When I was a little kid, I wanted to be a crane driver. My parents thought this was pretty funny, since I was apparently a rather brainy and un-physical kid. Nobody else ever saw a hard hat and a metal lunchbox in my future, yet I was always obsessed with buildings and urban architecture, I always wanted to stop and look when we passed a construction site, and I still wonder today if I would have found greater overall satisfaction if I'd stuck to my earliest career plan. My crane-driver dreams were probably also inspired by The Flintstones.

I recently took a walk during a lunch break from my current day job, which is in the high-tech corridor of Herndon/Reston in Northern Virginia, and spotted a bustling building site where hundreds of construction professionals were hard at work. It occurred to me that I was looking at a real-life version of the positive vision presented by countless Republican or Democratic party political ads, because these TV commercials love to show the stern, trusting faces of stolid middle-aged guys wearing hard hats at construction sites. The construction job is the idealized American job: decent pay and benefits, solid and dependable hours, the satisfaction of watching a building emerge under your feet. Here's a wider vista of the project I watched for a few minutes before heading back to my own less exciting (but also, in its own way, rewarding and satisfying) job developing Drupal-based web applications for government-sponsored sites.

Jobs! It's the word spoken constantly by both sides in the current USA presidential election. There is a 7.8% unemployment rate in the USA, and both the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney campaigns are pushing the promise to help more Americans find work. But, as I've mentioned here before, the happy vision of a sturdy, serious American with a hard hat (the classic blue collar full-time job), or of me and a table full of hipster professionals sketching website designs on a whiteboard in a fluorescent-lit conference room (the classic white collar full-time job) is a simplistic and idealized one. If the political dream our candidates are selling is that every healthy and capable American citizen should be able to have a 40-hour-a-week job, then we are probably all chasing a dubious and fatally misguided vision of the future.

The dream depends on an equation that must have been very plausible before our high-tech age, and seems increasingly less so as our societal rate of change increases. Workers survive by creating products (goods, services) that consumers want to buy, and then receive payment which allows them to be consumers of products created by others. That's the cycle of work and reward, but how do we know that there will always be a healthy balance between worker supply and product demand? What if our growing technological sophistication makes it so easy to create all the products consumers want that it no longer becomes necessary to employ nearly 100% of the population to create these things?

If this is the case, then the employment-obsessed platforms of both the Republicans and Democrats are stuck in the past, because neither platform fully recognizes the central importance of the halfway job, the part-time job, the work-from-home job, the do-it-yourself and earn-just-enough job. Mitt Romney has promised to create 12 million jobs, though his numbers here don't add up any better than his numbers on countless other topics. How would Romney create 12 million jobs, and what kind of jobs would they be?

It's nice to think that he'd create construction projects like the one pictured above -- meat-and-potatoes jobs for eager Americans. But Romney has also pledged to cut federal spending, so there would be no way for President Romney to create these jobs directly. Since Romney's entire private sector experience is in high-risk banking and investment, we have to look to his Wall Street (by way of Boston) background for an indication of the methods he would use to create jobs.

These methods include many unsavory elements: funny-money accounting tricks that makes profits magically appear on paper, arbitrage deals that allow investors to get wealthy as they shuffle businesses around from the comfort of their offices. Mitt Romney and most of his pre-2008-crash banking associates became ridiculously wealthy by creating artificial growth, and it seems likely that many of the 12 million jobs he is promising to create would have a similarly artificial character. Romney probably could create a temporary employment surge, but it would be brittle and undependable growth.

Barack Obama's economic program is more moderate and earthbound, and is also better for one gigantic reason: Obamacare. Health insurance reform is essential for transient, semi-employed citizens who lack a company benefits package to join. Mitt Romney's threat to repeal the health insurance reform features of the Affordable Care Act is terrifying to anybody who doesn't have an employment-based group insurance plan, because it sharpens the contrast between the jobbed and the jobless. Obamacare seems to present the most consequential difference between what Obama and Romney are offering, and the Democrats would do well to campaign extensively on this point from now until election day.

The Romney vision of a hyperactive job-obsessed economy without Obamacare is a vision of a world where your job -- not your country, but your job -- takes care of you. What is gained by trading in a nanny state economy for a nanny job economy? One could argue that private sector companies are better able to handle issues like health care than the federal government. But in fact there's little evidence for this, especially since we watched the private sector manage itself into financial disaster only four years ago. Most importantly, a nanny job economy where employment-based health insurance is the only affordable insurance available would be horrific for the tens of millions of Americans who cannot find access to employment-based health insurance.

Where the Romney vision -- job! job! job! -- falls flat is in the lack of liquidity within the job market it might create. Unless our economy can naturally support perpetual 40-hour-a-week full-time employment for all Americans, every job would become a treasured refuge of financial security within an insecure outer world shorn of financial safety nets. This would make Americans even more vitally dependent upon their jobs than they are today, and would offer little flexibility for mobility, alternative employment situations or workplace lifestyle differences. Employers would be empowered to treat their workers badly, and workers would have no choice but to cower in fear, because Americans would learn to dread unemployment above all else.

Whenever I try to imagine what a Romney-created job market would look like, I keep coming back to one word: serfdom. This seems strange at first, because Mitt Romney is allegedly a free-market conservative, and the word "serfdom" is currently used most often by free-market conservatives influenced by Friedrich von Hayek's classic text The Road to Serfdom (one of several books also discussed here). Von Hayek's book, originally written as a bulwark against the Communist philosophy that threatened human freedom in the past century, warned against governments that turn citizens into serfs.

But it's not only governments that can turn citizens into serfs. The private sector can do this as well, which is why is not a good idea to elect political leaders who base their economic ideas on inflexible and backwards-looking notions of full employment. In fact, serfdom itself (as exemplified in 19th century Russia) has always been based in free market economy (not free for the serfs, of course, but free for their owners). Von Hayek was using a clever and ironic metaphor when he described 20th century Russians as serfs.

The actual Russian serfs of the 19th century did not struggle under Communist rule; they struggled under the thumb of the Tsar, and more directly under the thumbs of their employers. The government of 19th century Russia did not steal the freedom of its peasantry; rather, it was the dreary, depressing and inhumane common terms of employment -- let's not forget, serfs were employed, employed full-time in the harshest sense of all -- that sapped the souls of the Russian peasantry.

As a refreshing alternative to the Romney vision of every American chained forever to a 40-hour-a-week job, here's a quote from the imaginative economist David Graeber, author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years, and one of the key intellectual voices behind the Occupy Wall Street movement, This is from an article in The Nation:

Occupy was right to resist the temptation to issue concrete demands. But if I were to frame a demand today, it would be for as broad a cancellation of debt as possible, followed by a mass reduction of working hours—say to a five-hour workday or a guaranteed five-month vacation. If such a suggestion seems outrageous, even inconceivable, it’s just a measure of the degree to which our horizons have shrunk.

Indeed, in our job-obsessed political environment today, it does seem outrageous to suggest that the best thing the US government can do to improve the economy is promote the idea of shorter workdays and longer vacations. But it's the best idea I've heard anybody come up with. Everybody knows that technological improvements currently allow us all to produce greater amounts of things with less effort than ever before in history. We need to unchain ourselves from the rigid notion of the 40-hour-a-week job, and introduce a much wider variety of gradations between the two stark options of "employed" and "unemployed". This seems to be the path to financial sanity for our future.

Von Hayek's book title aside, there seem to actually be several different roads to serfdom. I'd like to find the road that leads away from serfdom, and I think it's David Graeber, not Friedrich von Hayek, who might be pointing the path.


I recently took a walk during a lunch break from my current day job, which is in the high-tech corridor of Herndon/Reston in Northern Virginia, and spotted a bustling building site where hundreds of construction professionals were hard at work. It occurred to me that I was looking at a real-life version of the positive vision presented by countless Republican or Democratic party political ads, because these TV commercials love to show the stern, trusting faces of stolid middle-aged guys wearing hard hats at construction sites. The construction job is the idealized American job: decent pay and benefits, solid and dependable hours, the satisfaction of watching a building emerge under your feet.

Jobs! It's the word spoken constantly by both sides in the current USA presidential election. There is a 7.8% unemployment rate in the USA, and both the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney campaigns are pushing the promise to help more Americans find work. But, as I've mentioned here before, the happy vision of a sturdy, serious American with a hard hat (the classic blue collar full-time job), or of me and a table full of hipster professionals sketching website designs on a whiteboard in a fluorescent-lit conference room (the classic white collar full-time job) is a simplistic and idealized one. If the political dream our candidates are selling is that every healthy and capable American citizen should be able to have a 40-hour-a-week job, then we are probably all chasing a dubious and fatally misguided vision of the future.

view /WhichWayIsTheRoadToSerfdom
Friday, October 5, 2012 08:09 pm
Construction workers in Reston, Virginia
Levi Asher

Changes. Funny thing ... I was planning on writing a blog post today about some changes I'm planning on making here on Litkicks. The site turns 18 years old (!) this Monday, July 23, and I'm planning to shake a few things up. I was going to write about that today, and then I heard some news about the Bowery Poetry Club.

The Bowery Poetry Club has always been my favorite night spot in New York City. It opened in the spring of 2002 -- a great time for a new spoken word poetry club to open in a New York City still recovering from the shock of the previous September. The club is the handiwork of poetry raconteur Bob Holman, a guy we like a lot and think should be Poet Laureate of the United States.

For the past eleven years the BPC has been a cozy and friendly spot for amateur and professional poets and slammers and lyricists. Everybody who worked there was a poet, and you'd find Moonshine and Shappy (two good spoken word guys) mopping the floor or tending the bar. There's a Walt Whitman Lite Brite behind the stage, tasty organic coffee and tarts out near the front ... and halfway decent poetry acts at least half the time. Whenever a friend was coming in from out of town, I'd tell them to hit the Bowery Poetry Club.

Unfortunately, it's closing down. A restaurant will probably replace the club, though there is some word that the restaurant will continue to host poetry events. Bob Holman sent out an encouraging message earlier today:

The rumors of the death of the Bowery Poetry Club are greatly exaggerated!! It is true that ten years into Project Utopia, the hamster-tail chase of booking 30-35 gigs a week to allow the Poetry we know and love to live has produced a fatigued staff, a ragged Board (of Bowery Arts + Science, the nonprofit that books the Club), and a space that's crying out for a dose TLC. But toss in the Po' Towel? No Way, Joe! By spending the summer renovating and working out a partnership with a restaurant (rumors of Duane Park as our collaborators are sweet and the two entities surely do share a love for the populist arts of the Bowery, but nothing is signed yet folks), we hope to reopen come fall and be SUSTAINABLE with a neighborhood (Loisaida/Earth) focused poetry schedule, utilizing other neighborhood resources as well as the Club. Look for a fuller deployment of the POEMobile around town, state, country, solar system, and a commitment to a global poetics rooted in the Endangered Language Movement. To the communit-y/-ies who have supported us, and to our staff, deepest thanks! Stay tuned -- we love you. Come party with Sean T and Ann and all on Tues July 17. Everything is Subject to Change! -- and for our Tenth Anniversary next year, the BPC will look different. To survive and sustain. All the better to serve the world poetry.

In other words, Holman says we don't need to worry about poetry in New York City ... and from what I know of the strong slam poetry community in New York City, we definitely don't need to worry about it. It's good news that the Bowery Poetry Club organization will continue to be active, and I'm sure they'll keep it hopping on the Lower East Side.

I was at the Bowery Poetry Club the day it opened, and I have participated in and hosted many unforgettable events there. The last thing I went to was a beatnik birthday party for Herschel Silverman, a year ago. Luckily, there are still plenty of other places for beatniks to hang out in downtown New York, and there always will be.

* * * * *

Changes. I've also got some changes in mind for this Literary Kicks joint, this little web/writing project of mine, nearly 18 years old (!). I figured it was time to stretch the format a little bit, and try some new things out. These future experiments will involve other formats like iOS, Kindle, ePub, Semantic Web, Kobo, Nook, iBooks, etc. (I've been doing some geeking out, and I bought a new Mac.)

As you know if you've been around here a while, I like to mix things up on the website every few years. That's how I keep it fresh. I'll tell you a little more about what I have in mind during the next couple of blog posts.

view /BoweryChanges
Monday, July 16, 2012 11:49 pm
Levi Asher

(This book review is the Litkicks debut of Tara Olmsted, who runs BookSexy Review, a blog with a special focus on international and translated literature.)

Attending college in New York City in the mid-1990’s left me with some distinct memories of the city. De La Vega chalk tags on the sidewalks of Broadway next to graffiti stencils that read “Free Mumbia”; the booksellers whose tables used to line St. Marks Place before they were kicked out; boys from Columbia going on (and on) about Ayn Rand and their counterparts from New York University in Che Guevara t-shirts.

Those t-shirts with their iconic image were my only connection to Guevara. Which is kinda’ sad. The man has been made into a symbol and used to market non-conformity, anti-establishment and revolution to a mostly compliant public. His silk-screened face has become one of the most recognizable and ubiquitous commercial images in the world.

So, unsurprisingly, images are what drew me to Remembering Che: My Life with Che Guevara, Aleida March’s memoir of her marriage to Ernesto Che Guevara. The book contains dozens of personal photographs, many published for the first time -- candid pictures of a charismatic and amazingly photogenic couple.

It’s not hard to understand how Che Guevera became the poster child for Latin American revolution. There’s an energy -- a directness -- in his eyes that’s hard to look away from. Even in his later years, when he frequently travelled in disguise and under aliases, that gaze is unmistakable. These photos will be the main draw for all but the hardcore Guevara fan. They, along with the couple’s personal correspondence, provide a definite sense of the man as his family and friends knew him.

The memoir's narrative, unfortunately, lacks the spontaneity of the photographs. Aleida March is as committed to the cause of the revolution in Cuba (her own country, though Che was from Argentina) as was her famous husband. She was involved in the guerrilla movement as a young woman and first met Che while acting as a courier (she delivered a package of money to his camp in the Escambray Mountains). After the overthrow of the Batista government they were married. Aleida took up the role of his personal secretary. She minimizes her government service while acknowledging being appointed to the Cuban Delegation to the First Latin American Congress of Women and Children and being an elected officer in the Federation of Cuban Women, an organization which worked to overcome what she describes as “persistent male chauvinism” in order to fully integrate women into the new Cuban society. It’s obvious that her access to Che gave her knowledge of more than the details of their own life together. She was in a unique position, which makes her able to provide potentially new insights into Che’s political activities.

But Aleida is also the current head of the Che Guevara Studies Center in Havana -- appointed by Fidel Castro himself -- making her as protective of her husband’s legacy as she has, until now, been of her private memories of their time together. The combination makes Remembering Che more complicated than the typical memoir. There are multiple agendas at play here, and it would be foolish to approach this book believing otherwise. (Aleida March is published by Ocean Books, whose tagline is “radical books on Latin America and the World”. They also publish Guevara’s diaries, as well as books authored by Fidel Castro -- including Obama and the Empire).

Remembering Che: My Life with Che Guevara is fundamentally a collection of names, dates and locations peppered with personal anecdotes -- not all of which are interesting. Aleida talks about her husband, the places they traveled, the births of their children, their friends and fellow campesiños. She moves quickly and as a result often deals with events only superficially; including their revolutionary activities (“revolutionary” is a word that’s used a lot). This may be in part because she assumes the reader has also read Guevara’s published diaries.

Aleida chooses to focus instead on Guevara’s long absences after the Cuban Revolution, when he distanced himself from Castro’s government. She describes their clandestine meetings (often arranged by Fidel) and the infrequent communications she received from the Congo, Bolivia, and Eastern Europe. Only the most rudimentary details -- and almost no opinions -- are given of Che’s activities in these places. The details the told in a prose so carefully worded that I wouldn’t be surprised if they were transcribed from recorded interviews and then doctored. Even the major historical incidents of the Cuban Revolution, such as the executions at La Cabaña Fortress and the Bay of Pigs invasion, are allotted only a few, brief sentences. The Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 is discussed in two paragraphs.

Despite the years that have passed since October 1962, I can still vividly recall the tension of the days when humanity faced an armed conflict of unimaginable proportions. After the Bay of Pigs, facing the constant threat of a US invasion, Cuba decided to accept the Soviet Union’s offer to have nuclear missiles on our territory. We regarded this as a legitimate act of defense of our sovereignty.

The location of these strategic arms was detected by spy planes and denounced by the US government. Unfortunately, when the crisis came to a head, Cuba was not consulted and our revolutionary government was forced to take a principled stand, refusing to succumb to the threats of imperialism. The Soviet missiles were withdrawn, but we did not allow UN inspection.

She then goes on to quote briefly from Che’s farewell letter to Fidel Castro, in which he expresses the pride he felt during those “brilliant yet sad days” ... and that’s it. A book about the man who engineered the entire Cuban-Soviet relationship and that’s all we get. The sad truth is: the Wikipedia entry on Ernesto Che Guevara provides more information than Aleida March. This restraint, along with the repeated use of keywords and phrases like “revolutionary government”, “imperialism” and “cultural development” causes Remembering Che to appear almost quaint, like a vintage Soviet propaganda poster.

Still, despite all attempts to stay on message, Aleida is never convincing in the role of stay-at-home-revolutionary. I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that she was Mileva Marić to Che’s Einstein, but she obviously knows more than she’s telling. By her own admission she was a guerrilla, an eyewitness to history. She served on government committees, attended university and taught students as part of her husband’s literacy program. She also had the ear of high ranking officials and represented her country internationally ... all while raising five children virtually alone.

She recalls how Che initially had to convince her of the merits of Communism -- so she obviously has a mind and opinions of her own. In this book's Afterword, she expresses regret at not having "sufficiently acknowledged many compañeras, women who played a key role in our struggle", -- a statement that hints at feminist leanings. Her omissions are fascinating, much more so than what she chose to include. They make me believe that there is a more interesting version of this story, one told entirely from Aleida March’s perspective. This book, though, isn’t it.


Tara Olmsted reviews "Remembering Che", a new memoir by Aleida March, the wife of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara.

view /RememberingChe
Wednesday, July 11, 2012 11:05 am
Che Guevara and Aleida March
Tara Olmsted

I met Eliot Katz many years ago at St. Marks Poetry Project in New York City, back in a different era when several now legendary figures like Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Herbert Huncke, Tuli Kupferberg and Janine Pommy Vega were still alive and never missed a reading at St. Mark's Church.

I first encountered Eliot as part of the crowd that surrounded Allen Ginsberg -- his "entourage", basically -- but I also heard him read his own poems: moving, well-crafted verses with a humorous Ginsberg-ian self-questioning touch, often containing powerful messages about political activism, about life in New York City, about escapes into nature. Eliot was the co-editor with Allen Ginsberg and Andy Clausen of Poems for the Nation: A Collection of Contemporary Political Poems and also published two books of poetry, Love, War, Fire, Wind: Looking Out from North America's Skull and Unlocking the Exits.

When the Occupy Wall Street movement kicked off last September, I expected to see Eliot Katz around the scene, since I know he's an eager political activist who never turns down a good event. Unfortunately, I learned that Eliot has been slowed down by a bout with Lyme disease, and has been forced to participate in the Occupy movement more from the sidelines than he would have liked. However, the sidelines can offer a good perspective for observation. Eliot recently sent me some notes containing his thoughts about how the Occupy Wall Street movement can best position itself to succeed in the future, and I thought I'd give Eliot a chance to air his ideas out with an interview here. Eliot and I got a chance to talk about some more esoteric and poetic topics too. Thanks, Eliot, and I hope you'll be back in full health again soon.

Levi: In an article you recently wrote, you quoted Abbie Hoffman speaking in 1988 at Rutgers University (where you were a student) about one of the discouraging realities of protest movements:

Decision making has been a problem on the Left. In the sixties we always made decisions by consensus. By 1970, when you had 15 people show up and three were FBI agents and six were schizophrenics, universal agreement was getting to be a problem. I call it ‘The Curse of Consensus Decision Making,’ because in the end consensus decision making is rule of the minority: the easiest form to manipulate ... Trying to get everyone to agree takes forever. Usually the people are broke, without alternatives, with no new language, just competing to see who can burn the shit out of the other the most ... Most decisions are made by consensus, but there must also be a format whereby you can express your differences. The democratic parliamentary procedure—majority rule—is the toughest to stack, because in order to really get your point across you’ve got to get cooperation, and to go out and get more people to come in to have those votes the next time around.

Abbie was talking about the need for decision by majority vote within protest groups, and you quoted him to support your own suggestion that the Occupy Wall Street movement ought to create a leadership structure and begin making decisions by majority vote rather than consensus. But wouldn't that harm the essentially open character of the Occupy movement, and create a politicized infrastructure that would inevitably succumb to corruption, favoritism and personality politics? Wouldn't something great be lost if Occupy ceased to operate as a quasi-anarchist movement? Would it be worth trading this in for a more organized movement?

Eliot: First, Levi, let me say that, as a longtime fan of Litkicks, and an occasional past contributor of poems to your website, it has been really nice to see how deeply Litkicks has been interested in progressive politics, including the Occupy movement, and it’s an honor to have a chance to talk with you and your readers about some political ideas.

As someone who has been participating in many of Occupy’s major events and rallies and who has worked as an organizer with the OWS poetry collective, I believe that Occupy has already accomplished a great deal in a very short time -- including changing the national dialogue from austerity to economic inequality, putting a larger spotlight on poverty issues in America, and drawing attention away from the right-wing Tea Party that had been dominating press coverage of on-the-ground politics before Occupy. But, if we are going to be honest and self-reflexive, it is also clear that, by the time of this interview in the first days of summer 2012, with some notable recent exceptions like the large May Day protests in NYC, Occupy has already moved into a period of gradual decline. I wanted to offer some suggestions, based on my years of organizing experience, for how to re-energize Occupy, since sometimes strategies that work in the creation and early stages of a movement may need to change if the movement is going to become a sustained and effective one for the long haul.

Of course, sometimes political movements have a limited run, no matter what people do. But since Occupy seemed, and still seems, to have such terrific potential, I thought it would be worth offering some personal suggestions for how it might evolve in its strategies to better meet the needs of a longer-term movement. I’m aware that, as one fairly unknown poet-activist in a very large movement, I have no real influence on things, and it would be a long shot if my ideas were to be adopted. But since I used to help put out a literary journal called Long Shot, I figured I would at least put my ideas out there.

In getting to your question, I’d like to divide my answer into two parts: the first about decision-making processes, and the second about leadership issues.

In my experience working with a wide range of activist groups through the years, consensus usually works best with smaller groups where people know and feel comfortable with each other. As Abbie Hoffman described in the quote you cited, when groups get larger and new people come in, the fact that just a few people can block decisions under a consensus process often encourages conscious or subconscious forms of aggressiveness and manipulation, in which people attempt to emotionally bludgeon dissenters into agreeing with things they really don’t agree with. This sort of aggressiveness, which sometimes goes on for hours, doesn’t occur nearly as often during a majority-vote process in which people can simply express their disagreements, get outvoted, and move on.

Occupy Wall Street was created using a consensus decision-making model, and it seemed to work pretty well in its early stages. But as OWS began to grow, I started hearing more stories about heated arguments at General Assembly and spokes-council meetings, including even a chair-throwing incident, and a lot of complaints about how long the General Assembly meetings were taking. Soon, many key Occupy organizers began issuing calls for more mutual respect and general kindness among OWS organizers. Of course, such requests are totally sensible, but they only go so far in that they don’t address the kinds of structural changes that could possibly help to encourage more respect and kindness. So, one suggestion I have for Occupy would be to move to a majority-vote decision-making process, along the lines of Abbie Hoffman’s advice to our Rutgers 1988 national student activist conference. Again, I’m aware that my personal suggestion alone won’t make that happen, and that it can be really difficult to change a consensus decision-making process once it is in place, because it only takes a few votes to block any change in the process. But it still seems worth making the suggestion. In addition to helping to encourage a kinder and more cooperative spirit, I hope this sort of change might also lead to more people returning to Occupy meetings, to fewer heated arguments among activists, and to much shorter meetings that would better enable parents with children, working people, and disabled people to participate!

In terms of the question of leadership structures, I know that many of the original organizers of Occupy believe in a “horizontalist” version of anarchism in which any notion of representative leadership—whether elected or not, whether structurally accountable to the larger group or not—is seen as automatically oppressive, as creating an undesirable “hierarchy” that is looked at as an evil word right up there with cancer or pepper-spray. Under this view, the movement has no official leaders and everyone who shows up to a General Assembly meeting on any given night has the right to an equal vote, and an equal ability to block consensus. Some call this horizontal process “direct democracy,” but is it really more democratic to have the movement’s major decisions made by those relatively few persons able to stand up in a park for many hours at a time, often through cold or rainy nights, in order to argue about and reach a post-midnight consensus on difficult decisions about the movement’s overall strategies or finances? Doesn’t that make it more difficult for parents, for working people, for people with partners at home, and for disabled people to participate?

In my view, the horizontal style of leadership -- that is, having no accountable leadership -- worked well in the creation and early stages of Occupy, and the early anarchist organizers of Occupy Wall Street like Marina Sitrin and David Graeber deserve tremendous credit for their vision and commitment in helping to create this historic movement. But I personally still suggest making changes at this point for the sake of the movement’s future sustainability and success.

On one hand, the open, horizontalist aspect of Occupy undoubtedly encouraged many thousands of people to get involved and to feel like they had an ownership stake in the movement. But on the other hand, in New York and across the country, this has been an aspect of Occupy that the police and the mainstream media have at times exploited to make Occupy look violent, naïve, and disorganized -- and which has therefore made it more difficult for Occupy to maintain its numbers and momentum, as well as to win over members of the public who might otherwise be sympathetic to Occupy’s cause.

Furthermore, as Jo Freeman noted in an influential essay, called “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” from the 1970s feminist movement, when a movement does not elect accountable leaders, who can be recalled and replaced if they misrepresent the movement’s analysis or goals, unaccountable leaders inevitably rise up. In some of the activist groups that I used to work with, we used to call these folks “anti-leader leaders,” folks who out of some mix of assertiveness, manipulation, fame, skills, or chance end up speaking for the movement without being structurally accountable to representing the movement accurately or effectively. Levi, I think this is the kind of personality politics that you are asking about in your question, and which I personally think is far more likely to occur with an unaccountable leadership than with accountable leadership structures.

Often, movements are lucky, and these unaccountable spokespeople end up doing a terrific job in speaking for the movement. But it is also the case that the media can do a pretty good job, sometimes on purpose and sometimes by accident, of finding the wrong people to describe the movement’s goals, as we saw on more than several occasions in TV and newspaper interviews with folks on the edges of Zuccotti Park. Those are some of the reasons why I would suggest that Occupy consider creating democratic and representative leadership structures, at local levels, with elected organizing committees that would be accountable to representing Occupy effectively and to helping keep Occupy alive and moving forward. Although I personally consider myself a democratic-leftist or democratic socialist and not an anarchist, I should mention that the idea of having a representative, accountable leadership structure could also fit well within many different theories of anarchism throughout history, as Noam Chomsky, for instance, notes in his recent book on Occupy published by Zuccotti Park Press.

Levi, as I think your question implies, Occupy, like the global justice movement which was similarly started mostly by anarchist organizers, has so far seen itself purely as a mass movement or as a caller of mass actions, and not as a political organization with an accountable leadership structure. And throughout history, mass movements have certainly helped change American politics and laws for the better. The Freedom Rides of the civil rights movement would be just one example. So that I do hope, even if Occupy keeps its current structure and strategies, working solely as a mass movement, that it will continue to have a positive impact on American politics and culture for at least some time to come. But I believe that the Freedom Rides were able to have a stronger and more permanent effect on American politics and culture because there were organizations like SNCC and the NAACP to help press and implement the mass movement's demands with government. I’m afraid that, with Occupy, as with the global justice movement, there really are not any obvious influential, companion progressive organizations, so that I think it would be helpful if Occupy itself could both keep its mass movement character and also create a democratically structured organization at its core, in order to avoid finding its numbers and influence continuing to gradually diminish over time as has been the case with the global justice movement in the years following the successful 1999 protests against the WTO in Seattle. I also think it will be important for Occupy to continue to build ties with the organizations that are out there and doing what could be considered work that overlaps with Occupy’s goals--including labor unions, environmental groups, and civil and women’s rights organizations.

There are a lot of possible ways in which Occupy could begin to create democratic and accountable leadership structures. My own first-instinct suggestion would be to create rotating and recallable elected organizing or leadership committees, at the local levels, with some mechanism for national and even international coordination. These organizing committees would be charged with making major strategic and financial decisions for the movement, providing press spokespersons that would be accountable to accurately represent the movement’s principles and goals, and helping to provide support to the movement’s many different cultural and political working groups in order to ensure that OWS’s creativity and flexibility are fostered.

Levi, you ask whether creating this sort of leadership structure might cause Occupy to lose what has been great about the movement. Actually, I’m hoping it could do just the opposite, that it could help keep Occupy alive as a growing and influential movement, a movement that I think is clearly in danger of losing its numbers and influence if changes aren’t made. In a longer piece that I’m working on, I’m also going to explore some of the things that I think have given Occupy its unique character and strength, including its organizational flexibility -- with different working groups that activists and artists with wide-ranging interests could join -- and its welcoming slogan “we are the 99%,” which did such a great job of concisely highlighting the problem of economic inequality in America while portraying the movement itself as welcoming and inclusive. I believe, or at least I hope, that a democratically structured organizing committee could help make sure to expand on those aspects which have given Occupy its strength and help patch up what have been the movement’s weaknesses.

Levi: One of the biggest divisions within the Occupy movement, as well as the larger world of Occupy supporters outside the movement, is whether or not to engage in electoral politics within the United States of America to effect change. I have personally seen this debate became extremely ugly and unfriendly -- emotions are high on all sides. As a long-time progressive activist, do you think there is any hope for electoral politics in the USA? Will you be following Obama vs. Romney closely, and do you think it will make a big difference who will win this election?

Eliot: I believe that elections and voting are crucial, even if they are only part of what makes for a vibrant democracy. If one reads, for the best example, Howard Zinn’s A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present, one can see how progressive movements outside of electoral politics have helped reshape American history for the better. But I do think it matters greatly who is in the White House, the Congress, and the Supreme Court. I also think that it’s significant that OWS was created during the Obama administration, since most effective social movements seem to form under administrations (like FDR’s or LBJ’s) which large numbers of people believe can at least potentially be moved to take action if there is sufficient pressure from below.

But successful progressive movements don’t have to do everything, and just because elections matter, that doesn’t mean that Occupy necessarily has to be involved in them. Different groups have different roles to play, and hopefully, in the end, a wide range of ground is covered and social policies are moved in more progressive directions.

I think it would be good if, during election seasons, local Occupy groups decided to support progressive candidates for local or national offices, candidates -- whether Democratic, Green, or Independent -- who support Occupy’s goals and ask for its support. Abbie Hoffman used to talk about the best stance for activists being one foot in the system and one foot in the street. But, in general, although I hope that Occupy protests will help encourage elected officials to take more progressive positions on significant policy matters, I don’t think it is Occupy’s role as a movement, at least in these early stages, to get too deeply involved in the daily activities of electoral politics, and certainly not in the presidential election, where Obama, who has governed largely as a centrist, isn’t about to ask for Occupy Wall Street’s help.

But I also think it’s a mistake for influential Occupy organizers, including a few that I have heard on WBAI radio’s nightly OWS news show, to tell young people that elections aren’t that important. It will make a difference, both to the likely success of the movement, and to the lives of millions of people in the U.S., who is elected to our next Congress and our next Presidency. In the long run, I believe that it would be great if we could start working to make structural changes to our election procedures -- like instituting instant run-off voting and proportional representation in as many states as possible -- that would make 3rd and 4th party electoral campaigns more viable. Until then, even if there is not as much of a difference between the two major parties as we would like, I think we should recognize that there are indeed qualitative differences between them. With some admittedly sad exceptions, the Democrats generally advocate for larger budgets for safety-net programs like rental assistance, food stamps, and college grants. Even if these budgets are still much smaller than they should be, these party differences are tangibly felt by millions of people in the U.S.

Plus, there are at least several dozen progressive Democrats in Congress, including in the Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus, who provide a venue for activist voices to be heard in the halls of government and for progressive bills, like for single-payer health care, to be introduced. So I do think it would be far more tragic for America and the world if Mitt Romney were to win in November. And I also think it would be better for Occupy’s organizing prospects if President Obama is re-elected, since people do seem to become more politically active when they believe there is at least some possibility that their time-consuming efforts will bear fruit. Even if four years of President Obama’s centrism have undoubtedly tempered some of the more progressive hopes felt by many of his supporters during the 2008 presidential campaign, many people will nonetheless want to see whether there is still a chance that he could be moved to the left on some key social policies in a second term, as he was, for instance, by the recent immigrant-rights protests outside several of his campaign offices. We know very well that Mitt Romney isn’t going to care in the least what Occupy Wall Street activists think.

On a related issue that has been the subject of much debate, I think it would be great if Occupy would develop a list of demands to make of the American government. Occupy has thus far decided to avoid issuing demands, in large part because some of its main anarchist organizers believe that issuing demands would add more legitimacy to the idea of a national government. But whether one chooses to address the federal government or not, that government exists; and it matters to the daily lives of millions of people, whether on issues of war and peace, on issues of energy and the environment, or on issues of affordable housing and education. In many cases, government is the only institution with the power to regulate or prevent vast corporate abuses. As a former professor of mine who is one of my favorite democratic-left political theorists in America, Stephen Bronner, writes in an article called “Walking Wall Street”: “Tempering the whip of the market, controlling capital and preventing its poisoning of the electoral process all call for strengthening the bureaucratic welfare state—not abolishing it.”

Some in the movement believe that OWS’s role is to create what the poet Peter Lamborn Wilson calls “Temporary Autonomous Zones,” a pre-figurative politics that demonstrates the more utopian world that many of us would like to live in. Personally, I’ve always enjoyed being part of Temporary Autonomous Zones, especially when they include interesting poetry, art, music, and conversations. But creating a small number of community squats and symbolically preventing a few family foreclosures does not come close to addressing the national crisis of more than three million homeless people in America, many of whom live in isolated areas far removed from any Occupy movement. The liberation of community gardens will not prevent Big Oil from continuing to carry out destructive energy policies that will hasten climate change. The creation of small health-care clinics at Occupy encampments have been wonderful, but they could not possibly address the crisis of the over 50 million Americans who lack health insurance. Only a federal government that is forced by progressive movements to take on these key policy issues has the budgetary and legislative resources to address such urgent and large-scale human needs.

Levi: You've worked closely as a political activist not only with Abbie Hoffman but also with Allen Ginsberg. I wish either of them were here in 2012 to offer their wisdom and guidance. If either were, what do you think they would be saying right now?

Eliot: It was definitely a pleasure and honor to be able to work with Abbie Hoffman on some student activist projects in the late 1980s, when my partner at the time was Abbie’s favorite student organizer, and to have been a one-time student and longtime friend of Allen Ginsberg’s from 1980 until his death in 1997. And it is also a pleasure to be able to continue to do some work with Bob Rosenthal and Peter Hale in Allen’s office, and with Johanna Lawrenson, Abbie’s wife and long-time co-organizer.

I think it’s significant that Bob, Peter, and Johanna have all supported the Occupy movement, with Bob and Peter donating a poem of Allen’s to the Occupy Wall Street poetry anthology and donating books of Allen’s to the OWS people’s library, and with Johanna participating in many of Occupy’s events and rallies carrying the banner of the Abbie Hoffman Activist Foundation. But, Levi, after giving you much longer answers to your first few questions, I can give you a really short answer to this one--which is that, on principle, I always avoid pretending to be able to speak for people, even friends, who are no longer with us to confirm or deny whatever I might be tempted to contend they would say. I believe that all we can do with our influences, which in my case would also include organizers like Martin Luther King and Rosa Luxemburg, is to study how they responded to their own historical challenges and to try our imperfect bests to apply those lessons to our own times.

Levi: I'm intrigued to hear you mention Rosa Luxemburg as a personal inspiration of yours. I'm not sure how widely she is known today, but I've read a bit about her, and can't help feeling a pang of sadness and anger at the mention of her name. Many people today don't realize that there was once a Marxist revolution in Germany, following the end of the First World War. Rosa Luxemburg was one of the leaders, though she was reluctant to see the revolution move forward in the wake of the military disaster, believing that Germany was not ready. She was right, and was brutally killed in a counter-revolution that presaged the beginning of Germany's Nazi future. What is it about Rosa Luxemburg's legacy that you consider meaningful or relevant today?

Eliot: For me, Rosa Luxemburg is an important figure because, in the late 19th century and early 20th century, during some of the heated international debates about socialist theory and what a socialist society might look like, Luxemburg was one of the most influential writers and activists advocating for a democratic form of socialism, arguing that socialism was supposed to lead to a more democratic society, not a less democratic one -- that it was supposed to give working people more of a say in the political and economic decisions that affect their lives.

In a great short book that she wrote about the Russian revolution, she supported that revolution’s overthrowing of the czar, but also criticized the ways in which it looked like Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders were beginning to restrict civil liberties, to eliminate democratic parliamentary procedures, and to create a one-party state. Luxemburg wrote that a better society could never be built by the decree of a small number of party officials sitting behind their desks, and she predicted: "Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains." In her belief that socialism was supposed to extend freedom and democratic rights to all, she wrote that: "freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently." Of course, the repressive history of the Soviet Union throughout much of the 20th century proved her right. My friend, Stephen Bronner, has written a terrific book about Rosa Luxemburg’s contemporary relevance called Rosa Luxemburg: A Revolutionary for Our Times, and he has also edited a book of her letters, which includes an excellent introduction to her ideas.

Personally, I’ve never been all that concerned with political or ideological labels, except for the ways in which they sometimes help to make it easier to communicate ideas. Depending on who I’m talking with, sometimes I call myself a democratic socialist, a democratic leftist, or a progressive. In the U.S., unlike in many other countries, because of the experience of the Cold War and the narrow way in which history is often taught in American high schools, sometimes it makes things more difficult to talk to people if one uses the word “socialism” even in its democratic meaning -- although we do have a few officials, like Vermont’s Senator Bernie Sanders, who have even been elected to political office while calling themselves democratic socialists. But because of the political history of the 20th century, the language that works for progressives in France, Sweden, Brazil, or Venezuela may not work for progressives in Poland or the Czech Republic.

Similarly, what works to communicate a political message in New York City or San Francisco might not work in parts of the south or rural mid-west. But the main thing is that I believe that our public institutions should be more accountable to the public; that people should have more of a democratic say in the decisions that affect their daily lives; that people should have access to basic human needs like food, housing, education, and health care; that we should develop stronger policies to preserve the environment; and that people’s civil liberties and other human rights should be protected, including the right to be free of discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or disability. And I believe we need to get from here to there as nonviolently as possible, by creating larger and more effective social movements and by electing more progressives to public office, so that I’ve tried to study and learn from a pretty wide range of U.S. and international writers and activists who have advocated for these kinds of progressive ideals.

Levi: Eliot, I first knew you as a poet, working consciously (I believe) in the tradition of the Beat poets. Poetry, and literary awareness in general, has been a big part of Occupy Wall Street's positive self-image, especially as expressed in the Occupy Wall Street library, and the various Occupy poetry anthologies like the ones you mention above. Do you think that poetry and politics are essentially linked? Can one be a great poet and a political idiot, or a terrible poet and a political genius? How do you balance both traditions within your own life?

Eliot: As someone who has been writing poetry and doing political activism for over 35 years now, you can probably guess that these are questions that I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Sometimes, I spend my energies as a poet, sometimes as an activist, and sometimes as someone trying to help build more connections between poets and activists. And sometimes, especially these last few years while I’ve been dealing with health issues related to Lyme disease, I spend way too much time watching tennis, basketball, and escapist comedy and detective shows on television! Levi, as a former Queens-based writer who wrote about baseball, you might be happy to know that, lately, I’ve been enjoying watching Mets baseball games when their 36-year-old writer and knuckleball pitcher, R. A. Dickey, is scheduled to throw.

Getting back to your question, let me say that, although many -- probably most -- of my own poems deal in some way with political issues, I’m very non-dogmatic about this stuff and don’t think that all poems are political or should be. As humans, we need insights and provocative questions in so many different areas of life: dreams, desires, fears, love, loss, health, trees, travel, etc. And, in answer to one part of your question, sure, there have certainly been great poets, like Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, who I think have been politically naïve, and also many terrific political thinkers who write verse that ends up sounding somewhat flat as poetry.

There’s a concept in philosophy of sphere-differentiation, where the boundaries between disciplines are sometimes seen as drawn in dotted lines or semi-permeable membranes. This is the way that I’ve come to think of poetry and politics: as two different spheres that relate to each other in different ways in different historical and geographical contexts, and in different moments of our own lives. Sometimes these two different spheres overlap a little, and sometimes they overlap a lot. Sometimes they push or crash against each other. And sometimes they remain totally separate, since issues like love and death often exist beyond political considerations and will continue to exist as major subjects for art and poetry no matter what utopian or dysfunctional political systems humans wind up inventing for the future.

In terms of my own history as a poet, I did get interested in writing poetry after reading political verse. As a child of a Holocaust survivor, I was always interested in political questions, and after being bored by the way that poetry was taught in high school, I was inspired by realizing how socially relevant poetry could be after reading the political poems of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg in a class that I took during my first year at Rutgers in the mid-1970s. It was a class on the Beat Tradition in American literature that began with Whitman and went through many of the Beat Generation poets and novelists. So, I’ve always been interested in, and influenced by, political poets—Beat Generation poets like Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, along with many other political poets including William Blake, Pablo Neruda, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Muriel Rukeyser, Langston Hughes, Nicanor Parra, Adrienne Rich, Amiri Baraka, Alicia Ostriker, Andy Clausen, and many others. And, of course, there are poets that I continually go back to re-read that aren’t primarily political poets, like John Keats and Emily Dickinson.

And since I do write a lot of political poems, I’ve spent decades practicing trying to write political poems that are lively and interesting as literature. When my longtime friend and Long Shot literary journal co-founder, Danny Shot, and I were both starting to write poetry, Danny sent Allen Ginsberg one of his earliest poems after we met him at a Rutgers poetry reading, and Allen generously sent back a postcard with some advice about poetry that I’ve never forgotten: “each line should have some haiku or double joke or image or mad sound or Poetry in it, not be just flat prose. I think Allen’s own poetry is a great example of how to turn political ideas and observations into memorable poetry, into poetry that transcends “flat prose.” In some essays that I’ve written, including a long one called “Radical Eyes” in the multi-author collection, The Poem That Changed America: “Howl” Fifty Years Later, I’ve tried to look at how Allen and other political poets have used poetic techniques like clear imagery, surrealism, personalization, mythification, demystification, humor, formal inventiveness, and the element of surprise to write poetry that has literary value -- or, in the words of the poet Denise Levertov, to write verse that is “poetic" and not only versified ideas.

Since I think of poetry and politics as different (even though often overlapping) spheres, I don’t think that writing political poetry or making political art can serve as a substitute for building political movements, which is one reason that I think artists who want to help create social change often spend time doing political organizing on top of their lives as artists. But I also don’t believe that poetry makes nothing happen politically, because of the different ways in which the spheres of poetry and politics can interact and affect each other. So I do think that poetry and other art forms can play important roles in helping to strengthen social movements: by urging a questioning of prevailing political ideas; by helping people to envision healthier social possibilities; by creating alternative public spaces, both actual and virtual, that might not otherwise exist for people, especially young people, to get together and talk with each other; and by helping to raise public awareness about progressive ideas. Going back to the person we started this interview discussing, Abbie Hoffman used to say that trying to create social change without a counterculture is like trying to ski without snow!

In the last 50 or 60 years, there has been a strong tradition of poets -- and also poetic songwriters like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Bernice Johnson Reagon of Sweet Honey in the Rock, Joni Mitchell, Buffy St. Marie, Phil Ochs, Gil-Scott Heron, and so many others -- making important contributions to the civil rights, anti-Vietnam war, women’s rights, and gay liberation movements. In the early years of our new century, over 10,000 poets contributed work to the website, poetsagainsthewar.org, to express opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and to help support the then-growing anti-Iraq war rallies. So it has been great to see this political-poetry tradition being extended during Occupy Wall Street. From the earliest days of Occupy, poets in Zuccotti Park were working to bring Poetry Assemblies into the park, to create an Occupy Wall Street poetry collective, and to compile an Occupy Wall Street poetry anthology to help build today’s movement. Since we have so many deep-rooted social and environmental problems that need to be fixed, we can only hope that the recent renewal of political activism and the recent renewal of political poetry will both continue to grow, like much-needed medicinal herbs, into the future.

* * * * *

Note: this interview is the third in a series. See also Talkin' Occupy With Vanessa Veselka and Talkin' Occupy With Mickey Z..

view /OccupyKatz
Sunday, July 1, 2012 10:58 am
Levi Asher

Somewhere just before the publication of the fourth book in Robert Caro's planned five-volume biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, it became clear that Caro had emerged as the only superstar biographer in the world. The ecstatic level of anticipation, attention and appreciation for The Passage of Power was not grounded so much in fascination with Lyndon B. Johnson as in fascination with Robert A. Caro.

This is not because Lyndon B. Johnson was not fascinating; he is incredibly so. It's because we're all aware that we wouldn't know how fascinating Lyndon Johnson was if we hadn't read Caro's earlier volumes, The Path to Power, Means of Ascent, Master Of The Senate, three sharp works of analytic interpretation that transform biography into something new, a tour de force of structured political opinion writing.

The masterpiece of the bunch remains the third volume, Master of the Senate, the story of LBJ's engineering of the historic 1957 Civil Rights Bill, which broke a terrible political stalemate that had lingered since the American Civil War. The big breakthrough occurs at the end of the book, following a long beginning sequence about the United States Senate's history of domination by Confederate-state obstructionists. In the middle of the book, Lyndon Johnson is painted at his aggressive worst, sucking up shamelessly to older politicians and destroying the career of one earnest do-gooder whose plans to improve energy infrastructure in poor sections of the country disturbed the business prospects of Johnson's Texas sponsors. But this is all a wind-up to the book's glorious ending, in which Johnson manipulates every section of the US Senate for a goal that turned out, miraculously, to be close to his heart: breaking the South's stranglehold on civil rights legislation just enough to help usher in a new era of racial integration.

Robert Caro writes biography with a free and loose hand. Not many authors would have had the nerve to tee up a book about a Senator with an extensive, multi-decade history of the Senate itself, and it's precisely because Caro dares narrative leaps like this that he is acclaimed as the best biographer working today. In his new The Passage to Power, which covers LBJ's years as John F. Kennedy's Vice-President and his first year as President, Caro takes his signature storytelling liberties to new heights, so much so that I became frustrated with sections of the book. Why, I wondered as I plodded through a long, long, long discussion of John F. Kennedy's health problems as a young man, was I reading about John F. Kennedy when I wanted to be reading about Lyndon B. Johnson? The answer turned out to be that, again, a wind-up was taking place. The dire extent of young Kennedy's health struggles were unknown to his fellow Senator and sometime-rival Johnson, and this caused Johnson to underestimate Kennedy's strength of character. Caro needed to spend all those pages on Kennedy's medical history to construct his point in exactly the way he wanted to construct it. This is just the way Caro works.

I also became frustrated at what Robert Caro chose to leave out of this volume, which roughly covers the years from 1960 to 1964, but somehow manages to skip the entire year of 1961. I recently read Frederick Kempe's Berlin 1961, so I know that Vice President Johnson traveled to Berlin during the momentous Berlin Wall global crisis. The trip to Berlin doesn't appear in Caro's book, and in fact the entire crisis doesn't appear in Caro's book. Why? I really can't imagine. But once The Passage to Power swings around to the story it wants to tell -- Johnson's bitter rivalry with the President's younger brother Robert Kennedy, his humiliating social ostracism as an old cowboy in youthful Camelot-era Washington DC, and finally his swift and skillful assumption of Presidential authority immediately following Kennedy's assassination -- I was ready to forgive all the book's excesses. Again, this is just how Robert Caro works.

As much as I enjoy and learn from Caro's LBJ volumes, I will always remain fondest of his first biography, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Because I was born in New York City and grew up in suburban Long Island, I'm familiar with the amazing legend of Robert Moses, the innovative builder of highways and bridges and beaches and parks who dominated New York's city and state government from the 1930s through the early 1960s. The book may not be as interesting as the LBJ series to non-New Yorkers, but it does tell thrilling tales about the conditions of Manhattan playgrounds in the 1920s and the invention of Long Island's Jones Beach. It is also the earliest demonstration of the Robert Caro method. The Robert Moses story and the Lyndon B. Johnson story have a lot in common.

Both men were masters in their fields, and both maintained powerful political careers of unusual longevity. Both were "bosses" -- BIG bosses -- and it's no accident that the word "Power", clearly Robert Caro's favorite word, appears in the title of the Moses book and two of the Johnson books. Indeed, the Moses and Johnson biographies can be read together as a matched pair, and a single theme emerges: the insidious ways that clever politicians can gather and abuse power -- sometimes for good, sometimes for evil -- in a modern democratic society.

But Robert Caro loves and admires his subjects, even as he slashes at their offenses and crimes. He probably loves Lyndon Johnson a little more than he loves Robert Moses, because Moses's selfish and arrogant excesses were sometimes cruel or sadistic, while Johnson's were merely highly obnoxious (for example, Moses disinherited his own brother and ruined his life, while Johnson only forced his Senate aides to take dictation from him while he sat on the toilet). But Caro also goes the extra mile to emphasize positive characteristics: Johnson truly cared about helping poor Americans, and the invincible Robert Moses appears to have once allowed himself to lose a public battle over park policy, because the beneficiary was a Shakespeare festival he secretly liked.

If I had time, I would write a parody biography of Robert A. Caro, in his own signature style, called The Power To Empower Criticism of Power. I'd include lengthy sections on seemingly tangential episodes in his life or the lives of his acquaintances, and I'd make him appear both miraculously good and terribly evil. I'd emphasize Caro's own abuses of power -- because, in fact, this brainy journalist has emerged as more powerful than either Lyndon B. Johnson or Robert Moses. Their stories for posterity have now been written by him, and I doubt either of them would be thrilled with what he had to say. That's just the way Robert A. Caro works.


A look back at the two power brokers whose ambivalent legacies fuel the career of master biographer Robert Caro: Lyndon Johnson of Texas and Robert Moses of New York City.

view /RobertCaro
Monday, June 18, 2012 08:55 pm
Robert Caro with two of his books
Levi Asher

I can never guess which of my Philosophy Weekend blog posts will turn out to have legs.

Nine months ago, researching the origin of the word 'altruism', I learned that the term had been coined by Auguste Comte, a 19th Century French philosopher I had heard of but knew little about. Comte had developed a humane and optimistic system of political, ethical, scientific and metaphysical philosophy called Positivism, and during his lifetime Positivism was a gigantic sensation around the world. Intrigued, I wrote a blog post to wonder what it signified about our own culture that a major 19th Century philosopher with an ambitious platform of international peace, respect for human diversity and freethinking scientific rigor had fallen completely off the radar immediately after the disaster of the First World War.

What I didn't expect was that my blog post would start getting lots of hits from Google, and would become one of my more popular Philosophy Weekend posts (I do watch my traffic statistics, not to feed my ego but to discern trends in reader interest). Then, a mysterious late comment appeared on my Comte post that brought a big smile to my face. In response to my statement that Positivism was defunct today, and this commenter posted a single sentence reply:

Well, we are not quite that dead, are we?

This was accompanied by a link to Positivists.org, a well-designed website with an active Facebook page and a lively blog. The new web presence is apparently the work of an eager German philosopher named Olaf Simons who appears to have some clue how to use social media to spread a message. Positivism lives!

For any philosophy to truly live, of course, it must have its detractors as well as its supporters. Last week my friend (and one-time Litkicks contributor) Jim Berrettini took a critical look at Comte on his own blog. Jim's 'Comte-n Pickin' Positivism' accused Auguste Comte of being a dull writer (a crime many good philosophers have been guilty of, though one must counter that Comte was a good enough writer to find many devoted readers during his lifetime) and, more damningly, of representing a misguided philosophical instinct that does more harm than good on this planet we all share. Jim wrote:

Last year, a blogging friend of mine posted an encomium to Positivist philosopher Auguste Comte. Along with the joy of discovering Comte's story, my friend conveyed a sense that Comte was on the side of the angels. Some of this is understandable: Comte is associated with creating the discipline of sociology, he supported Order and Progress, and he promised a better world through Science. Comte was far from an anodyne purveyor of Better Living Through Science. There's a pretty ugly grasping after power that lurks in his pages.

What Comte was proposing (in deadly boring prose) was nothing short of revolutionary: to give a general view of the progress of the human mind through history, and through "positive science" to solve mankind's problems. Comte posits that human development has three phases: the Theological, the Metaphysical, and the Positive. He establishes a hierarchy of scientific knowledge, culminating in Sociology, or Social Science. He feels that "Social Physics" can connect all the sciences, and while deriving from the speculatively, it may prove to move human progress (which is, above all, scientific progress) forward more rapidly. When Sociology has been perfected, all human knowledge will be directed by it. It will remedy defects in Chemistry, Physics, Astronomy, Mathematics, etc.

There's little to suggest that Comte perfected some kind of Scientific Method that is universally utilized today. There's little or no discernible science behind it. The "scientific" nature of his goals seems more like a pose than anything else. From a modern vantage point, he reads like a marginally insane person. In observing his earnestness, I'm reminded of this quip I came across:

"She spent all her life doing good to others. You could tell the others by their hunted look."

Reading through Comte's Positive Philosophy, I felt like one of the hunted others. And the hunt is part and parcel of Comte's approach. Once both the theological and metaphysical are undermined, there is nothing left but a social science and engineering that treats humankind as a material to be analyzed and manipulated. Mankind's problems are solved only once the Problem of Mankind is solved. Thanks, but no thanks.

I'm struck by one line in Jim's post: "There's a pretty ugly grasping for power that lurks in his pages". This empasis on insidious power reminds me of the idea I hear often lately among American conservatives that American liberals wish or yearn for a powerful central government. In fact, liberals like me do not favor putting blunt power into any government's hands. Our concerns are more practical and more immediate: we wish to solve certain terrible problems (like the rising cost of a college education, or the rapacious behavior of Wall Street banks, or the sickening practices of unregulated health insurance giants), and we are willing to live with the dubious bargain of a powerful central government if this powerful central government will help solve these terrible problems. There's a big difference here: what we wish for is the solution to the problems. We do not wish for a powerful central government, and if a powerful central government can ever solve these problems (we hope it can) we will be very happy to see the powerful central government become less powerful again once the problems are solved. It's certainly not the case that many American liberals are interested in strong governmental power for its own sake.

Similarly, it seems to me that Jim is way off in insinuating that Comte yearned for power in any form, and in describing this "ugly grasping" in Auguste Comte's philosophy. Comte wanted to solve problems, and appears to have been willing to take steps that would have presented a risk of ugly abuses of power if the steps turned out badly. That is a position that deserves to be critiqued, but it is not fair to conclude that Comte desired the ugly abuses of power themselves.

There is also little evidence of this ugly grasping for power in any record of Comte's career. Like Jim, I read and enjoyed John Stuart Mill's book about Comte (and, like Jim, I had better luck enjoying Mill on Comte than in reading Comte's own lengthy words). But I failed to find the slightest hint in this book that Mill detected in Comte any ugly grasping for power, or anything remotely like it. I'm not sure where this insinuation comes from, but I don't think its source can be found anywhere within Comte's works or ideas.

I think Jim Berrettini is probably right that Auguste Comte's system of three stages leading to enlightened society is comically simplistic, and was fated to fail. The violence of the 20th Century's great European wars -- which ended Comte's fame and ditched his glowing reputation -- certainly stands as proof of this, and we all live with the results even today. Still, it is Comte's hopefulness and his ambition for a better world that now inspires. Again, he invented the word 'altruism'. What a strange word, and what an object to ponder! Altruism -- "other-ism" -- often cited as "the opposite of selfishness" or "the opposite of egoism". What does it mean that no such word existed before Auguste Comte began using it?

It can't mean that altruism did not exist before Comte, of course. But it suggests that Auguste Comte was a brashly original thinker, and it reminds us that we can miss great things if we think in narrow channels. Auguste Comte was a wide thinker. I don't value him for his successes, but rather for his ambitions. John Stuart Mill described thus the topical political and historical context out of which Comte's ethical philosophy sprung:

M. Comte was right in affirming that the prevailing schools of moral and political speculation, when not theological, have been metaphysical. They affirmed that moral rules, and even political institutions, were not means to an end, the general good, but corollaries evolved from the conception of Natural Rights. This was especially the case in all the countries in which the ideas of publicists were the offspring of the Roman Law. The legislators of opinion on these subjects, when not theologians, were lawyers, and the Continental lawyers followed the Roman jurists, who followed the Greek metaphysicians, in acknowledging as the ultimate source of right and wrong in morals, and consequently in institutions, the imaginary law of the imaginary being Nature. The first systematizers of morals in Christian Europe, on any other than a purely theological basis, the writers on International Law, reasoned wholly from these premises, and transmitted them to a long line of successors. This mode of thought reached its culmination in Rousseau, in whose hands it became as powerful an instrument for destroying the past, as it was impotent for directing the future. The complete victory which this philosophy gained, in speculation, over the old doctrines, was temporarily followed by an equally complete practical triumph, the French Revolution: when, having had, for the first time, a full opportunity of developing its tendencies, and showing what it could not do, it failed so conspicuously as to determine a partial reaction to the doctrines of feudalism and Catholicism. Between these and the political metaphysics (meta-politics as Coleridge called it) of the Revolution, society has since oscillated; raising up in the process a hybrid intermediate party, termed Conservative, or the part of Order, which has no doctrines of its own, but attempts to hold the scales even between the two others, borrowing alternately the arguments of each, to use as weapons against whichever of the two seems at the moment most likely to prevail.

This summarizes succinctly the absolute ideological mess that Auguste Comte faced when he began to create his philosophical system. Today, a violent century and a half later, the mess has won the battle, and Comte has lost. The greatest risk we face as political philosophers, it seems to me, is not that we will foolishly move too fast to clean up this mess, but rather that we will give up, that we won't try. Jim Berrettini contrasts Auguste Comte to C. S. Lewis, who was a brilliant writer, but who doesn't seem to offer much urgency towards practical solutions to the problems of the world. Rather, his prescription for mankind seems to be to each retreat within the private purity of our own souls, and let the planet burn. Thanks, but no thanks.

view /AugusteComteAwakening
Friday, June 1, 2012 06:56 pm
Levi Asher

HHhH, a remarkable new historical novel by a young French author named Laurent Binet, has been getting a lot of attention. The book, a sly and woolly ponderance of the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovokia during World War II, is as good as all the hype suggests.

What makes HHhH stand out is the author's approach to his historical plot. Years ago, before he became a published author, he lived and taught in Slovokia and became possessed by the legend of the Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich's assassination in Prague in 1942. He wanted to write a fictional treatment of the event, but he dreaded the banal literary conventions he'd have to grapple with if he wrote a classic work of historical fiction. He also felt overwhelmed by the moral gravity of the terrible story he wanted to tell, and he feared fumbling the fine line between truth and fiction.

So, to make his book possible, he opened up the toolkit known as metafiction. He wrote the story of himself writing this book, interweaving historical scenes with humorous skits about himself as bumbling author. The result is something like the history equivalent of Nicholson Baker's comically self-referential study of John Updike, U and I.

This background of this book's story is an immensely dark one: the humiliation and terrorization of Czechoslovakia after the Third Reich reclaimed the entire Czech portion of the country as German land, decreeing a state of slavery for the native population. The Obergrupperfuhrer of the occupied territory was Heydrich, a famous politician. who was particularly vile, cold and ambitious even among his terrible cohorts, who built his command center in the same Prague castle that had previously inspired Franz Kafka's great The Castle (though, surprisingly, Binet fails to remark upon this fact) and who was considered to have special potential among top Nazi brass for one reason: unlike Hitler, Goring, Himmler, Goebbels and Hess, he actually embodied the racial physical image of a tall, slender, blond Aryan German. Heydrich is the villain of HHhH, of course, and the heroes are two young resistance fighters, one Czech and one Slovokian: Jan Kubis and Jozef Gubcik. They succeed in killing Heydrich, though the reprisals are terrible, and the resistance fighters eventually die in a bizarre shootout amidst the tombs and towers of an ancient Catholic Church.

Since HHhH made Laurent Binet into a sensation, some dissenting voices have spoken up, pointing out the author's mediocre literary chops as well as the novel's flaws of translation. James Woods of the New Yorker also seems to want to dampen the excitement, though he clearly likes the book. Many seem to be put off by Laurence Binet's clever-clever attitude, and these critics are correct that there is nothing really new or groundbreaking in the metafictional tricks he uses to gin up this story.

But I don't think postmodern literary techniques need to be groundbreaking every time they are used; this would turn literary postmodernism into a creature that would eat itself to death (as some critics may think it has already done, and others wish it finally would). Rather, we should look for particularly apt or effective use of postmodern techniques, and I can hardly think of a better example of apt use than this one. In fact, the story of Heydrich's assassination and Kubis and Gubcik's heroism could not likely have been turned into a successful literary work in any other way than this.

As a straight work of historical fiction, the novel would turn churlish and grotesque. The villains and heroes are too comic-book, and the climactic scenes seem too phony, even though (incredibly) the facts are all real. Laurent Binet's choice of a self-conscious narrative framing device is like a skillful bartender's choice of the perfect mixer to offset a strong and unpalatable potion. The combination makes the harsh drink go down.

For Laurent Binet, metafiction offers an opportunity for strategic misdirection, for necessary dissemblance. HHhH is a novel that overcomes the problem of the essential unreality of history. This is where Laurent Binet has actually managed to find something new and groundbreaking to do.

We all sometimes struggle with the feeling that history is unreal, and it takes a rare book to smash through this protective veneer. The toughest challenge Laurent Binet faces in writing the story of Prague in 1942 is to avoid creating cliche. For all its moments of moral horror and beatific suffering, HHhH is a thriller, an action movie. This is the problem Binet is up against, because the story wants to be told, but Binet is disgusted at himself for telling it. He feels guilty for getting caught up in the drama, and for not suffering anywhere near as much as the people he's writing about. He knows that we readers feel funny about this too. By employing whatever postmodern devices he needs to break through this moral jam, Binet emerges victorious over the crushing weight of his material. That's a victory every struggling writer ought to appreciate. This is a novel designed to apologize in advance for being as exciting as it's about to be. That's metafiction.


Levi Asher reviews the inventive history novel HHhH by Laurent Binet.

view /HHhH
Tuesday, May 15, 2012 08:37 pm
HHhH, a novel by Laurent Binet
Levi Asher

Exactly sixty years ago, in May 1952, 81-year-old Zen Buddhist scholar D. T. Suzuki began teaching a regular course at Columbia University. 39-year-old modernist composer John Cage attended a few of his lectures, and this is the electric point of contact that starts everything buzzing in Nothing and Everything - The Influence of Buddhism on the American Avant Garde: 1942 - 1962, a new book by Ellen Pearlman.

Both men were trailblazers. Suzuki is remembered today as a premier ambassador for Eastern religion in the West, and as the author of the influential books Introduction to Zen Buddhism and Essays in Zen Buddhism. But, Ellen Pearlman reveals in the first chapter of Nothing and Everything, Suzuki had not been considered a very "successful" Buddhist as a young Zen student in Japan. He found a far greater calling as a highly visible foreigner in the West than he could have ever found if he'd stayed in Japan, since his idiosyncratic personality rubbed many Zen masters the wrong way. It was Suzuki's ability to translate key Asian texts into English that gave him a foothold in the United States of America, and he eagerly grabbed the opportunity to pursue his own unique vision of a global Buddhist awakening.

John Cage had already earned a reputation as a rule-breaker in the field of avant-garde music by the time he attended the elderly Suzuki's lectures at Columbia, but it wasn't until after he was exposed to Zen Buddhism (from Suzuki and several other sources) that he was able to conceive of his signature work, 4'33, which thrilled and outraged the world of classical music with its unspeakable simplicity. The composition indicated that the performer should sit at a piano (or any other instrument) and maintain four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence.

It's impossible to encapsulate modern, avant-garde and experimental arts within any formula, but Nothing and Everything's purpose is to follow a single thread of excitement among several 20th century innovators within American art, music, theater and literary scenes that was caused by a rising awareness of traditional Buddhist religion and philosophy. The first to follow John Cage were the Dada-inspired innovators of the Fluxus movement in the early 1960s, Alison Knowles, Jackson Mac Low, Num June Paik, Toshi Ichiyanagi and Yoko Ono (who, beyond the scope of this book, would eventually collaborate with John Lennon to present crystalline expressions of Fluxus ideas to the entire world, and become its most famous practitioner).

Others notable figures profiled in this book include Willem and Elaine De Kooning, Ibram Lassow, Saburo Hasegawa, Isamu Noguchi, Franz Kline and, eventually, the rising stars of the Beat Generation: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Anne Waldman.

The otherworldliness of Eastern religion has always attracted Western artists (in this sense, many elements of 20th century modernism can be traced back to Vincent Van Gogh's meta-sketches of Japanese paintings inside his self-portraits). But Nothing and Everything points to a more specific, more intentional common ground between Buddhism and the avant-garde: the interest in confounding the mind and defying expectations. We have all heard our share of Zen koans -- some of them more persuasive than others -- but the koans Ellen Pearlman chooses to retell in this book are the ones that resonate most loudly with Western fascinations:

Hasegawa told the audience a Zen story. "Once" he said, "two young monks on their way to buy iron noticed a flag flapping in in the wind. One said, 'The flag is moving,' and the other said, 'No, the wind makes the flag move.' A senior monk who was on his way to buy gold walked by and overheard them talking. He intervened. 'You are both incorrect,' he said. 'It is your heart, your mind, which is moving.'"

Nothing and Everything may be most surprising to readers who are deeply familiar with either Buddhism or the avant-garde arts scene of the 20th century but not both. I was an easier sell for this book, since I've long understood the two traditions to be linked, and have followed my own inquiries in this area. The case, as far as I can see, is quite clear: Zen Buddhism stands for (among other things) a vigorous, nearly fanatical rejection of any settled ways of thinking. Modernist or avant-garde art, from Paul Cezanne to James Joyce to Pablo Picasso to Gertrude Stein to Marcel Duchamp, stands for exactly the same thing. A cool sense of discipline and calm openness to raw experience pervades both. I wonder if other readers will find the basic equation at the center of this book more challenging than I did, though the fact that I was pre-convinced by Pearlman's argument before I reached page one did not blunt my enjoyment of the book at all.

Nothing and Everything is a work of appreciation more than a work of analysis; the brisk, encyclopedic coverage sometimes reads like a museum catalog, and at times I wished to hear the author's private opinions, or to enjoy the kinds of darker tales of artistic rivarly, conflict or moral failure that often accompany histories of creative movements. Then again, this kind of treatment would disrupt the tone of rock garden Zen cool that permeates this book, and which is highly consistent with its subject. To break the shimmering surface of placid appreciation is not very Zen. Or is it?

Zen and other forms of Buddhism are impossible to define in strict terms, of course (this is something else that Buddhism shares with avant-garde arts). One section of this book points out the vast differences between the cultural connotations of Zen Buddhism within Japan (where it was often associated with one virulent political movement or another) and in the West, where it stood far apart from the realm of conventional politics. At times, this difference was unbridgeable, and at least one Japanese artist found that he could not go home again.

According to Noguchi, when [Saburo Hasegawa] returned to Japan, he discussed Zen practice with artists. Because of its association with the militarists and the war, however, they asked him, "What are you talking about?" Feeling out of step with his country, he wound up in San Francisco, teaching at Alan Watts's American Academy of Asian Studies.

It's particularly surprising to read that Zen Buddhism had once been used as a pillar of Japanese militarism; this confounds Western notions of Zen in ways that may hurt even more than a blow with a sharp stick to the back. But there are infinite facets to these cultural differences. When we read of Suzuki's New York City lectures in 1952, or of Yoko Ono's controversial 1965 artwork Cut Piece in which she sat on a gallery floor and asked viewers to slice off pieces of her clothing with scissors until she was nearly naked, we must remember that during these years the incomprehensible violence of the Pacific theater of World War II, from Pearl Harbor to Midway to Iwo Jima to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was still a vivid living memory for every artist in the world. This is certainly one key to understanding most or all of the experimental works discussed in this book.

Aside from political or historical differences, there may also be vast areas of misunderstanding between the East and West in terms of the core meaning of Buddhism (which is not to say that the East must have it right and the West must have it wrong -- that would also not be a very "Zen" way to think). In the late 1950s, D. T. Suzuki was clearly amused to receive a chaotic visit from the current literary celebrities of the moment, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky (the Beat poets were at least careful enough to leave the rambunctious Gregory Corso out of it). Suzuki remarked after the meeting that the Beat Buddhists appeared to have only reached the very early stages of letting go of their egos and their intellects. The meeting, however, seemed to have pleased all the attendees.

If you're interested in exploring the syncretism of modern Western culture and ancient Asian philosophy (and, as I see it, how can you possibly not be?), Nothing and Everything will give you a fine kickstart.


Ellen Pearlman's "Nothing and Everything" explores the synchronicity between western Buddhism and avant-garde art in the 20th Century.

view /NothingAndEverything
Saturday, May 12, 2012 08:00 pm
Nothing and Everything by Ellen Pearlman
Levi Asher

"As a joke, Steffen introduced me as whomever occurred to him at the moment. I was an orphaned painter, an undercover Spartakist, a science protege on scholarship.  Steffen introduced me, and then I had to keep up the lies -- that was the game. I was a saxophone player in Bix Biederbecke's band. I was a Swedish mesmerist. When I was asked about the leg, I talked about dogfights high above the Somme; when they wanted to hear my award-winning poetry, I said the poems were so Futuristic they hadn't been written yet.  All it took was a straight face.

There was one lie that made me seem more interesting than all the others. Everyone wanted to drink with me, get high with me, and sleep with me when we told them I was a movie director.  It was the lie that turned me into the center of attention and opened the tightest twat.  One night over dinner, Joachim Ringelnatz -- the whimsical poet who wore a sailor's uniform wherever he went -- eyed me funny and asked if I wasn't a bit young to be working for the cinema, "fur's kino".

I had my mouth full of lamb's stew, so Steffen came to my defense.  "Don't you read the papers? Klaus is a prodigy! The youngest director in Neubabelsberg!"

I put down my fork, swallowed, and pointed a finger. "Joachim," I said. "I don't work fur's Kino.  I am Kino!"


Three years later, I was in charge of my own set in Neubabelsberg, the largest studio in Europe, making a movie that I had written.  The producers, the stars, the cameramen and the newspapers all called me Kino, the name I had given myself over Horcher's lamb stew. I was a prodigy, the youngest director in Ufa's history. The lie had become truth."

What glorious chaos! Kino by Jurgen Fauth is the most enjoyable book I've read this year. It's a wild, caroming romp that crashes into German history, Nazi mind control, American pop culture decadence and modern cinema snobbery. The crazy plot soars from beginning to end.

I know Jurgen Fauth -- I've sung karaoke with him, joined his popular cooperative writing website Fictionaut, chatted him up about Phish and the Grateful Dead, and hung out with him and his wife, novelist Marcy Dermansky, who recently wrote a superb novel called Bad Marie. However, I did not honestly expect to like Jurgen's debut novel when I first heard about it, because the book's early promotional materials hinted at a grim and brainy exploration of German cinematic themes. I did not know that Jurgen was very, very funny.

This book's brisk story, which hops from New York City to Berlin to Hollywood, alludes constantly to the grandiose cinema of Fritz Lang and Leni Riefenstahl. But the real influence here appears to be the madcap comedy of Ernst Lubitsch (as well as Preston Sturges and Peter Bogdanovich, who should really direct the movie version). There are midnight thefts, naturally, and police chases, and airplane rides. What makes it all work is what makes nearly any comic novel work: the characterizations. There's a bratty American heroine (the granddaughter of a legendary German film director named Klaus "Kino" Koblitz) who travels to Berlin, an anal-retentive, arrogant German film professor who implicitly blames her for the sins of George W. Bush, a long-suffering husband who spends the entire book sick in bed, and, best of all, a delightfully mean old grandmother who wiles away her last days shooting heroin in a Hollywood Hills mansion.

The novel toys with magic realism and metafiction, and during the sequences from Kino's Berlin diary it recalls the transgressive thrill of Christopher Isherwood and the Oedipal misery of Gunter Grass. All the influences that stew irascibly here are on proud display at the Tumblr that accompanies the book, including a link to an impressive recreation of the trailer for the fictionally legendary The Tulip Thief, the mythical lost film that the entire story revolves around.

For more on this exciting debut work, check out Jurgen's song list at Largehearted Boy or the Booksexy review.


Levi Asher's review of "Kino", a riotous novel about German history and cinema by Jurgen Fauth.

view /Kino
Sunday, April 15, 2012 04:51 pm
Kino by Jurgen Fauth
Levi Asher

The room in which the boys were fed, was a large stone hall, with a copper at one end: out of which the master, dressed in an apron for the purpose, and assisted by one or two women, ladled the gruel at mealtimes. Of this festive composition each boy had one porringer, and no more—except on occasions of great public rejoicing, when he had two ounces and a quarter of bread besides.

The bowls never wanted washing. The boys polished them with their spoons till they shone again; and when they had performed this operation (which never took very long, the spoons being nearly as large as the bowls), they would sit staring at the copper, with such eager eyes, as if they could have devoured the very bricks of which it was composed; employing themselves, meanwhile, in sucking their fingers most assiduously, with the view of catching up any stray splashes of gruel that might have been cast thereon. Boys have generally excellent appetites. Oliver Twist and his companions suffered the tortures of slow starvation for three months: at last they got so voracious and wild with hunger, that one boy, who was tall for his age, and hadn't been used to that sort of thing (for his father had kept a small cook-shop), hinted darkly to his companions, that unless he had another basin of gruel per diem, he was afraid he might some night happen to eat the boy who slept next him, who happened to be a weakly youth of tender age. He had a wild, hungry eye; and they implicitly believed him. A council was held; lots were cast who should walk up to the master after supper that evening, and ask for more; and it fell to Oliver Twist.

The evening arrived; the boys took their places. The master, in his cook's uniform, stationed himself at the copper; his pauper assistants ranged themselves behind him; the gruel was served out; and a long grace was said over the short commons. The gruel disappeared; the boys whispered each other, and winked at Oliver; while his next neighbors nudged him. Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said: somewhat alarmed at his own temerity:

"Please, sir, I want some more."

This unforgettable scene from Oliver Twist, first serialized in Bentley's Miscellany -- where exactly in the imagination of Charles Dickens did it take place?

Ruth Richardson, a British historian and preservationist, stumbled upon an amazing answer to this question while advocating against the demolition of the Cleveland Street Workhouse, one of many extant London workhouses like the one described in Oliver Twist. This old building turned out to have a special significance, unknown at the time to the entire world. Charles Dickens, she discovered, had lived on the very same block during several of his turbulent childhood years.

It's not clear why this fact was unknown, other than the fact that the street's name had changed, obscuring its illustrious history. Charles Dickens had grown up impoverished, a factory child laborer, and did not relish sharing personal details of his upbringing after he became famous. His childhood addresses were not a secret to researchers today, but obvious clues were not followed, leaving it to Ruth Richardson to put the evidence together and prove conclusively that Charles Dickens had grown up on the same street as a workhouse for impoverished adults and children that would certainly have been his model for the early scenes of Oliver Twist.

Dickens and the Workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London Poor is Ruth Richardson's record of her discovery, and an informative look at the milieu behind Dickens's powerful story.

Richardson's forte is urban history, medical history and the history of the destitute in London (she's also written books like Death, Dissection and the Destitute, about the lucrative practice of selling corpses for medical research, a practice that also provided a disturbing secondary revenue stream for the workhouses of 19th century London). The question of charity for the poor was a burning controversy during the period of Oliver Twist, and much of Dickens and the Workhouse explores the fast-changing laws known as the "Poor Laws", which seemed to come and go in waves:

Attitudes were polarizing at the time: sympathy for the lot of the poor was giving way in powerful places to a level of harshness and unconcern previously unknown. At the time, a wave of political agitation was running in favour of much greater democracy, both nationally and locally, and huge numbers of people were mobilizing in support of parliamentary reform. But in many quarters this movement fed old fears of the Gordon Riots of 1780 or of the French Revolution, and many supporters of reform recognized the need to extend the franchise so as to prevent revolutionary fervor. So while the idea of greater democracy had wide support, part of the push for change had a hard edge of parsimony and retrenchment on the part of property owners, of pulling up the ladder.

Here, Richardson's observations appear eerily relevant to current controversies in the United States of America (though this book was first published in England a couple of years ago, and is certainly not intended to refer directly to the Paul Ryan budget or the latest "New Poor Laws"). The book emphasizes economic over literary history, and much of it is slightly too detailed for my tastes (I think I would have enjoyed it more if I knew the streets of London better, because I often felt I was missing necessary local references). But if the book sometimes lacks clarity, it makes up for this in enthusiasm whenever Ruth Richardson revels in the sheer joy of her original discovery. How often does a 21st century historian come face to face with something as wonderful as an unknown corner of Charles Dickens's world?

Ruth Richardson lets the thrill of discovery animate this book, and it's a pleasure for any reader to share. She has followed this book's publication with further Dickens-related discoveries, including the fanciful unearthing of a few real-life contemporaries and neighbors of young Charles Dickens with names like Bill Sykes, or Goodge and Marney (the possible source of Scrooge and Marley?). These characters all lived in the neighborhood known as Merylebone, near the site of the Middlesex Hospital, where the orphan Oliver Twist has once again been found.

view /TheWorkhouse
Tuesday, April 10, 2012 05:08 pm
Levi Asher