Sunday, April 09, 2006

Book Discussion: 2 Books, Don't Count the Minutes

Jim: Return of the book discussion. Much to the relief of many readers. We're addressing two books this edition. Participating are The Third Estate Sunday Review's Dona, Jess, Ty, Ava and me; Rebecca of Sex and Politics and Screeds and Attitude; Betty of Thomas Friedman Is a Great Man; C.I. of The Common Ills and The Third Estate Sunday Review; Kat of Kat's Korner (of The Common Ills); Cedric of Cedric's Big Mix; Mike of Mikey Likes It!; Elaine of Like Maria Said Paz; and Wally of The Daily Jot. We'll start with Arundhati Roy's An Ordinary Person's Guide To Empire.

Ty: We'd previously included Arundhati Roy's War Talk in a book discussion so this is the second book of her's that we're noting. This book on empire is a collection of speeches Roy has given and the excerpt comes from the chapter "Peace Is War." From page 17:

The only way to make democracy real is to begin a process of constant questioning, permanent provocation, and continuos public conversation between citizens and the State. That conversation is quite different from the conversation between political parties. (Representing the views of rival political parties is what the mass media thinks of as "balance" reporting.) Patrolling the borders of our liberty is the only way we can guard against the snatching away of our freedoms. All over the world today, freedoms are being curbed in the name of protecting freedom. Once freedoms are surrendered by civil society, they cannot be retrieved without a struggle. It is so much easier to relinquish them than to recover them.

Dona: Great points, great passage and, before we go any further, I'd like to put that in light of what we've seen in the last weeks with regards to people, and primarily Latino students, standing up against the -- well, the Congress. That's what's going on.

Kat: Exactly. This wasn't wait until legislation is passed or until one of the many evil proposals has strong backing. This was take to the streets and say "No!" -- scream "No!" -- immediately. Some of the biggest protests the nation has ever seen including a protest made up of a half a million people. That's not a movement figure, that's the figure that the press reported. And that's amazing.

Dona: Not waiting until after something's decided but taking action immediately was amazing and inspiring but I'm thinking of the point that C.I. noted this week where you've got the creeps crawling out saying, "Oh but they shouldn't do this." I loved the "Soccer Momma Outreach" comments and the Midget and everything but what stood out strongest to me was this section:

I'm not in the mood for nonsense today. That includes the gatekeepers who want to gripe at the young adults who bring flags of Mexico to a protest -- exactly where do they think many of the immigrants targeted are coming from? Ohio?
In some areas, we've seen the largest protests ever. And some want to fret over flags?
"It sends the wrong message," they want to whine.
Again, whom do they think the immigration law is aimed at?
Instead of clucking about a totem, they might want to utilize that time attempting to increase the turnout or focusing on the issues. Instead that will, yet again, be the soundbyte on much of the media coverage.

Dona (con't): The people, the "helpful" ones, and they did make the news, whining about the Mexican flag, where were they? What were they doing? To me these protests embodied everything that Roy is writing about in An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire. Here are people speaking out, speaking out in their voices, in their manner and getting attention for it. Which is rare. I think the media attention was less than was called for considering the number of areas and the number of people but, for demonstrations in this country, there was media attention. They didn't do that by being mealy mouthed or attempting to figure out what would "poll" best.

Jess: And what it is, the "helpful," is a bunch of outsiders trying to elbow in and control a mass movement. I know we agree on that and that you're setting up Wally's points here so I'll add the "helpful" are The New Republican types who never can do anything but condemn people and condemn movements. They sell out to appear "reasoned."

Wally: Which is what they do and they attack. They attacked Arundhati Roy. I knew Roy from Democracy Now! and from some things highlighted at The Common Ills. So it was shocking to stumble across Dave Zirin's article on The New Rag's attacks on her. It's more shocking now that I've read these two books, I'd already read The God Of Small Things. They, the magazine or rag, is just more disgusting when you read Arundhati Roy. This is the woman they advocated using a "bunker buster" on. They are so disgusting. Roy's talking about, in this book, the victims of empire and how they are labeld the "attackers" if they're using the land they've always used, but land's that corporations want to control. Her analysis here is on the costs of empire that get paid by everybody. They cost liberties, they cost the environment, they cost lives. And The New Rag can only respond to that by trying to silence her.

Jess: They want her to disappear. That's what would make them happy. She's a threat to their neo-liberal message. They'd never advocate that a "bunker buster" be used on the administration but that's their buddies and they're perfectly happy attacking Roy. I wondered what Elaine thought of the book in terms of a recent radio appearance?

Elaine: You're referring to what I wrote about Gary Hart's Wednesday appearance on KPFA's The Morning Show. Just to nutshell the point Jess wants addressed, during the interview, which Andrea Lewis conducted, they took phone calls. One phone call ticked him off and he didn't bother to hide it. The caller was asking about the illegal occupation of Iraq and noting the imperial efforts in the past by the United States. He also had problems with two other callers who raised the issue, less so with a woman who was the third to comment on it. I don't know. This was a re-read for me and I think for several of us, An Ordinary Person's Guide To Empire.
I think there's . . . If you're unfamiliar with this line of thought, which is also expressed by Howard Zinn to name another noted critic, I think you have a very violent reaction to it. I have no idea that this was Hart's first exposure to it, I know someone here could probably answer that but I won't put anyone on the spot, but his reaction was . . . unusual. I found it very unusual from someone who had served in the Senate and presumably had heard the argument before, whether they supported or agreed with the view, someone who had heard it before.

Rebecca: Am I the only one here who missed that interview?

Jess: Ava, C.I., Ty and I missed it. We weren't by a radio or a computer because we were busy with the immigration issue.

Rebecca: T listened to it after Elaine's thing went up and she'd read it. So I've heard her report on it and read Elaine's. I think the antidote to those type of reactions is reading. People need to read Arundhati Roy's books and Howard Zinns, of course, but I also wondered if it were a generational thing? Gary Hart's been a critic of many aspects of the government's actions, regardless of which party was in control, and that may be as far as he's willing to step into the road. He may have an inner Boy Scout that will critique incidents but not the structure itself.

Betty: Which is what Roy's doing. It's not, "Here's a bad thing! My, this is a surprise. These things pop up but it's just a trick of fate." Roy's analyzing the realities of empire. Empire is a system and it has many characteristics and consequences. It's very easy to say "Too much salt"
in a dish. Roy's critiquing a full meal and the process that led to it being cooked.

C.I.: The difference between a micro and macro view or critique.

Betty: Right. It's saying, "Okay, this is a bad war and we can stop it by doing this." But it sets aside the bigger problem of how to stop other ones. It's a very splintered view that offers no comprehensive solutions. I personally think that we gather more perspective from the criticisms of Roy or Zinn or Norman Solomon than from this "Okay, let's take one war at a time" view. I think Rebecca's point about generational and "inner Boy Scout" are good ones. There's only so far some people are willing to go in their critiques. Some are happy to tell you that you have a disease and need to do this but not happy dwelling on how the disease was caught. The current war is a disease, how did we get there goes beyond Bully Boy lied. He did lies us into war. But you've got the media participating and you've got interested parties and how many decades of war in various forms on Iraq? There's a pattern here and you can see it at other times as well, in other locations. By all means, let's get out of Iraq and allow them self-rule but if we're just going to find a new Iraq, I'm not sure how much was accomplished other than "treating" one outbreak.

Elaine: I love what you just said.

Betty: Thank you.

Jim: Mike, you had a point you wanted to make.

Mike: Yeah, on page 111, I felt she made one of the strongest points for people who aren't going to read the book or are going to put it off. "When victims refuse to be victims, they are called terrorists and are dealt with as such." She offers a specific example in India but, like she talks about, this applies worldwide.

Kat: "To the people who finally can take anymore/ So they pick up a gun or a brick or a stone."

Mike: Jackson Browne! That's from "Lives in the Balance." People should read An Ordinary Person's Guide To Empire but we know some people just read the book discussions and mean to read the books but don't. Or don't have interest in picking up a book.

Dona: But some do. Just to avoid e-mails. We have a number of readers who have missed the book discussions and have written at many other times to say that they'd already read that book and agreed or that they weren't aware of a book but picked up because of the discussions and enjoyed it.

Mike: Right. But for the ones who are just going to read the discussion, if you've heard Jackson Browne's song that Kat was quoting, you should think about that. And when I read that part in Roy's book about how the victims are labeled, I was nodding my head and marked it up in the book because it is an important point about how the global economy, with its goals and aims, expects you to either go along or be an enemy of the state.

Jim: Dona's indicating that we're almost out of the set time we had and we want to discuss our second book as well so is there another point anyone wants to make?

C.I.: I did. There was a passage in the book that I missed the first time around or it didn't click. Roy's noting, and I believe it's page 27, the image issues, how it's okay to show the tools of war, the bombs, the bombers, but not the victims and she notes that American P.O.W.'s were considered off limits and out of bounds by the US government that had shown Guantanamo prisoners. Maybe because I've had the worst cases of swimmer's ear in the past few months, something stood out this read. She's talking about how they're displayed in the images and notes that kneeling, have goggles over their eyes to prevent sight and "earphones clamped on their ears." Ruth's noted that Law and Disorder is doing a multi-part series on the use of music at high volumes to torture Guantanamo prisoners. In one instance, they noted that you'd have to turn the volume up very loud to really get an idea of how awful it was. And it is. But if you're doing that, and I don't know that they are [doing the next part], to people you're also preventing from hearing normal sounds, it's even worse. When I've got swimmer's ear really bad, I'll put in ear plugs. When I take them out, normal sounds can be annoying. If I was hearing louder decibals it would be even worse. So I wanted to note that because I am curious if at some point we'll find out that this was part of the hearing torture -- that they'd first use the earphones to prevent any sound and then blast the ones tortured. If that is being done, it's even more of a shock to the listening system because you're going from no sounds to these huge levels that would be disturbing enough if you were going to them naturally.

Elaine: I wish I had caught that. That's a good point. The sound torture is used to confuse and disorient. It would do that even more if the victims were hearing nothing and then being put into torture situations where they were exposed to ear splitting levels. The torture is already disgusting but that would add a new level of disgust to it.

Jim: So that was Arundhati Roy's An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire and it's a book that we all recommend. Our next book is Angela Y. Davis' Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons and Torture. Cedric's got the highlight and he and Ava will need to speak up in this section or we'll get e-mails asking where they were?

Cedric: Angela Davis is a hero to many and she felt the full force of the FBI come down upon her when she was, at one point, the most wanted person in America. She was acquitted of the charges against her but not before she had become a prisoner. Her interest in prisons was in place before her own incarceration; however, it did increase her understanding and her interest.
The excerpt is from page 89:

One of our main challenges is to reconceptualize that notion of "security." How can we help to make the world secure from the ravages of global capitalism? This broader sense of of security might involve debt relief for Africa; it would mean an end to the juggernaut of privatization that threatens the new society people in South Africa have been trying to build. It would also involve the shifting of priorities from the prison-industrial-complex to education, housing, health care. Bush was reelected -- or elected, since he was appointed into his first term rather than elected -- precisely because of the moral panic that diverted people's attention away from the more complicated questions about our future. Bush was elected because of the fear not only of another "terrorist" attack, but because of the fear that American global superiority may be on the wane.

Cedric (con't): What is security and who is secure are the points of this book, which is a collection of interviews.

Betty: And she notes the historical roots of prisons. And how, in this country, slaves weren't put in prison, they were beaten, tortured or killed. After the civil war, you have a new raft of behaviors that are criminalized just in time to coincide with newly liberated Black men.

Cedric: Right. And the "prison-industrial-complex" is a term she uses to get people to grasp that prisons are big business. We have the largest prison population in the world and a lot of people make money off that. And African-Americans are over-represented in prison. So I wanted to toss this question out to Ty and Betty since they are African-Americans, is there someone in your family, immediate or extended, who is in prison. I can count a second cousin that is.

Ty: Do you want to go first, Betty?

Betty: No go ahead, I feel like I've been hogging time.

Ty: Well, not currently. But I do have an uncle who was in prison during his twenties. And there are, I think, four guys from my high school graduating class currently serving sentences.

Betty: Yeah, it's not a unique thing or unique experience. If it's not something that someone in your family has experience, at least in my area, Georgia, it's something that a friend or acquaintance has. It's so common that you hear the kids joke about. My nieces were making jokes to one another that their boyfriends were going to end up in prison. That's not to treat the issue as a joke but it is so common an experience that, to deal with it, you do often resort to humor.

Ty: And it goes to economics and perceived social status as well because if you've got money for a good attorney and you're from a "good family" then the way you'll be sentenced -- or not sentenced at all -- will be very different from the way someone else will be.

Cedric: Exactly because there will be an assumption or presumption that this "good family" member just went astray and that generosity of judgement isn't spread out to all. I'm going to pass to Ava to be sure she gets a chance to speak.

Ava: Thank you, Cedric. I'll start off by noting that C.I. and are the ones who take notes so in a discussion, we'll always make less statements than we might in another feature. I'll focus in on a point that Jess' father would make, prison is his issue, and that's the fact that Davis isn't a reformer and is honestly and rightly concerned that some reforms, regardless of good or bad consequences, only reinforce the system itself. As though "We fixed it!" means that the system itself, the prison-industrial-complex, is now justified and justifiable.

Jim: Just to cut in, I know Jess' father's work in this area and I'm curious why you're covering these points, or bringing them up, instead of Jess?

Ava: When it's the focus of a parent there's always the concern that you'll make a statement that you think will be applauded but instead will be greeted with, "You know, I really wish you'd have pointed out" whatever.

Mike: Like today I wrote about the Vietnam conflict and spoke of how that was how we were taught to refer to it because it was an illegal war and my father is very big on the fact that it was illegal. (Laughing) I thought I covered it pretty well and then I hear from it, "Great post, but you should have . . ." When it's someone's big issue, or one of the big issues, there can be a sense of no winning possible no matter what you do.

Ava: Right. And I know in the "world o' Wolfe" we live in where everyone's spouting off about "law and order" there's a tendency to think, "Oh well, they wouldn't be behind bars if there wasn't a reason for it." That's not a belief that anyone here holds but if some reader does, I'd point out that the book's arguments can be applied elsewhere. For instance, think of something we object to. The Patriot Act. And we're all supposed to be impressed that a cowardly Congress added a few minor protections? That "reform" is endorsing the Act itself.

Cedric: Right because it's saying, "We did something. Now it's improved." But we don't need it and it goes against the principles of freedom so applauding these minor changes have a way of making people accept "victory" which is nothing but accepting the Act itself.

Rebecca: And for those turned off by the topic, wait, I want to stop here a moment to tie in a point from earlier. If your "exposure" to this issue is built upon crime dramas and the nightly count down on the local news that's intended to scare you, this is an issue you should expose yourself to by reading this book. As with the concept of empire, if you're not familiar with the prison-industrial-complex, you should reach for this book. But there are also other topics tied into it, as Cedric pointed out. One of the ones that I noticed was Davis' point about an attitude on the part of some Western feminists of "We will rescue you!" Some, not all. But that does exist and it certainly exists in the writings of non-feminist Nicholas Kristof. On the part of people like that, there's an inability to listen. I'm not sure if that results from a active choice that a person makes or from the fact that so little is exposed/acknowledged in our mainstream media?

Kat: That's a good point and one I've been thinking about as I've read the gina & krista round-robin where people have shared why a Pacifica Radio program is their favorite one. Regardless of the show, the point is usually made that they are hearing something that they feel can hear no where else. In my state, California, abolition of the death penalty is a big issue. Angela Davis is a strong advocate for the abolition of the death penalty, by the way, and remarks upon it in the interviews in this book. But I wondered about KPFA and KPFT and how they enhance those discussions? They do enhance them and my point is that in many areas there is no Pacifia radio station. So you're left with a very limited view. So Rebecca's point about exposure to ideas that she made on the previous book and here as well is a good one. I'm sure that Pacifica has helped keep the issue of the death penalty alive and in people's minds. I feel like I have about four points going off at once and none of them are being made clearly. So I'll just say that media shapes our notions of the world around us and, for too many people, the media available is, regardless of the channel, station or network, putting out the same message and offering no discussion or debate.

Rebecca: I get what you're saying and it's a good point. To take it to Nicholas Kristof, people with limited exposure of the sort Kat's talking about, would read his column and think, "Wow, what great things he does!" Those with a little more opportunities to hear reality would think, "Is he not the biggest self-promoting prig whose 'efforts' really help no one but himself." I'm thinking specifically of his "purchasing" of women to "save" them. And we can't listen to what we can't hear, Kat's point, so we're left with assumptions and pass them off as fact.

Ty: Which is one point Davis makes about some Western feminists. That they're accepting that they are the smart ones because they come from the West and they must teach these lesser beings.

Dona: Which isn't a different attitude, as Davis points out in Abolition Democracy, from Bully Boy and Laura Bush selling their war on Afghanistan as liberation for the women there. And I think it's good to tie in a gas bag like Nicholas Kristof into this.

Wally: Cause he's always talking about his own greatness. "No one but me cares!" Whatever the issue. After awhile, you start to wonder if he even can grasp a situtation in front of him since all he's seeing his own greatness.

Mike: And I know C.I. and Ava are scribbling away furiously to get all this down so I'll note a point they made to me which is that Davis has always spoken about nationalism and how blinding it can be. Something I think Roy does as well. But to bring up an example from Davis, she notes the shock over the behaviors and torture at Abu Ghraib and, along with noting that these occur in the United States' prisons, she notes that this "I am so much more developed" attitude allows people to say things like, "You don't understand how repulsive this is for Muslim men to have a tampon tossed at them" or whatever. And her point is that anyone in that situation, any prisoner, would be repulsed by it. So when we act like, "Oh but this is so against the culture," we're falling into an argument of how much better we are.

Jim: Okay Dona's noting three minutes left. We haven't heard in this half from Jess, Elaine or C.I. and I'll note, since Ava already did, that Ava and C.I. get stuck taking the notes. But I'll toss to Jess and if anyone else wants to make a point, jump on in.

Jess: "Sister, there's a wind that never dies/ Sister, we're breathing together/ Sister, our love and hope forever keep on moving oh so slowly in the world." That's from John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Angela" on Sometime in New York City and it's a song about Angela Davis written while she was a political prisoner.

Kat: And the Rolling Stones wrote and recorded "Sweet Black Angel" on Exile On Main St.

C.I.: And the point to make there, with both songs, is that they were part of a larger awareness. Davis speaks about that in this book. Jess or Elaine grab that.

Elaine: When Davis was imprisoned, the movement, the global movement, calling for her release was important, as it's important for people to pull together at all times, and she credits it.

Jess: And notes that it's a moment in time, touchstone, for many people and she realizes that when she meets them. More movements like that are needed to address the prison-industrial-comoplex.

Elaine: Because when the world is watching, the oppressors are less likely to expose themselves for what they are. With Angela Davis, you had people all over the world speaking out and pressing the issue. If that same sort of energy was applied to the issue of the prison-industrial-complex, "reforms" wouldn't be the end result.

Jim: So that's our discussion of Angela Y. Davis' Abolition Democracy which is a book we all highly recommend as we do Arundhati Roy's An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire. Read both and raise your awareness. The plan currently is to have another book discussion in two weeks but that's not a promise.
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