Tigerpapers

Pondering the palimpsest and panoply of the planet.

Archive for the category “Politics”

John Berger, Max Sebald, Teju Cole: International Men of Culture

I think it was Ousmane Sembene, the Senegalese author and filmmaker, who talked of the writer being the voice of the voiceless. That is still true in all societies. Art should ignite our dreams for a more human world.   –Teju Cole

In a previous essay on the Dictator Novel, I touched on the question of whether we can concurrently have good art and good politics. It remains an open, almost rhetorical, question. The most reasonable response is that we will rarely have anything approaching good politics, but we hope (or take for granted) that we will always have the ability to create and appreciate good art, because of or in spite of an apocalyptic or at least uncertain future [note: I use the terms politicsart, and artist in the broadest possible terms]. An even more relevant question might be how much the artist treats with politics (or, to put it more bluntly, to what extent politics intrudes on art). Some think that the ideal artist should rise above petty, or quotidian, political concerns; others would claim that all art is grounded in some kind of political milieu, whether overt or not. As much as I would like to believe in the possibility of a creative genius who follows her muse isolated from the messy world around her, it is simply not realistic. Paraphrasing Aristotle, there is nothing in human life that is outside of, or untouched by, politics, and that goes for artists and writers as much as farmers, laborers, managers, and secretaries. Even Shakespeare, the ideal artist and writer, was limited by the Tudor and Stuart monarchs, and produced many propagandistic “history” plays to placate them. John Berger, in his book The Success and Failure of Picasso, states that the Cubists (1907-1914) were the last group of revolutionary artists who could at the same time be optimistic and almost wholly unconcerned with politics. Since World War One, no artist has been able to divorce herself, intentionally or not, from the real-world. Utopia is dead. For the foreseeable future, we are all grounded on the earth, condemned to be free, struggling in our various ways to survive, and, if we are able, to create and consume art. Therefore, for me, the important question in examining art is not whether or not it is political, but how politics influences artists and is manifested in their art.

In this essay, I will examine the works of three writers and artists, John Berger, Max Sebald, and Teju Cole, who all share a “family resemblance”. All three are sophisticated, polyglot, cosmopolitan writers who combine wide-ranging erudition and serious-minded aesthetics with a profound sense of humanity and social justice. All three are cross-genre writers, combining fiction, essay, criticism, and memoir; all three employ embedded photographs or drawings to support their prose. They all thoroughly investigate the arts in their stories and essays: Berger focusing especially on painting and drawing, Sebald on architecture, and Cole on photography. They are all self-imposed exiles from their homeland who use their own cross-cultural experience to reflect on the lives and sufferings of others. Politics, on the other hand, is treated differently by the three: Berger was a highly engaged marxist whose politics were central to most of what he wrote; Sebald’s work always deal obliquely or subtly with politics; Cole lies in between these two extremes. All three benefit from being able to live and work where they want, in free societies where politics does not interfere with art; nevertheless, all three extend their perspective beyond artistic solipsism well into the the political project of global justice for all.

John Berger

John Berger died in January 2017 at the age of 90. Originally from London, he had lived in a tiny village in the French Alps for over 50 years and was a highly prolific author of 10 novels, several plays and screenplays, and roughly 50 collections of essays and art criticism. He won both literary and public renown in 1972 when his novel, G, won the Booker Prize, and his popular TV miniseries, “Ways of Seeing”, was broadcast on BBC. Berger donated half of the Booker Prize money to the Black Panther party as a token of support and a way of calling out the racist and exploitative legacy of the Booker foundation, whose fortune was built in the Caribbean slave-working sugar trade. Here is a key paragraph from Berger’s essay explaining his rationale:

Before the slave trade began, before the European de-humanised himself, before he clenched himself on his own violence, there must have been a moment when black and white approached each other with the amazement of potential equals. The moment passed. And henceforth the world was divided between potential slaves and potential slavemasters. And the European carried this mentality back into his own society. It became part of his way of seeing everything. The novelist is concerned with the interaction between individual and historical destiny. The historical destiny of our time is becoming clear. The oppressed are breaking through the wall of silence which was built into their minds by their oppressors. And in their struggle against exploitation and neo-colonialism — but only through and by virtue of this common struggle — it is possible for the descendants of the slave and the slavemaster to approach each other again with the amazed hope of potential equals.

G is a picaresque novel based around a Casanova-like protagonist in pre-World War One Italy. The most memorable sections for me are about the first flight over the Alps, and the dark atmosphere in Trieste before the war. With the rest of the Booker Prize money, Berger spent years researching and writing A Seventh Man, a photography-based book about the struggles of migrant workers around Europe. One of his later novels, To the Wedding, is one of the most heart-wrenching things I’ve read (comparable with other stories of the death of one’s child such as Cry, the Beloved CountryBeloved, and The Child in Time). This beautifully written novel recounts the journey of an estranged husband and wife traveling across Italy to the wedding of their dying daughter.

John Berger, 1926-2017

As good as his novels are, Berger’s essays and criticism are probably his most important and lasting legacy. I have only begun to delve into these, but I have greatly appreciated and enjoyed everything so far. I have already mentioned The Success and Failure of Picasso (1965), which discussed a watershed moment in art history with such depth and persuasion that I was forced to reconsider everything I thought I knew about art (which admittedly was not much in the first place). He summarizes, towards the end:

I have tried to show you, on the evidence of paintings from 1900 to 1952, how Picasso’s imagination and intuitions have always presented him with an alternative to modern Europe: the alternative of a simpler, more primitive way of life. The Cubist period from 1907 to 1914 was the great exception to this. Then, the influence of friends and of other artists led him to believe for a short while in the opposite alternative: that of a more complex, more highly organized, more productive way of life. Except for this Cubist period, his genius has always owed allegiance to the comparatively primitive. It is this allegiance which underlay his self-identification with outcasts in the so-called Blue and Pink periods. It is this which inspired the rage of the Demoiselles d’Avignon. It is this which explains the fancy-dress and magic with which he protected himself after the First World War. It is this which was the secret of the physical intensity of his work in the thirties and early forties when he was painting autobiographically. It is this which is now the excuse for the sentimental pantheism of most of his original paintings (original as opposed to his variations on the themes of other artists) since 1944.

In his Selected Essays (2001) there are many fascinating theories and narratives weaving his erudition and knowledge of every artist in the Western canon with his political activism. As a vegan and animal rights activist myself, I was particularly interested in his “Why Look at Animals?”, which discusses in surprising detail the long and evolving relationship between humans and animals, to the mutual detriment of both. His 2011 book Bento’s Sketchbook uses the story of Spinoza’s lost sketchbook for Berger to demonstrate many of his own sketches and the story behind them. In one episode, Berger tells of how he was kicked out of a museum by an overly zealous private security guard while sketching Antonello da Messina’s “Crucifixion”, because he was not allowed to leave his backpack on the floor.

What is especially striking about Berger’s fiction and non-fiction is the proliferation of incredibly beautiful and powerfully true lines of prose that complement the larger story he is telling. Here, for example, from Bento’s Sketchbook:

The human capacity for cruelty is limitless. Maybe capacity is not the right word, for it suggests an active energy, and, in this case, such energy is not limitless. Human indifference to cruelty is limitless. So also are the struggles against such indifference. All tyrannies involve institutionalised cruelties. To compare one tyranny with another in this respect is pointless, because, after a certain point, all pains are incomparable. Tyrannies are not only cruel in themselves, they also exemplify cruelty and thus encourage a capacity for it, and an indifference in the face of it, amongst the tyrannised.

And another:

To protest is to refuse being reduced to a zero and to an enforced silence. Therefore, at the very moment a protest is made, if it is made, there is a small victory. The moment, although passing like every moment, acquires a certain indelibility. It passes, yet it has been printed out. A protest is not principally a sacrifice made for some alternative, more just future; it is an inconsequential redemption of the present. The problem is how to live time and again with the adjective inconsequential.

Here, from G, at a moment when the protagonist witnesses some of the widespread labor riots in the pre-WWI, pre-Soviet years:

Every ruling minority needs to numb and, if possible, to kill the time-sense of those whom it exploits by proposing a continuous present. This is the authoritarian secret of all methods of imprisonment. The barricades break that present.

Here, from To the Wedding, at the exact moment after the daughter, Ninon, learns that she has AIDS:

All I had to offer, old as the world, God-given, balm for pain, honey for taste-buds, promise for always, silken welcomes, oh to welcome, to welcome, knees turned on their sides, toes extended—all I had has been taken.

And later, after the wedding:

The wedding guests are becoming a single animal who has fed well. A strange creature to find in a widow’s orchard, a creature half mythical, like a satyr with thirty heads or more. Probably as old as man’s discovery of fire, this creature never lives more than a day or two and is only reborn when there’s something more to celebrate. Which is why feasts are rare. For those who become the creature, it’s important to find a name to which it answers whilst alive, for only then can they recall, in their memory afterwards, how, for a while, they lost themselves in its happiness.

Max Sebald

W.G. “Max” Sebald died in 2001 at the age of 57 after having had a heart attack while driving near his home in Norfolk, England. He was from a small Bavarian village near the Swiss border, and lived in England as a professor of literature for most of his adult life. Though he began writing late, publishing only four books in the last ten years before his premature death, his works won him many admirers in the literary world and it is certain that his fame and recognition would have grown. What we are left with, those four novels and a collection of essays, is a unique, powerful, and extraordinarily thoughtful body of multi-genre work. His novels are classified thus only for marketing reasons–they are all similarly constructed pseudo-memoirs of a character, seemingly exactly like Sebald, wandering around Europe and recollecting, often at second or third hand, the stories of places and people he encounters. They all deal indirectly with the paradoxical European legacy of Humanism and inhumanity, in which scientific and cultural development sits alongside constant imperialist war and exploitation. He focuses especially on World War Two and the Holocaust, treating this history in comparably non-traditional ways as, for example, recent Nobel laureates Patrick Modiano and Svetlana Alexievich (in 2001, the Nobel Committee chair said that Sebald, along with Derrida, were two recently deceased authors who were under consideration for the prize).

W.G. “Max” Sebald, 1944-2001

Sebald’s first novel, Vertigo (1990), combines a travel narrative across northern Italy with short vignettes from the lives of Stendhal, Casanova, and Kafka. As the title suggests, one of the main running themes between the four separate narratives is a lingering, unplaceable feeling of dizziness or anxiety; the reasons for these feelings remain unsaid, but it is possible to surmise, especially with the hindsight of Sebald’s later work, that the weight of European history surrounding each of the characters was enough to produce a certain existential dread. To paraphrase Adorno, it is impossible to see the full beauty of a continent and culture that ultimately produced the Holocaust. Venice is a city with such a rich literary history that it is hard to say anything new, but here is how Sebald manages to work in a subtle shade of foreboding:

As you enter into the heart of that city, you cannot tell what you will see next or indeed who will see you the very next moment. Scarcely has someone made an appearance than he has quit the stage again by another exit. These brief exhibitions are of an almost theatrical obscenity and at the same time have an air of conspiracy about them, into which one is drawn against one’s will. If you walk behind someone in a deserted alleyway, you have only to quicken your step slightly to instill a little fear into the person you are following. And equally, you can feel like a quarry yourself. Confusion and ice-cold terror alternate. It was with a certain feeling of liberation, therefore, that I came upon the Grand Canal once again.

While the main character takes a long rest at a resort on Lake Garda en route to his tiny Bavarian village he hadn’t visited in decades, he encounters some of his compatriots, leading to a sentiment I, as an American based in Italy for the last decade, can sympathize with:

I heard Swabians, Franconians and Bavarians saying the most unsavoury things, and, if I found their broad, uninhibited dialects repellent, it was a veritable torment to have to listen to the loud-mouthed opinions and witticisms of a group of young men who clearly came from my home town. How I wished during those sleepless hours that I belonged to a different nation, or, better still, to none at all.

Sebald’s second novel, The Emigrants (1992), more explicitly takes up the theme of exile from one’s country. In four parts, it tells of four characters, all related to the narrator in some personal way, who were all emigrants from the greater German Reich before or during the Second World War. In all of these seemingly true biographies, the narrator only gradually begins to understand the deep secrets and traumas buried in these characters’ past lives, hidden under a veneer of seeming polite normality. In three of the four cases, the characters commit suicide. In the last story, the most powerful in my opinion, the narrator recounts his long friendship with a Mancunian artist and his late realization that he had never asked the necessary question of how the artist had come to live in England without his parents. The artist, based on Frank Auerbach, later showed the narrator a letter written by his mother while she and his father awaited transport to Auschwitz. The very slow and indirect unfolding in which Sebald deals with such a monumental tragedy as the Holocaust is sublimely cathartic.

His third novel, considered the last of the trilogy, is The Rings of Saturn (1995), which is ostensibly a walking tour across Suffolk with long discourses on various historical personages that are somehow connected to the places he visits. In one long section he gives an account of the life of Joseph Conrad, and how much he was affected by the brutal exploitation he witnessed in the Belgian Congo. As is typical in Sebald’s work, there is always as much lurking under the surface of the explicitly stated. In this case, though I don’t recall any mention of the Holocaust by name (though he markedly uses its original meaning of a burnt sacrifice), there seems to be a subtle ongoing dialogue about human capacity for cruelty, even in scientific experimentation. In one example, he says, almost as an unimportant aside to the main story:

Again, the inspector of the Rouen fish market, a certain Noel de Marinière, one day saw to his astonishment that a pair of herring that had already been out of the water between two and three hours were still moving, a circumstance that prompted him to investigate more closely the fishes’ capacity to survive, which he did by cutting off their fins and mutilating them in other ways. This process, inspired by our thirst for knowledge, might be described as the most extreme of the sufferings undergone by a species always threatened by disaster.

Here is another evocative passage during a recurring discourse on Thomas Browne:

The almost universal practice of cremation in pre-Christian times should not lead one to conclude, as is often done, that the heathen were ignorant of life beyond death, to show which Browne observes that the funeral pyres were built of sweet fuel, cypress, fir, yew, and other trees perpetually verdant as silent expressions of their surviving hopes. Browne also remarks that, contrary to general belief, it is not difficult to burn a human body: a piece of an old boat burnt Pompey, and the King of Castile burnt large numbers of Saracens with next to no fuel, the fire being visible far and wide. Indeed, he adds, if the burthen of Isaac were sufficient for an holocaust, a man may carry his own pyre.

Near the end, Sebald concludes the last of many references to the history of the silk worm across Europe with this strangely disturbing passage which is as close to a literary climax as Sebald ever gets:

After all, the Professor added, quite apart from their indubitable utility value, silkworms afforded an almost ideal object lesson for the classroom. Any number could be had for virtually nothing, they were perfectly docile and needed neither cages nor compounds, and they were suitable for a variety of experiments (weighing, measuring and so forth) at every stage in their evolution. They could be used to illustrate the structure and distinctive features of insect anatomy, insect domestication, retrogressive mutations, and the essential measures which are taken by breeders to monitor productivity and selection, including extermination to preempt racial degeneration. —In the film, we see a silk-worker receiving eggs despatched by the Central Reich Institute of Sericulture in Celle, and depositing them in sterile trays. We see the hatching, the feeding of the ravenous caterpillars, the cleaning out of the frames, the spinning of the silken thread, and finally the killing, accomplished in this case not by putting the cocoons out in the sun or in a hot oven, as was often the practice in the past, but by suspending them over a boiling cauldron. The cocoons, spread out on shallow baskets, have to be kept in the rising steam for upwards of three hours, and when a batch is done, it is the next one’s turn, and so on until the entire killing business is completed.

His last book, Austerlitz (2001), seems like a full-length version of one of the biographies from The Emigrants. The narrator tells of his many conversations with the main character, Jacques Austerlitz, over the course of three or more decades in which they randomly meet each other in stations and libraries across Europe. Austerlitz is an architectural historian, and the narrator always recounts his own version of the many precise details about the various buildings and cityscapes they encounter in their mutual peregrinations. The narrative is presented in an even more oblique and unreliable way than Sebald normally uses. For example, a typical line from the narrator could be something like, “Years later, I remembered what Austerlitz told me his landlady had remembered what his mother had told her the night before leaving.” Austerlitz, like the narrator and then the reader, gradually learns of and then reveals the details of his background. He was raised in Wales by a pastor and his wife under the name Dafydd Elias. When his parents died he was told by the headmaster that his real name was Jacques Austerlitz. When he asked what that name signified, he was merely told, “I think you will find that it is the name of a famous battle.” That battle, as well as the Paris station named after it, play a role in the narrative. It is also notable how similar the name Austerlitz is to Auschwitz. The story comes round eventually to the fact that Austerlitz was sent on one of the last refugee boats to England as an infant, and later travels to Prague to discover more about his parents. This haunting novel is a significant work, probably Sebald’s best. Like all his novels, the narrative is supplemented by found photographs that add to or silently comment on the text. One of these is a close-up of Wittgenstein; most often they are anonymous pictures of architecture, signage, or family gatherings. In his introduction to the novel, James Wood writes: “As Roland Barthes rightly says in his book Camera Lucida, a book with which Austerlitz is in deep dialogue, photographs shock us because they so finally represent what has been. We look at most old photographs and we think: “that person is going to die, and is in fact now dead.” Barthes calls photographers “agents of death,” because they freeze the subject and the moment into finitude.” Sebald’s novels as a whole tend to do something similar: to freeze the disturbing history of modern Europe both in order to preserve it, and to help block its return.

Teju Cole

Teju Cole, a Nigerian-American, was born in 1975, making him conspicuous in my comparison as the youngest of the three authors, as well as the one who was most influenced by both of the previous writers. He openly and enthusiastically speaks of Berger’s influence in many public dialogues, including a valedictory celebration of that writer’s life after his recent death. He has dedicated at least two essays to Sebald, including one story of how Cole visited his grave near Norwich, England. Cole’s first novel, Open City, was widely praised and widely noted for following a Sebaldian construct–a narrator, apparently similar to the author, wandering and meditating on modern cityscapes and the history they conceal, and engaging in intellectual but emotionally fraught conversations with friends and strangers along the way. As with most of Sebald’s works, we gradually learn of secret crimes and forgotten traumas that are not-so-neatly hidden away in the subconscious. It is a powerful and important debut novel.

Teju Cole, b. 1975

Cole’s second novel, Every Day is for the Thief, does not appear to be a novel at all except that it is labeled as such. It tells of the narrator’s visit to Lagos after over a decade’s absence. It is partly a travelogue, partly a story of the corruption that has so pervaded Nigerian society as to pervert even human relationships.

Cole is a notable photographer and critic, as well as a popular Twitter writer until finally closing his account. Many of his essays appear in his recent collection Known and Strange Things (2016). This book is divided into three parts on writing, photography, and travel. The whole reveals an almost impossibly thoughtful, erudite, and wide-ranging mind. Every essay is littered with references to poetry, art, history, as well as popular culture. One fantastic review of A House for Mr Biswas is preceded by an essay telling of how Cole came to be invited to a dinner with “Vidia” Naipaul. After the dinner Cole and Naipaul flip through a Mark Twain first edition and laugh together at his witticisms. Naipaul is taken aback when Cole beats him to the punch in comparing them to La Rochefoucauld. Despite this, Cole is unsparing in his appraisal of the Nobel laureate’s personal faults. The essays in the photography section are so well-done as to have captured my interest even though I know nothing of that craft. It has prompted me research many of the named photographs and artists and begin taking more note of photography in general.

I think the best piece in the collection is the strange, short, stream of consciousness essay called “Unnamed Lake”. It was supposedly written in one sleepless night as Cole’s mind wandered variously between the Tasmanian tiger, Derrida, Furtwängler’s version of the Ninth, concentration camps, the Biafran War, and the atomic bomb. The book’s final section on travel is more explicitly autobiographical, personal, and political than Cole’s usual work. In one piece he reflects on a six-month paid residence in Switzerland, in which he walks in James Baldwin’s shoes. He writes of the troubling disconnect between Obama’s rhetoric and his escalated drone killings. He writes of Joseph Kony and the white savior complex. He writes of a trip to the Mexican border and a Berlin-style piece of the wall he brought back. He rewrote the first lines of famous novels as if they were all part of a drone assassination report. Everything he writes makes you think, often long after you’ve finished reading; like the best essays, everything in this collection not only warrants a rereading, but it is essential to do so, which is the greatest praise I can give to a writer.

Conclusion

So where does this leave us in regards to my original question of the relationship between art and politics? I do not have a final answer, and do not think there exists a final answer. Rather, every work by every artist is part of an ongoing dialogue between every other work of that artist, as well as his interlocutors, and the world around her, both past, present, and future. An artist can make politics her raison d’être, like John Berger, or deal with it occasionally or obliquely, per Sebald and Cole. All three artists have benefitted from their personal freedom to create, living and working as they did in countries of the post-war western democracies. I would not say that any of them engage with politics in their art as a result of personal traumas or limitations, but rather due to their sense of humanity and the cold injustice of history. If any of them had been born a few decades earlier, or possibly later, or in another country, they could have possibly been killed or imprisoned for their art. Insofar as all three writers understand this, I would guess that they understand freedom more globally than just their personal ability to create art.

As Geoff Dyer writes in his introduction to Berger’s Selected Essays: “The ‘invasion of literature by politics’ may have been inevitable but Orwell was somewhat grudging about having to forgo the single-minded literary devotion of Henry James in favour of the manifold obligations of pamphleteering (though his distinction as a writer depends precisely on this abandonment). For Berger, there was no tension or regret on this score. Responding to his critics in a letter to the New Statesman (4 April 1953) he insisted that ‘far from my dragging politics into art, art has dragged me into politics’.” What is necessary to the artist, beyond mere survival, is the freedom to produce art. This underlines the fact that whether or not “art” is political, its existence is always predicated on a set of political circumstances that are either more or less “free”, and thus more or less open to art. This counts whether or not the artist subjectively considers politics as something that happens around us without our control, or something we choose to value or fight for. No matter what politics she claims, defending this freedom should therefore be the central preoccupation of the artist.

The Dictator Novel in the Age of Trump

Storytellers are a threat. They threaten all champions of control, they frighten usurpers of the right-to-freedom of the human spirit.”  Chinua Achebe

Of the thousand and one reactions of horror and shock following the illegitimate victory and first months of the Trump administration, one of the most interesting variations I have heard is: “at least there will be good art.” The hypothesis is that dangerous political years inspire greater art than do times of relative safety. That this is an unverifiable consolation distracts from the obvious point: Why can’t we have good art and good politics?

The Dictator in Context

The installation of Trump as president has prompted endless historical comparisons to various dictators and fascists. As I previously argued here, I firmly believe that Trump hews closely to many of the methods, if not always the ideology (it is apparent that Trump has no agenda beyond his self-aggrandizement), of what Umberto Eco labeled “ur-Fascism. Even before the emergence of Trump I wrote of how the Republican Party’s rejection of democratic principles was ultimately a road to fascism. The difficulty in such definitions is that, like unhappy families, dictators, tyrants, and fascists are all infelicitous in their own unique ways. I would still argue that Trump shares certain characteristics and methods with Mussolini, Idi Amin, and yes, Hitler (this is a serious and relevant historical parallel rather than an ad hominem attack, thus Godwin’s Law does not apply). On the other hand, Trump is also different from every other past dictator since, to give one example, he rose from outside the military or political ranks and was merely a failed businessman and con man who played the reality TV character of a successful businessman. Trump’s peculiar brand of power politics is sui generis, but our understanding of the Trump phenomenon is very clearly rooted in our reading of history and literature.

While it is necessary to explore the parallels to Trump in American history (the closest are Andrew Jackson, whose portrait Trump placed in the Oval Office, and of course Nixon) and European history (there are many; regarding Italian politics, to give but one example, a mixture of Mussolini and Silvio Berlusconi seems apt), I think the most appropriate family resemblance to Trump is found in the Latin American caudillo, or charismatic strongman. The reasons for this include: 1) personal enrichment as the only constant and coherent ideology, 2) the need for constant praise and adulation, 3) the exaggerated chauvinism, misogyny and virility, 4) the carefully controlled image, 5) the promotion of family members and cronies to key political positions, 6) the claims of a singular ability to interpret the “people’s will”, 7) the appropriation of kitsch over culture, 8)the use of the epithet “enemies of the state” for anyone who criticizes or opposes his will, 9) the total disregard of all existing democratic values and institutions, as well as 10) disdain for writers and intellectuals of every stripe (who are always among the first to be persecuted). Many of these traits overlap with more overt right-wing or left-wing ideological positions held by dictators in modern history, but all depend solely on authoritarianism for the sake of power itself rather than any particular ideology. Of course, there are ways that Trump differs from the typical caudillo, such as lack of a popular nickname (the Chief, the Supreme, Generalissimo, etc.) and a glaring lack of exquisitely adorned military uniforms (give him time, though–he might come around). The cult of personality that is another universal trait of caudillismo easily lends itself to each individual dictator giving his name to the political system, i.e. Peronism, Trujillism, Trumpism, Chavism, etc, and requiring personal loyalty to the dictator himself over any other abstract value like the constitution, the laws, or the welfare of the people. The various labels of dictator, tyrant, despot, strongman, autocrat, autarch, president for life, and the corresponding adjectives for the type of government (authoritarian, totalitarian, kleptocratic, oligarchic, etc.) are all, in my opinion, synonyms differing only in context and nuance. The phenomenon of the caudillo is always located in an American (in the general sense of the Western hemisphere) context, and has a history in almost every Latin American country going back 200 years to when Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín threw off the Spanish yoke.

The Myth of the Benevolent Dictator

Are there any upsides to being ruled by a dictator? There is an old chestnut that says “at least Mussolini got the trains to run on time”. This is probably more propaganda than historical fact, even though he certainly did drain the swamps around Rome (finishing a plan drawn up by the Emperor Claudius). Hitler is sometimes given credit for the Autobahn. Stalin gets credit for…(let me get back to you on that one). In fact, it is inevitable that the apologists of any dictatorship will cite the improvement of public infrastructure and massive building projects, as well as the order, stability, and national sovereignty such regimes bring. There is a lot of truth to these claims. After all, even a budding dictator of below average intelligence (like Trump) would quickly figure out that he (because always men) needs to supplement constant state-run propaganda with big visual signs of progress to pacify and distract the little people under his thumb. Likewise with order and stability—if these are the highest ideals of a regime, they are relatively easy to enact by empowering the secret police and suppressing all individual freedoms.

Another occasional positive side effect of dictators is the unilateral protection of the environment, seen for example in the Dominican Republic under the arch-caudillo Rafael Trujillo and his authoritarian-leaning successor, Joaquín Balaguer (Jared Diamond discussed the latter in depth in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed). Is stopping deforestation and pollution and aggressively protecting natural areas worth tolerating autocratic rule? I think not, especially since we can achieve those goals democratically (as the countries of northern Europe and Costa Rica demonstrate). However practical or progressive a dictator may be in one particular facet of governance, there are always mountains of horrors piled up on the opposite side, clearly disproving the notion that it is ever beneficial for the host country to be under the dictator’s heel. Have there ever been any historical instances of a mostly benevolent dictator?

In the original practice of the Roman Republic, a dictator was summoned only during the most urgent national crises and given complete control of the military and government, but only for six months. This temporal limitation seems like the best way to ward off the universal corruption of power. Kemal Ataturk was the father of the modern Turkish state, liberating it from European militaries after World War One and ushering in centuries worth of reforms in a couple decades. I ranked him here as an overall beneficial dictator, doing the best for his country, with few downsides (one-party rule, authoritarianism) that could not be avoided in that context. Even more exemplary is Giuseppe Garibaldi, the superhumanly heroic leader of Italian Unification. He led from the front in hundreds of battles and dozens of wars over 50 years, always in the name of freedom and what we would today call “human rights”. In his most famous and important campaign, he singlehandedly conquered the southern half of Italy with 1000 men and a few rusty carbines, ruled as a dictator (when the word was still used in the Roman sense) for six months instituting many reforms, before voluntarily handing power to the new king of Italy in the name of national unity, and retiring to farm on his private island. The hardest thing to get right in any transition from dictatorship to democracy is the peaceful transfer of power. That is why early Roman dictators like Cincinnatus, who gave up power and returned to his latifundia, or George Washington, who chose to finish his life as a civilian farmer instead of serving as president-king for life, are so celebrated by later generations (even though Cincinnatus was also violently opposed to the plebian reforms, and Washington was also a slave-owner). It is rare in the annals of history to find leaders uncorrupted by power, or who give up absolute power willingly. That is why the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, limiting the president to two terms, is so important, and why, at a minimum, there should be term limits for every executive office in every country. Only when a precedent for this has been set in a country can it begin to dream of a time without dictators.

Trump the Would-be Dictator

Trump’s open disdain and flagrant assault on hallowed democratic principles like the rule of law, separation of powers, an independent judiciary, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press is a deeply disturbing spectacle which clearly demonstrates his authoritarianism. Most dictators have their own particular brand, and Trump uses a strange mix of hyper-partisan, hyper-individualistic, privatized pseudo-fascism that prizes winning (though not necessarily violence) as the highest good, and total humiliation for those who are not “winners”. Not exactly Nazi rhetoric, but there is a family resemblance. Dictatorships do not happen overnight. There is a strong case to be made that America has been creeping towards authoritarianism for 40 years, and thus the reasons for the installation of Trump are many and varied (and have little to do with his skills as a politician). Kitsch, another universal trait of totalitarian regimes, is a powerful tool to control and subvert real independent thinking with sentimentality. Milan Kundera famously discussed the role of kitsch in the Communist bloc in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, saying: “When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object. In the realm of kitsch, the dictatorship of the heart reigns supreme.” Mike Carson has argued on this website how ubiquitous kitsch is in American society.  Maximillian Alvarez has written that even my identification of Trump as a fascist can be seen as a type of counterproductive cathartic use of kitsch.

No matter the underlying causes of the illegitimate Trump election, even an openly authoritarian president backed by a cowardly Congress cannot unilaterally dismantle 240 years of republican government. Therefore, there are still reasons to be hopeful about the outcome of this constitutional crisis. One is the incompetence and corruption of Trump and his administration. Their conspicuous weaknesses will prevent them from accomplishing some policy goals, and could sooner or later lead to impeachment. Another is the unprecedented unpopularity of Trump (almost every dictator had authentic claims to mass popular support at least in the early years, something Trump certainly lacks) and the highly energized resistance movement by the majority of Americans that will in turn greatly reduce this aspiring tyrant’s capacity to subvert the U.S. Constitution. This counts not only for the big-ticket marches, protests, and lawsuits, but even for a more profound reawakening to the values of civic participation in civil society, and widespread grassroots involvement in things like discussion circles, teach-ins, and reading groups. Indeed, the burgeoning interest and sales of classic dystopian novels like 1984, The Plot Against America, It Can’t Happen Here, and The Handmaid’s Tale, to name four of the most famous, is a sign of these troubled times. As important and relevant as these English language novels are, I would argue that there is a less well-known but even more relevant genre: the Dictator Novel.

The Dictator Novel

The novela de dictadore is a sub-genre with wholly Latin American roots, and drawing on the long history of caudillismo in the former Spanish American Empire. Most of these countries have spent many more years as dictatorships than democracies, and by my rough count there are at least 50 examples in Latin American history of strongmen (yes, all men, though Eva Peron comes the closest to being a strongwoman; it is actually unsurprising that I cannot find any examples of female dictators in world history). The development of the Dictator Novel was a reaction by the writers of Latin America to the endless parade of caudillos preying on their people like wolves guarding flocks of sheep. The first example is the 1845 novel Facundo by Domingo Sarmiento, which is a criticism of Juan Manuel de Rosas of Argentina, the first major caudillo and a model for many subsequent ones. The sub-genre became especially popular since the Latin American Literary Boom of the 1960’s and 70’s.

Mario Vargas Llosa’s 2000 novel The Feast of the Goat recounts the horrific totalitarian regime of Rafael “el Jefe” Trujillo, who made the Dominic Republic into his personal fiefdom from 1930-1961. Vargas Llosa, a master storyteller who won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature, was also a political activist who ran for president of Peru in 1990. He is therefore well-placed to write about politics and dictators in Latin America. I first encountered the horrors of the Trujillo regime via Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which I would consider a semi-dictator novel, about how the protagonist is the recipient of a multi-generational curse caused by the rapaciousness (literal and figurative) of Generalissimo Trujillo.

The Feast of the Goat is concurrently told from three perspectives each revolving around Trujillo’s last day before being assassinated. One part is told by Urania Cabral, the daughter of a disgraced official of Trujillo who visits the Dominican Republic for the first time in 35 years. One part recounts the harrowing tale of the conspirators who kill Trujillo and seek to evade capture and torture. The final part enters in the mind of Trujillo himself as he goes through every minute of his final day, interrogating and humiliating ministers, while also revealing his own most humiliating secrets to the reader.

The main character, Urania Cabral, tells her family the story of why she never returned to the Dominican Republic, ending in a harrowing climax at the long-dead dictator’s country mansion: “I don’t think the word ‘kitsch’ existed yet…Years later, whenever I heard it or read it, and knew what extremes of bad taste and pretension it expressed, Mahogany House always came to mind. A kitsch monument.” The tyrant’s horrors reach deep, and continue to haunt long after death.

Trujillo was certainly one of the most prototypical of the caudillos, both by his beliefs and his actions. At one point Vargas Llosa’s version of Trujillo says: “I don’t have time to read the bullshit intellectuals write. All those poems and novels. Matters of state are too demanding.” Then later, echoing every dictator ever, he says to Balaguer, his puppet president and unbeknownst successor: “I’ve always had a low opinion of intellectuals and writers. On the scale of merit, the military occupy first place… Then the campesinos…Then the bureaucrats, entrepreneurs, businessmen. Writers and intellectuals come last. Even below the priests. You’re an exception, Dr. Balaguer. But the rest of them! A pack of dogs.” That these words were put into the Generalissimo’s mouth by a notable writer and intellectual is part of the irony. One can easily imagine Trump expressing the same sentiment, if much less coherently and eloquently.

One of the most nightmarish aspects of living under a dictator is the vague idea that his reign will never end, or will swallow up entire generations like Saturn devouring his children, rendering the future well-nigh hopeless. This is the central theme of the 1975 dictator novel The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel García Márquez, winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize for Literature and the most esteemed Latin American writer. In an unnamed country, the unnamed Patriarch has been the sole ruler for nearly 200 years. The novel is a poetic meditation on the dangers and solitude of absolute power. At the beginning, the superannuated tyrant’s corpse in found in the presidential palace, but his allies, the people, and finally the reader, are led to wonder if this is really the unimaginable death of the eternal leader, or merely one more of his ruses to root out enemies and tighten his stranglehold on power. Absolute power is absolutely corrupting, and frightening to imagine. The lengths to which the dictator must go in order to gain and hold power for decades always leads inexorably to a regime of terror and torture. The Patriarch reminisces about past actions he has taken to defeat one of his foes or increase the awe of the people, but the narrative is not explicit about the details of this dark-side regime. Vargas Llosa’s novel is a much more straightforward prose account of such a regime, while García Márquez’s deals more obliquely and poetically with the nightmare of a never-ending totalitarian ruler.

There are a great many dictator novels, just a few more of which I will mention. The Paraguayan writer Augusto Roa Bastos wrote I, the Supreme (1974) about the first dictator of Paraguay, Dr. Francia (whom Adrian Bonenberger has written about on this website here). Dr. Francia was a populist despot who isolated his country from the outside world, both for trade and immigration, and cracked down on all political opposition and criticism (sound familiar?). Bastos’ novel is widely considered an attack on the Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner, who ruled for 35 years over a repressive regime and forbid the Bastos to return to Paraguay after the novel’s publication.

García Márquez wrote a second dictator novel, The General in His Labyrinth (1989), about the last month of Simón Bolivar, the Liberator of South America whose rule once extended to Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. Bolívar has most often been treated as a universal and mythical hero, a portrayal that García Márquez does away with. He shows the Liberator with all his defects, dying prematurely, scheming for a return to power, howling about betrayals by his enemies. It is a powerful meditation on power and death. Likewise, Vargas Llosa wrote another dictator novel, the monumental Conversation in the Cathedral (1969), which describes life in Peru during the dictatorship of Manuel Odría

While the Dictator Novel has its roots in Latin American history, its impact has spread to other continents. Two examples from Africa are Chinua Achebe’s 1987 Anthills of the Savannah, and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s 2006 Wizard of the Crow. Both of these novels are excellent works of fiction from two of the most eminent African writers, showing both the horror and black humor that can paradoxically be found in the dictator’s regime. Like the caudillo, the typical African strongman also has a love for buffoonish uniforms, which is possibly the only thing separating Trump from their ranks.

One final aspect of the dictator novel is the constant presence and impact of United States imperialism, whether implicit or explicit. Insofar as the U.S. does intervene in Latin American politics, it is virtually always by means of the C.I.A. and its bag of dirty tricks. For example, the precariousness of the last two years of Trujillo’s regime before his assassination can be directly attributed to loss of American patronage, C.I.A. agitation and material support for the assassins, and threat of invasion by the Marines. Trujillo, originally trained by the Marines himself, always considered himself the United States’ strongest supporter in the Western Hemisphere, and was long treated by the Americans as an important and reliable bulwark against Communism. It is either ironic or just sad that the same organization that is responsible for propping up so many dictators and overthrowing or assassinating so many others in the name of “American interests”, is now one of the principle means of stopping the new would-be American dictator. If Trump had read any dictator novels (even though he is functionally illiterate), he might have been able to understand that waging a war on the entire press as well as the many powerful intelligence communities is the wrong way to consolidate power. It is a war that he will lose decisively, we can be sure, but Trump’s bungling experiment in tyranny have exposed the flaws in the American political system, possibly paving the way for future exploitation by a younger and much more competent aspiring dictator. From now one, we must always be on guard, never taking for granted the inevitable survival of our democratic principles, and never forgetting the lessons of historical and literary cautionary tales.

Conclusion

There is something very disturbing, for me and millions of others, in the fact that we are veering towards an outcome we have been warned against by our literary prophets (not to mention our reading of history), and it is a message people are taking seriously. Two plus two is four, the emperor has no clothes, and the dictator is neither omnipotent nor immortal. For all the comparisons to the Nazi rise to power, one advantage we have as historical latecomers is our awareness of the past, our vigilance against a Reichstag fire-type event, and our will to resist the encroachment of the totalitarian dystopias we have read about. The power of the pen is real—satire and mockery of dictators are some of the best ways for writers to fight for freedom, as is the relentless reportage of the truth for journalists. I do not believe that all art is or should always be political. The artist is free to transcend or vie with the bounds of politics and history in her own search for beauty and meaning. However, there are times when, as Hannah Arendt said about 1933, it is no longer possible to be indifferent. We are living in one of those times when no one, including the artist, can afford to be indifferent.

Yes, We Tortured Some Folks

(published originally at Wrath-Bearing Tree December 2014)

By now everyone in the world has heard about the recently released U.S. Senate Torture Report, which details the shocking and mind-numbing inhumanity of the torture program sanctioned by the Bush administration and operated by the C.I.A. after 9/11. With the appearance of this new report, there has been an enormous amount of press coverage and commentary in America and around the world, which must be considered a victory for freedom of speech, press, and information. One representative example of good reporting on this case is this recent New York Times article. The more we understand and discuss this issue, the better we can avoid ever repeating the same crimes* (I use this word rather than the more euphemistic “mistakes”, as in the common newspeak example “mistakes were made”, as can be seen in the C.I.A. director’s unrepentent rebuttal to the report).

The issue of torture is one that has troubled me for some time. At a press conference last year, American President Barack Obama uttered the phrase “We tortured some folks.” While this acknowledgement was a small step in the right direction in admitting the possible existence of responsibility and guilt in the highest levels of government, it is troubling in its own ways. First of all, the phrasing itself is incongruous, with the transitive verb “torture” being followed by the unlikely direct object phrase “some folks”. Obama has most likely been advised by his speaking coaches to use more down-to-earth vocabulary like “some folks” in order to seem less “professorial” and more simple “middle American” (in America, there is a prevalent view that the best way to win votes is to appear as normal and mediocre as possible). Anyway, “some folks” is not a phrase that should follow “tortured”. I have enough trouble imagining people being tortured who may be actual terrorists without also having to imagine the torture of average innocent “folks”.

The second problem with Obama is that he apparently tried to stop, delay, or water-down the Senate Torture Report for reasons slightly mystifying. Obama famously cancelled his predecessor’s torture program in his first week in office and has often said how he disagrees with what was done (notice the use of the passive voice). The only reason he would stand in the way of this report is respectful fear of the intelligence community, namely the C.I.A. And I don’t blame him–the C.I.A. scares me a lot more than any actual terrorist organization. Even as an American citizen who is ostensibly “protected” by the C.I.A. because of my natural born citizenship, I am still somewhat fearful of attempting to openly criticize this organization by describing in greater detail its long criminal history. Its crimes are so widespread over the course of its entire seven-decade history that the only shocking thing is that more people in America do not know or care anything about what is done by such powerful and unaccountable organizations in the name of their security. In fact, in many countries in the world, where the C.I.A. has supported assassinations, regime change, torture, and state-sponsored violence, it is quite strongly believed to be an evil terrorist organization in itself, but in America people still believe the old lie that it protects Americans’ safety and interests. A revealing fact is that for the first time ever the director of the C.I.A., currently John Brennan, has testified in front of a Senate hearing. In a long and sordid history, the governing body overseeing this organization has never resorted to a public investigative hearing until now. What we do know is that not only is this one of the most unsupervised and counter-productive of publicly-funded American agencies, but also one of the most flagrantly dishonest, with lies covering up deceptions covering up misinformation. No matter if it is spinning counter-intelligence abroad or testifying in front of elected lawmakers, we can be sure that the lies run deep. The proper thing to do would be to disband the C.I.A. and start over with a smaller and less problematic intelligence agency.

The details of the torture report, which is 6000 pages in length, of which 500 are declassified, are so harrowing and brutal that I do not want to mention them here. They have been widely reported and the readers are encouraged to look into it further if you have not already. Or just take my word for it that it is worse than you can imagine. There is something about torture that is more emotional and horrifying than anything else we can imagine. Thinking about humans, even ones possibly guilty of some crime or another, being tortured by other humans makes my stomach turn and makes me want to break down and cry. Thinking that it was done repeatedly to humans who sometimes committed no crime at all is too much to bear. Accordingly, this article is being written in a haphazard way, guided by my emotions and my wandering train of thought rather than in well-ordered paragraphs. In his book Contingency, Irony, Solidarity, Richard Rorty often repeats the claim of Judith Shklar that “liberals are the people who think that cruelty is the worst thing we do…the willful inflicting of physical pain on a weaker being in order to cause anguish and fear…or the willful infliction of a certain kind of nonphysical pain called humiliation.” That quote has stuck with me, not because of its political context, but because of its ethical ramifications.

For years after 9/11, we heard about how torture was necessary if it allowed us to stop “the next attack”. The word torture was never used–it was defined as “enhanced interrogation techniques” for obvious euphemistic reasons–and the media never challenged the new fear narrative that gripped the country. The use of language can be a powerful tool in the hands of media and politicians, and they knew that there would be less concern about something labelled “enhanced interrogation techniques” than there would be for the much more visual and visceral “torture”. We could similarly rebrand the death penalty as “enhanced state-run life-taking procedure”, or war as “enhanced state-sanctioned attack and defense system”. In this kind of Orwellian newspeak, meaning is both hidden and meaningless at the same time. It is no coincidence that TV programs like “24” were popular in these years. I never watched it, but I am aware of its false glorification and justification of the use of torture because the soldiers around me during my deployments were often prone to become obsessed with certain TV shows and binge watch an entire series in a week. The truth, which we can see clearly now that the fear has passed and some of our rationality has slowly come creeping back, is that torture never stopped the next attack, and that there never was and never will be any legal justification for torture.

Even now, after the release of this report, the torture apologists have crawled out of their caves insisting on the same lies, as though even had all of this torture stopped a single attack, it would have been worth it. It is telling that cowardly men like former Vice President Dick Cheney (who avoided military service at all costs) refuse to acknowledge regret for the black tide of illegal war and immoral acts they duped the country into, yet men like John McCain, who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, remain firmly against it due to hard-lived experience and certainty of its inefficacy and immorality. It is also troubling that no less than a Supreme Court justice has justified the case for torture using the ticking time bomb situation (Antonin Scalia’s Case for Torture) and saying things like “I think it’s facile for people to say, ‘Oh, torture is terrible.'” Yes, it’s facile because it is terrible, and illegal, and immoral.

The philosophy of utilitarianism derived from Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill is a useful and interesting moral calculus for certain types of situations. In certain cases, the best thing to do is the one in which the most number of people will benefit or be happy. We can stretch this even into financial considerations of how to best spend money in a way which will benefit the most number of people. This should be considered one tool among many to weigh the merits and demerits of a particular decision, but not a hard and fast ethical rule. Doing so leads us into any number of thought experiments where we are playing with human lives and trying to decide the most moral thing to do. Utilitarianism is one form of consequentialism, which basically says that the benefit of an action is decided by its consequences, and not in the action itself. Thus, with the famous trolley car thought experiment, we are asked whether we will shift a runaway train onto a track where it will kill only one man instead of five. Though some will disagree, these types of problems are a proverbial “bridge too far” in the field of ethics. Once human life is involved, rather than mere lifestyle or economic questions, the equation changes. It becomes more emotional, more blurry, less calculable. If I was asked to kill one man to save five, or even to save 100, I am not sure that I could do it. That is exactly the situation presented in John Fowles’ book, The Magus. The Nazis on a Greek island (it is also no coincidence that Nazis and torture are our two ubiquitous subjects for testing the extreme limits of various ethical positions) gave the character a choice of shooting three men in order to save the village, but he could not pull the trigger. When we are asked to do the dirty deed, or to unjustly take human life, something changes in the consequentialist calculus and the ends no longer justify the means.

In the system of ethics devised by Immanuel Kant, “duty” ethics, a man is called to do his duty by acting so that his action will make a universal law. This so-called categorical imperative calls for us to never treat someone as a means to an end, but rather an end in himself. There are holes in this line of thinking, especially that it is too categorical (for example, Kant would have us tell the truth even if a lie protected a loved one from harm), and that what a man wills can differ from person to person (for example, what was willed by the Nazis into being universal law is not what we want to represent our infallible sense of morality). What I take from Kant’s system is his dignity for humanity and for each person existing as an end rather than a means. This is important. Paradoxically, torture cannot be justified in a Kantian system of ethics since it violates personal sovereignty and dignity, yet National Socialism could be justified if it was willed into being as the representation of universal law by a society.

Back to modern times, this brief synopsis was intended to give some philosophical perspective, but I must insist, against certain consequentialist philosophers, some film and TV producers, and some politicians that there is no situation in which torture can be justified. Ever. A situation will not arise in which torture is necessary for any reason. There is no ticking time bomb. There are no lives to save. It is all dissimulation in order to maintain some sense of power and control by the torturer. “The torturer”, in this case, must be understood to represent not America as a whole, but a certain specific regime that controlled America for some years before losing democratic election. Since torture is not only immoral in all circumstances, but also illegal according to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and many other national and international laws, someone should rightfully be held accountable for such crimes. In comparable historical contexts, I would not hold the modern countries of Chile and Argentina accountable for the crimes and torture inflicted by the authoritarian regimes of Pinochet and Videla, to name just two examples; the responsibility is of those who held power and made decisions first and foremost. On the other hand, these countries renounced the crimes of their dictator regimes and prosecuted anyone who was involved whenever possible. This raises the question of prosecuting members of the Bush administration and the C.I.A. leadership for crimes against humanity. It is an open question in which I will leave to the legal authorities and scholars whether it is legally possible or politically wise, but I think it is safe to say that the torture report is a step in the right direction, but seeing high-ranking abusers of power on trial would be an even more powerful statement than a partially declassified report.

It is also troubling that while Obama has refused to prosecute anyone for admitted crimes, saying things like “it’s important to look forward and not backwards” (do they ever say that about any other situation where someone committed a crime?), the only person who has been prosecuted in the C.I.A. torture case is the person who leaked information about it to the press. His name is John Kiriakou, and he is currently serving a 30-month prison sentence for leaking information about illegal activity, while the illegal activity itself goes unpunished.

Lastly, I would like to briefly speculate on the principles behind the practice of torture which, in my opinion, comes from the corrupt desire to exert complete power and control over another living being. One of the best books I’ve read that deals with torture is the novel Waiting for the Barbarians by Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee. Bertrand Russell, in his 1938 book Power: A New Social Analysis, attempted to define a new sociology based on power being the supreme guiding principle of social science. He says, “The ultimate power of the Law is the coercive power of the State. It is the characteristic of civilised communities that direct physical coercion is (with some limitations) the prerogative of the State, and the Law is a set of rules according to which the State exercises this prerogative in dealing with its own citizens”. Here, we can understand his “direct physical coercion” to include not only torture but police brutality, war (including the violence it brings to combatants and non-combatants alike), and the death penalty. Most of these things are done legally because it is the prerogative of the state which makes its own laws. Torture, though illegal according to the U.N. Charter of Human Rights and many international treaties, is the only form of violence which is exercised merely as a form of total control over an individual. This key characteristic of totalitarianism comes from the corrupting influence of unchecked power. As Dostoyesky (a former prisoner) once said, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” While this quote could easily apply to modern-day America, we could paraphrase it by saying “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by how those in power treat those without power.” If the answer is to torture with impunity, then we are no longer living in civilization but in hell.

Dr. King’s Final Dream

(published originally at Wrath-Bearing Tree September 2013)

We recently witnessed the 50th anniversary celebration of the famous 1963 “March on Washington”, which was a peaceful gathering in the nation’s capital to advocate for Civil Rights for African-Americans. The original event climaxed with the magnificent speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called the “I Have a Dream” speech, and rightly considered the most important piece of modern American oratory. What went unmentioned at this recent celebration was the same thing that has generally been lost to history: the fact that Dr. King’s vision went beyond just civil rights. The official name of the event was “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Dr. King knew that civil rights and voting protections were essentially hollow achievements if they were not accompanied by the arguably more important economic rights that would provide more jobs and opportunity for poor Americans (no matter Black or White). The March is generally considered to be one of the important catalysts that led to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act — two highly important and symbolic new laws that were nonetheless mildly enforced. On the occasion of this semi-centennial anniversary, let’s take the time to assess the legacy of the March as well as Dr. King’s more profound and controversial vision for America.

The March on Washington and the subsequent passage of the two above-mentioned laws were the impetus for a massive change in the American political landscape that still has very real ramifications. When the former slave states of the South saw that the Federal government was no longer going to implicitly support their violent segregation and terrorism of their large Black population, the White leaders of the South led an exodus away from the Democratic party (which had passed the civil rights laws) to the Republican party (which had been the party of Lincoln and Emancipation 100 years earlier). The rampart white supremacism that united the “Solid South” thus led to cynical politicians like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan exploiting the new “Southern Strategy”, a gambit designed to actively alienate Blacks and minorities in order to gain full access to the electoral block of the southern states. It was a hugely successful strategy that allowed the Republicans to win all but three presidential elections from 1968-2008. The election and re-election of Barack Obama, as well as demographic change, seems to have finally rendered ineffectual the 40-year dominance of the cynical Southern Strategy.

On another front, the Supreme Court decided in June of this year to effectively erase one of the most important provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act: a clause which provided Federal oversight and protection of voting rights in nine mostly Southern states with the most egregious history of racial discrimination and disenfranchisement. The Supreme Court voted 5-4 in favor of dismantling part of the law, with the five conservative judges who were appointed by Republican presidents united on the matter. Their rationale was that the Voting Rights Act had worked so well to protect voting rights from discrimination and to allow minorities to vote that it was actually not needed any longer. That is like saying that because the Fourteenth Amendment has worked so well to stop slavery it is no longer needed on account of there being no slaves at the moment. This foolish decision obviously does not take into account the fact that many states have moved from the “first generation” techniques of disenfranchisement, such as literacy tests and outright intimidation (or even physical violence in the worst cases) to stop Blacks from going to the ballot box, to more modern and subtle techniques of racial gerrymandering, voter ID laws, and restricting voting times and access. An example of the extreme gerrymandering that has made of mockery of the democratic process are the states of Pennsylvania and Ohio: both states voted for Obama by solid percentages of 5% and 3%, respectively, yet in Pennsylvania Republicans won 13 of 18 seats in the House of Representatives, and in Ohio it was 12 of 15 for Republicans. Similarly, when the Supreme Court made its recent decision to re-allow discrimination, Republican-led states such as Texas and North Carolina literally could not wait a single day to reinstate the types of voting restrictions that we wished had already vanished from public acceptability. Finally, on the anniversary of the March there was not a single Republican who attended the event, neither to give a speech nor to even support the idea that equality is something to be supported by that party. This is despite the fact that event organizers and the King family had strongly wanted and tried to get leaders from both parties to make it a non-partisan affair, and despite the fact that all elected Congressmen were invited to attend. This reflects extremely poorly on the Republican party, which has yet to abandon the success of its 40-year Southern strategy and cannot accept that its time has come and gone. It also reveals that in the 50 years since the March on Washington we still have much work to do to protect freedom against intolerance, and that for every step forward that we make we also have to guard against those who want to take us a step (or more) backwards.

Dr. King himself continued the fight for five years after the March until he was assassinated in April 1968 at the age of 39. A poor white man with an old rifle was convicted for the murder and spent his life in prison, but the findings have always been highly suspect and it is certain that much more powerful forces were at work to silence Dr. King. The reason is that Dr. King was a controversial figure who, despite the peaceful and positive March on Washington, was actually increasingly active against the general economic and political status quo. In the five years between the March and his assassination, the focus of his work and his rhetoric evolved from fighting for civil rights to fighting against the entire system that produced war and poverty at home and abroad. Specifically, he began to express doubt about the efficacy of the Vietnam War. Some of the first opposition to the Vietnam War came out of the civil rights movement, maybe because it was easier for Blacks to distrust the government claims that it was fighting for freedom. A gathering in 1964 in Mississippi held at the same time of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution compared the use of force against Vietnam to the violence Blacks faced everyday at home in Mississippi. In 1967 (a year before he was killed) Dr. King gave a speech in New York called “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” In this speech, he spoke forcefully against the American war in Indochina, saying that the goal of the US was “to occupy it as an American colony.” He also said that the US government was “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” This vocal stance put him in opposition to President Johnson, who had earlier signed both of the new laws protecting civil and voting rights. He continued to speak out against the unlawful military action in Vietnam, and in January 1968 he called for another march on Washington against “one of history’s most cruel and senseless wars.”

Directly connected with his anti-war and anti-Vietnam views, Dr. King began to advocate for anti-poverty programs and social welfare at home. “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” For decades after World War Two, the US was by far the wealthiest and strongest country in the world, and spent a large majority of its budget on military spending and only a fraction on social welfare. Today the US is still easily the wealthiest and strongest country in the world and spends more on military than the next 20 countries combined, and yet poverty and income inequality have both increased, rather than decreased, over time. Dr. King’s vision reached to the heart of the matter and saw that the American government spends vast amounts of money to establish and maintain a global empire and a military state, but basically disregards the huge numbers of its own citizens who were poor and without hope.

In 1968, Dr. King started the Poor People’s Campaign to fight for economic justice in general, aimed at helping not only Blacks but all disadvantaged people. He saw that poor white people were in the same boat as poor black people, but that both were wedged apart from fighting together for their economic rights because of the man-made issue of racism. He condemned a system that spent lavishly on making war against poor countries across the globe while ignoring its poor people at home and refusing to guarantee them a living wage. His new message was intentionally more revolutionary than his earlier calls for equal rights. He lost support from many politicians, unions, white allies, the press, and even some of his fellow civil rights leaders. This did not stop him from continuing his new mission to fight against the ingrained injustice of a system that rewards greed but ignores the helpless. The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover had long monitored Dr. King for subversive activity, and from 1963 until his death he was the target of an intensive campaign of investigation and intimidation intended to discredit him. Wire-tapping was authorized by Attorney General Robert Kennedy in 1963, and the FBI harassed him constantly, culminating in a letter threatening to reveal allegations of extramarital affairs unless he committed suicide. Dr. King dismissed the forces stacked against him and continued to fight for justice until he became too dangerous to the powers that be, and he was silenced.

The tragedy of all wars is not only the horror and death that is brought mostly upon weak and innocent civilians, but the fact that the soldiers fighting the wars often come from the same disadvantaged backgrounds and have no mutual enmity with each other but are manipulated all the same by the class of war profiteers, crony capitalists, and power-mongers. This is the case with the Vietnam war, protested by Dr. King and by millions of other Americans; in that war the world’s most advanced military spread destruction, murder, and mayhem against a poor peasant population across the world that wanted the freedom to live their own lives in peace. Dr. King fought against the injustice of a government that could profess to defend freedom overseas while supporting oppression at home. Today, I think we know what he would be fighting for if he saw that we were still preaching the same freedom while hypocritically attacking and bombing other countries, supporting coups d’etats and violent dictators, creating a massive intelligence infrastructure that indiscriminately spies on citizens at home and abroad, sending unmanned “drones” to fire missiles at military-age males in other countries without due process or legal justification, and building a vast network of private prisons across the country to make incarceration a profit-making business that preys on the poor and minorities, all while saying that there is not enough money to support education, health care, social programs, homeless people (who are often veterans), to raise the minimum wage, or to enact Dr. King’s solution of instituting a living wage. The truth that Dr. King knew was that there is a deep connection between the evils of racism, poverty, materialism, and militarism; for him, the only solution was “a radical restructuring of society” that would go beyond giving lip service to high ideals in order to actually defend justice and fairness and human dignity.

The achievements that came from the Civil Rights movement were due not only to strong leadership, but to the idea of sustained solidarity. This is to be the only solution if we are to continue to fight for progress and a more just society. The March on Washington came about by the unified efforts of six independent civil rights organizations, as well as a wide coalition of students, unions, churches, and white Americans that sympathized with the cause. Differences were put aside so that real progress could be made. Only strength in numbers is able to create the pressure needed to force change from unwilling politicians, who otherwise benefit from stasis. More importantly, we must see each other as one human family rather than a group of various classifications, and to ignore those who profit who the division of the weak and the strong. Only by standing together in great numbers with common cause against the power elite can we change an unfair system and try to bend the arc of history towards justice. As Dr. King showed, this means going beyond mere words or beliefs and becoming socially and politically active, not standing by when we see injustice in our communities or our country at large, and joining groups of like-minded activists who are also willing to make a difference. Dr. King made a real difference in fighting for justice and paid the ultimate price for his principles; the way to honor his legacy and his dream is to get involved and not stand on the sidelines. The only way to guarantee freedom and justice is to ensure that they are extended to everyone, rich and poor, home and abroad.

The Espionage Act and the Cult of Secrecy

(Published originally at Wrath-Bearing Tree in September 2013)

The most important compromise that allowed for the passage of the U.S. Constitution was that there be included a series of amendments called the Bill of Rights, which guaranteed certain freedoms to the individual, a counterpoint to the Articles of the Constitution itself which merely delineated the powers of the branches of government. The most important and revolutionary of the amendments was the first, which simultaneously protected from government censure the individual free exercise of religion, freedom of speech and of the press, and freedom to peaceably assemble and petition. These freedoms are the bedrock of civil liberties and have become universally accepted as the preeminent hallmarks of a free society. In practice, however, there have always been difficulties interpreting the limits of these so-called individual freedoms in relation to the authority of the State. This is especially true in times of war, in which it has often been supposed that nothing, not even freedom of speech or of the press, can stand in the way of State security, secrecy, and success in the war effort. Though these individual freedoms have been enshrined into the U.S. Constitution as the foremost rights of the citizenry, there have been many setbacks and the long battle to protect these very freedoms continues even into the present day.

For example, only seven years after the ratification of the First Amendment, John Adams signed into law the Sedition Act of 1798 in which it was made illegal to write or say anything “false, scandalous, or malicious” against the government. The legal basis for this was that, while freedom of speech was allowed, it did not mean freedom from prosecution for seditious or “dangerous” speech after the fact. This would seem to seriously undermine the notion of free speech itself. Moving forward in history we come to another similar piece of legislation that is still enforced and impacts us directly today, and which will be the focus of the rest of this essay: the Espionage Act of 1917.

Woodrow Wilson, after campaigning in 1916 on the fact that he had “kept us out of war”, was elected to a second term as president and immediately brought America into World War One in 1917. Three months later, Wilson signed into law the Espionage Act, in which it was punishable by death or 30 years in prison to convey information that would interfere with the success of the military or promote the success of its enemies. This included the intent to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, refusal of duty, or even to obstruct the recruitment of conscripts into the military. It was also intended to silence all dissent against the war, to monitor and punish any pro-German or anti-British sympathies, and to block the distribution of printed materials through the Post Office (this was a time in which the Post Offices were one of the most extensive arms of the federal government throughout the states and the Postmaster General was actually an influential and powerful position–made more powerful by being able to block or intercept anything sent through the mail). The Espionage Act has been amended many times since 1917, and is arguably stronger than ever in our own time. In 1933 a provision was added to prohibit the disclosure of anything sent in code; in 1961 a provision was removed that had restricted the law’s jurisdiction to U.S. territory or to American citizens; at least two times it was amended to increase the penalties it imposed; in 1950, during the McCarthy era and the growing militarization of the Cold War, the McCarren Internal Security Act changed the scope of possible crimes from the “intent” to harm or aid to “mere retention” of information. Not only open and free speech, but even secret information are now under the control of the Espionage Act.

Government authorities wasted no time after the law’s passage to begin enforcement. A disproportionate number of its victims were Socialists and members of unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World, which were strongly against American intervention in the war. Eugene V. Debs, the four-time Socialist candidate for President, was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison for making a speech that “obstructed recruiting”. Even a film called The Spirit of ’76 was seized and its producer imprisoned and fined; apparently the film portrayed too much British cruelty during the American Revolution which could undermine support for the current close American ally in the war effort. After the war, the law was invoked in order to arrest and deport several hundred foreign socialists and anarchists, allegedly due the bombing of Attorney General’s house by an anarchist agent. If you are wondering how this broad limitation of free speech held up at the Supreme Court, I will direct you to the 1919 case of Schenck v. United States in which the Court decided that the law was justified if such speech constituted a “clear and present danger” to the government, the same as if a man shouted “Fire” in a crowded theatre according to the famous Justice Oliver Holmes. Schenck had denounced the war conscription law as “involuntary servitude” and his arrest as an abridgment of freedom of speech and of the press. Rather than Justice Holmes’ “fire”, could we consider Schenck’s act more like warning people of a fire in the theatre before entering? Is not war itself a “clear and present danger”, much more dangerous than a mere argument against it? What is the fine line in which citizens are allowed to object to war without creating a danger to the government?

During the Cold War, the McCarren Act and the red-baiting of Senator McCarthy breathed new life into the Espionage Act. While the Act was originally intended to apply only during wartime, it has been continuously in force since 1950 — the long years of the Cold War, the permanent militarization of American policy and economy, and even the recent “War on Terror” show how far such justifications can be stretched to protect the government from its own citizens (not vice versa, which is the ideal). Public speech and print have been superseded by the possession of secret information as the main focus of the law. In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo were charged under the Espionage Act of publishing classified documents that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. They consisted 7000 pages of top secret records of the Department of Defense’s involvement in the Vietnam from the 1940s-70s, leaked by Ellsberg and Russo to the New York Times because of their indignation about the crimes of the United States against the people of Vietnam. The Nixon administration attempted to block the publication but it was ruled freedom of speech by the Supreme Court; the administration then indicted the leakers under the Espionage Act. They would have almost certainly been convicted and served long sentences but were instead released because of a legal technicality — the Watergate scandal that caused Nixon’s downfall came about when Nixon’s henchmen tried to steal compromising information about Ellsberg from his psychiatrist’s office. The Pentagon Papers case obviously had major historical ramifications, but also made it clear that the government considered the distribution of secret information to the press for the purpose of exposing secrets of the same government to be espionage. We must ask ourselves which is the worse crime: sanctioning injustice, oppression, and murder around the world, or the disclosure of these secret indiscretions to the public?

The final section of this essay concerns the recent cases of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, both of which are related to the Pentagon Papers case. Manning has been sentenced to 35 years in prison for violating the Espionage Act by stealing government intelligence and diplomatic cables that revealed governmental corruption and giving them to WikiLeaks to be published. Edward Snowden has been charged with violating the Espionage Act for stealing and publishing secret government information that revealed the extent of the widespread secret surveillance powers of the National Security Agency. Just as the Pentagon Papers, the crimes of Manning and Snowden only involved the transmission of information to the public that had been classified by the government as secret.

There are a few issues at play that we can discuss after this brief historical synopsis of the Espionage Act. You will have noticed the prevalence of the word “secret” in the examples I mentioned. It seems that the pervasive cloud of government secrecy is an excuse for any number of illegal or immoral acts to be committed. The reason the Pentagon Papers, the Manning leaks, and the Snowden leaks are such captivating events is not only that they reveal secrets protected by the state, but that the revealed contents of these state secrets are so shocking to the public. The government naturally wants the focus to be on the importance of maintaining secrecy and the punishment for violation of the Espionage Act, but polls show that the public is much more concerned with the harmful content of the secrets than the comparatively harmless crime of revealing them (harmless except to the reputation of the government). This is because the government is intended to be “of the people, by the people, and for the people”, and many people still hold this democratic ideal close to heart. When it is revealed how much the government hides from its citizens, we have the right to be shocked, outraged, and demand accountability; the people to be held accountable are not the ones whose conscience and sense of moral outrage drove them to provide us with the secrets, however, and they should probably be rewarded rather than punished.

Another aspect is the fine line between Freedom of Speech and state security. The Espionage Act and the cases above show exactly where the line stands between what is considered the right to free speech and what is considered the government’s prerogative to limit any expression that supposedly endangers state security. In my opinion, there is a clear solution to this problem, which is the absolute protection of Freedom of Speech and the other freedoms of the First Amendment. Whenever state security is invoked in order to limit fundamental rights, it is a slippery slope that takes us further away from the idea of the open democratic society towards something on the opposite end of the spectrum that could be called either tyranny, fascism, or totalitarianism. If we imagine George Orwell’s 1984 today, there would surely be a Ministry of Freedom which would limit Freedom of Speech to active daily repetition of the mantra: “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.”

Additionally, we should remember that a feature of the Espionage Act, however we feel about it, was that it was only meant to be enforceable and enforced during “wartime”. This is a crucial point if we consider that the traditional idea of wartime changed after World War II to be replaced with the idea of the continuous “Cold War”, or the state of being permanently on war footing against global enemies. The militarization of the American economy was central to its growth and success in the post-World War II years, and was important for protecting American corporate profits around the world. This did not change after the end of the Cold War; the Clinton Administration determined that the U.S. military must be able to fight two regional conflicts simultaneously, the Bush and Obama years have seen the invention and proliferation of the ill-conceived concept of the War on Terror. There are also at least 800 American bases and military installations in at least 156 countries around the world (link). If this still does not qualify as a permanent state of war, it is surely a state of hyper-militarization against enemies more imagined than real. It must be mentioned that the type of state and military secrets revealed by the aforementioned cases are not tactical, operational, or strategic in nature — I am not advocating something akin to reporting on troop movements to the Germans during World War II; rather, these are systemic and institutional secrets that hide crimes and corruption of government agencies and their corporate partners. In comparison, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted and executed under the Espionage Act for purportedly providing the Soviet Union with plans for nuclear weapons. However dubious the evidence against them, the nature of the crime is different from the argument I am attempting to make; giving detailed military information or weapons to hostile nations or groups is something else entirely from revealing moral injustices and atrocities of a government to its own people in the name of transparency and justice.

Let us now consider the Patriot Act and the system of state surveillance. In the weeks after 9/11, the Bush Administration and Congress created and easily passed a new law with the Orwellian name of the Patriot Act, which allows for a very broad interpretation of government access to any information that it claims could be used to maintain security (The Obama administration and a new Congress easily renewed the law in 2011). The last decade and a half has seen a huge expansion of the state security apparatus in general, headlined by agencies such as the new Department of Homeland Security, the infamous CIA, and the venerable National Security Agency (there are at least 16 separate government intelligence agencies and an untold number of private intelligence contractors, such as Stratfor, whose ignoble mission of trading secret information to governments and corporations was revealed in another recent leak by the hacker Jeremy Hammond). It was Ben Franklin who said that “they who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Never has this aphorism been so apt. The most recent revelations of the Snowden case show us just how pervasive and perverse the NSA has become (or maybe it was always this way, but with less amenable technology and/or publicity). What we are dealing with is the interception, collection, and monitoring of personal email, internet searches, phone conversations, and more, all over the world and on American citizens in their own houses. The NSA, we have learned, has virtually unchecked power and resources with no limitations or oversight. It is unclear who is being made more secure from whom.

In conclusion, we must remember that the things in this article are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg in the larger issue of Free Speech versus state secrecy and security. Indeed, the First Amendment has needed protection from government infringement since before the ink was even dry on the Bill of Rights. It will continue to be so in the future. A democracy (or what passes for one) will always depend on the active involvement of citizens to defend their own rights against the class of the Power Elite who would happily curtail those rights for their personal and financial gain. A government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” will be so in fact, as well as in name, only as long as its citizens force their elected leaders to work for them. A corollary to this is that citizens can only be involved in decision-making and accountability if they are in possession of relevant information on what exactly their government has been doing in their name (and with their tax money). This is why we should honor transparency rather than secrecy, and give courageous whistleblowers medals rather than prison sentences. We should not acquiesce in the expansion of the surveillance state and the cult of secrecy, giving up freedoms in the name of security. Such a systemic evil can lead only to an Orwellian future which must be avoided at any cost.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: