a communal good, “that Brunetto Latini had not been banished from human nature.”


1. 1959. At a round table on Modern Art held in San Francisco in 1949 a discussion emerged between Frank Lloyd Wright and Marcel Duchamp where both showed the courage of forthright statement, bringing the issue publicly forward, which I lamented the lack of in 1944. Wright (who had been challenged on his reference to modern art as “degenerate”): “Would you say homosexuality was degenerate?” Duchamp: “No, it is not degenerate.” Wright: “You would say that this movement which we call modern art and painting has been greatly or is greatly in debt to homosexual-ism?” Duchamp: “1 admit it, but not in your terms … I believe that the homosexual public has shown more interest or curiosity for modern art than the heterosexual—so it happened, but it does not involve modern art itself.”

What makes comment complicated here is that, while I would like to answer as Duchamp does because I believe with him that art itself is an expression of vitality, in part I recognize the justice of Wright’s distaste, for there is a homosexual clique which patronizes certain kinds of modern art and even creates because, like Wright, they believe both homosexuality and the art they patronize and create to be decadent and even fashionably degenerate.

2. 1959. The alienation has not decreased but increased when the “Beat” cult projects its picture of themselves as saintly—junkies evoking an apocalyptic crisis in which behind the mask of liberal tolerance is revealed the face of the hated “square.” Their intuition is true, that tolerance is no substitute for concern; but their belief that intolerance is more true, dramatizes their own share in the disorder. “Goy,” “jam,” and “square” are all terms of a minority adherence where the imagination has denied fellow-feeling with the rest of mankind. Where the community of human experience is not kept alive, the burden of meaning falls back upon individual abilities. But the imagination depends upon an increment of associations.

Where being “queer” or a “junkie” means being a pariah (as it does in beat mythology), behavior may arise not from desire but from fear or even hatred of desire; dope-addiction may not be a search for an artificial paradise, an illusion of magical life, but an attack upon life, a poisoning of response; and sexual acts between men may not mean responses of love but violations of inner nature. Ginsberg (who believes the self is subject to society), Lamantia (who believes the self has authority from God), and McClure (who believes the self is an independent entity) have in common their paroxysms of self-loathing in which the measure of human failure and sickness is thought so true that the measure of human achievement and life is thought false.

But this attitude had already appeared in the work of urban sophisticates like Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy where there was an observable meanness of feeling. Robert Lowell’s “Tamed by Miltown, we lie on Mother’s bed” expresses in the realism of neurotic inhibition what Allen Ginsberg’s “Creation glistening backwards to the same grave, size of universe” expresses in the surrealism of psychotic exuberance. “Mother your master-bedroom/looked away from the ocean” and “O Mother . . . with your nose of bad lay with your nose of the smell of the pickles of Newark” dramatizes with the difference of class the common belief in oedipal grievance.

3. 1959. That even serious socio-sexual studies are curbed is shown by the following letter written by an eminent poet when I wrote in 1945 asking if I could attempt an essay on his work in the light of my concept that his language had been diverted to conceal the nature of his sexual life and that because he could never write directly he had failed to come to grips with immediacies of feeling:

“… I am very sorry but I must ask you not to publish the essay you propose. I’m sure you will realize that the better the essay you write, the more it will be reviewed and talked about, and the more likelihood there would be of it being brought publicly to my attention in a way where to ignore it would be taken as an admission of guilt.

“As you may know, I earn a good part of my livelihood by teaching, and in that profession one is particularly vulnerable. Further, both as a writer and as a human being, the occasion may always arise, particularly in these times, when it becomes one’s duty to take a stand on the unpopular side of some issue. Should that ever occur, your essay would be a very convenient red-herring for one’s opponents. (Think of what happened to Bertrand Russell in New York).

“I hope you will believe me when I say that for myself personally I wish I could let you publish it, and that anyway I hope the other essays will be as good as you would like them to be.”

My own conviction is that no public issue is more pressing than the one that would make a man guilty and endanger his livelihood for the open knowledge of his sexual nature; for the good of humanity lies in a common quest through shared experience toward the possibility of sexual love. Where we attend as best we can the volitions and fulfillments of the beloved in sexual acts we depend upon all those who in arts have portrayed openly the nature of love; and as we return ourselves through our writing to that commune of spirit we come close to the sharing in desire that underlies the dream of universal brotherhood. Undeclared desires and private sexuality feed the possibility of sexual lust which has many betrayals, empty cravings, violations, and wants to void the original desire.

That this eminent poet was not wrong in speaking of his professional vulnerability were his sexual nature openly avowed can be verified by the following passage from a letter of an eminent editor after reading “The Homosexual In Society” concerning my poem “Toward An African Elegy” which he had previously admired and accepted for publication:

“… I feel very sure we do not wish to print the poem, and I regret very much to decline it after an original acceptance. I must say for the record that the only right I feel in this action is that belatedly, and with your permission, I read the poem as an advertisement or a notice of overt homosexuality, and we are not in the market for literature of this type.

“I cannot agree with you that we should publish it nevertheless in the name of freedom of speech; because I cannot agree with your position that homosexuality is not abnormal. It is biologically abnormal in the most obvious sense. I am not sure whether or not state and federal law regard it so, but I think they do; I should not take the initiative in the matter, but if there are laws to this effect I concur in them entirely. There are certainly laws prohibiting incest and polygamy, with which I concur, though they are only abnormal conventionally and are not so damaging to a society biologically.”

Both these men are leaders in just that community of thoughtful men and women I imagined; both have had and deserved highest honors as literary figures; and, while I believe one to be mistaken in his belief that sexual forthrightness is not a primary issue for the social good; and the other to be as misled by the unhappy conventions of his thought as by the atmosphere of guilty confession that he gathered from my essay; both, like I, are concerned not with the minority in question but rightly with what they consider the public good, an intimation of the human good. Much understanding yet is needed before men of good intentions can stand together.

4. 1959.1 find myself in this passage accusing certain “critics,” “poets,” and “new cult leaders” of what I might be suspected of in my poetry myself. “Suffering, sensitivity, and magical quality” are constants of mood; divinities and cults, supernatural and visionary claims, and sexual mystery are all elements in subject matter that give rise to poetic inspiration for me. In recent years I have had an increased affinity with imaginative reaches of religious thought, searching gnostic and cabalistic speculation for a more diverse order.

The Demon of Moral Virtue exacts his dues wherever he is evoked. Where we seek the Good he urges us to substitute what will be men’s good opinion of us. I may have felt then that I might redeem my sexuality as righteous in the sight of certain critics, if I disavowed my heterodoxy in religious imagination as wicked or deluded.

5. 1959. The principal point is that the creative genius of a writer lies in his communication of personal experience as a communal experience. He brings us to realize our own inner being in a new light through the sense of human being he creates, or he creates in us as we read a new sense of our being. And in Melville, Crane, and Proust I saw their genius awaken a common share in homosexual desire and love, in its suffering and hope, that worked to transform the communal image of man.

Professors of literature do not always have minds of the same inspiration as the minds of writers whose work they interpret and evaluate for consumption; and an age of criticism has grown up to keep great spirits cut down to size so as to be of use in the self-esteem of sophisticated pusillanimous men in a continual self-improvement course. Thus Freud’s courageous analysis of his motives and psychic dis-ease has furnished material for popular analysts like Fromm to be struck by how normal their psyches are compared to Freud’s, how much more capable of mature love they are.

Homosexuality affords a ready point at which a respectable reader disassociates himself from the work of genius and seeks to avoid any sense of realizing his own inner being there. Some years after my essay, Leslie Fiedler, whom I take to be heterosexual, was able to gain some notoriety by writing about homosexual undercurrents in American literature, playing, not without a sense of his advantage, upon the cultural ambivalence between the appreciation of literature as a commodity of education and the depreciation of genius as it involves a new sense of being, and upon the sexual ambivalence in which the urbane American male can entertain the idea of homosexuality providing he is not responsible, providing he preserves his contempt for or his disavowal of sexual love between males.

6. 1959. But there is no “explicit” statement here! What emerges is a “confession” (analyzed further below) instead of what was needed and what I was unable to say out. While I had found a certain acceptance in special circles of homosexuals and opportunities for what Kinsey calls “contacts,” this was a travesty of what the heart longed for. I could not say “I am homosexual,” because exactly this statement of minority identity was the lie. Our deepest sexuality is free and awakens toward both men and women where they are somehow akin to us. Perhaps the dawning realization that we are all exiles from paradise, and that somehow goods have their reality in that impossible dream where all men have come into their full nature, gave rise to and a thread of truth to the feeling of guilt that prompts this voice.

7. 1959. I am reminded in the foregoing passage of those confessions of duplicity, malice, and high treason made before the courts of Inquisition or the Moscow trials. “Society” appears as the merciless “hostile” judge; what I meant to avow—the profound good and even joyful life that might be realized in sexual love between men— becoming a confession that I had “disguised,” “colored,” “perverted,” “celebrated the cult” and even in my work exhibited objects of alienation from the common law. Some remnant of Protestant adherence suggests there was Holy Roman wickedness, “divine and tyrannical as the Catholic Church has made.”

Might there be a type of social reaction to which “confession” of “witches,” “Trotskyites,” and my confession as a “homosexual,” conform? In the prototype there is first the volunteered list of crimes one has committed that anticipates the condemnation of church or party or society. Then there is the fact that what one confesses as a social “crime” has been held somewhere as a hope and an ideal, contrary to convention. The heretic is guilty in his love or his righteousness because he has both the conventional common mind and the imagination of a new common mind; he holds in his own heart the adversary that he sees in the actual prosecutor. Often there was torture to bring on the confession, but it enacted the inner torture of divided mind. “Names cannot be named” I exclaim in this essay, and perhaps akin to that felt necessity is the third phase in which “witches” and “Trotskyites” eventually named their accomplices in heresy, throwing up their last allegiance to their complicity in hope.

The Jungian revival of alchemy with its doctrine of the nigredo and the related surrealist cult of black humor or bile has complicated the contemporary sense of a belief that in some phase the psyche must descend against its nature into its adversary. It is an exciting idea just as a great destruction of the world by war is an exciting idea. Part of the force which “Beat” poets have is the authority which we give after Freud and Jung to the potency of crime.

“Being a junkie in America today,” Ginsberg writes, “is like being a Jew in Nazi Germany.” This leads to humorous comment, like the parody of Marx, that “Marijuana is the opium of the people,” or that “Opium is the religion of the people.” But the revelation of Ginsberg’s formula is that in taking to junk he is trying to become like a Jew in Germany. He cannot realize in his Jewishness a sufficient extreme of persecution (even he cannot quite believe in racial guilt—the American idea of the melting pot as virtue is too strong). The “fuzz” cannot live up to the projection of wrath that might externalize inhibition as rank and unjust punishment and satisfy his guilt without calling his need to account. So he takes up “the angry fix.” “Holy Burroughs” and heroin addiction will surely test the frustrating tolerance of a liberal state and reveal beneath the “Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo.”

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