Friday, October 13, 2017

A Hundred Selves

Through the windy night something
     is coming up the path
     towards the house.
I have always hated to wait for things.
     I think I will go
     to meet whatever it is.*
I should probably avoid sites like The Neglected Books Page; it's not as if I need to learn about more books that I might want to read, after all.  There are hundreds of books piled around my apartment that I want to get to, and I hardly need to add to them.  Or do I?  I think that is really a metaphysical speculation, so I'll leave it there.

The fact remains that a couple of evenings going through Neglected Books's archives pointed me to several books that I hadn't known before, and was glad to have discovered.  Isabel Bolton's The Christmas Tree, for example, originally published in 1949, with a gay man as a key character.  And I just finished reading Elizabeth Coatsworth's Personal Geography: Almost an Autobiography, which pleased me even more.

I've long been interested in books about aging, by aging people, whom I see as pioneers advancing before me into the country of Old Age -- less and less before me as I get older myself.  May Sarton's journals were the first for me in this genre, if genre it be; then Jane Rule's writings, both fictional and autobiographical, about old age.  I've also returned to books by older women writers who were well-known in the mid-twentieth century but are less well-known now.  I tend to think of them as "lady" writers, which I've come to realize is unfair.  Many of them have rather old-fashioned styles, but when I become accustomed to their manner I find that they are more realistic, hard-headed and honest than most of their male contemporaries.  Coatsworth (1893-1986), probably most famous for her 1931 Newbery-Medal children's book The Cat Who Went to Heaven, led quite a life.  She traveled around the world from an early age, usually with her sister or her mother, and didn't slow down much even after she married (rather late) and became a mother.  She and her husband -- also a writer -- settled in Massachusetts and Maine, which puts her close to some other interesting writers, like Sarton, Ruth Moore, and Marguerite Yourcenar.

Personal Geography was Coatsworth's last book, though she lived another ten years after it was published.  It's a collection of short pieces that cover parts of her life from childhood to her years of widowhood.  I was struck by her travel descriptions, some of which took place a century ago, in Europe and Asia very different from what they later became; since she lived into the 1980s, she saw many changes and paid attention to them.  Nor did she idealize the past too much:
I loved China the most.  At that time it was half ruinous, with the especial sadness and poetry that hang like a mist over ruins; I doubt if I should care much for communist China, though it may be a better place to live in [89].
I did not know travel at its dawn, as Marco Polo might have claimed, though he, too, had many predecessors.  But it was at my dawn, and the early light lies on my memories.  We never went on tours, or by schedule: we followed our whims stayed for a day or a week or a month in one place, or struck off at a tangent when someone told us of some wonder.  Only once did some pilgrims to the high Buddhist monasteries of the Korean Diamond Mountains look at us in wonder as the first white people they had seen (and examined our clothing almost to our skin) but we traveled at a time when all ports did not look alike and when people, East and West, wore the clothes their ancestors had worn. I should never feel such joy traveling in today's homogenized world [181-2].
To each her own!  I'm even more impressed by Coatsworth's travels when I consider that this was before air travel, cheap international telephone calls, credit cards, bullet trains, to say nothing of the Internet.  Nor was the world in those days necessarily safer.  I get a lot of joy from traveling in today's homogenized world, and I think I'm too much of a sissy to dare what she, her sister, and her mother dared to do.

Like Ruth Moore, Coatsworth appreciated her rural neighbors but wasn't sentimental about them:
When a lightning storm begins after dark, the farmers and their wives always dress, to be ready to save the stock if the barn is struck.  Fire, the unknown -- one begins to fear the things that the farmer fears.  And one understands more and more their helplessness before bad neighbors or tramps.  Each man is so isolated.  He does not dare make enemies: someone may dig up his potatoes, but the farmer does not dare voice his suspicions; someone may carry away one of his sheep, but he does not dare rouse bad blood, that may end in a burning barn or a fire in his woods [128].
Ah, the good old days!  And she's matter-of-fact about her aging, failing body.
I forget words (the other day I came to a full stop because I had lost "button" from my mind), and generally use a synonym because I know that any word is better than none.  I forget names, but I comfort myself with the knowledge that I have always forgotten them.  The long-ago day comes back to me when a stranger asked me my name -- I was perhaps six -- and the sudden quesetion drove it entirely from my mind.  I still remember the bewildering feeling of "I don't know who I am"; and perhaps I still feel it [157].

These remarks are necessarily self-centered, but not by intention.  They are written primarily for people of my own age or for those who are approaching it, to discuss honestly the problems which we all face.  It is my good fortune to have inherited, nothing so dashing as courage, but acceptance of what cannot be changed, and a willingness to enjoy the small gifts of life which still are so plentiful if one will look for them [158].
She's good company.  I'll hang on to this book, as I have to May Sarton's journals, and refer to it now and then as I catch up with her.
---------------------------------
*Elizabeth Coatsworth, Personal Geography: Almost an Autobiography (Brattleboro VT: The Stephen Greene Press), p. 183.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Conspiracy Theories for Me ...

Guess who said this:
Much of this is being carried out stealthily, in closed sessions, with as little public notice as possible. Other Republican policies are more open, such as pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, thereby isolating the U.S. as a pariah state that refuses to participate in international efforts to confront looming environmental disaster. Even worse, they are intent on maximizing the use of fossil fuels, including the most dangerous; dismantling regulations; and sharply cutting back on research and development of alternative energy sources, which will soon be necessary for decent survival.

The reasons behind the policies are a mix. Some are simply service to the Constituency. 
Noam Chomsky, of course.  It's an excerpt from his next book of interviews with David Barsamian of Alternative Radio, due to be published in a couple of months.

I'm an admirer of Chomsky, I've read most of his books on politics, and I've learned a lot from him.  I also have some significant disagreements with him.  Like just about everybody, he's critical of conspiracy theories, but when I read this excerpt it occurred to me that if you took it out of context, you could easily accuse him of being a conspiracy theorist.  (He often has been accused of just that, particularly his discussions of the media.)  Especially the coy epithet "the Constituency," referring to "the Constituency of private power and wealth, 'the masters of mankind,' to borrow Adam Smith’s phrase," but also the dark references to the Republican agenda being pursued and enacted out of the public view.  This is, of course, exactly what is being done in Congress, as with the Obamacare repeal bill -- though also, as Chomsky knows, with Democratic initiatives like the Transpacific Partnership "free trade" pact: when legislators know that they are working on a highly unpopular bill, they will want the populace to remain safely ignorant of what they're doing.

As I've said before, conspiracies do happen, and dismissing theories about them out of hand is dishonest.  The question is the quality of the theories, which is often difficult to assess when you're dealing with secretive activity.  As Richard Seymour wrote (via) earlier this year, one sign of invalid conspiracy theories is their "assumption of omniscience": the conspirators know in advance how their opponents will respond, and have already prepared countermoves to exploit and defuse the efforts of the Resistance.  They are also, in Patricia Roberts-Miller's sense, demagogic: the theorist is the good Us, the conspirators are the wicked Them.

Chomsky isn't a conspiracy theorist, but I think that this interview shows how difficult it is for even a careful thinker like him to avoid adopting the tone and rhetorical tactics of a conspiracy theorist.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Freedom of Expression for Me But Not for Thee, One More Time

A friend posted this tweet by Billie Jean King this morning:

I suppose that King meant "public condemnation" to imply "public condemnation by the President," but even if so, she's wrong.  And since she left out the specific case, I'll begin with the more general statement she actually made, since many people would agree with it.

Freedom of expression does not mean that a person may not have to face public condemnation.  If you express unpopular views, or just views detested by a large number of people (who may not be the majority), you can expect to be condemned publicly.  Liberals and progressives are just fine with this principle for views they detest -- Republicans, Bible thumpers, white racists, Donald Trump.  In many cases they demand not just condemnation but the suppression of such views by the State.  It's only when opinions they agree with encounter pushback that they become more purist, though they are ready to demand the suppression of the views of their critics, as King did.

The First Amendment, and the general principle of freedom of expression, assume that there will be public debate, without making any assumptions about the quality of that debate.  (And a good thing, too, since the level of public debate is generally not high.)  What is important is that someone should be able to express a highly unpopular opinion without being silenced -- by the State or any other force.  Someone who wishes to express a highly unpopular opinion had better expect to encounter hostile responses; one very annoying tendency visible among liberals is that, for example, they should not be made to "feel like an outcast" (via) for taking an unpopular stand.  This would be bad even if they didn't feel that no such consideration need be extended to those whose opinions they hate.

It's to their credit that the athletes themselves, as far as I've seen, don't seem to be demanding that they not be criticized.  Perhaps because most of them are black and are therefore closer to political struggles of the recent past, they knew from the outset that standing up against the majority would make them lightning rods for hostility. 

Now I'll address what I take to be King's more specific reference to President Trump's attacks on the athletes who protest against American white supremacy, while generally supporting American military aggression.  It's true, as the friend who posted the tweet on Facebook argued, that the words of a President carry more weight in the public sphere than those of most citizens, though not (as she also argued) that they take "the form of law."  Admittedly, partisan fans of a president will want to see them that way.  But my friend, like so many Democratic loyalists, wasn't nearly as concerned about (for example) President Obama's prejudicial remarks about Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden, let alone Obama's general war on whistleblowers.  Privately, she probably would have agreed with them even if they had the imprimatur of a president she admired, but like most Democrats she ignored them or minimized their impact on the well-being of people who'd been accused of crimes.  Nor, if I recall correctly, did she object to Obama's public criticism of Fox News, though right-wing partisans reacted to it in much the same panicky way that Democrats are now reacting to Trump.

Though I agree that a President's public statements will carry a lot of weight, it struck me funny to see my friend making the claims she did just as the owners of the NFL, and the NFL commissioner, struck back at Trump's demand that protesting athletes be fired.  Former NFL coach Rex Ryan, who'd campaigned for Trump, announced that he was "[bleep] off."  (Presumably bleeped by ESPN, where he appeared, rather than by Democracy Now!, who quoted him.)  Pushing back against the Leader of the Free World is harder than pushing back against a single football player, but it can be done, and it's being done.  (I'm with "former NFL player Donté Stallworth," who also appeared on DN! this morning, and warned against letting Trump hijack the protests into a controversy over himself, though that already seems to be happening.)

P.S. When I pointed out some of this, my friend replied that I should "tell it to the Joint Chiefs of Staff" in connection with Trump's announcement via Twitter last summer that transgender troops would no longer be allowed to serve in the military in any capacity.  This was a notably ill-chosen rebuttal, because, first, Trump sent that tweet as a declaration of policy, which was not the case with his denunciation of the NFL protestors; and second, because the Joint Chiefs did not accept the tweet as having the "form of law."  They announced that until a policy had been worked out formally, they were going to ignore Trump's announcement and transgender troops would continue to serve.  Until Trump signed a memo implementing the ban, it wasn't law.  The tweet itself did nothing.  This case also supports my general distaste for the hopelessly inadequate way liberals have been responding to Trump's provocations.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Those Were the Days!

The rally concluded, and people began strolling to the buses we had chartered to take them back to their cars.  Suddenly dozens of squad cars appeared, as if from nowhere.  They had been carefully concealed behind buildings surrounding the rally.  We counted hundreds of police from five different agencies.  Many of the squad cars displayed shotguns and contained six police officers in full riot gear, something most people there had seen only in television.  The Redwood City police department and the San Mateo County sheriff's office had prepared an elaborate ambush, and they were obviously disappointed that they had not found a chance to "teach you some patriotism," as one cop yelled at the protesters from a car window.

Only local newspapers reported that the march and rally had taken place, and they underestimated the size of the crowd, reporting that most citizens of Redwood City were hostile to such activities.  Bruce Brugmann, the Redwood City Tribune reporter who had been covering the napalm campaign, became so disgusted by the blatant censorship and and rewriting of his stories that he left to found the radical weekly newspaper the Bay Guardian.  Even a mere twenty miles away, the press and radio in San Francisco imposed a total news blackout.  This did keep many people in ignorance.  But it also educated tens of thousands about the role of the media.  Almost everyone in the area knew that an important event had taken palce and could not help but wonder why it was not reported and how many events from other areas were not being reported to us.
The above text is taken from the historian H. Bruce Franklin's account of a rally against napalm production in the Bay Area in 1966, in his book Vietnam and Other American Fantasies (Massachusetts, 2000), pages 87-8.  The book as a whole is very informative.  I decided to read it today after seeing a critique of the first episode of the new Ken Burns-Lynn Novick documentary on the Vietnam War for PBS.  The critique mentioned that
in the 1990s historian H. Bruce Franklin found that most college students recognized the famous image of a prisoner being executed by a man firing a pistol inches away from the victim’s temple. But most of the students believed the shooter was a communist officer, rather that General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of the South Vietnamese national police, an American ally.
This didn't surprise me; it fit with so much else I knew, such as the long and largely successful propagnda campaign to cast the United States as the victim in Vietnam, rather than the victimizer.  Franklin also quotes an amazing speech on the Vietnam war by Barack Obama's role model Ronald Reagan in which, as Franklin points out, "not a single sentence ... is accurate or truthful" (29).  I've seen a similar falsification about the post-9/11 war on terror; it's as if the structure of the scenario is embedded in people's minds, and they need only to insert the names and dates to sit the situation.

But the reason I wanted to quote this particular passage has to do with other misrepresentations of history that I see among many liberals and progressives, including those who are old enough to know better.  The militarization of the police that is presently under way, for example, and the treatment of peaceful dissidents as enemies of the nation who must be crushed, is not as new as many people seem to want to think.  The 3500 or so white, clean-cut, middle-class folks who gathered to object to the production of napalm for use against Vietnamese civilians weren't attacked and beaten by the police that time, though it's clear that the police were hoping for an excuse to do just that.  Later on the police were less restrained.

The other point is the suppression of news of such a rally outside the local newspapers.  Many liberals fondly believe that the mainstream media took an adversary stance toward the government in those days.  That's simply false, though as always even their customary collusion was never abject enough to suit the mighty.  Whatever the flaws of the Internet (and they are many), it makes it much easier to spread information about such actions now.

This greatly offends the sensibilities of the high priests and priestesses of the cult of Expertise.  I've begun grappling with the dreadful apprehension that I may actually have to read Hillary Rodham Clinton's new book.  At first I was skeptical of the brief excerpts I saw online, which were so badly written and downright stupid that they were hard to credit: surely they weren't representative of the whole?  But the more I saw, the more I had to believe that they were.  (See Sam Kriss' account of his own ordeal reading the book here.)  And this bit, widely circulated, is symptomatic:
This is what happens in George Orwell's classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, when a torturer holds up four fingers and delivers electric shocks until his prisoner see five fingers as ordered. The goal is to make you question logic and reason and to sow mistrust toward exactly the people we need to rely on: our leaders, the press, experts who seek to guide public policy based on evidence, ourselves.
This Moebius strip of a sentence (well, two sentences) seems not to be atypical of What Happened.    Every quotation I've seen that features a literary allusion shows that she (or her ghostwriters) don't really understand the material they're invoking.  Orwell certainly hoped that his readers would mistrust "our leaders, the press, experts who seek to guide public policy based on evidence, ourselves."  (Ourselves?)  For that matter, doesn't Clinton want us to mistrust our Supreme Leader Donald Trump, the press that made people dislike and distrust her, and ourselves if we find that we disbelieve Hillary Clinton?

Oh, it's true that Americans have come to distrust our government and other institutions over the past half-century.  H. Bruce Franklin reports the results of a poll that tracks the growth of this distrust since 1958: "In 1958 ... over three fourths (76.3 percent) of the American people believed that the government was run for the benefit of all, while only 17.6 percent believed that it was run by a few big interests" (43).  By 1994 the numbers had flipped: "76 percent expressed this profound distrust of the government, while a mere 19 perccnt still clung to the belief that they lived in a representative democracy" (46).  This is bad news -- how long can a country survive when its citizens have so little trust in their government? -- but for people like Hillary Clinton, the remedy is more trust in our national institutions; it is unthinkable that those institutions should be more trustworthy.  Instead we citizens must believe in our leaders' probity, which is not much more plausible than that five fingers are four.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Those Who Manufacture History Get to Repeat It Over and Over

Something to keep in mind amid all the Trump administration's ranting about North Korea: Iran entered into an agreement with the US to ensure that they would make no nuclear weapons. Iran hadn't in fact been making nuclear weapons in the first place. US propaganda consisted largely of references to Iran's "nuclear program," which most people, often including the propagandists, heard as "nuclear weapons program."  The GOP and some Democrats opposed the agreement, for unclear reasons. The agreement is now in place, and Iran is in compliance with it, but the warmongers still are trying to portray Iran as a nuclear threat to the US.

Now imagine that North Korea agreed to get rid of its (still very few) nuclear weapons, and kept its promises, as Iran has. Does anyone believe that the US would lay off, would stop threatening North Korea and presenting it as an existential danger to American security? Or would the US continue to lie, as it does about Iran and its compliance with the agreement that the US forced on it?

You don't have to imagine very hard, because North Korea made such an agreement with the US in 1994, and kept to it.  The US broke it.  I think it's reasonably clear that these media campaigns have nothing do with peace, stability, or even American security -- not least because our hawks are doing everything in their power to diminish our stability and everyone else's. They're not even about oil or other resources that our plutocrats crave; Iran has oil, but North Korea doesn't have much we could want.  The issue is domination, the demand that nowhere in the world should there be any nation that isn't under US control.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

And Don't Hold the Guacamole

There are writers who are known as writers' writers: they are appreciated more by their colleagues than by the general reading public, because of their technical expertise and willing to experiment with their art.  I was interested in "experimental" artists when I was a kid, though I was generally liked and appreciated their theories and their lives more than their work.  Now I see experimental art as an attempt to appropriate the prestige of the sciences for the arts.  At best, to support the metaphor, an artistic experiment should confirm an artistic theory, and in my opinion they rarely do.  When a writer I respect recommends such work, I often follow through, but I'm usually disappointed.  That probably reflects badly on me, not on the work, but there you are.  I'm not, I think, a naive or unsophisticated reader, but maybe I'm the wrong kind of writer.

Carol Emshwiller seems to be such a writers' writer.  Wikipedia, for example, refers to her fiction as "avant-garde", and she herself calls it "experimental", though she adds: "Now I'm passionate about what I think of as postmodern. (I've read all sorts of conflicting definitions of postmodern, so I'm not sure I'm right about what I think it is.)"  She's never won a Hugo (science fiction fans') award, but she has won a Nebula (the Science Fiction Writers of America -- hence, a writers' writer).  I believe I got interested in her work because Ursula K. Le Guin wrote some appreciations of it.  At some point I found her 2002 novel The Mount at the library, and found it impressive but rather icy and inhuman, which was probably intentional.  Then last year I read a Le Guin essay which mentioned Carmen Dog (1988), and I've been meaning to get to it ever since.  Finally, yesterday, I did so.

In Carmen Dog, women are turning into other animals and female animals are turning into women.  Emshwiller tells the story mostly from the viewpoint of one of the latter, Pooch, a family pet who's turning human while retaining many of the traits of her breed.  When one of her owner turns into a huge snapping turtle and bites its baby, Pooch runs away with the baby into New York City, where she almost becomes an opera singer, is captured along with other changing creatures by a male scientist who believes that they can be forced to revert if proper discipline is imposed on them, and then by a group of male scientists who want to recover motherhood for men, since women have in their view failed to do the job properly.  These are all familiar tropes in feminist science fiction, which Emshwiller exploits, turns on their heads, and otherwise plays with.  She's very much in control, and her writing is tight and ironic, with a satirical edge reminiscent of Jane Austen.

For example:
All those creatures that have been kept relatively germfree in the doctor's basement are scheduled for artificial insemination the day after tomorrow.  The Academy uses only the best genes in the nation, those belonging to governors, generals (three star or above), atomic scientists, as well as those of the directors of nuclear reactors, presidents of the largest corporations, oil magnates, and so forth.  The men picked are splendid, tall, and for the most part blonde.  All earning well over $100,000 a year, not counting perks. Of course it has taken time for these men to achieve status in their fields, so most of them are by now paunchy and bald.  (Since the imagination is suspect particularly at present, artist' and poets' genes are not used.  Besides, it is hard to tell where artists come from.  Some have dreadfully wizened little parents) [210-11].
Looking again at this passage out of context, I realize that it sounds like a cliche, thinking perhaps of various eugenic fantasies about breeding a master race, of scientists caricatured as soulless control freaks who mock the arts and humanities and so on.  Unfortunately, such fantasies and scientists are still with us, promoting themselves and very much in the public eye.  But it works in situ.  Let's try another passage, about Pooch's encounter with a sinister figure who manipulates her into a three-way with another changer:
Pooch does learn a lot, though, that she had not even suspected before.  Knowledge that may stand her in good stead later on, though she hopes she will be able to use it with someone for whom she had some real feelings.  She had not been aware until now, for instance, of the exquisite sensitivity of the breasts, and especially had not been aware that the nipples of the male are, or so it seems, as sensitive as those of the female; nor had she realized the potential of the backs of the knees, not to mention the toes and the bottoms of the feet.  She had also not realized the many ways that music, ribbons, belts, pepper, and guacamole could be used [143-44].
Better, eh?  "Guacamole" is a fine, Austenish touch.

In addition to The Mount, which I think I had better reread, I've also read Ledoyt (1995), Emshwiller's non-science-fiction novel about a young girl growing up in the American West.  She has several other books, which I'll get to before long.  Carmen Dog drew me in.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Endless War

According to the Associated Press, about a hundred self-identified anarchists entered an anti-racist rally in Berkeley, California, where they proceeded to beat up several people.
The group of more than 100 hooded protesters, with shields emblazoned with the words "no hate" and waving a flag identifying themselves as anarchists, busted through police lines, avoiding security checks by officers to take away possible weapons. Then the anarchists blended with a crowd of 2,000 largely peaceful protesters who turned up to demonstrate in a "Rally Against Hate" opposed to a much smaller gathering of right-wing protesters.
"No hate" -- don't you just love that?  The hypocritical piety is practically Christian.  Even better, these goons went after isolated individuals they could gang up on with minimal risk to themselves.  Better still: the first guy they attacked is Japanese-American, which makes their assault a racist attack -- a hate crime.  (Or a "no hate" crime, which makes a big difference, I suppose.)  Luckily, almost miraculously, the police didn't seize the opportunity to attack the rest of the crowd, which is the normal police response to such incidents.

It has been educational to watch liberal and left reactions to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.  As I've noticed before, many of them are blurring the already vexed line between speech and violence, and eager to give the Trump administration the authority to decide what speech is acceptable and what isn't.  (I'm being slightly disingenuous there, since of course they fantasize that they themselves will make that decision; which shows that they're delusional, given existing historical and political realities in the US.)  They also exploit an ambiguity in the word "fighting," which can refer metaphorically to any kind of organized effort (including sports) against something, or to actual literal violence.

So, for example, I've often heard it said that Heather Heyer was fighting hate (or fascism or racism or Nazism, or fighting for what she believed in, whatever) in Charlottesville when she was killed by a white supremacist who drove his car into the crowd of people she was in.  Fighting (literal) doesn't seem to have been Heyer's style.  In any case, she was killed as she crossed a street at an intersection during (I think -- the chronology is muddled) the counter-protest.  I don't say this to minimize her death or its significance, only for clarity's sake.  That she wasn't clubbing down neo-Nazis makes her murderer even more cowardly and despicable.  While simply pepper-spraying and chasing a non-resisting individual isn't in the same class of evil (except perhaps metaphorically) as driving a car into an unarmed and nonviolent crowd, it's also cowardly and despicable.  Like this.

So when Ted Rall posted on Facebook last weekend that, "Considering the history of fascism, the debate over whether the antifa movement should resort to violence seems, well, quaint", I wasn't terribly surprised, though I was a bit disappointed.  I generally like his cartoons, and thought his book on Afghanistan, After We Kill You We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests (Hill & Wang, 2014), was excellent and important.  But he got things wrong this time, starting with the cartoon itself, which depicts a French couple at a cafe as Nazi troops march by in the street.  The Frenchman says, "Violence? But that would make us as bad as them!"

This is disingenous.  First of all, it's not as if the centrist liberals in Trump's America who call themselves The Resistance have renounced the use of violence in advance: the name they've chosen for themselves deliberately invokes those who fought against the Nazis in occupied France, though so far they haven't done anything much more strenuous than wear pink pussy hats and make memes mocking Trump.  (Plus, the actual French Resistance was dominated by Communists, and if there's anyone liberal Democrats hate more than Trump, it's a leftist.  Unless it's a Jewish leftist.)

Second, debates in the US over the use of violence by minorities and dissidents have always been inadequate at best, and I haven't seen anything to suggest that things have changed.  The increasing boldness of white racists since Trump's ascendancy has been met with a lot of chest-thumping rhetoric about fighting Nazis in the streets.  I'm not objecting to the use of violence myself; I am, however, concerned with other questions, such as: Who's going to fight the Nazis?  When and where?  Who will lead?  Who will choose the leaders?  Who will determine strategy and tactics?  The neo-Nazis are organized and armed; how will "antifa" (a term I find about as annoying as The Resistance) violence be armed and organized?  These are not idle questions.

This weekend a video began to circulate online, which showed a white supremacist in Charlottesville trying to shoot a black counterprotester who'd made himself an impromptu flamethrower by igniting the spray from an aerosol can and aiming it at the racists.  By amazing luck, the kind of luck that convinces me there is no god, the would-be shooter had forgotten to disable the safety on his weapon, which slowed him down, and when he did fire, nobody was hurt.  The guy with the gun is being sought by the authorities, as they say.

What I find interesting about this scene is that ever since Trump made it clear he was appealing to a white-racist base -- hell, ever since Obama attracted racist hatred as a candidate and as President -- there has been a lot of agitation about how extremely dangerous white supremacists are, how they're the new Nazis and if we aren't ceaselessly vigilant there will be a replay of 1930s Germany here in the Homeland.  I don't dismiss these concerns, but I find it extremely interesting and significant that many of these same alarmists nevertheless seem to believe that white supremacists are not really dangerous at all, that because Antifa's heart is pure they need only to chant some slogans and the Fascists will collapse and surrender; the Fascists' bullets will either bounce off Antifa's Breastplate of Virtue, be repelled by Antifa's wristlets of power, or simply dissolve into the air.  There were many warnings about armed neo-Nazis, with heavy-duty weapons, gathering in Charlottesville, intent on mayhem.  It appears that even so, the Antifa mostly didn't consider them a real, serious threat, and those who did brought some homemade weaponry that would have been useless if the threat turned real.  Since we're not pacifists here, I can say that I wouldn't have been felt much sympathy if the guy with the aerosol can had gotten shot, because he was putting his unarmed anti-fascist comrades in danger, presumably without their consent or planning.

Or he was giving the police, who everyone assumed were on the racists' side, an excuse to stomp some hippies. (In a real Resistance situation, he'd likely have been court-martialed and shot by his own organization for such stupid criminal recklessness.)  Emptywheel pointed out last weekend that Trump's pardon of Sheriff Joe Arpaio was intended to send a message to his real base, the police, who supported him during his election campaign and support him still.
So while feeding his explicitly racist base with hateful rhetoric is important, it’s even more important to ensure that the cops remain with him, even as he fosters violence.

There is no better way to do that than to convey to police that they can target brown people, that they can ignore all federal checks on their power, with impunity (this is probably one key reason why Trump has given up his efforts to oust Sessions, because on policing they remain in perfect accord).
There is no better way to keep the support of cops who support Trump because he encourages their abuses then by pardoning Arpaio for the most spectacular case of such abuses.
The history Rall appealed to isn't reassuring.  There were street battles between Communists and Nazis in Germany during the 1930s; they didn't impede Hitler's rise to power.  Historians can probably explain why; I confess I haven't read enough about the period to have an opinion.  But whatever the reasons, street fighting didn't work for the Left; only for the Nazis.  In general, that has been true in the US as well.  In principle I fully endorse and support the right of African-Americans to defend themselves against police and government violence; but those who did, in the 1960s, seriously underestimated the power and ruthlessness of their adversaries.  And that leaves aside intra-movement violence, among the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers, for example.  And yet many antifa sympathizers, in between attacking the police (sometimes justly), believe that when push comes to shove the police will protect them from that Bad Ol' Nazis.  They should, of course; but the historical precedents indicate that they won't.

As you can see, I don't mean to suggest that violence never works.  After its defeat in 1865, for example, the Confederacy used violence very successfully to establish white supremacy all over the South, and eventually managed to sell most white Americans on their Lost Cause myth of elegant Southern heritage violated by the brutish Union.  As with the successful use of violence by the Nazis, I don't know the history well enough to explain why with any certainty, but I feel sure it's at least partly because most white Americans in the North (including educated elites) were racist, and weren't at all uncomfortable with white supremacy as ideology or practice.  There was a brief blip of anti-racist action in the 1950s and 1960s, and though some gains were made, white-supremacist resistance, violent and nonviolent, never ceased, and many of those gains are in danger of being lost again.

But this reminds me of an anecdote in a book I read a week ago, Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won't Save Black America by Stacey Patton (Beacon Press, 2017).  It's about the popularity of violence against children by African-American parents, and it's flawed but overall very valuable.  Many black parents, like many white parents, believe that beating children is the only way to keep them out of trouble and turn them into responsible adults.  There's an anecdote toward the end, told by an African-American woman, a single mother and a parent trainer:
Alvarez says she gets the "usual bullshit" from other parents who criticize her for not hitting her son.  "Spare the rod ... yada, yada, yada ... ain't nobody here for that.  My son, my rules.  As a parent trainer, when I hear parents swear by whupping kids, I ask, "How many here were whupped by parents?" Most will raise their hands.  Then I ask, "How many were whupped twice?" Most raise their hands.  Then I say, "So then maybe it's not that effective.  If it were, we'd only have to get beaten once to get the message" [214].
I feel the same way about violence aimed at stopping white racism: the most horrific war in history up to that point didn't stop it -- it barely slowed it down, and only briefly at that.  Maybe other avenues need to be considered.

I've also been thinking of something Noam Chomsky wrote about political violence about fifty years ago, and published in American Power and the New Mandarins (Pantheon, 1969, pp. 398-399):
It is quite easy to design tactics that will help to consolidate the latent forces of a potential American fascism.  To mention just one obvious example, verbal and physical abuse of the police, however great the provocation, can have only this effect.  Such tactics may seem "radical" and, in a narrow sense, justified by the magnitude of the infamy and evil that they seek to overcome.  They are not.

In fact, it is senseless to speak -- as many now do -- of tactics and actions are being "radical," "liberal," "conservative," or "reactionary."  In itself, an action cannot be placed on a political dimension at all.  It may be successful or unsuccessful in achieving an end that can be described in political terms.  But it is useful to remember that the same tactics that one man may propose with high conscience and deep commitment to radical social change may also be pressed by a well-placed police spy, bent on destroying such a movement and increasing popular support for the forces of repression. Consider the Reichstag fire, to return to a day that is less remote than one would wish. Or consider the act of a seventeen-year-old Jewish refugee from Poland just thirty years ago -- of Herschel Grynszpan, who assassinated a German official in Paris in November 1938.  It is difficult to condemn this desperate act, which set off violent pogroms throughout Germany and helped entrench more deeply the Nazi regime of terror; but the victims of Nazi terror would offer no thanks to Herschel Grynszpan.  We must not abandon the victims of American power, or play games with their fate.  We must not consent to have the same repression imposed on still further helpless victims or the same blind fury unleashed against them.
It seems to me that those who want to use violent tactics against the racist Right need to make very clear how they intend to use those tactics, why those tactics and not others.  So far I've seen a lot of grandstanding and posturing by people I wouldn't follow ... well, anywhere.  It's not as if there isn't a long history of political violence from which to learn, but I haven't seen any indication that the advocates of violence today have paid any attention to it.  Advocating violence, even or especially against fascists, without showing that you know what you're talking about doesn't establish your gravitas; it makes me suspect that you've played too many video games, or watched too many action movies, and mistaken them for reality.  I don't have the answers myself, and I'm not ruling out violence altogether; but I need better rationales for violent action than I've been hearing so far.  The burden of argument lies not on those oppose the use of violence, or starting a war, but on those who want to initiate it.  It's certainly interesting to hear nominal leftists using the rhetoric of the Bush administration when it insisted that we must invade the existential threat of Iraq now.  They are trifling with human lives, and if (or more likely when) it blows up their face, they won't accept responsibility, let alone accountability.