Friday, October 13, 2023

Opposing Israel's crimes against humanity and the monolithic, callous hypocrisy of the US political class

As Jewish Voice for Peace -- the largest organization of Jews in the U.S. opposed to the systematic, settler-colonial oppression of Palestinians by Israel -- has warned, Israeli government officials have now openly declared their intention to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity in its ongoing, escalating assault on Palestinians in general and Gaza in particular (see links below).

The announcement this morning, communicated by the Israeli government to the United Nations, demanding that the entire population of northern Gaza (1.1 million people) evacuate immediately as Israel prepares for a full-scale military invasion of Gaza, not only promises unavoidably "devastating humanitarian consequences," as the U.N. replied, it also plainly constitutes an act of premeditated mass murder and maiming of children, elderly, disabled and less-mobile, families, and civilians. Rarely are such crimes against humanity so openly declared in advance of their prosecution. Israel is plainly preparing a Nakba for Gaza, which as the U.N. describes, means “catastrophe” in Arabic, and in its historical usage "refers to the mass displacement and dispossession of Palestinians during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Before the Nakba, Palestine was a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society. However, the conflict between Arabs and Jews intensified in the 1930s with the increase of Jewish immigration, driven by persecution in Europe, and with the Zionist movement aiming to establish a Jewish state in Palestine."

[Photo credit from Hindustan Times: "A Palestinian woman comforts her children as they wait at the hospital to be checked, as battles between Israel Hamas continue for the sixth consecutive day, in the city of Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip on Thursday, (AFP)."]

As a Jew, with ancestors who fled pogroms, and with present ties to those living in Israel, I am tired, scared, and exhausted. Mostly I am tired of the willful ignorance and delusion on the part of too many unthinking supporters of Israel as to what it is that Israeli society has been doing, continues to do, and promises to do to the human beings -- not the "animals" as the Israeli Defense Minister referred to them mere days ago -- living permanently-displaced, occupied, impoverished, humiliated, and traumatized lives throughout historic Palestine. I struggle to remain above histrionics in discussing all of this, but it truly is sickening, and depressing.

We have clearly seen virtually the entire U.S. political class, as well as our university "leaders," declare that they stand firmly with Israel, that they mourn Israeli lives lost, and that they support what Israel is preparing to do next, without even having the perfunctory conscientiousness to spare a word of sympathy for the Palestinians. This despite the fact that, as reported by Reuters, as of yesterday morning, Israeli airstrikes on Gaza have killed over 400 children since Monday. Or, as Human Rights Watch has reported:

"Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) have recently faced perhaps unprecedented repression. During the first nine months of 2023, Israeli authorities killed more Palestinians in the West Bank in 2023 than in any year since the United Nations began systematically recording fatalities in 2005. As of October, the number of Palestinians being held in administrative detention without charges or trial based on secret information reached a 30-year-high.... The Israeli government’s systematic oppression in the OPT, coupled with inhumane acts committed against Palestinians as part of a policy to maintain the domination by Jewish Israelis over Palestinians, amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution, as Human Rights Watch previously found."

We have seen almost the entire US political class, the leading media outlets, and university chancellors be so monolithically and fatally wrong before; in the lead-up to the devastating and now-clearly unjustified U.S. war on Iraq, which was initiated almost exactly 20 years ago. They are wrong, as those ensconced in power so often are. We must speak out, protest, and make change now, before catastrophe, and not wait until 20 years later to regret that which never should have happened.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Once again on the Democratic Party, the lesser evil, and the working-class Left

(Originally published at Tempest)

Could another four years of Democratic Party rule be as disastrous for the Left, oppressed social groups, and the working class generally as a fresh four-year hell of Republican Party rule? I think it is quite possible—for the simple reason that, as a ruling-class political party that lacks the capacity or desire to radically alter the status quo in favor of the less powerful and privileged, the party in power will invariably become the target of mass resentment with the status quo. This resentment may be of a left-wing or right-wing variety; a bourgeois, middle-class, or working-class variety; or a convoluted mix thereof, but it is inevitable.

Perhaps it may have been otherwise during previous moments in the history of U.S. capitalism, when it could be argued that a relatively broad consensus of satisfaction with the status quo existed among a critical mass of the population. But the era of such a cross-class consensus is over, and with it the golden years of an (always ephemeral) alignment of the liberal bourgeoisie and the working class in the Democratic Party. Now, the ship of state of U.S. capitalism is a tottering behemoth, badly in need of repairs and lurching toward global economic imperial decay. The growing inequality between rich and poor (and the super-rich and everyone else), persistent inflation, retrenchment in virtually all state services except repressive apparatuses, the multiplication of social crises from ubiquitous homelessness to civil strife— are all signs of capitalism’s inability to meet our collective needs.

Since neither the Democratic nor Republican Parties have any cure for the ills plaguing the status quo, the rule by either one or the other party means simply the switching of hands upon the clipboard of leadership over a terminal case. Under Democratic Party rule, the Republican Party and the right-wing take the initiative in leading the resistance to the insufferable status quo, not only making gains in terms of partisan support but also benefiting from momentum on a local level to enact a slew of utterly bigoted oppress-and-conquer measures. Under Republican Party rule, the Democratic Party and liberal organizations take up the mantle of the resistance, grow their ranks, and perhaps even stymie the worst excesses of the ruling party’s administration. However, in either case the effect remains the same. It is less the swinging of a pendulum–the switch from the rule of one party to the other is less diametric than is supposed–than it is an alternating current, a form of energy transmission that is both stable and continuous despite undergoing constant reversal.

The point is that the Democratic and Republican parties are not the same, but neither are they wholly separate species. They are respectively funded by differentthough overlappingsectors of capital, after all. Put more accurately, the rule by the Democratic and Republican parties, as distinct from their respective propaganda and social bases, is noteworthy above all else for the exceptional flexibility and constancy with which it has alternated over roughly 150 years of U.S. capitalist history.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

"Learning From Comrade Helen Keller"

 (Originally published at Jacobin as "Helen Keller Was One of the Great American Socialists")

In March 1915, the Workers’ Chronicle ran an article syndicated by Appeal to Reason, the most popular socialist newspaper in the United States, titled “Learning From Comrade Helen Keller.” The Chronicle was a weekly newspaper representing “the center of Socialism” in Kansas, a state in which Eugene Debs had won 7 percent of the vote in the previous presidential election on the Socialist Party of America (SPA) ticket.

Occasioned by a recent lecture Keller gave to the Central Teachers’ Association in Oklahoma City, the article praised the message being spread by “Comrade Keller” as both orator and example. In the lecture, Keller reiterated the stock tale of her journey from an uneducated blind and deaf seven-year-old to a world-famous college graduate, scholar, and author thanks to the innovative pedagogy employed by Anne Sullivan (of latter-day Miracle Worker fame).

She then proceeded to a brief discourse on the subject of happiness: “Not the pleasant things alone that one can get out of life, but the things that can be done for others are the ones worth striving for.”

“Her whole story,” reflected the Chronicle, “speaks eloquently of what can be done for all children everywhere, when sane economic conditions give them a chance to develop.”

This point was more than intimated by Keller herself during the lecture. When an audience member asked if it was true that she was a socialist, Keller — who had publicly accepted an offer of honorary membership in the Pittsburg, Kansas, local chapter of the SPA the previous year — quickly replied: “Oh, yes, because it is the only way out of the muddle humanity is in at the present time.”

Keller’s accomplishments, the Chronicle argued by way of conclusion, ought to both reproach and inspire

those of us who are sometimes discouraged by the seeming great odds against the Socialist movement. When but a fraction of the same willpower and determination that has characterized Helen Keller’s life is infused into the Socialist movement, the Co-operative Commonwealth will not be far distant.

Contradictions at Noontide

Aside from providing a glimpse into the breadth of popularity enjoyed by the socialist movement in the early twentieth-century United States, this vignette captures many of the contradictions that characterized the lives of both Helen Keller and the socialist movement during this period.

These contradictions orbit around questions of disability and the role of disabled people within social movements and society at large; ideology and theoretical conceptualizations of how social transformation occurs; political organization and the role of party formations in bringing about the socialist “commonwealth”; and, finally, intersectional tension and disjuncture in the person of Keller herself along lines of class, gender, disability, politics, and economics.

For many in the SPA during this era, the path to socialism in the United States was a simple, almost ineluctable, matter. They assumed that socialism was a perfectly rational conceptual model of society in contrast to that of capitalism, and that most people would ultimately accede to rational solutions when they were convincingly articulated (hence the title Appeal to Reason). Victory was thus merely a matter of spreading the gospel through an ever-expanding base of members, voters, newspapers, electoral candidacies, and government officeholders.

In this schema, the timetable of socialism mainly depended upon the degree of willpower exerted by its adherents. To this end, one could effectively deploy the archetype of Helen Keller as an impelling challenge to socialist activists. Of course, the unspoken premise behind such inspirational (or reproachful) appeals was that the readership of the Workers’ Chronicle, for instance, did not share Keller’s “endowed” deficits and therefore had little excuse for inactivity.

In a way, this inspiration-laden use of the persona of Helen Keller — as “she who overcame” disability — represents a mere conversion of the disability trope so often instrumentalized in a bourgeois framework: “If this unfortunate handicapped person can succeed in life, then you have no excuse!”

In the context of the socialist movement, such canards are even more jarring, as it is precisely among the lower and working classes of society that rates of disablement are disproportionately high. Moreover, working-class disabled people are far more likely to be impoverished, lacking advanced education and the kind of material resources that made such “miracles” as Helen Keller’s success possible.

While Keller explicitly and conscientiously recognized the difference between her own social circumstances and those of most disabled people, she nonetheless tended to lean into her “branding” as a sort of Wonder of the World. This in turn readily lent itself to such awe-inspired sentiments as were expressed by the Workers’ Chronicle.

It is important to note, however, that Keller had been virtually trained from childhood to play such a role — if not on behalf of the socialist movement, then at least on behalf of the progressive-reformist variant of bourgeois liberalism, which swelled between the 1880s and 1910s.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Review of "Class War: The Jacobin board game"

The Continuation of Politics by Other Means

(Originally published at Tempest)

“Why,” you may be wondering, “is a socialist magazine doing a review of a board game?” Perhaps it is for the same reason that a socialist magazine would create and merchandise a board game. Announced on social media by Jacobin magazine in November 2021 as a crowd-funded Kickstarter project, Class War: The Jacobin Board Game was officially released for individual and retail distribution in May 2022.

Class War not only boasts the Jacobin imprimatur, but its design team comprises some of the primary names behind the magazine itself, including Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara,. As stated in relevant materials and publicity, Jacobin views the game as both an entertainment and a “pedagogical” medium. “The gameplay is so addictive,” Jacobin asserts, “that even your libertarian uncle won’t be able to resist the world-historic struggle unfolding in the deck of cards before him.” At the same time, unwitting players “just might see, for the very first time, what a socialist perspective on our society’s class antagonisms really looks like.” 

Moreover, the act of buying and playing the game is intended to “support Jacobin’s important socialist journalism and analysis,” an effort aided by the penultimate page of the included Rule Book, which contains more information “About Jacobin” and on “Further Reading” (comprising a short list of mainly Jacobin-published texts such as The ABCs of Capitalism, The ABCs of Socialism, and The Socialist Manifesto).

Given the game’s explicitly dual character—as play and as propaganda—this review will examine Class War in detail on both counts, perhaps leaning in a bit harder on the political analysis. As it turns out, both the strengths and weaknesses of Class War as play and propaganda are immanently related to the strengths and weaknesses of Jacobin’s ideological approach to questions of socialist theory and strategy, reform and revolution, state power, and workers’ power.

The game mechanics and rules of Class War are relatively straight forward and make for a gradual learning curve, with a relatively moderate complexity level (closer to Exploding Kittens than Magic: The Gathering). As the game box states, 

“In Class War, you are a collective entity: a social class—either the Capitalists or the Workers. You’ll fight for social dominance in an unstable constitutional democracy… Classes will use money generated by workplaces to build their social power in society, using cards drawn from their deck. Then they will confront their opponent with a dice roll—in the economy, to win a greater slice of the economic pie, or in the state, to build political power. Ultimately, both classes aim to make their demands into law, permanently changing the rules of the game in their favor.”

I was initially very excited when the Kickstarter project for this game was announced. As a game enthusiast and socialist, I have long thought about how great it would be to have a game that coherently and effectively combined enthralling gameplay with the satisfaction of a simulated conquest of workers’ power over the forces of capitalist exploitation and oppression. Gaming, after all, is a medium that lends itself by design to the freest flight of imagination—to either escape from the misery of the real world in an excursion to another time, place, and even personality, or to embrace the hopes, dreams, and struggles of the real world in a fanciful glimpse of what it might entail to entirely change present society in the construction of a brighter future.

Perhaps my expectations were too high, but Class War sadly falls short of such lofty imaginings and even its own potential. However, let us start with what is good about the game, and why I would nonetheless recommend it for play with friends and comrades.

Monday, May 16, 2022

Review of "Woody Guthrie: An Intimate Life" | Disability Studies Quarterly

Originally published at Disability Studies Community Blog

Woody Guthrie: An Intimate Life
Gustavus Stadler
Beacon Press, 2020

Image of book cover featuring title and profile of Woody Guthrie
Woody Guthrie: An Intimate Life is an eponymous man-behind-the-myth look at an abiding figure of folk-music and left-wing Americana. Against the popular (and populist) conception of Guthrie as a rugged, rambling, and hardheaded archetype of freewheeling Old Left communist politics and salt-of-the-earth masculinity, author Gustavus Stadler presents a man whose life’s labors were informed by a profound awareness of vulnerability, fragility, and debilitation. An Intimate Life is also more than pure biography as it is an opportunity to explore the broader concepts of love, sexuality, disability, and communism in the context of the early-to-mid-twentieth century United States, as refracted by the personage of Guthrie. Though not a work of the Disability Studies genre, per se, the issues of normativity (and deviance), madness, impairment, and physiological stigma and shame are featured prominently throughout the book.

Indeed, this book is an intimate biography and a biography of the intimate. More than Guthrie’s strident politics or ideological journey, Stadler focuses on the private correspondences, diary writings, and personal friendships that reveal Guthrie as a deeply sensual human being. Rather than conjuring the image of a man violently strumming a guitar amidst the throes of revolutionary fervor, An Intimate Life elicits the sensation of a man delicately rolling a pencil between his fingers as he prepares to put innermost thoughts to paper. It is more Walt Whitman than Karl Marx, who is put into communion with Guthrie in this book. In describing the import of Guthrie’s semi-autobiographical novel, Bound for Glory, published in 1943, Stadler writes that it tells “the story of his [Guthrie’s] interest in troubled people and damaged bodies that needed intimate attention.” This includes scenes of “men improvising relations of care, of quasi-domesticity” while riding in train boxcars across the Midwest. It also significantly includes Guthrie’s “haunted” relationship with his mother, Nora, “through his deeply traumatized depiction of [her] decline,” due to Huntington’s disease.

Nora Guthrie began expressing increasingly acute symptoms of Huntington’s, viz. physiological and psychological loss of control, when Woody was still young. The people of the small Oklahoma town in which the Guthrie family lived began to comment derisively upon and shun Nora for being “crazy.” In 1927, Woody’s father had Nora committed to a state institution for the “insane,” where she died shortly thereafter. The young Woody, ignorant at the time of both the diagnosis and the heritability of Huntington’s disease, would have been shocked to know that a similar fate awaited him in his elder years. In fact, the adult Woody Guthrie of the 1950s was resistant to the Huntington’s diagnosis given to him by doctors; he instead attributed his advancing physiological and psychological impairments – and his increasingly frequent and extended stays in various state institutions and psychiatric hospitals around New York City – to alcoholism.

There are other often-overlooked elements of Guthrie’s story that Stadler gives extensive treatment to, such as the importance of his relationship with his long-time partner and wife, Marjorie Greenblatt Mazia; Guthrie’s fascination and complicated relationship with sex, sexuality, and homosexuality; and the abstract artistic expressionism of his later years, after he began exhibiting symptoms of Huntington’s, which focused on questions of racism, whiteness, and white supremacy in the U.S. Additionally, Stadler presents an even-handed, if not sympathetic, interpretation of Guthrie’s lifelong commitment to working-class revolutionary politics and the American communist movement, which enjoyed something of a surge in popularity in the New Deal 1930s.

From a disability and madness studies vantage the most interesting sections of An Intimate Life are to be found in the latter chapters of the book, which examine Guthrie’s experience with and reflections upon being institutionalized. Between 1956 and 1967, when he died at the age of fifty-five, Guthrie cycled between a number of state institutions, sometimes voluntarily and sometimes involuntarily. The conversations and observations he obtained from others in these institutions profoundly impacted him. ‘Shell-shocked’ war veterans, old leftists, ‘deviant’ victims of the 1950s persecution of homosexuality – such people furthered Guthrie’s awareness of the social effects of stigma, marginalization, and shame. Mediated by a callous and cruel capitalist social system and an imperious medical establishment, Guthrie saw in his fellow ‘patients’ not people who were primarily victims of their various diagnosed pathologies – many of whom Guthrie maintained were “sick in [their] own healthy [emphasis added] way” – but victims of a “crazy mixed up” society.

In a fascinating stroke of comparative insight, Stadler contextualizes Guthrie’s experience by making recourse to the apt poetry of Allen Ginsberg. In 1956, the same year that Guthrie entered the Greystone Psychiatric Hospital near New York City, Ginsberg published the famous poem, “Howl,” which references Greystone and other New York institutions, inhabited by “twenty-five thousand mad comrades.” When Ginsberg writes in the opening line of the poem, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” he may well have had numerous specific names in mind, as Ginsberg witnessed many friends, contemporaries, and family members committed to institutions over the years, many of whom identified as communist, queer, or otherwise non-normative.

An Intimate Life has a lot to offer those interested in a diverse array of subjects. It is a story of the shifting ideological climate of the United States between the 1900s and 1950s, as working-class politics went from milieux of itinerant syndicalist organizing, to New Deal and Popular Front socialism, to revanchist and repressive Cold War anti-communism. It is a story of sexual politics, gender variance, and the socially-constructed deviance corresponding thereto. It is a story of American racism, lynch mobs, white supremacy, and critical self-reflective whiteness. It is a story of disability, illness, normativity, stigma, and institutionalization. And it is a story of love, romanticism, the beauty and bane of family intimacy, poetry, music, the sublime, and the sublimated.