Repercussions & Reflections

A Journal of the Intersection of ideas and actions on Global Conflict and Local Initiatives published by the William Joiner Center

February 22, 2011
by sadhana.palugulla001

Howard zinn In His Own Words

Howard zinn

Howard zinn

-Nguyen Ba Chung

One of Howard Zinn’s signatures is the power of his words. He has the knack of delineating the most complicated issues in the simplest way possible, with humor and wit. For example – “There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.” Or, “Remember this: Even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.”

I think it would be worthwhile to gather some of his most memorable and impactful statements to get a sense of why he has become such a powerful voice in the progressive movement of this country.

** Not to be on the side of the executioners.

Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals the fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such as world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.

Tom Paine, in America, saw war as the creature of governments, serving their own interests, not the interests of justice for their citizens. “Man is not the enemy of man but through the medium of a false system of government.”

** No Flag Large Enough

There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.

It is possible, reading standard histories, to forget half the population of the country. The explorers were men, the landholders and merchants men, the political leaders men, the military figures men. The very invisibility of women, the overlooking of women, is a sign of their submerged status.

“There has always been, and there is now, a profound conflict of interest between the people and the government of the United States.”

** We Will Control Ourselves

If those in charge of our society – politicians, corporate executives, and owners of press and television – can dominate our ideas, they will be secure in their power. They will not need soldiers patrolling the streets. We will control ourselves.

(Nationalism is) a set of beliefs taught to each generation in which the Motherland or the Fatherland is an object of veneration and becomes a burning cause for which one becomes willing to kill the children of other Motherlands or Fatherlands.

One certain effect of war is to diminish freedom of expression.

** Scholars’ Self Censorship

Scholars, who pride themselves on speaking their minds, often engage in a form of self-censorship which is called “realism.” To be “realistic” in dealing with a problem is to work only among the alternatives which the most powerful in society put forth. It is as if we are all confined to a, b, c, or d in the multiple choice test, when we know there is another possible answer. American society, although it has more freedom of expression than most societies in the world, thus sets limits beyond which respectable people are not supposed to think or speak. So far, too much of the debate on Vietnam has observed these limits.

** Small Acts Can Change The World

Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.

The good things that have been done, the reforms that have been made, the wars that have been stopped, the women’s rights that have been won, the racism that has been partly extirpated in society, all of that was not done by government edict, was not done by the three branches of government. It was not done by that structure which we learn about in junior high school, which they say is democracy. It was all done by citizens’ movements. And keep in mind that all great movements in the past have risen from small movements, from tiny clusters of people who came together here and there. When a movement is strong enough it doesn’t matter who is in the White House; what really matters is what people do, and what people say, and what people *demand*.

People like Eugene Debs, Helen Keller, Emma Goldman, Jack London and Upton Sinclair were wonderful writers who joined the movement against war and injustice, against capitalism and corporate power. That was a very exciting period in American history.

He said, ‘Remember this: Even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.’

** Well Trained To Be Obedient

I’m worried that students will take their obedient place in society and look to become successful cogs in the wheel – let the wheel spin them around as it wants without taking a look at what they’re doing. I’m concerned that students not become passive acceptors of the official doctrine that’s handed down to them from the White House, the media, textbooks, teachers and preachers”

“Historically, the most terrible things – war, genocide, and slavery – have resulted not from disobedience, but from obedience.”

The challenge remains. On the other side are formidable forces: money, political power, the major media. On our side are the people of the world and a power greater than money or weapons: the truth.

Truth has a power of its own. Art has a power of its own. That age-old lesson – that everything we do matters – is the meaning of the people’s struggle here in the United States and everywhere. A poem can inspire a movement. A pamphlet can spark a revolution. Civil disobedience can arouse people and provoke us to think, when we organize with one another, when we get involved, when we stand up and speak out together, we can create a power no government can suppress. We live in a beautiful country. But people who have no respect for human life, freedom, or justice have taken it over. It is now up to all of us to take it back.

** The Grand Thieves

Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of leaders…and millions have been killed because of this obedience…Our problem is that people are obedient allover the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves… (and) the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.”

Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it.

I will try not to overlook the cruelties that victims inflict on one another as they are jammed together in the boxcars of the system. I don’t want to romanticize them. But I do remember (in rough paraphrase) a statement I once read: “The cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don’t listen to it, you will never know what justice is.”

** Two Parties: Two Wings of One Corporate Party

The pretense in disputed elections is that the great conflict is between the two major parties. The reality is that there is a much bigger conflict that the two parties jointly wage against large numbers of Americans who are represented by neither party and against powerless millions around the world.”

“If the gods had intended for people to vote, they would have given us candidates.”

Americans have been taught that their nation is civilized and humane. But, too often, U.S. actions have been uncivilized and inhumane.

The challenge remains. On the other side are formidable forces: money, political power, the major media. On our side are the people of the world and a power greater than money or weapons: the truth.

Truth has a power of its own. Art has a power of its own. That age-old lesson – that everything we do matters – is the meaning of the people’s struggle here in the United States and everywhere. A poem can inspire a movement. A pamphlet can spark a revolution. Civil disobedience can arouse people and provoke us to think, when we organize with one another, when we get involved, when we stand up and speak out together, we can create a power no government can suppress. We live in a beautiful country. But people who have no respect for human life, freedom, or justice have taken it over. It is now up to all of us to take it back.

Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it.

** Voting isn’t enough

Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.

No form of government, once in power, can be trusted to limit its own ambition, to extend freedom and to wither away. This means that it is up to the citizenry, those outside of power, to engage in permanent combat with the state, short of violent, escalatory revolution, but beyond the gentility of the ballot-box, to insure justice, freedom and well being.

If democracy were to be given any meaning, if it were to go beyond the limits of capitalism and nationalism, this would not come, if history were any guide, from the top. It would come through citizen’s movements, educating, organizing, agitating, striking, boycotting, demonstrating, threatening those in power with disruption of the stability they needed.

Terrorism has replaced Communism as the rationale for the militarization of the country [America], for military adventures abroad, and for the suppression of civil liberties at home. It serves the same purpose, serving to create hysteria

** To Be Patriotic We Must Disobey The Government

If patriotism were defined, not as blind obedience to government, nor as submissive worship to flags and anthems, but rather as love of one’s country, one’s fellow citizens (all over the world), as loyalty to the principles of justice and democracy, then patriotism would require us to disobey our government, when it violated those principles
We have thrown away the most valuable asset we had — the individual’s right to oppose both flag and country when he believed them to be in the wrong. We have thrown it away; and with it, all that was really respectable about that grotesque and laughable word, Patriotism.

We grow up in a controlled society, where we are told that when one person kills another person, that is murder, but when the government kills a hundred thousand, that is patriotism.

** All The Lies in History

If more people knew something about the history of government deception, of the lies that were told getting us into the Mexican War, the lies that were told getting us into the Spanish-American War, the lies that were told getting us into the war in the Philippines, the lies that were told getting us into World War I, the lies that were told again and again in Vietnam, the lies on the eve of the Gulf War, they would have questions about what they are hearing from the government and the media to justify this war.

Behind the deceptive words designed to entice people into supporting violence — words like democracy, freedom, self-defense, national security — there is the reality of enormous wealth in the hands of a few, while billions of people in the world are hungry, sick, homeless.

While some multimillionaires started in poverty, most did not. A study of the origins of 303 textile, railroad and steel executives of the 1870s showed that 90 percent came from middle- or upper-class families. The Horatio Alger stories of “rags to riches” were true for a few men, but mostly a myth, and a useful myth for control.

I’ve always resented the smug statements of politicians, media commentators, corporate executives who talked about how, in America, if you worked hard, you would become rich. The meaning of that was: if you were poor, it was because you hadn’t worked hard enough. I knew this was a lie.

One percent of the nation owns a third of the wealth. The rest of the wealth is distributed in such a way as to turn those in the 99 percent against one another: small property owners against the propertyless, black against white, native-born against foreign-born, intellectuals and professionals against the uneducated and the unskilled. These groups have resented one another and warred against one another with such vehemence and violence as to obscure their common position as sharers of leftovers in a very wealthy country.

Capitalism has always been a failure for the lower classes. It is now beginning to fail for the middle classes.

** If You Don’t Know History

History is important. If you don’t know history it is as if you were born yesterday. And if you were born yesterday, anybody up there in a position of power can tell you anything, and you have no way of checking up on it.

The Fugitive Slave Act was a flagrant example of Northern and federal collaboration with slaveholders, a lightning rod that led to the growth of the anti-slavery movement.”

If you look through high school textbooks and elementary school textbooks in American history, you will find Andrew Jackson the frontiersman, soldier, democrat, man of the people — not Jackson the slaveholder, land speculator, executioner of dissident soldiers, exterminator of Indians.

I don’t believe it’s possible to be neutral. The world is already moving in certain directions. And to be neutral, to be passive, in a situation like that, is to collaborate with what is going on. And I, as a teacher, don’t want to be a collaborator.

My point is not that we must, in telling history, accuse, judge, condemn Columbus in absentia. It is too late for that; it would be a useless scholarly exercise in morality. But the easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress (Hiroshima and Vietnam, to save Western civilization; Kronstadt and Hungary, to save socialism; nuclear proliferation, to save us all) – that is still with us. One reason these atrocities are still with us is that we have learned to bury them in a mass of other facts, as radioactive wastes are buried in containers in the earth. We have learned to give them exactly the same proportion of attention that teachers and writers often give them in the most respectable classrooms and textbooks. This learned sense of moral proportion, coming from the apparent objectivity of the scholar, is accepted more easily than when it comes from politicians at press conferences. It is therefore more deadly.

** To Live Now As We Think Human Beings Should Live Is Itself a Marvelous Victory

TO BE HOPEFUL in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.

What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.

And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

Howard Zinn

February 22, 2011
by sadhana.palugulla001
1 Comment

Death’s Homeland, by Dragan Draojlovic

-Trans. Stanislava Lazarevic´. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 2008

The plain fact is that there is poetry after Auschwitz, however wounded it may be. An honest poem today must at least have windows open to the never-ending tragedy of our times. But windows imply a house, secure, protected, from which we look out. Dragan Dragojlovic´’s recent collection, Death’s Homeland looks out from no house and says so right from the start:

However deep
this pain may have sunk into the heart,
the next one will sink deeper;
however loud this shriek may have sounded,
the next one will be softer,
filling the wasteland from a strange, inner voice.
“Stone of Woe”

And again,

In the village
there were no houses,
or stables, or fences.
Only soot and ruins.
“Soot and Ruins”

Even the voice in these poems is nearly no voice, or a voice searching for itself:

The wind reaches for
the distance in vain
to find the voice
that was extinguished.
“Under Death’s Wing”

Such mercy as the poems utter comes from afar: “the good old sun / that gives me warmth” [“Before the Unchangeable”], “a fragment of the moon [that] / hangs over the shredded forest” (“The Landscape of Dawn”). In “The Sun Above a Naked Forest, a single ray of sunlight breaking through “smoke and shooting” and bitter cold brings hope that “the forest will put out new leaves / to hide this death.” Yet even distant heavenly props are dubious: “The heart goes on counting / the rosary of the stars / that have betrayed us” (“Merciless Daybreak”).

Against such desolation, even heaven can offer only tears:

What do I care for the sky,
for the wan moon,
for the fickle stars
that were visible
but a moment ago?
. . . .
Now that I have no strength,
I will cry in heaven.
What else is there
to fill eternity?
“I will Cry in Heaven”

In the end, such comfort as we can take from Death’s Homeland is that, in the midst of war’s horrors, this suffering human voice can still be heard. And in hearing it we are brought into intimacy with the suffering of both the people and the landscape, thus affirming human solidarity in a wounded land that comes close to destroying it. From this we draw heart.

In Death’s Homeland Dragolovic´ reaffirms the necessity of a poetry of suffering in the midst of which the poet utters unquenchable life and compassion:

May all your delusions
be forgiven,
May your pain be eased
in heaven.
Forgive your murderer,
Pray for those
upon whom you have inflicted
suffering and death.
“Glory Eternal”

So must we all pray, against the again and again and again of human brutality, lifting our own “Never again, never again.”

February 22, 2011
by sadhana.palugulla001

Nguyen Thuy Kha,A Time of Green Blood

-transl. Nguyen Than Xuan. Danang Publishing House, 2007

The story’s all too familiar: a man comes home after long years of war, remembering comradeship and suffering, ready for peace and love, only to find the transition far from simple. Even his blood remembers war: sweaty green fatigues, the pallor of faces marked by hunger and malaria, even the green leaves of the tapioca plant (manioc), which, fermented, could be eaten along with the starchy root.

During the war, thoughts of home and of the beloved haunt and sometimes buoy up, yet war too has its consolations, in the love of comrades, and in a deepened love of country: on patrol

You go to someone else’s village,
thinking like coming back to your own (p. 34).

While the words of the translation may vary from English usage, Thuy Kha renders his thoughts and feeling with a precision that knows no language barrier. He can be especially touching about everyday things, like the manioc, which the soldiers pulled up only to plant again, so that “manioc and / the soldiers’ heart grew with each other” – this at a time when American air fire was able to destroy ninety-nine of each hundred rice trucks on the way to the battlefield. He expresses gratitude for damp caves that gave sleepless shelter to soldiers who “Suddenly felt warm when we were seeing / each other with our eyes shining like stars” (p. 27).

The poignancy of these poems is sometimes the result of overlays, historical and imaginative. The caves once housed ancestors, who also found shelter there, without fire or food. More subtly, in “The Night the Forest Trees Died Out,” as Thy Kha hangs from his hammock, wind blowing “without any sound of rustling leaves, through trees killed by napalm and agent orange, the shape of the trees alone suggests to him “a vast lushly green forest,” and the “human-shaped trees” [wave to] each other boisterously / . . . talking and laughing” (p. 35). At the same time, in the reality of natural ruin, “Night sky was like being scratched with anguish,” and “The moon in its third quarter / was like someone’s deformed mouth” (p. 36)

The anguish here is in the suspension of Thuy Kha’s mind and heart between the remembered dream of living things and the actuality of dead ones. Come morning, he scoops water from a poisoned spring, perfectly limpid with lifelessness, reflecting only the dead trees that to Thuy Kha are now inseparable from dead comrades. Reconciliation begins when the hearts of enemies open to each other. Reading these poems, notions of friend and enemy dissolve into a larger sky.

The freedom with which Thuy Kha’s mind travels between actuality and dream and symbol is remarkable, fluid in a way that we’ve hardly experienced since the English Romantic period. Thuy Kha could be called Keatsian in this regard. Witness “Looking for the Mountainous Village”(p. 51). It begins with the speaker looking for this village, but the village is obscured in dense fog, and not only the trail but even the bomb craters around it are covered with weeds. Suddenly, we see “the burnt pillar of someone’s house.” It stands forlornly, laden with memory –warm traces of hands still imprinted on walls, the spectral appearance of a cliff “someone used to lean on in the moonlight.” Thuy Kha has been here before, “in the peaceful time between battles,” and now he shares “the calmness of the old floor and fields.” Even though the village is deserted, Thuy Kha remembers it “overflowing with human love,” and “forest vegetables.” Finally, as he scratches through a heap of ashes, he can say “I have found the mountain village right ‘ in the hearts of the soldiers” (p. 52).

The poignancy of this poem is typical in its delicate balance between ruin and warm life, and also, in the end, between war and peace. In “The Accompanying Raindrops,” a soldier in a peacetime city is “knitted to the rain,” and becomes the “kid from inside him running fast / to join the group of naked children / shouting joyfully on the street.” The children are actually there, but Thuy Kha also becomes “the peasant inside him / Happily opening his hands to greet the rain in the drought field.” And also inside him is a soldier “hurriedly wringing the wet clothes / then drying them on a fire.” The juxtaposition of these images is also a projection of Thuy Kha’s psyche with its aspects of jubilation and hardship.

Thuy Kha’s psyche is labile, nearly without boundaries. He can be other people, bound to them in compassion and grief. He can also be the very mountains he writes about. In “Ascending the Mountain,” he and his gathered war-comrades form “a mountain on top of a mountain.” In “Footprint on the Rock,” on a mountain barren even before the war, “Traces of dry blood remain on sharp cliff. / Footprints imprint thickly on the lonely mountain.” The very stone seems to utter “the names of soldier’s family members,” and the succulent raspberries are like a “young soldier’s lips.” Everywhere, Thuy Khan sees human footprints on rocks, *and the relationship between the human and natural is never dualistic, or at least, not for long. Dead soldiers are “as pure as the raindrops / Absorbed by the soil,” and their deaths are an aspect of how their country “had to [peel] of its skin to grow big.”

That is what Thuy Kha has done too, and by his willingness we also are enlarged.

February 22, 2011
by sadhana.palugulla001

Remembering Etheridge

I met Etheridge Knight in the early eighties and met him slowly. Our mutual friend, the poet Robert Slater, had long since been urging me from Kansas City to give Etheridge a call, since I lived only forty miles from him. I hesitated, probably out of a combination of shyness and fear. I knew his work and stood in awe of the man. But also Etheridge had only recently been released from the Indiana State Prison, where, besides becoming a poet, he had been a block boss by virtue of his toughness. Finally, Etheridge was a junky. He’d been seriously wounded in Korea, and in treatment became addicted to heroine. His addiction had led him to robbery and a seven-year sentence. He never really broke his bad habit, though some of the time he replaced it with a methadone habit.

Eventually, because of Slater’s persistence, I did meet Etheridge. He was a big man and sometimes had a dangerous look. But his great charm, his melodious voice that sounded like a bass saxophone, along with his lovely manners and forthrightness, nearly always made his presence a pleasure.

In the early days of our friendship my wife and I saw Etheridge mostly at the Bluebird Café in the heart of Indianapolis’s ghetto. Etheridge held court there on most Friday evenings. Some twenty of us became regulars. We’d go to hear Etheridge say his poems, and also to work under his tutelage. To hear him was to experience the old bardic tradition – his words had that kind of power, part of it the pure sound of his voice.

But most of the time Etheridge listened. He was a great listener. You always felt that, good or bad, your poem went right to some special depth in him, and resonated there. It was his power of listening that made him a great teacher. He taught us by the look on his face, the movements of his body. But, most, he taught us by his grunts, by call and response “yeahs” and other sounds that came from deep in his belly and chest. Etheridge’s grunts, which weren’t frequent, told us where our own power lay– in a word, a flow of sound, a line, an image, sometimes in a poem.

Etheridge didn’t have much patience with shy or reticent readers. He taught us,
“Take your space.” This meant that when we read we were leader of the band. We weren’t there to be deferential to, let alone frightened of, an audience. We were there to share with them work we’d made with pride. We were in control of both silence and sound. It was our job to transmit the way we heard our poems – vowel sequences, rhythm and beat. He taught us to hit each word the way a musician hits each note, so that beauty and power beauty gather one clear drop at a time.

Several times over the years I invited Etheridge to read at Wabash College where I taught. At one time my wife and I lived in a shack – she still calls it a “cabin” – twelve miles out from the farm town where the college was. The shack wasn’t much – no plumbing, no gas lines, though we did have electricity. My wife could no longer bake because mice had stripped the insulation from the oven, and we could no longer listen to music because mice had stripped the wires and blown out the receiver. Wasps were also present, but not a problem. I found that I could pas through a doorway at the same time a was crossing in the opposite direction, and neither of us batted an eye. At bottom, they were good neighbors, whom I had no intention to provoke.

The cabin’s redeeming quality was that it sat on top of a hill that, from late autumn to early spring when the leaves were down, overlooked a river called Sugar Creek. Etheridge loved it there. At heart, he still thought of himself as a rural Mississippi homeboy — witness the great “Idea of Ancestry,” and also “A Poem for Myself,” which ends:

Going back to Mississippi
This time to stay for good
Going back to Mississippi
This time to stay for good –
Gonna be free in Mississippi
Or dead in the Mississippi mud.

It made Etheridge happy to be with us on that hill and it made us happy to have him with us.

Etheridge had elegant manners, especially with women, and my wife, like most women he met, loved him. But, then, so did I. He married three times to strong women, all of them poets. In fact, he was catnip to the ladies. I’ll never forget the night at the Bluebird when a pretty young woman read a poem about licking an ice cream cone, all the time looking at Etheridge. She knew a lot about licking and, once or twice, Etheridge deigned to look back.

Besides teaching me to read my poems aloud, Etheridge taught me another still more important thing. I was talking with him once about “The Idea of Ancestry,” one of his masterpieces. In the poem, Etheridge, in prison, remembered or imagined a family reunion he was, blissful until his “habit came down.” He writes beautifully about the network that holds a strong family together. Back home, walking “barefooted in my grandmother’s backyard, “ sipping corn whiskey, flirting with the women, he “almost kicked it with the kinfolks.” But abruptly he leaves the reunion, his “guts screaming for junk, and “cracked a croaker’s crib for a fix.” Now pacing in his cell, he stares at a photo of

. . . 47 black faces across the space. I am all of them,
they are all of me, I am me, they are thee, and I have no children
to float in the space in between.”

The poem always moved me powerfully, and I told him that, despite the separation from family and native soil that his life brought about, I envied him such a family feeling. I told him that I didn’t have much, and that, because my grandparents didn’t speak English, and my parents were children when they came to America, I had no knowledge of the extended family that I hatched out of. That’s when Etheridge gave me one of his hard looks, and said, “You can know that stuff if you want to.” I understood what he meant.

Etheridge had high requirements for fellow poets. Once I heard him scold Ray di Palma for complaining that his work was temporarily stuck. Etheridge just said, “C’mon, man you’re a grown poet.” Another time, when Slater complained to him about Kansas City, Etheridge let him know that KC was Slater’s province, and if something was wrong it was his job to fix it. He saw the true government as a network of poets across the country and across the world.

What Etheridge meant when he told me that I could know about my family history was that I was a grown poet whose imagination had the power to find what it needed. And so, with the help of a little research about shtetl life and Jewish immigration, along with a few snippets of what I did know, I wrote a series of poems called “The Ragpicker’s Grandson,” and, in the process, realized that I was born long before 1930. I finished writing that series more whole than when I began.

The last time I saw Etheridge was at his “funeral.” I think it was Galway Kinnell, and maybe Donald Hall and Robert Bly as well, who had the idea of a memorial poetry reading for him while he was till strong enough to be there. Etheridge was dying of lung cancer. The event drew a large crowd, maybe 700 people gathered at the American Cabaret Theater in Indianapolis. The reading lasted for six hours, and I remember distinctly that during that time only two people left. It was that kind of reading. The poets who read to pay tribute were Robert Bly, Samuel Allen, Christopher Gilbert, Galway Kinnell, Haki Madhubuti, Dudley Randall, Elizabeth McKim, Mari Evans, and Jared Carter. Etheridge died seven weeks later, on March 10th, 1991.

But on that day Etheridge was in the auditorium for most of the six hours, mostly walking the outside aisles. I’m not sure if he wore a suit or a dashiki, but I know that he wore a kofia made of leopard skin. He looked like a tribal chieftain, and, as far as I was concerned, he was one.

I can only guess what his thoughts were. A strong foretaste of his death, I imagine. For all his regal presence, he was already a ghost looking back – a ghost with a sense of pride and fulfillment, but still, a ghost.

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