T.

The most uncomfortable and funny author interview ever: Kristoffer Borgli meets David Shields (and Bret Easton Ellis)

Spoiler: nothing really happens.

“This is not rocket science; just ask me a freakin’ question.”

R.

Review : Paco Ignacio Taibo II – “’68: The Mexican Autumn of the Tlatelolco Massacre”

This is an analysis of the massacre that took place in Mexico in 1968, where governmental forces used weapons to murder hundreds of people who protested the Olympic Games that were held that year.

The author uses a mixture of sharp insight, humor, and keen observation into the minds of youths to create an effective backdrop that contrasts the bloody events as they unfolded.

This was not the first time we had been beaten up by the cops. It was one of the Mexican state’s demented customs to give the students a bit of stick every now and again, just to show them who was boss. The year before, police had assaulted Vocational School 7, and the 1965 Vietnam demo had been broken up with batons, wounding fifty people. I was one of them, earning myself a three-inch gash over the left eyebrow, where a plainclothesman slugged me with a metal bar rolled up in a newspaper. In Sonora, too, the year before, the army had been sent in, and all of us had heard stories of what had occurred two years earlier at Morelia University. All the same, this was different: what were they cooking up now? In the meantime, we ended that night at a christening, summing up with difficulty the events of the day but happy to find ourselves still in one piece. We showed each other our cuts and bruises. Fear, for now, was gone.

On Tuesday, blinded by their overweening arrogance, the authorities launched the army against Preparatory 1. The school’s entrance, dating to colonial times, was struck by bazooka fire; there was shooting, and hundreds of arrests. A group of students took refuge on the roof as the soldiers, with bayonets fixed, entered the courtyards of their school, where there are murals by Orozco, Revueltas, Siqueiros, and Rivera. For a time everything took on symbolic force. They had blasted the historic doorway of the preparatory to pieces. With bazookas. The famous door. But then we were beyond symbolism, thanks to the photos, which showed blood pooled amid the splintered wood.

Some words about feminism of the day, written in the 1990s:

Jaime’s daughter would grow up in a worse world. Very soon her father would be in prison. But to be a woman in ’68 was no bad thing. For thousands of sisters the times offered a chance to be equal. Sixty-eight antedated the new feminism. It was better than feminism. It was violently egalitarian—and if it wasn’t always, it always could be. One man, one woman, one vote—and one collection box, one stack of fliers, one level of risk . . . That it mattered little whether you wore a skirt or pants was a given. Being a man then was better too, because those women existed.

They were great. And gorgeous, really gorgeous. They wore their undeniable beauty without fuss—and without makeup. Any role model worth the name was supposed to be cinematographic, but in those days Anita Ekberg and Sophia Loren, even Kim Novak’s honeyed glances and Elke Sommer’s poutiness, had ceased to operate. The sixties generated its own points of reference at more than twenty-four frames per second: miniskirts, a well-thumbed Simone de Beauvoir novel dangling from the hand, fishnet stockings, velvet hairbands, ponytails, bangs, plaid skirts, boots with blue jeans, and candlelight dinners with white wine and smoked ham.

I have been stuck in that moment every single day since. I was certainly there when, three years later, I met Paloma. And I think I am still there when I watch my sixteen-year-old daughter brushing her hair in these distant nineties.

I could never say it as well as Monsiváis: “Days without sleep, unforgettable dreams.”

Overall, a near-hypnogogic-yet-strangely-lucid recollection of events where the Mexican government had hundreds of humans murdered to keep the “rabble-rousers” down.

This book is published on 2019-06-18.

R.

Review: Robert Jay Lifton – “Losing Reality”

This book is an acquired taste.

Also, I’m saddened that it’s painted with such broad strokes that paragraphs like the following can turn up in it:

One other important factor in the Chinese heritage also played a part in the evolution of reform techniques: human-centered psychological skills. No other civilization has paid so much attention to the conduct of human relationships. The Chinese family, with its characteristically complicated inner maneuvering, has been an excellent psychological training ground: in order to be “proper,” Chinese children have had to learn to be aware of the emotional currents in their milieu. And this personal emphasis has extended from the family into the rest of Chinese life: whether performing official duties or seeking personal objectives, the Chinese people have always put great stress on exerting influence upon the people involved—and there is only a fine line between influence and manipulation. These human-centered skills have been carefully nurtured over centuries, and emphasized at the expense of technical achievements. In this sense, thought reform is the modern totalitarian expression of a national genius.

There are far too few references and sources provided to give way to these kinds of statements; I mean “the Chinese people”…

That kind of writing, along with the author’s preference to create terms that should be avoided a lot of the time, is drab and turned me right off this book, which is a shame as its subjects—e.g. Donald Trump (and the alt-right that follows him), Aum Shinriky?, and “the Chinese”.

In recent work I have referred to “malignant normality,” by which I mean the imposition of a norm of destructive or violent behavior, so that such behavior is expected or required of people. I came to this idea through my study of Nazi doctors. The physicians arriving at Auschwitz were expected to carry out selections of Jews for the gas chambers. That was their job. Whatever conflicts they experienced, the great majority adapted to that malignant normality.

This could have been a triumphant book, but instead, it fell into a heap of piffles, for me.

R.

Review: Renia Spiegel, Elizabeth Bellak – “Renia’s Diary”

This book is the edited version of Renia Spiegel‘s diary that spans nearly 700 pages and nearly four years in 1939-1942.

Sergey Yarov wrote brilliantly about morality in the siege of Leningrad during World War II. He read a lot of previously redacted diaries that belonged to people who were part of the siege. Those diaries told a clear tale of how things changed gradually, and how what was once considered extreme behaviours were normalised, from making potato-skin soup to pilfering corpses for food stamps.

Equally, Viktor Klemperer‘s essential diaries from World War II told a most chilling tale where Jews were violently targeted, people that weren’t The Teutonic Ideal were persecuted, and entire populations razed off the face of the Earth. But not without testimony.

Most importantly, diaries offer us something that memoirs do not: an emotional immediacy. And it is this immediacy that is so very compelling. I am reminded of Helene Berr, the Israelite young Parisian woman who kept a diary from 1942 through to the day she and her parents were rounded up in March 1944. Fortuitously, she begins to write but a short time before the decree that all Jews must wear a yellow star.

She confides to the diary her struggle with whether to wear it or not. Was wearing it an act of compliance with a hateful regime or did it demonstrate a pride in one’s Jewish identity? We read of her reactions to passerby’s comments. Some express solidarity and others pity. She reflects on them, not from a distance of many years, but on the day she encountered them. She does not—because she cannot—contextualize this act as the first step in an array of far worse persecution to come.

The above is part of the introduction that is written by Renia’s sister, Ariana Spiegel, who is currently named Elizabeth Leszczy?ska Bellak.

JANUARY 31, 1939

Why did I decide to start my diary today? Did something important happen? Have I discovered that my friends are keeping diaries of their own? No! I just want a friend. I want somebody I can talk to about my everyday worries and joys. Somebody who will feel what I feel, believe what I say and never reveal my secrets. No human could ever be that kind of friend and that’s why I have decided to look for a confidant in the form of a diary. Today, my dear Diary, is the beginning of our deep friendship.

Renia was fourteen years old when she started her diary, a tumultuous time for any teenager, for sure.

She writes of everyday troubles, of boys that she likes, of friends, family, her constant longing for her mother, and to begin with, this diary offers a reprieve from all things sensationalistic – which is exactly why it is extraordinary; the horrors of World War seep in over time.

FEBRUARY 13, 1939

Can there be a worse day than Monday the 13th? Monday on its own is usually quite bad, and now we have the number 13 added to it. Bad luck! It was definitely not a good day for me.

There are naturally sudden changes all throughout the book, as war is seldom predictable, especially for the victims.

SEPTEMBER 10, 1939

Oh, God! My God! We’ve been on the road for three days now. Przemy?l was attacked. We had to flee. The three of us escaped: me, Arianka and Grandpa. We have left the burning, partially destroyed city in the middle of the night on foot, carrying our bags. Granny stayed behind. Lord, please protect her. We heard on the road that Przemy?l was being destroyed.

One stand-out thing about Renia is her poetry. She writes poetry all throughout her diary, about all kinds of things. To me, it is apparent how the poetry changes, both from her age and also from the war.

Even if your beauty could outshine that of Greek goddesses’ line
Your fate will remain the same
Your life will not be reframed
Life doesn’t care about your eyes
Your ugly lips
Nose the wrong size!
Mirror, mirror on the wall,
Tell me the truth you reflect and all.

Her words on her love interests radiate from the page:

JANUARY 5, 1941, SUNDAY

And? Didn’t I say it was better not to see him? I was so regretful, but tough. It always so happens that when you love somebody, you tease them. The greetings were sweet, but then he didn’t dance with me, he sat there fuming, in a bad mood, but tough, after all (oh, God) love can (i.e., must!!!) sulk too. Today I’m in bed; I’m unwell. Oh, I so hope that everything pans out well!! Please, Great One! I find evidence of his liking even in anger.

A 16-YEAR-OLD

When you’re 16 years old you dearly love the whole world with all its parties, pranks and jokes and especially with your favorite folks.
When you hide your crumpled diary from your mother’s strict inquiries.
When you sing love songs
Then you are 16 years old.

Her true beloved, Zygu, shines through the pages, even when he is “a boor”, and their love is mutual. It makes me remember the turmoils and torpor that youth entails.

JULY 1, 1941

We’re all alive and well. All of us, Norka, Irka, Zygu, my friends, my family. And today I want to speak with you as a free person still. Today I’m like everyone else … Tomorrow, along with other Jews, I’ll have to start wearing a white armband. To you I will always remain the same Renia, a friend, but to others I will become someone inferior, I will become someone wearing a white armband with a blue star. I will be a Jude. I’m not crying or complaining. I have resigned myself to my fate. It just feels so strange and sorrowful. My school vacation and my dates with Zygu are coming to an end. I don’t know when I’ll see him next. Everyone is working today. No news about Mama. God protect us all. Goodbye, dear Diary. I’m writing this while I’m still independent and free. Tomorrow I’ll be someone else—but only on the outside. And perhaps one day I’ll greet you as someone else still. Grant me that, Lord God, I believe in You. You will help me, Bulus and God!

Zygu and Renia loved each other dearly, seemingly as she loved her mother. Renia’s sister, Elizabeth, provides a loving epilogue to this book, which also details as much as we know happened to Renia, and also to Zygmunt (Zygu).

This diary stood the test of time, and will forever be a tome over what happened to a young person who was murdered during the Holocaust.

Visit Renia Spiegel Foundation.

This book is published on 2019-09-17.

R.

Review: Howard Zinn, Ray Suarez – “Truth Has a Power of Its Own: Conversations about A People’s History”

This book is based on the transcripts of conversations between Howard Zinn and Ray Suarez that took place in 2007.

Opening statement: I’ve yet to read A People’s History of The United States. Does that matter when reading this book? I can’t tell, and I know that’s a good thing.

I have read and heard many of Zinn’s speeches and read some of his writings. To say he’s influential is a severe understatement; Noam Chomsky is one of his main supporters, and a close friend, which says much.

Zinn’s fervor, humanitarianism, morals, honesty, and energy jumps off the page. He is a man who has spoken at great length of how our society has changed, where it is, and where it can be, without tiring, always while listening to people. The people, who are at the center of Zinn’s thoughts, throughout this book and his life.

We read Suarez’s words, simple questions and postulates, which provide Zinn with ample ground to take off from. Witnessing his deeply-rooted humanitarian critique against both the American regime (through all times) and his wondrous ability to think in an existentialist way—i.e. he answers questions as if he were answering on the behalf of humanity, as though the questions weren’t trite and he weren’t tired of them—is both beautiful and inspirational in the extreme. It’s like witnessing a butterfly take flight.

Howard Zinn: The first chapter of A People’s History of the United States was on Columbus. When it was published, I soon began getting letters about the book from readers all over the country. And I noticed that most of the letters were about the very first chapter, about Columbus. First I thought, Oh, they’ve only read the first chapter.

But then I thought, No, this is the most shocking thing to them— because it breaks into the American myth about Columbus. It has something to do with feeling that Columbus represents America, patriotism, Western civilization. It’s untouchable—you mustn’t touch the myth about the glories of Western civilization, about the wonderful things that Europeans brought to other parts of the world. You mustn’t touch the traditional heroes and make things more complicated than they are.

So Columbus is therefore a villain—or is there a way of telling history that just fills in those missing parts of the portrait and puts someone in their times?

Well when I talk about Columbus, I don’t ignore the fact that he was a brave man, that he was a great navigator, that he did something remarkable in crossing the ocean. That’s one side. But then there is the other side of him, the man who came here not to spread Christianity or care for people who were here, but to use them—use them in his search for gold, to bring profits to people back in Europe. A man who in that pursuit kidnapped Indians, mutilated them, killed them—enslaved them.

Yes, you can humanize him. You can tell as much as you can about what he did that was positive or what his good personal qualities were, but in the end, if a person has committed atrocities, you make a judgment about that. The result is not simply “on the one hand, but on the other hand.” It’s not an equalization of the moral judgement—that is, if you have a moral approach to history. If you don’t believe in simply laying out history like a telephone book, if you believe that moral judgements should determine your approach to history, then I think you have to make decisions.

You can tell the story of Theodore Roosevelt as a complicated story. You acknowledge there are remarkable things about him, and you can say, yes, he was a great lover of nature. He overcame enormous physical handicaps, and in fact, as president, he put in certain reforms. But on the other hand, there is Roosevelt the lover of war. There is Roosevelt the imperialist. There is Theodore Roosevelt the racist. There is the Roosevelt who commends a general for committing a massacre in the Philippines. You could say the good things about Theodore Roosevelt, but in the end, if your concerns are human concerns, then you have to make a decision about what else you tell.

In a certain sense, you are filling in the picture. You are more truthful. You’re not leaving things out, but you’re putting things in that have been left out—things that are very, very important.

The above quote is good, because it says something highly significant about Zinn: his extremely sobering and terse way to provide background to a statement is almost singular. It’s easy to see how he and Noam Chomsky affected and influenced each other.

There are many singular aspects of Zinn’s statements, not because he was a singular individual, but because he truly believed in what he was speaking of. He was a World War Two veteran who flew bomber planes over Europe. He’d seen atrocities and partaken in them. He spoke directly with both people who agreed and disagreed with him. It all boiled down believing that all humans are equal.

There is nothing that arouses attention so much as people who break a law. That is why civil disobedience is such a powerful weapon in the hands of social reformers.

On creating a rationale for slavery:

Throughout the Western Hemisphere, but especially in North America, was it necessary to create a rationale for slavery that made its continuation possible? Did you have to sort of create a cultural argument for the black person as a slave in order to keep the whole thing going?

Racism is the creation of a certain attitude toward people to show that they are not as deserving of freedom as other people—that there is something different about them. What is different is not just the color of their skin or the shape of their features; what is different about them is that they are inferior human beings. Sometimes the inferiority is put in religious terms: “They’re not Christians. They’re heathens.”

And sometimes the differences are cast as a matter of intelligence, that the black person is not as intelligent as the white person, or that the black person is more savage and more cruel than the white person, or that black people are cannibals. All sorts of rationales are given for making the slave deserving of slavery—because they’re not simply human beings like the rest of us.

This starts early. It starts with Columbus and the enslavement of Indians, in fact with the people who defended the enslavement of Indians at the time of Columbus— Juan ginés de Sepúlveda, for instance, a Spanish priest who defended the cruel treatment of Indians. He did it by saying, well, they’re simply a different species than we are; they’re not really human beings.

But Las Casas lived among them and knew them and could talk about them. He said, no, they are human beings just like us. In fact, in some ways they’re superior human beings in the way they behave toward one another, their attitude toward acquisition of property, and their belief in sharing things. But it was necessary to create a myth about the inferiority of black people in order to justify enslaving them. And that myth, of course, has persisted for a long time.

There’s no stop of Zinn’s optimism. And it’s simple. It all boils down to the people:

And if we bring these stories to the table, to be presented alongside the victorious generals on horseback, the wise Founding Fathers, and so on, how do we benefit in the twenty-first century from that broader portrait? We benefit by recognizing that, if we’re going to change society, we cannot depend on something created two hundred years ago by the Founding Fathers, and we cannot depend on the people in power.

We cannot depend on the president and Congress and the Supreme Court.

Looking at this long thread of struggle and looking at the way things have changed, we learn that it’s up to us, as citizens. It makes us better citizens. It makes us active citizens, more than voters. It makes us people who day-to-day get together with other people.

It really gives us a new idea of democracy. Democracy does not come from the top. Democracy comes from ordinary people seeing what they have in common and seeing what they are lacking.

When ordinary people get together, they put their energy together. They protest together, they demand things together, they form a movement—and that is how change takes place. That is how we can get closer and closer to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.

He spoke calmly of Andrew Jackson, president McKinley, and Ronald Reagan, and what they truly have done, in comparison of what they spoke.

On terrorism after 9/11:

You note that military forays into adjoining territory and other parts of the world have often been explained to the American people by a threat against our safety, our security, and our prosperity. Would the kind of shift that you’re suggesting in the way the people of this country think about themselves make it less likely that people elsewhere would threaten us?—using as an example the current threat of terrorists attacks against the United States.

This phenomenon of terrorism is very interesting, because it looks like a unique situation. People often say 9/11 changed everything or was a kind of experience that United States has never had. Of course, what happened on September 11, 2001, was unique in the way that all historical events are unique. On the other hand, this phenomenon of fear, which then becomes a justification for aggressive action against another people or another nation—this is something that we have seen again and again. In fact, there was great fear of the Indians and fear of Indian massacres.

Now, the difference between that situation and the present situation is that it was almost impossible to eliminate the clash of two peoples fighting for the same territory. In the case of the United States engaging in wars overseas in order to eliminate the fear of terrorism, this is not an inevitable clash. This is something that can be averted, I think, by very intelligent consideration of where terrorism comes from and what the best remedy is to deal with it.

All of our military action in the Middle East has not stopped terrorism but only inflames people who might become terrorists. The only defense against terrorism is to do something about its roots. And the roots of terrorism, whether we like to acknowledge it or not, are grievances.

Terrorists are reacting to their grievances in an immoral and fanatic way, but the grievances themselves may be genuine, and they may be felt not only by the terrorists, but by millions and millions of other people. If the grievances have some legitimacy to them, then it is our responsibility to address these grievances: to think about withdrawing troops from the Middle East, to think about playing a different role on the question of Israel and Palestine. Just as we have a right to be free from terrorists from the Middle East, the people of the Middle East have a right to be free from a different kind of terrorism—war.

War is terrorism. I say this as a former bombardier in the Air Force, who dropped bombs on other people. Bombs terrorize people. They kill people, and they terrorize them. War is terrorism on a very large scale. In fact, the wars waged by governments are at a level of terrorism far greater than that of any small body like Al Qaeda or the IRA or Palestinian suicide bombers. It’s on a far greater scale than they are capable of. We need to define terrorism in such a way as to see other people as equal to ourselves. So yes, a different view of our history and our policies would make us safer.

He speaks of social change, of Mother Jones, the NAACP, the IWW, of August Spies and Emma Goldman and what they did and what happened to them.

He also spoke well of the importance of critiquing inwards as well as outwards; we can’t miss looking ourselves in the mirror as part of our human process:

Was Hitler evil? Of course, and Mussolini was evil, and the Japanese empire was evil. Yet that should not lead to the acceptance of the huge number of atrocities we committed. And that is what we were doing; we were committing atrocities. We probably killed six hundred thousand ordinary Germans. They weren’t Hitler. They were ordinary Germans. We killed an equal number, probably six hundred thousand Japanese civilians. We killed a hundred thousand ordinary Japanese men, women, and children in Tokyo in one firebombing. When you add all of that up and you say, “Well, but it had to be done because we had to beat Hitler”—I don’t think we can come to that simple a judgment.

He had optimism:

Ray Suarez: The stories you’ve just recounted, and the ones you have spun out from the history of the fifteenth to the twenty-first centuries—do they leave you optimistic about the future of this country?

Howard Zinn: I would be naive if I said I’m confident that this country has a glorious future, based on the past. Nevertheless, the future is open. I would say I’m not optimistic and not pessimistic. I would say I’m cautiously hopeful. I think it depends so much on what people do and how fast and how seriously people organize to change their lives.

But the element of optimism in my feeling comes from faith in people’s essential decency. I don’t think people want war. I don’t think people are born racists. I think people are basically decent, but their decency can be twisted and distorted by people in power who will create reasons for them to go to war, or will persuade them that free-market capitalism is the best system ever devised.

It takes time, but I believe that the truth—even though it emerges only slowly and over a long period—does have a power of its own. And I expect that power to become more and more crucial. I am hopeful that people will turn against the idea of war. I think the point will come when people will finally say, “We can’t go to war anymore. It hasn’t done us any good.”

There are people everywhere who want to see a different kind of world, who want to be at one with their fellow men and women, who think that people in other countries are human beings as we are, and that if somebody is suffering anywhere in the world, we have a responsibility to help them. I believe that that compassion is basic to human nature. And I am counting on that to pull us through.

As it is clear to see, this book is beautiful and very wondrous. It will awaken new minds to discover Howard Zinn, which is more than doing what it should. I recommend this book to all human beings.

Truth Has a Power of Its Own: Conversations about A People’s History is published on 2019-09-03.