Thursday, July 10, 2008

A Survey of My Political Opinions

Continuing my top 10 influential books, I turn now to my politics and three emblematic books that informed the views I have developed: 2. Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver; 3. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell; 6. All the President's Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

All three are widely known and their authors do not, unlike the obscure Catholic writers of the preceding post, need introduction. What may need explanation is how they, and the genre they represent, influenced me.

I was first drawn to Soul On Ice as a classic first-person cri de coeur (cry of the heart), rather than for its ideas. It was the early 70s, I was a white college student with no experience of the South nor of the petty-apartheid that Cleaver and his kind had endured.

From before the 1964 Civil Rights Act, I remembered as a child separate drinking fountains and bus seating in Washington, D.C., but I completely missed the fact that an amusement park I went to was only for whites. In brief, I had very little in common with Cleaver, or so I thought.

My secondary school years in Latin America had exposed me to crushing poverty, but not to overt, accepted, legally sanctioned racism. However, I had come to see that want was not merely a failure of the prevailing economic system, but a feature, greasing the wheels of commerce with the anxiety to succeed.

A child of the McCarthy Era, I could never call myself a "Communist," but like many of my age, time and circumstance, in the face of appalling poverty I found liberation theology appealing.

Cleaver added to my religious political economy dimensions I had not considered. For the first time I realized that parallel, or somehow enmeshed with the hierarchy of socioeconomic classes, were the strata of race and sex. Atop the pyramid was the white man, followed by the white woman, then the black man, and at the bottom the black woman.

This seems obvious today. In 1970, to a young man from a family that possessed relative privilege and capacity to shelter, it was startling.

Cleaver's spicy terms were experientially discomfiting. He wrote about how black women cried out "Jesus" during lovemaking, thinking always of the iconic blue-eyed Jesus of American Protestantism. He spoke of the forbidden lust of white women for the fabled large black banana and the white Massa's exploits in the slave quarters.

How aroused he made me feel! How ashamed of myself I felt in discovering how easily I could lust like a slaveowner!

He, and writers like himself, whom I devoured, also reminded me that my Mediterranean looks were far from those of the revered Teutonic Jesus and that I and my forebears had not been part of that equation. Where did I fit in this revolution that simply had to happen to bring peace and justice?

Orwell's Homage, to my mind the best 20th century work in the English language, fit with the more overtly ideological works to which I was drawn. I found in Orwell's experience of the suppression of the Anarcho-Syndicalists by the Stalinists, the key lesson in intramural sparring within the Left: you can never trust the Stalinists.

This reconciled my budding and amorphous leftism, which I styled as Anarchism (but was not), with my anti-Communist upbringing. The Soviet Union was a useful bogeyman to help keep in check the ruling classes -- the undefined and always mysterious "them" who were the Wizards of Oz -- while the revolution had been, in theory, perhaps necessary and even good. But something had gone badly wrong once Uncle Joe took over the Party.

There is an ample literature of warnings from the Left about the potential for disaster in Soviet authoritarianism by figures no less distinguished and disinterested than Rosa Luxemburg. All of which was fine if I projected myself into port World War I "red" Berlin.

Yet here I was in North America, with capitalism chugging along quite fine, thank you very much Comrade Vladimir Ilych. Which is why a more sober voice such as Orwell's, and later Edouard Bernstein's, led me to milder electoral forms of reform-minded socialism, such as they have had in Western Europe.

Finally, there's the question of my own role. I never conceived of myself as a propagandist or revolutionary. I was too bourgeois for that. Yet change could be had through the power of the pen, I learned, when I first saw a 1930s movie called "The Front Page," later remade in 1974.

That's how Woodstein influenced my life. At a crucial time in my development, they showed that a reporter could, with honesty, integrity and without setting out to confirm foregone conclusions, bring to light information that, by itself, could cause change.

Our North American system of political and economic power has since adjusted to its vulnerabilities at the hands of the press, which is slowly being killed -- some say transformed -- by this very medium.

All The President's Men
, however, was about the brief moment in which two unknowns could bring down a president.

1 comment:

Hendaque said...

How fascinating to see that the more maturity and considerable life experience you gained, the less dogmatic you became.