Are we writing people's history in a way that supports a people's future?
For the past two years a friend of mine has been playfully pushing me to write a little book on Mother's Day. His interest is in the pacifist roots of the holiday in the United States, dating back to Julia Ward Howe's Mothers Day Proclamation of 1870: "Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause/ Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn/All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience..."
Howe is curiously not mentioned as an intellectual founder of Mother's Day in some places where she should be, such as in the on-line Britannica profile for the holiday, though her work in this role is not exactly unknown. This fits the pattern of popular forgetfulness of popular movements that Howard Zinn highlighted for us in 1980 with A People's History of the United States and cultural workers like Pete Seeger have fought against for the better part of the last and this century. My friend thinks, like many of my friends and I, that knowledge of our radical history will awaken within us, today, some desire for the embrace of a better heritage than the elite one in our history books -- that our muddled thinking will be cleared -- that we will rise up in a powerful, revolutionary love through stories, repeated, like a meditation.
As a former teenage mother, as a mother who has faced poverty, as a mother who is also an activist and an organizer, he thinks also that I should be less shy about my writing and carry Howe's message about powerfully subversive motherhood to, as we say, "the people," as a representative of such. Sneak up on them, though: maybe in the form of a cute little book, not much more than a card really, with violets and roses on the front, sold for $5 at a checkout counter where "the people" thought they might just pick up a few flowers in their day of consumer obligation, in their appreciation for their mother's incontinence and tense nerves. Even assuming I was able to do such a thing -- find a publisher, much less research and write the tiny book -- I have been reluctant. He's so right, as he often is. I am indeed shy. But, I think it's more than just that.
I often don't know what I am feeling until I write about it so I often talk to myself about myself in diary format, and in this way, I have talked to myself about my friend's idea. I love a good graveyard, I say. Bones and stones rattle and speak through me like a radio station picked up by the tooth fillings in my head. My best stories are death stories and ghost stories, where life ends its reality for one and becomes fair fantasy for the rest of us. When I was a teenager my crushes were on long dead movie stars and the men of non-fiction. Most infamously, when I was 12, I was completely in-love with Peter the Great.
And, boy, do I now enjoy radical people's history. I enjoy hearing it, reading it, making sense of it as a form of cultural explanation and as metaphor. I see the heroes of people's history as intellectual, cultural ancestors of mine. I share the stories with my teenage son who shares it with his friends. Those who came before us are hungry to be heard and we are hungry to hear. Jesus spoke in parable two thousand years ago and still many of us are familiar with at least some of His stories: the master and the servant, the good Samaritan. In the American Left, in our people's history, more commonly than we talk about Mother's Day, or Jesus for that matter, we still talk of Bread and Roses, the slogan of the 1912 textile worker's strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where the women sang:
As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women's children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!
I eat this stuff up. I do. But is it instructional on its own? Why do we repeat this story, this poem, and more like it really? I'm not suggesting we should not. But, what is our motivation? Why don't I want to tell this people's story about Mother's Day in a little book, even assuming, self-importantly, I could, and leave it alone?
I like the Mother's Day Proclamation, just like I like the Bread and Roses poem. But like many good words, I recognize, as I write this, that repeating them on their own doesn't make them understood enough to derive a coherent lesson or change behavior. I think, to be understood, the people in them have to be struggled with as representatives from our own inner lives, which is what they are, as our ancestors. We must be willing to fully struggle with our culture, and not just mainstream culture, but our closest, most intimate cultures inside it.
I suspect I like Howe's Proclamation because it makes me feel good. I'm being a good mother, according to my interpretation of its words, and these are the words of what I recognize is a woman whom I respect. She is fully of my culture, the culture of the American Left. As I read it, I appreciate myself, my cultural history, a little bit better, because in a way, Howe is a mother to me, to us. One, if I were of normal interests, I might know better than the mothers I am genetically descended from in her generation. I have been teaching my two sons all that she calls upon me to teach in her Mother's Day manifesto, I'd like to feel, and up until recently I had never even read it.
I think though, as I introspect, that Howe may have been conveniently misguided in her thinking that women, in general, teach sons "charity, mercy and patience" -- traits then somehow "unlearned" -- and that moral evil is an inherently masculine capacity for which women are uniquely responsible for working their sexual or motherly magic against. And like our mother, we might too be misguided.
Let me now explain to those who are innocent that Howe is also the author of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, which became the powerfully moral soundtrack to the American Civil War, a military action in the United States that both lifted the legal institution of slavery without meaningful reparations being made to its thousands upon thousands of Black victims, men, women, and children -- leaving the barbaric institution's survivors and descendants traumatized and still, institutionally, unequal citizens to this day -- and, as for the Whites, it left the large rural under-class traumatized -- violently traumatized and perhaps a little crazy -- for generations. The elite of the South, the criminal class that was rightly targeted in Howe's words, was actually the minority of the South's population. If you want to understand why the American South has such peculiarly self-defeating popular politics, the popular wisdom is study slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction.
Howe saw the devastation and her politics clearly changed as a result. She became a pacifist just a few years after supporting a war. And while she may have admitted to friends in private correspondence the change, and to some degree her own responsibility as a writer, not simply another mother, for its horrors, it is the Mother's Day Proclamation that is her public writing, and in it, she shares nothing of that. This is our people's history.
The Mother's Day Proclamation seems to me interesting primarily as a study in how one can make the mistake of eschewing appropriate personal and communal responsibility in order to pursue a more virginal image, and an impossible responsibility, than anyone deserves or can shoulder, and do so very surreptitiously. It reminds me, really, of an aspect of modern American "progressivism," where we blame evil people (like George Bush) for doing evil things (like bombing Afghanistan and Iraq) and feel like, because we say the right words (like peace and solidarity), or even, in some cases, truly suffer in our efforts, we are among the virtuous (while we continue to bomb Afghanistan and Iraq).
How can we begin to explain, if we are serious people, serious about justice, the constant murder of civilians all over the world in what so many of us have accepted is a series of wars about dominance? And, even without war, the abuse of workers? Poverty? Are we really so weak that we can't do better? We can see the consequences of an incomplete fight for justice -- a justice most human beings on the Earth say we want, and I believe we do, I think. Is it simply that our mothers did not read Howe's Proclamation and words like it? Is that the problem? Somehow, I think this is doubtful.
But it is in the example of their profound complication, her complication, our complication and my complication that I can learn anything, or share anything. It's never enough, I think, to just recall the facts. We must struggle with them in our deepest selves. And we must do so fully with each other.
Are we doing this when we share our culture's stories, our "people's history"? I don't know that we are. And this troubles me.
A Meditation on American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein
“One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer.”
In a 2001 CounterPunch interview with Norman Finkelstein Don Atapattu said of him: “Often lambasted for his intemperate approach, Finkelstein is unlikely to win popularity contests in America for the language he employs, as much as his arguments.” Though currently unemployed by any university, Dr. Finkelstein is often cited in mainstream academia as an expert on the Israel/Palestine conflict, especially in the work that brought down Joan Peter's best-seller From Time Immemorial, which he successfully proved was historically inaccurate on several points, but most of all in her claim that there were no Palestinians living in Palestine at the time of Zionist settlement. He is an incredibly successful failure, a beautiful loser. I think you get that sense from American Radical. People get mad that Finkelstein gets mad.
He worries on camera about how to support himself when universities can be pressured into severing his employment. His entire adult life, though a prolific scholar, he has been partially employed, saying in the film that into his 40s he was making $18,000 a year. He is a best-selling author, by all accounts a meticulous scholar, and he is a popular professor with students, when he has work. But his enemies, who seemingly never attack the merits of his claims on camera but prefer instead to attack him, the person, are powerful. Most recently, according to activists, he was derailed in his bid for tenure at DePaul University by Harvard's Alan Dershowitz, whom Finkelstein had, in 2003, convincingly accused of plagiarizing, for the benefit of Israeli government, from the previously discredited From Time Immemorial. In 2007 Finkelstein was forced to resign, though with some sort of financial agreement perhaps brought about by student outcry, even after his department voted nine to three, and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Personnel Committee five to zero, in favor of giving him tenure.
The documentary is touching and it concerns me. I think the bulk of what I have to say is not really so much a review of the film, or a summary of Norman Finkelstein's existence, of which I only know the plot line through a film. The bulk of what I have to say is about how this film affected me, what it made me think about.
On a very personal level, I saw myself in Finkelstein's memories of his mother. She could not speak of war without becoming hysterical. She was committed, passionately committed, to pacifism. Deeply traumatized by the Holocaust, everything in her world was about the camps, about understanding her pain, and about changing the world that would allow such terror and pain. She had a huge influence on her son.
I feel as if I understand being traumatized, being politicized by trauma and by the love of a child. In the American South I had a child young, my first son, and our early life together is my story of trauma and political maturation. For the longest time -- really, consistently, until very recently – everything, absolutely everything, was about understanding the terror I felt in poverty and alienation and about reaching out to others, sometimes hysterically, to change the world that would allow such terror. In the summer of 2001, for instance, though I had not a penny and I was food insecure, I traveled to Chicago to work at Voices in the Wilderness as an unpaid intern. This was the tiny organization that was sending delegations to Iraq in violation of the economic sanctions and sometimes bombings which were killing 5,000 children a month. I saw a link between the poverty in which I lived, my son's life, and the children of Iraq. It was the first time I really understood. It felt so good to understand something and so terrible too.
I wasn't very good at my job there, partially because I was inexperienced and still very traumatized and partially because I had a young child to care for and no one to really help me. All of my struggles my son has been witness and participant in, and I can see its effects. He's now 16 and I am sometimes afraid for him, precisely because he does take his morality -- the one I taught him -- seriously. I am also proud of him as I watch his early battles, as I don't doubt Finkelstein's mother was of him, before her death in 1995. Though she did worry.
Finkelstein says in the film that while she approved of his work, she was concerned that he would destroy himself or – as I would put it -- be destroyed. Norman Finkelstein, is not, from what I can see, “suicidal,” as a childhood friend suggested in the film he might be. It disturbed me how often friends seemed to be saying that his activism was an act of self-hatred or self-abuse, almost as often as his enemies. This opinion seemed to persist though a few interviews because he shows his anger, and that that either makes his friends uncomfortable, or they think that his anger makes him an easier target. There are quicker ways to die, less painful ways to die, than what he is experiencing though public antagonisms and his lack of job security as a result of his positions. He is being destroyed by people who disagree with him and yet not sufficiently protected by those who respect him, people like me. Noting that point was the second time I saw myself in the film. He is not destroying himself. I am not doing anything to protect him from being destroyed, just like I don't know who is protecting me.
I already know very well what Israel's human rights record is. And I know my responsibility for that record as a US citizen. Many, many of us do. I suspect that most of us who would choose to watch American Radical either agree already with its subject on that record, or hate him for announcing it. I agree with Norman Finkelstein and I respect him and it broke my mother's heart to see Finkelstein take solace in his atheism, as he did in one scene, take solace in how one day the process of being destroyed would be over at least in death. I'm tired of watching the best hearts of my generation be destroyed.
Organizer and activist burnout is the bigger problem I see. Finkelstein keeps working, bless him, but many of us stop, destroyed even before death takes us. If we agree with him, why don't we take care of Norman Finkelstein, send him money and moral support, at the very least? Or create work for him as a teacher? I feel like if I can pay for bullets to kill babies, I can support fellow people who want to stop it.
Noam Chomsky, one of Finkelstein's closest friends, who has supported him through the years, shares with the camera a brief reflection he read once. “If a man were to walk down the street telling everyone the truth he would be killed after walking only a few hundred yards.”
We shouldn't have to walk down the street by ourselves telling the truth. We could embrace with more than the tattered shreds of our well-wishing and our mousy warnings and find the truth together.
The title of my thoughts here originates in Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In April of 1963 King was arrested and held in Birmingham for his role in one of the civil rights movement's key examples of sustained, nonviolent direct action, The Birmingham Campaign. On top of being separated from his family and his work, he was openly criticized by White liberal clergy. In one of the lesser quoted paragraphs of what has since become Americana, Martin Luther King took a moment to perhaps speak subtly of his own emotional life as he sat in his cell, alone with only his words and his thoughts, thinking aloud about his, and his movement's, lack of real support from a key part of the religious community to which he had devoted his life, and which claimed, confusingly, to be sympathetic to the civil rights movement. “We do not believe that these days of new hope are days when extreme measures are justified in Birmingham,” the White clergy said in its public statement, A Call For Unity, “We commend the community as a whole, and the local news media and law enforcement officials in particular, on the calm manner in which these demonstrations have been handled.” They reiterated their belief in the rights of man in their statement and then they called King an outsider. I always wondered when reading this: are there any outsiders in unity?
King sat in jail, ruminating on their words, writing back to them his Letter. "I must confess that I am not afraid of the word 'tension'," King responded. A month after this exchange Black children were pushed to the ground with fire hoses and dogs. By that Fall four little girls had been killed in the basement of their church in an act of terrorism committed by White Supremacists. For generations before 1963 Black people faced the constant threat of racial violence and institutional alienation. He was apparently not the only one afraid of tension. It seems that the only people afraid of tension in Alabama in 1963 were the Liberal clergy.
It must have been with profound loss and disappointment and fear that he insisted – even during the hours he wrote and thought and paced in that cell – on his characteristic unwillingness to give up on the potential power of our shared humanity. He insisted. Five years later someone shot him. 23 years later we gave him a national holiday.
We all tear up on our day off from work once a year as we recall that he had “a dream,” and we recall all those nasty people in the South that we are nothing like. And then we, all too often the Left included, forget about this great brave man's actual message, and the context of that message, and the messages of everyone I can think of who has been great, from Jesus to Gandhi, and we shrug while our still-living heroes are given to the snarling dogs, the threat of the bullet, and the dirt. Or, in Dr. Finkelstein's case, to the likes of Alan Dershowitz.
Malcolm X in 1963 gave a speech entitled God's Judgment of White America. It was less than kind, but as a White person, I think he was right about my culture. “In this deceitful American game of power politics, the Negroes...are nothing but tools, used by one group of Whites called Liberals against another group of Whites called Conservatives, either to get into power or to remain in power.” I wonder what he would say about the Left, as a whole, as we appear, or don't really appear, in American Radical. Are we using the words of Dr. Finkelstein to fuel our conversations, to enrich our knowledge of the world, to be powerful in a sense -- in the safety of our Colbert Report snark -- but unwilling to join him or anyone in the real fight, to risk – together – not alone? I just can't figure how it is that Finkelstein is like too many other good people I know and has been left, despite his work in the spirit of solidarity, to the elements when he is unlike most people I know – he's a best-selling author. It worries me. I worry for all of us.
Unlike Malcolm X, I don't believe in God. But I have this kind of faith I've heard religious people describe. I can't go on living without believing in something bigger than myself. In my case, I can't be happy just being comfortable in a world that is so unjust, so cruel, that, for example, any money I can earn is taxed – not to provide my children with an enriching education – but to incinerate, to shoot, and to starve other children all over the world, including in Palestine. The bullets used to murder 1,400 civilians in Gaza in 2009 were manufactured in Pennsylvania. I helped to pay for those bullets. Since I know this, I have to actively choose to believe in humanity's potential. I see little proof of it if I dwell on certain facts. I have faith. It can only be called that. And I have to. I have children and I love some others of us with all my heart too. I want for life to be good. It's with this faith that I would like to call on each of us to make a decision, right now, to stop telling the bravest among us to be wise, sensible, and careful – to protect themselves – when we think what they are saying or doing is fundamentally correct. That's my reaction to American Radical.
I don't care what tone of voice Finkelstein, or anyone, uses. There is nothing immoral about being mad or awkward.
One day the United States will recognize its real heroes. They will be the Norman Finkelsteins...