Monday, October 23, 2017

Meandering Mind Stream

Caught without my emergency notebooks, not even a book, I found myself with 45 minutes to kill before the East Atlanta library opened. Fortunately Joe's Coffee Shop is nearby. Browsing their little book shelf I found a John Le Carre novel. With coffee I read ten or fifteen pages, marveling at his superb writing. Coincidentally the hold books I was there to pick up included a Le Carre memoir, a collection of magazine articles he published over the years, a unique form of memoir. In his 80s now, Le Carre reflects on a long life of unusual good luck and the usual share of heartache. Since writing spy novels played a way important part of his life, he refers often to trips he made for research or events that triggered certain novels or episodes. I've read all of his books, I think, except The Night Manager, which I somehow missed. Oh, and The Little Drummer Girl, which I quit, finding its glorification of the Israeli Mosaad a bit much. I may have been wrong on this because the author's politics seem to be generally respectable. Reading the memoir made me want to go back and re-read his whole catalog, a luxury I really don't think I can indulge, given the list of books I haven't gotten to yet.

The other hold book was Norman Mailer's, Armies of the Night. This latter I came to by a reference in Noam Chomsky's American Power, where he mentioned the weekend he spent in Jail, arrested with Mailer and others in a demonstration at the Pentagon. Armies of the Night is Mailer's playful account of that weekend. It's told whimsically in the third person narrative with Mailer as the central character. The writer can hardly form a sentence without revealing a broad erudition and a great confidence in his opinons and theories of human behavior, and an anthropomorphizing of America (north not south). He calls himself a conservative leftist without quite defining that and describes his fellow inmates with sometimes derision and sometimes great respect. He's sort of all over the place but fun, anyway, to witness a nimble and mind at work (or play). He makes fun of himself and his 4 marriages and multiple children and maverick reputation, using just that removed narrative to do it. He ruminates, naturally, on the Vietnam War, the reason for the demonstration, savagely attacking U.S. coporations and hysteria around communism. Critiquing the Right's justification for their war (basically the domino theory), and caricaturing a bit the “liberal” opposition, he remains vague as compared to Chomsky's persuasive take in American Power where the motivation is laid out clearly: the ruling class reflexibly strikes out at any organized resistance or alternative to capitalism, the system that provides them with their ultra privileged lives.

Just a mile or two southeast of where I live, lies a neighborhood bordering Grant Park, the setting for another book I was working on, The Big Bust at Tyronne's Boarding House by James Gallant. The casually humorous, autobiographical-seeming story is of a writer, a stay-at-home scribe who is constantly distracted from his calling by his own lack of focus and an array of neighborhood characters ranging from prostitutes to eccentric elders, an ex-green beret buddy and crack dealers. The time frame is probably the 80s when that neighborhood was just beginning its gentrification transformation. The characters rob him of his time and money with their constant visiting and borrowing. His laid back openess to them is touching even as he uses them in his stories, even paying some for their stories. I picked up the book free somewhere. It has an attached note – This book is free – enjoy! If you should be overwhelmed by an urge to remunerate the author, who is not a wealthy man, he will not object to receiving checks in any amount - Such quality writing reminds me of one of my favorite bands, The Swimming Pool Qs. Their falling just short of the combination of luck and connection, but not talent, to break into the big money, though unfortunate for them, makes it possible for a low-income person like myself to go see 'em. But things are looking up a little - Vagabondage Press is publishing Gallant's Whatever Happened to Ohio? It will be an e-book initially, distributed by Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc., probably selling for about $4. - his website:

Also in East Atlanta - The Longest US War: Korea 1950 – 2017, a presentation by Ajamu Baraka October 17 First Iconium Baptist Church: Ajamu Baraka ran on the Jill Stein Green Party ticket, spoilers some might say. My position was that Trump or Hillary, one of 'em, was going to be president. Progressives would be fighting Hillary's hawkish foreign policy. She was good more or less on some issues, race and women but an establishment figure solidly in bed with the 1%. But as compared to Trump? No contest. Subsequent events have certainly confirmed this choice – I mean, Jeff Sessions Attorney General? Pruit at EPA? Loony Tunes is far too mild a description. My first thought that awful Wednesday morning was, “We've decided, as a species, on suicide.” Later I heard Bernie's reality check, “We have no right to quit. The stakes are too high.”

But I'm not going to blame the Green Party, entirely, plenty of other factors figure in. Ajamu's talk after all was about Korea. He used incendiary words (they're incendiary because of the propaganda efforts of the 1%) like U.S. Imperialism and hegemony. He questioned the official narrative which portrays the U.S. in benevolent terms and demonizes the official enemy and attempted to humanize the situation, to acknowledge the Korean people as living persons not communists. And he emphasized that the U.S. has no right to determine what kind of society North Korea has. Even if the U.S. were sincere, not hypocritical in its criticism, the way to peace is not war. It is rather arrived at through the skills of non-violent conflict resolution. It must have been disappointing for the speaker and organizers, that despite the bellicose rhetoric coming out of both captials, there was a very light turn out for the event.

The light turn-out made it feasible for me to get to the speaker and ask about I.F. Stone's book, The Hidden History of the Korean War. The speaker was aware of it but hadn't read it. Stone was blacklisted in the late 40s – 50s, so started a weekly newsletter, which sustained him during this bleak history. The facts in his book on Korea, so he could not be accused of treason, came entirely from the congressional record. Salient items: the U.S. straffed North Korean vehicles carrying delegates to the peace talks and, at the talks, offered proposals designed to be rejected. “We” were winning, why seek peace? The Soviet Union however gave mig jets to China (which came into the war thanks to McCarthur's foolish aggression). These migs could shoot down B-29 bombers which had given an edge to the U.S. Without this edge, suddenly the U.S. was interested in peace and the armistice was finally reached, which has held precariously since.

I've been dipping, for this writing, into the books that litter my sofa and kitchen table. Re-reading Eckhart Tolle's, Power of Now, the first book of his I read and an amazing work. It offers an analysis of what is at the root of all these problems I'm complaining about, which reduces to ego, the dysfunction of our culture which we either root out or perish. Tolle doesn't say anything that hasn't been said before but no one, to my awareness, has said it with such consistency and clarity. Even Oprah agrees with me on this calling his work the most important reading she's encountered.

Another on the stack, from the library, Al Gore's sequel to An Inconvenient Truth – Truth to Power Al initiated a satellite project as vice-president to monitor climate change and provide solar disruption warnings. It was cancelled by the Bush/Cheney administration. When businesses complained because the disruption warnings would be important in protecting their electric systems, Bush proposed replacing the climate monitoring aspect with sand bags. Gore remarked, “That is real extremism.” The project was side-lined and finally accomplished under Obama.

Patricia Highsmith, wrote a short story in 1955, The Talented Mr. Ripley, followed in the 70s by Ripley Underground and Ripley's Game. Matt Damon played Ripley in the film of the first. I had been reading a streak of Martha Grimes crime fiction and got tired of her. Usually when I find a new author I greedily read everything they've written and am eagerly waiting the next new one, or mourning if the author is no longer writing. Grimes however wore me out with her productivity. I happened on a list of women novelists on line, Highsmith among them. Learning that she wrote the follow up Ripley books led me to put a hold on one that had all three. Odd to find oneself rooting for a murderer, worried as the police close in, relieved when he talks his way out. The third one is starting to portray him in a less sympathetic way and I suspect she's going to finally bust him. Nope. Though it's her last book on that character there was room for sequel. Later, Donald Westlake writing as Richard Stark, took up the practice of anti-hero in his nobel criminal Parker. Then Lawrence Block did his hit-man series.

My text addiction is serious, though late in starting. I was in my early 20s before I discovered the world of intellect and I've been trying to make up for those lost years ever since. As things are winding down now I have to question whether this is the best use of my time. Shouldn't I perhaps be spending what I allocate to books (and writing for that matter) to attempt to intervene in our headlong rush toward extinction? A fair question. I'll have to get back to you on that.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Vietnam in the Air

Timely to have happened on the book, Hue 1968 by Mark Bowden, at the library just as the Ken Burns' Vietnam: A Television History began on PBS. I was curious to see what perspective was brought to both the book and documentary. The factoid that especially interested me: Vietnam was one country, temporarily divided by the Geneva Accords, after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. Elections were to be held in 1956 to unify the country (which I repeat... was one country). When it became evident that Ho Chi Minh would easily win, the U.S. colluded with the temporary caretaker government to boycott the elections. Thus was created South Vietnam. Thus was democracy scuttled.

Wiping away the cobwebs of self deceipt and propaganda, a government with democratic pretensions but oligarchic realities dismisses the will of the people when it threatens their rule. They annoint and militarily back a tyrannical government in the south that mirrors their own, an elite interested only in their own privilege and power. Even the writer of this quite critical book (author of the highly successful Blackhawk Downs) falls victim sometimes to the propaganda. He fails, I think, to properly highlight this incredibly important subterfuge, the disastrous canceling of elections that would have very likely, entirely avoided the death and misery to come. This should have been repeated, maybe run at the bottom screen continually in the TV History, like those CNN ticker tape reports. And in one sentence he refers to the “communist” versus the “free” forces, when in fact there was nothing “free” about the southern situation except the usual feudalism, freedom to chase money. Vietcong, Buddhists and other opposition groups were excluded from participation in elections and repressed in their activism. One of democracy's chief purposes and benefits is the peaceful transfer of power, the avoidance of war, with its inglorious cost. Yet we were told our troops were fighting for freedom and democracy. Well, obviously they couldn't have said,“We want you to kill, die, sacrifice and suffer so the elite can continue to enjoy its great privileged life style.” Who would have supported that project? Yet that is exactly what it was about.

Bowden does not spare the facts. He refers to the trail of deception revealed by The Pentagon Papers but emphasizes the military stupidity, on both sides, that led to the terrible loss of life at Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive, particularly the civilian carnage. He seems, at times, to set aside his knowledge of the decision to thwart democracy as when he proclaims that the U.S. had every right to choose sides in what he calls the Saigon/Hanoi struggle. In the Ken Burns film there is a similar forgetfulness. North Vietnam is repeatedly referred to as “Communist Vietnam” but the south is never referred to as “Capitalist Vietnam”. Whether this is conscious propaganda or simply embedded in the psyche, it is hardly objective. I've noticed this in other documentaries, where scary, goose-stepping, bayonet wielding hoards appear just when the narrator intones the word, communism - classic Skinnerian conditioning. In a sense the U.S. purpose was freedom and democracy. The ideologue attempts, in that pairing, to capture the prestige of the word democracy and indelibly associate it with capitalism, what they really mean by “freedom”. One of the things that struck me in an interview with Ken Burns and Lynn Novick on Terry Gross' Fresh Air was Burns' statement that a high percentage of the public felt that the students killed at Kent State University anti-war demonstrations “got what they deserved”. This is a measure of the disheartening success of propaganda and, though Trump is no doubt a bit of a loose cannon in establishment eyes, his election is another.

There is a scene in Burn's film where John Foster Dulles is said to make the decision to support Diem's refusal to honor the elections. It is presented as an agonizing decision yet the Secretary of State, and his CIA Chief brother Allen, were known to be hysterically anti-communist religious fundamentalists. Their objection to communism lay not in its authoritarianism but in its disdain for religion and rejection of class privilege. In today's vernacular, they were committed to rule by the 1%. Their support for an elite in South Vietnam, and everywhere else, is consistent and bears this out. One (me) yearns to turn back the clock to FDR's presidency and re-instate the brilliant, anti-colonialist Vice-president Wallace as Roosevelt's successor rather than the cold-warrior Harry Truman. It might be a different world. According to Oliver Stone's book and film, The Untold History of the U.S., the business constituency's successful backroom deal to replace Wallace with Truman amounted to a coup, with sad and serious consequences. But I digress.

The left/right struggle continues in contemporary life, almost to caricature, with Trump the megalomaniac, narcissistic, near-fascist completing the shredding of the New Deal and the Constitution versus Bernie Sanders standing for real democracy. Not that the North Vietnamese or the left in general were or are poster children for democracy. So long as ol' ego, like the 1%, rules our nations and our selves, we are going to find our rhetoric and our practice as far from each other as the obscenely rich are from the miserable poor.