It’s A Wonderful Life: the Fox News version

December 24, 2013 at 12:14 am (Christmas, cinema, economics, fantasy, film, humanism, Jim D, red-baiting, satire, solidarity, United States)

This comes courtesy of Jimmy Kimmel, via Gene at That Place. The entire clip is worth watching (dealing, at first, with the burning question: “is Santa white?”), but the classic film trailer starts at around 2.10:

Below: clip from dangerous leftist subversive Frank Capra’s 1946 ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ before it became the ideologically acceptable ‘Mr Potter and the Commies of Bedford Falls’ (NB: children and impressionable adults should not be allowed to watch this unsupervised):

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“We do him no honour to subsume his politics, or his personal peculiarities, beneath an aura of sainthood”

December 7, 2013 at 1:21 pm (africa, Anti-Racism, AWL, civil rights, Cross-post, democracy, good people, history, Human rights, humanism, politics, posted by JD)


Above: Hugh Masekela’s musical dedication to Mandela

By Robert Fine at the Workers Liberty website

Nelson Mandela was a big man and his long life was punctuated by huge personal and political achievements. Foremost among his personal achievements was the dignity and apparent lack of bitterness with which he emerged from 27 years of imprisonment by the apartheid regime in South Africa. He had the personal grace to embody the long struggle against racism and for democracy when he re-entered the public sphere in 1990 and by nearly all accounts he set an example of leadership during his own long years in gaol. During this period Mandela was himself rather forgotten for much of the time, out of sight in the 1960s, eclipsed in the 1970s by the Black Consciousness Movement and Steve Biko, denounced in the 1980s by various world leaders (including Thatcher, Reagan and Bush Senior) as a terrorist, but increasingly in this period lionised in political and cultural circles. Who can forget Hugh Masekela’s musical dedication to Mandela!

Foremost among his political achievements was of course the role he played in steering South Africa from apartheid to democracy, from a state in which to be black was to be less than human to one man, one woman, one vote. This was no easy road. There was violence from members of the old regime, from Zulu nationalists in the Inkatha Movement, from ‘white’ ultra-nationalist in the AWB, and not least from among some black radicals (including Mandela’s wife, WInnie) within the black townships. Once in power as the first President of the new South Africa Mandela formed a government of National Unity with the Afrikaner Nationalists and Inkatha, oversaw the drafting of the new constitution including a strong Bill of Rights, and gave the go-ahead for Bishop Tutu to establish his famous Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

One of the many iconic moments of the Rainbow Nation Mandela sought to establish was presenting the Rugby World Cup trophy, held in South Africa, to the Springboks captain Francois Peinaar. Rugby was a generally ‘white’ sport and those of us who remember the anti-apartheid demonstrations we held against the visiting Springboks will understand the great symbolism of this occasion.

Mandela was a human being and despite all the efforts to sanctify him we do him no honour to subsume his politics, or indeed his patrician personal peculiarities, beneath an aura of sainthood sometimes constructed for the narrowest of political purposes. Mandela came from a Christian, aristocratic and propertied African family – very different in culture and social status from the mass of ‘blanket’ Africans. He became involved in ANC politics in the 1950s, when he was active in the non-violent Defiance Campaign and then in organising the Congress of the People in 1955. It put forward the famous and at the time controversial Freedom Charter:

“We the people of South Africa declare for all our country: That South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people”.

In a context of plural political movements vying for popular support, the notion of ‘we the people’ had obvious political advantages for the ANC, but what was more important was that it set a basically multi-racial path for the liberation movement.

There has been debate over whether Mandela ever joined the South African Communist Party, which had of course strong Soviet connections, but whether or not he did join, he worked closely with some of its members. What first thrust Mandela into international fame, his first moment of glory, was perhaps his least auspicious contribution. He was involved in the late 1950s in the turn to armed struggle, the establishment of an armed wing of the ANC, known as MK or Umkhonto We Sizwe, and the reorganisation of the party in accordance with the ‘M-Plan’, setting up a cell structure for military operations. Mandela was acquitted at the long drawn out Treason Trial of 1956-61, but he was then convicted of ‘sabotage’ at the Rivonia Trial in 1962 and sentenced to life imprisonment.

We should acknowledge that the so-called turn to armed struggle was a disaster. The bombing campaigns were ineffective and those involved in them were quickly rounded up. More importantly, the mass democratic campaigns, which rocked the apartheid regime in the latter half of the 1950s, all quickly collapsed as sabotage, secrecy and vanguardism took over. The murder by the police of 69 protesters at Sharpeville – a protest organised by the PAC, a rival organisation to the ANC – was treated by the ANC / SACP leadership as a sign that peaceful protest was no longer possible. However, it was also a sign that the mass democratic movement as a whole – which comprised community movements, trade union movements, women’s movements and even tribal peasant movements – was seriously impacting on the apartheid regime.

After the turn to armed struggle there ensued a decade of state repression and intensified racist legislation, marked by the defeat of popular struggles. I do not think this downturn can be separated from the ill advisedness of the ‘turn’ Mandela helped to implement. Mandela was inspired, as many radicals were in that period, by Castro’s 26th Movement, the example of Che Guevara, and by various armed African liberation movements. The long period of his prosecution in the Treason Trial may have cut him off from active involvement in the mass democratic movement (I am not sure of this). In any event the strategic turn taken by the ANC, which Mandela supported and personified, probably had more to do with the wider strategic turn enforced by leaders of the Soviet Union on most Communist Parties they supported, than with any local conditions. Mandela’s ringing speech at the Rivonia Trial – “I was the symbol of justice in the court of oppression” – was undoubtedly true but of course did not address the democratic and class issues involved in turning away from mass struggle.

There was always a patrician and intolerant edge to the ANC movement, but it was the turn to violence in 1961 that for many years broke its connection with grass-roots democracy. The protests that broke out in the mid-1970s, a decade and a half after Sharpeville, were conducted more in the name of Black Consciousness and Steve Biko than the ANC and Mandela. In the 1980s the ANC began to get back into the picture internationally as a largely exiled movement, but the internal movement of new non-racial trade unions (especially under the umbrella of FOSATU) and new community movements (especially under the umbrella of the United Democratic Front) showed a considerable degree of independence from the ANC–SACP alliance. In the UK I remember ANC-SACP people in the anti-apartheid movement denouncing in this period the new industrial trade unions and their solidarity supporters in the UK, including myself, as queering the pitch of the ‘official’ trade union wing of the movement, SACTU, or worse as collaborators.

Once Mandela was out of prison in 1990, his conciliatory strengths were manifold: he certainly deserved the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. There was at the time violence in the air – the murder of Chris Hani, massacres at Sebokeng and at Shell House, the AWB car bombs, the ‘necklacing’ of ‘collaborators’ committed by young activists in the townships, even the tortures and murders committed by the Winnie Mandela’s thuggish ‘United Football Club’. Directly or indirectly, Mandela helped to resolve tensions between the independent unions and the ANC and the former head of the Mineworkers Union Cyril Ramapoza led the ANC delegation into negotiations with the government. Mandela was a force for reconciliation but this did not mean that he simply gave in to stronger forces. He was strongly critical of de Klerk, the leader of the Afrikaner Nationalists, when the latter granted amnesty to the police and defended his old Defence Minister, Malan.

However, reconciliation meant not only reconciling oneself to the past but also reconciling oneself to the present – and to forces that would keep the great majority of ordinary black people in poverty and subjection. Strengths can turn into weaknesses and this is what happened to Mandela’s undoubted strengths. The ambitious social and economic plans of the ANC-SACP, articulated in the election campaign of 1994 in the Reconstruction and Development Programme, were frustrated by business friendly policies (tight budgets, fee trade, debt responsibility, etc.), the allure of unheard of riches corrupting all manner of officials, and an increasingly evident anti-pluralist streak within the ANC and SACP themselves. The trade union independence so carefully built up in the 1980s was compromised by its alliance with the ANC and SACP in the 1990s. By the time Mandela decided not to stand again as President in 1999, there were pronounced signs of growing unemployment, inequality and governmental authoritarianism – as well as the peculiarities of certain policy traits like Mbeki’s almost unbelievable refusal to recognise the existence of AIDS or the importance of anti-viral treatment.

Mandela was not uncritical of his own role, notably in relation to the whole question of AIDS, but whether or not he spoke out publicly on these issues, he remained a force for decency in the background of a state that was becoming disturbingly violent, anti-egalitarian and grasping. The police murder of 34 striking miners at Marikana mine, owned by a British company Lonmin, one of whose well paid directors is Cyril Ramapoza, the former leader of the Mineworkers Union and Deputy leader of the ANC, and its cover up and normalisation by leading figures in the ANC-SACP-COSATU alliance, is just one exemplar.

Mandela will be missed today not because he was a perfect role model, and he was certainly no saint, but because he knew what is important in life and represented something authentic in the South African revolutionary tradition. Now that he has gone, I wonder what is in store for the revolution, which his presence did much to foster and civilise but which his aura served to insulate from the normal processes of intellectual and political criticism.

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Madiba: at rest at last

December 6, 2013 at 1:31 am (africa, Anti-Racism, civil rights, democracy, good people, history, Human rights, humanism, liberation, love, posted by JD, RIP)

From the Daily Maverick: ends with ‘prayers’ that we all can share. 

“It’s still nice to dance, crack jokes and wear a loud shirt”

Slightly adapted from a piece by Marelise Van Der Merwe

Our heroes are falling one by one, our police don’t protect us, and our politicians are weak and vicious. And we’ve been hanging onto Mandela as though our lives depend on it, not his; when what we should be doing is using the great gift of introspection that he gave us to pull ourselves from the wreckage.

Newspapers have been on standby in case the news breaks – so much so, in fact, that a DStv channel aired an obituary in error earlier this year, much to the righteous rage of the ANC. The country doesn’t want to look away, in a mixture of mercenary alertness (God forbid we be the newspaper that misses it) and heart-wrenching sadness (he is our everything).

After the DStv obituary aired, ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu flew off the handle somewhat, and I can’t say I blame him. To me, the incident symbolised everything that is wrong with this compulsive Madiba-watching. “This was uncalled for and totally insensitive,” Mthembu fumed. “President Mandela is alive and receiving treatment for a recurring lung infection, as reported by the Presidency.

“We join millions of South Africans and people all over the world in wishing Madiba a speedy recovery and discharge from the hospital. We also join all those who are offering their prayers for the old statesman to get better.”

I must say, though, that Mthembu was wrong on one count. My prayers were not for Madiba’s speedy recovery. My prayers and good wishes were that he would not have a long, drawn-out death; that he would be peaceful; that he would be surrounded by loved ones and look back with satisfaction on the life he lived. He was an old, old man – one who crammed more into his active years outside of jail than most people would do in two lifetimes. He used his jail time, too, to good effect, educating himself and others, spreading messages of peace, and most importantly, working on his inner world – coming to terms with the abuse he had suffered, so that when he came out of jail, he was able to lead us all to genuine reconciliation.

What I didn’t want for him was speculation, the endless watching for whether he made it through the night, the long process of going into hospital, coming back out, labouring for air. There is a reason pneumonia is known as the old man’s friend: it is quick and usually not painful.

If there is anything Madiba taught us, it was gentleness and humanity, not to mention the stupendous power of forgiveness. In my own life, this struggle for forgiveness has been massive, for reasons unrelated to the political climate. But every time the anger comes, I look towards Madiba and remember what the human soul can overcome. He had a profound influence on my life, and I am sure I am not the only one. Part of what made him such a remarkable human being is that you would be hard-pressed to find a person who had not been influenced by him in some way. He was the person who looked through the vicious shells of Apartheid leaders, prison warders; the insensitive crusts of self-righteous whites who did not want to change. He looked through them all, saw the human beings inside, and reached out to them. He gave us all the mercy we so desperately want, and he led others to it, too.

Madiba earned his rest. He earned the right to sit quietly with the people he loved most in this world, and drift gently into the next one. He gave us his life in service – but we didn’t even want to grant him his death. Why did we keep on wanting him to get better, just so that he could go back into hospital? Selfishly, we didn’t want to let go of all he symbolised, so we wanted him to cling to a life that he had, in all honesty, lived out.

Madiba withdrew himself many years ago, as we all know. He did not want public life anymore; what he wanted was a life, a good life, with his family. He was done fighting and wanted happiness. And that, ironically, seems to be the one thing that – for all our claimed love – we didn’t want to grant him.

If you have ever read fairy tales or epics, you will know that a typical plot manoeuvre is for the main character, at the critical stage, to lose his mentor. South Africa is at that critical stage now: we are staring into the abyss, the crisis times have come, and we have lost our father figure. But what happens in these stories? The fighter gets up and carries on; he moves forward with the tools the mentor has given him already. And if it is a good story, he emerges victorious.

Madiba gave us many tools. He is done giving now, and we should accept that. What we can do if we want to honour and respect him is use those tools and remember those lessons. The way I see it, if we really want to show love for Madiba, we should be praying for ourselves.

We should pray that we can learn to forgive like Madiba.

We should pray that we learn to sacrifice, without complaint, for the common good.

We should pray we learn that even time we believe is wasted can be used to achieve so much good: in learning, in thought leadership, in becoming greater within ourselves, while we wait for circumstances beyond our control to change.

We should pray that we learn his great gift of introspection, so that we never let the bitterness grow inside us, even when it seems nothing is changing.

We should pray that we have the courage to speak up and be honest, even if there are grim punishments in store for us when we do.

We should pray to be gentle, but not meek – to fight for what we believe in.

We should pray that even when we are good, good people, we remember that nobody likes a goody-goody: that it’s still nice to dance, crack jokes and wear a loud shirt.

And most of all, we should pray to remember that all great changes begin with the person in the mirror: our own transformation leads it all.

If all South Africans strive for this, maybe, just maybe, we will be able to give Madiba the same gift back that he tried to give to us: a country that works.

He has paid his debt to South Africa, and more. He has led each one of us to strive to be a better person, in a better South Africa. It is time for us to lovingly let him go, and to move forward with the lessons he sacrificed so much to teach us.

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Tariq Ramadan – reactionary bigot – to give Orwell Lecture

November 13, 2013 at 1:04 am (academe, Andrew Coates, AWL, celebrity, From the archives, homophobia, Human rights, humanism, intellectuals, islamism, Middle East, misogyny, murder, palestine, posted by JD, reactionay "anti-imperialism", relativism, religion, secularism, strange situations, women)

TR

Above: Prof Ramadan

Comrade Coatesy draws our attention to the unspeakably depressing fact that Tariq Ramadan (Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at St Antony’s College, Oxford and poster-boy for supposedly “moderate” Islamism) has been chosen deliver this year’s Orwell Lecture.

Now, Orwell was no saint, and certainly had his prejudices and blind-spots. He can reasonably be accused of a degree of sexism and homophobia. There are passages in his writings that have been considered anti-Semitic. He was a child of his time, and did not always rise above the prevalent backwardness of that time. But he was aware of his weaknesses and seems to have made genuine efforts to fight his inner demons. He was nothing if not scrupulously honest, self-critical (to a degree that sometimes played into the hands of his enemies), and humanist. He was also hostile to all forms of totalitarianism, religion and spirituality, despite a sentimental soft spot for the rituals of the C of E. All of which makes the choice of Professor Ramadan to deliver the lecture named after him, especially unfortunate.

The French revolutionary socialist and Marxist Yves Coleman wrote a trenchant critique of Ramadan back in 2007, published by Workers Liberty. We republish it below, preceded by Workers Liberty‘s introduction. Given Ramadan’s evident popularity not just on sections of the “left”, but also with Guardianista-liberals, and his selection as the Orwell lecturer, this is a timely reminder of just how unpleasant his underlying politics are:
**********************

“40 reasons why Tariq Ramadan is a reactionary bigot” was written by the French Marxist, Yves Coleman and has been reproduced by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL). The text presents factual information about the politics of Tariq Ramadan.

There are many issues the Left must address.

First is the question of honest polemic.

Useful political debate requires clearly presented political positions and an attempt to honestly engage with opponents.

And yet Yves Coleman believes that it almost impossible to either ‘catch’ or ‘corner’ Tariq Ramadan. He is difficult to pin down. The reason is simple: Tariq Ramadan often says one thing to one group, and something different, or contradictory, elsewhere.

This slipperiness connects with the second issue for the left.

No doubt, given the support Ramadan has on the “left”, there will be further “left” attempts to refute the damning contents of this document. However, it will not be good enough to answer Yves Coleman by producing further quotes from Ramadan.

It just won’t do to reply to the reactionary statements Ramadan has made on the issue of women’s rights, for example, by presenting other quotes suggesting he is a liberal on the question (and so implying Ramadan can’t have made the statements cited by Yves Coleman without having to address the quotes directly). Ramadan might well have made both the reactionary and the liberal statements. As Yves Coleman shows, on many issues Ramadan has done exactly that.

It will not do to protest that Ramadan is more liberal-minded, less rigidly reactionary than extreme Islamist groups like Hizb-ut Tahrir. He is. Mainstream Catholic ideologues are less rigidly reactionary than the Tridentines. They are still not allies for the left.

Nor will it do to try to change the question by saying that the left has also had Christian preachers sometimes share platforms with it to denounce apartheid or war. The left will work with campaigners who may be Muslims on the same basis. But Tariq Ramadan’s left-wing friends promote him not because he has campaigned on some progressive political issue (and despite his Islamic ideas), but because he is a (sometimes left-sounding) Islamic ideologue, regardless of him doing nothing for progressive politics other than making bland statements against poverty and so on.

The only possible “left” responses to this document are: to attempt to prove Coleman has mis-quoted Ramadan; or to attempt to explain away Ramadan’s statements (by claiming some sort of special privilege for Muslim bigots); or to accept Ramadan is a reactionary.

Third is the peculiar fact – one which Yves Coleman notes in his text – that the left finds no problem in condemning Catholic reactionaries, but often praises and promotes Islamic reactionaries such as Ramadan who have similar views. Criticisms of Tariq Ramadan are often called “Islamophobic”. But we do not say that Ramadan is worse than a Catholic reactionary because he is Muslim rather than Catholic. We only say that a Muslim reactionary is no more defensible than a Catholic reactionary.

The problem is that large sections of the left have degenerated and decayed to such an extent that they become unable to differentiate between critics of existing society who offer a positive alternative to capitalism (the working-class, class-struggle left), and those critics who are backward-looking reactionaries.

The kitsch-left has – seemingly – forgotten what it positively stands for, and can only remember what it is against (Blair, Israel and, most of all, America). Since Islamists are against Israel and the USA, and Catholic reactionaries generally are not, the kitsch-left thinks the Islamists are progressive. Or that Ramadan, a Swiss university professor, is the best person to invite to be a “Voice of the Global South” at the European Social Forum, precisely because he is an Islamic ideologue.

It is organisations such as the SWP – which found itself unable to condemn 9/11, and which supports the so-called resistance in Iraq – that promote Ramadan.

Forth is to understand Ramadan’s project.

Yves Coleman writes: “The basic thing is that Ramadan wants is to enlarge the power of control or religion on society. Ramadan always invokes French racism (which exists and can not be denied) and colonial history to explain the hostility he provokes in France. In this he is partly right, but what is at stake is the meaning of secularism. For him (as well as for the SWP and its French followers) secularism means that all religions are treated equally by the State and are respected. For the French Republican tradition, it means something different: it means (in theory) that people should not express religious views in the public sphere (in their job, in the schools, in Parliament, etc.) and should keep their religious views to the private sphere. That’s where the difference lies.

“Ramadan may not be a fundamentalist of the worst sort but he is clearly training a whole generation of religious cadres who are trying to change the content of secularism in France in a more pro-religious direction.”

Fifth is to understand the role Ramadan is playing in NUS.

Behind Ramadan – urbane, reasonable sounding – stand the Islamists of the MAB/Muslim Brothers.

Ramadan is the reasonable face of Islamic politics, and he is the thin end of the wedge.

Finally, we need to understand that attempts to shout down Marxist critics of Ramadan with demagogic accusations of “Islamophobia” and even “racism” are absurd.

Discrimination and even violence against Muslims are real. We oppose such bigotry.

However we also demand women’s liberation, gay liberation. The AWL is an atheist organisation, and fights for secular values. Therefore we will not ignore Ramadan’s bigotry or backwardness.

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40 reasons why Tariq Ramadan is a reactionary bigot
By Yves Coleman

Tariq Ramadan often complains that the media accuse him of being two-faced. He considers that this critique is a plain racist slander in the line of the eternal cliché about so-called Arab “deceitfulness”. If we read Mr Ramadan’s writings we reach a much simpler conclusion: Tariq Ramadan is a sincere Muslim who defends reactionary positions on a number of issues, but that does not prevent him from holding critical views on many injustices, while being fundamentally a moderate in politics.

Just as Pope John Paul II condemned the “excesses of capitalism”, unemployment, greed, poverty, the war in Iraq and the way Israel treats the Palestinians.

Only somebody who has never thought about about the function of religions (of all religions) can be surprised by this coexistence of different interpretations of the world: a faith in myths (as in the Bible, Torah, Quran, Upanishads, etc.) and absurd superstitions; a use of reason in many daily (manual and intellectual) activities ; a sincere revolt against all injustices; a misogynist and homophobic moralism; a need for dreams and utopias, etc.

Revolutionaries do not question Tariq Ramadan’s right to defend his religious beliefs, or to proselytise. After all, as he rightly notes, nobody in France is scandalized by the constant propaganda waged by missionaries like Mother Teresa or Sister Emmanuelle in Asia. Nobody protests against the repeated presence of Sister Emmanuelle, Cardinal Lustinger (former cardinal in charge of Paris) and other priests, nuns and monks in all sorts of French TV shows and programs.

Nor is this a matter of a theological dispute with somebody who is always going to know Islam better than any “Western” atheist.

What we insist on is that there are other interpretations of Islam, from Muslims who are much more democratic and secular than Ramadan.

And we reject the dishonest gambit used by this Swiss philosophy lecturer to deflect criticism: each time a Muslim intellectual defends an opinion which is different from his, it is because she or he is “westernized”, has adopted a “West-centred vision”, or worse, has sold out to imperialist, colonialist and racist Western powers.

Revolutionaries do not claim that Tariq Ramadan holds reactionary positions on all issue. We simply ask his “left-wing” friends not to knowingly dissimulate his obscurantist positions and not to dismiss in advance the positions of other Muslims who are much less conservative than him as regards morals, secularism and all the issues of daily life.

This dissimulation comes sometimes from a unworthy paternalism (“he will shift as he comes into contact with us”), sometimes from a manipulative approach (“we are not interested in him, but in the immigrants he influences”), and sometimes from a political vision which blurs all class divisions (“the confluence of all anti-capitalist movements”, the “revolt of the multitudes”, and other such rubbish), sometimes from the cynical relativism of disillusioned former adherents of dialectical materialism (“after all, no-one knows whether scientific truths exist”), and sometimes from a “Third Worldism” which has still not given up on the Stalinist illusion of “socialism in one country”.

In all these cases, such hypocritical attitudes to Ramadan’s bigotry do a disservice to workers who still believe in Islam but who also want to fight against capitalism. And after all, as revolutionaries, it is those “Muslims” who interest us.

Tariq Ramadan does not approve of flirting, sex before (or outside) marriage, homosexuality, women’s contraception or divorce. He thinks that Muslim women should submit to their husbands if they are “good” Muslims. He believes that men must be financially responsible for the well-being of their family, and not women. In other words, Tariq Ramadan is opposed to or equivocal about feminism, women’s rights, gay rights and sexual liberation. One should also have strong doubts about his respect of the freedom of speech and thought: in Switzerland he contributed to a campaign against a Voltaire play, and he wants Muslim parents to control the content of State school programs according to “Islamic values”, to give only two examples. But that does not prevent him from constantly using the key words of today’s public relations industry: “respect”, “tolerance”, “communication” and “dialogue” in the manner of a cynical politician.

What a strange friend for the Left! Read the rest of this entry »

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Thinking of you, Norm

October 18, 2013 at 6:26 pm (anti-fascism, blogging, Euston Manifesto, good people, humanism, intellectuals, jazz, Jim D, Marxism, RIP, secularism, socialism)

RIP Norman Geras,
25 Aug 1942 – 18 Oct 2013

It shouldn’t have come as any surprise: after all, he’d warned us in so many words, that he was headin’ for the last round-up. But it was still a shock today, when the news came through – it felt like losing a a best friend or even a family member with an illness that you’d known all along could only have one ending. This despite the fact that we’d never properly met and only ever corresponded by email or via his occasional BTL comments here.

I will be writing more in days to come about this complex, inspiring human being. His pioneering blog, brim-full of gentle humour and searing honesty, remains as a permanent memorial. But for now, I’ll simply recommend Nick Cohen’s heartfelt tribute at the Spectator‘s website…

… and play some jazz (a shared enthusiasm, though Norm loved all sorts of music, including – to my horror - country ‘n’ western):

This version of ‘Ghost of A Chance’ recorded by tenorist Illinois Jacqet in 1968 was Norm’s gift to me, when I had the honour of being the subject of one of his many ‘profiles’ of fellow-bloggers. I’m playing it now, and thinking of him.

NB: http://normfest.org/ – well worth a visit, and you can leave a message there as well.

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Israel-Palestine: the unintended conquerers

October 13, 2013 at 6:04 pm (good people, history, humanism, israel, literature, Middle East, palestine, posted by JD, reblogged, tragedy, war, zionism)

 

Unintended Conquerors

Yossi Klein Halevi’s new book Like Dreamers speaks with rare clarity on the Israel-Palestine conflict.  BY Louis Nayman (at In These Times)

Above: Zion Karasanti, Yitzhak Yifat and Haim Oshri, IDF paratroopers at Jerusalem’s Western Wall shortly after its capture. (David Rubinger / Knesset website)
Shortly after 9:15 a.m. on June 7, 1967, reservists of the Israel Defense Forces 55th Paratroopers Reserve Brigade became the first soldiers of a sovereign Jewish state to enter the Old City of Jerusalem, the historic and Biblical capital of the Jewish people, in nearly 20 centuries. The ceasefire that ended Israel’s 1948 War of Independence had left Jerusalem’s Old City under the Jordanian army’s control, and many religious Jews with strong feelings that the promise of redemption had not yet been fulfilled.

The night before, the unit had sustained high casualties in hand-to-hand fighting against Jordanian Army infantry in the surrounding hillsides. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan questioned whether modern Israel even needed what he dismissively called “this Vatican,” but ultimately relented to the pressure of Israel’s Chief Rabbi and the political Right. However, the conquest was easier than anticipated: Unknown to the IDF, Jordanian forces had slipped away under cover of night, so when approval came that Wednesday morning to take the Old City, soldiers of the 55th broke through the Lion’s Gate and reached the Temple Mount and Western Wall in short order. In a scene eerily foreshadowing the triumphal image 36 years later of an American soldier draping the stars and stripes across a statue of Saddam Hussein, someone fastened an Israeli flag atop the Dome of the Rock—Islam’s third holiest site—prompting an appalled Dayan to order it taken down immediately.

Over the course what became known as the Six Day War, the territory under Israeli control tripled, its borders expanded to the banks of the River Jordan, the Suez Canal and the heights of Golan, encompassing not only all of Jerusalem, but the holy historical sites of Hebron, Jericho and Bethlehem. What had begun as a defensive war for national existence had ended in an occupation of conquest.

The consequences of that transformation over the next five decades are vividly, and at times heartbreakingly, recounted in American-born Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi’s excellent and exquisitely written new book, Like Dreamers: The Story of The Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation. Through the intertwining personal histories of seven reservists of the 55th  Brigade— who range from pork-eating, Yom Kippur-breaking kibbutzniks to kashrus-observing, kippot-wearing seminarians—Halevi provides a comprehensive, insightful and richly accessible portrayal of the competing utopian visions of modern Zionism: one secular, the other messianic. Understanding these competing visions is central to finding a just and enduring resolution to the competing claims dividing what both Arabs and Jews call the Holy Land.  

To kibbutzniks, the founding elite of the modern Jewish state, Stalin-era Red Army songs came more easily than the most elementary Hebraic prayers. They believed the aim of Zionism was to build a democratic socialist country in the ancient Jewish homeland that would claim its place among the other sovereign secular democracies of the world, a nation among nations.

Religious Zionists, not interested in building what Halevi characterizes as “another Belgium,” sought to create a Jewish state that remained true to Biblical prophecy and borders, included the holy sites of Jerusalem, Jericho and Hebron, observed Jehovah’s rituals and commandments, and served as a beacon and moral example to all the nations. Halevi quotes a 21-year-old seminarian and corporal exclaiming at the liberation of the Temple Mount, “Two thousand years of exile are over.” Another tells an officer, “We are writing the next chapter of the Bible.”

But with unfolding of events—the Yom Kippur War; the founding, expansion, and dismantling of settlements; the incursion into Lebanon; the Camp David and Oslo Accords; the Rabin assassination; the massacre at the Mosque of Abraham; successive intifadas and failure to reach agreement at the second Camp David meeting in 2000—worldviews change, as did the former paratroopers who held them. In following the stories of these paratroopers and their comrades, Halevi masterfully demonstrates the fluidity, complexities, inconsistencies and contradictions that propel national, cultural and geopolitical, as well as personal, history. Of the seven paratroopers:

Two kibbutzniks—Meir Ariel, who becomes a rock musician and Avital Geva, who earns international acclaim as a conceptual artist—were involved in founding of Peace Now, the political movement dedicated to ending the occupation and reaching a just two-state solution with the Palestinians.  Brought up in secular socialist kibbutzim where the kitchens weren’t kosher and the Sabbath was just another work day, Ariel and Geva in middle age separately come to embrace ritual prayer and the Study of Torah.

Arik Achmon, the brigade’s intelligence officer and the son-in-law of the founder of the leading left-wing kibbutz movement becomes a corporate executive, union buster and influential proponent of unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, while at the same time favoring construction of a security barrier separating most of the West Bank and Gaza from Israel proper, concluding that for Israel, ending the occupation is a more urgent priority than making peace.

Yoel Bin-Nun, former seminarian and corporal in the paratroopers, who becomes a rabbi, teacher, and founder of two settlements beyond Israel’s 1967 borders, similarly concludes when “confronted with the unbearable choice between preserving the intactness of the people of Israel and the intactness of the land of Israel,” the Jewish hierarchy of values places people first, then Torah and then land. Anguished by the religious Right’s growing participation in, and tolerance for, violence against other Israelis and Israeli institutions, he quits the settlement he founded, and at the age of 58, votes Labor for the first time in his life. 

Yisrael Harel, the only non-sabra of the seven, is a child refugee of the Shoah who, as a leader and top organizer of the settler movement, goes on to meet clandestinely with PLO representatives in an effort to find a framework for agreement on Palestinian sovereignty that preserves established Jewish settlements. Harel’s colleague Hanan Porat, also a former seminarian, becomes the first West Bank settler to win election to the Knesset as a strong proponent of expanded settlement by both legal and extralegal means. When during the elections of 1992 hard Right parties attack Labor Prime Minister candidate Yitzhak Rabin for suffering an emotional breakdown on the eve of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Hanan Porat publically comes to the defense of his former commander.    

Former kibbutznik and paratrooper Udi Adiv becomes increasingly estranged from what he comes to see as “Zionist imperialism” and “the fiction of progressive Zionism.” While a left-wing radical at the University of Haifa, he asks an Israeli Palestinian to put him in touch with the PLO. Ultimately, Adiv becomes involved with a Syrian sponsored anti-Zionist terror network.  Arrested in Israel three months following the massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes in Munich, he is convicted of espionage and sentenced to 17 years in prison. While imprisoned Adiv asks to be confined with the Arab prisoners, but grows disillusioned when they exhibit more solidarity with nationhood and Islam than with class. He is returned by request to the general prison population, comprised mostly of Sephardic poor and working-class Jews. Released after serving 12 years, he tours the destroyed Arab village on whose land his own kibbutz expanded and thinks, “Every nation carries its legacy of injustice… . To correct the injustices of the past meant imposing new injustices.” Nearly two decades following his arrest, one of his former interrogators casually tells him during a chance encounter that “all of us”—meaning the intelligence service— “are in favor of an agreement with the Palestinians.” The kibbutznik takes it as a vindication of sorts.

None of these lives played out neatly. Some bent toward behavior and ideologies they never would have imagined, others experimented with various philosophies and careers, while others pressed the limits of messianic certainty. In them, we see that progress marches not so much in a straight dialectic as rambles in gradual zigs, abrupt zags, and occasional reverses—something Hegel and Marx and Yeats never quite got.

Halevi’s narrative includes a number of tactical and strategic lessons for contemporary progressives seeking justice for Palestinians. Boycott, Divesture and Sanctions proponents might remember that the most powerful consequence of the 1975 United Nations “Zionism is racism” resolution, was to incense Israelis and sway Israeli public opinion to support—or at least not oppose—the expansion of settlements in Judea and Samaria. Arafat’s last minute hardening of position and retreat from an agreement at the 2000 Camp David talks, under which Israel would have withdrawn from more than 90 percent of the West Bank and would have established a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, led to the resumption of the intifada and the surprise election months later of hardliner Ariel Sharon as prime minister, thereby prolonging the misery of occupation and postponing indefinitely the prospects for establishing a two-state solution and the redress of Palestinian grievances.

Yossi Klein Halevi’s eye for detail and character, and ear for complexity and nuance, create an authoritative narrative with the intensity and sweep of an epic novel. From now on, no understanding of the history and currents shaping the prospects for a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians will be complete without Halevi’s remarkable and compelling book.

ABOUT THIS AUTHOR

Louis Nayman is a longtime union organizer. The views expressed are his own.

More information about Louis Nayman

H/t: Roger McCarthy

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Religious bigotry and censorship at LSE

October 6, 2013 at 10:39 am (academe, atheism, capitulation, Christianity, Civil liberties, Free Speech, grovelling, humanism, Islam, Jim D, relativism, religion, secularism, strange situations, students)

How has it come to this? And how is that some who regard themselves as on the “left” not only tolerate religious bigotry and censorship of this sort, but actively promote it?

anti

Statement from the British Humanist Association

LSESU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society incident at freshers’ fair

October 4th, 2013

 
Representatives of LSESU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society have been threatened with removal from their University’s freshers’ fair by their Students’ Union after refusing to remove t-shirts depicting the online comic ‘Jesus and Mo’. The society’s members were threatened on the basis that the t-shirts were could be considered  ‘harassment’,  as  they  could  ‘offend  others’  by  creating  an  ‘offensive environment’.

In a statement, the students have explained:

‘When the LSE security arrived, we were asked to cover our t-shirts or leave LSE premises. When we asked for the rules and regulations we were in breach of, we were told that the LSE was being consulted about how to proceed. After a period of consultation, Kevin Haynes (LSE Legal and Compliance Team) and Paul Thornbury (LSE Head of Security) explained to us that we were not behaving in an “orderly and responsible manner”, and that the wearing of the t-shirt could be considered “harassment”, as it could “offend others” by creating an “offensive environment”. We asked what exactly was “offensive” about the t-shirts, and how the display of a non-violent and non-racist comic strip could be considered “harassment” of other students.

‘At the end of this conversation, five security guards started to position themselves around our stall. We felt this was a tactic to intimidate us. We were giving an ultimatum that should we not comply immediately, we would be physically removed from LSE property. We made it clear that we disagreed strongly with this interpretation of the rules, but that we would comply by covering the t-shirts… After that, the head of LSE security told us that as he believed that we might open the jackets again when was going to leave, two security guards were going to stay in the room to monitor our behaviour. These two security guards were following us closely when we went in and out of the room.’

You can see their statement of events on the second day.

Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association (BHA), commented, ‘The LSESU is acting in a totally disproportionate manner in their dealings with our affiliate society. That a satirical webcomic can be deemed to be so offensive as to constitute harassment is a sad indictment of the state of free speech at Britain’s Universities today. This hysteria on the part of the SU and University is totally unwarranted; intelligent young adults of whatever beliefs are not so sensitive that they need to be protected from this sort of material in an academic institution. Our lawyers are advising our affiliated society at LSE and we will be working with them, the students, and the AHS  to resolve this issue.’

The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies strongly condemns the actions of the LSESU. President Rory Fenton said, ‘Our member societies deserve and rightly demand the same freedom of speech and expression afforded to their religious counterparts on campus. Universities should be open to and tolerant of different beliefs, without exception. That a students’ union would use security guards to follow and intimidate their own members is deeply concerning and displays an inconsistent approach to free speech; if it is for some, it must be for all. The AHS will work with our partners at the British Humanist Association and National Secular Society to assist our affiliated society and seek engagement with both the LSESU and LSE itself. It is the duty of universities countrywide to respect their students’ rights, not their sensitivities.’

Notes

For further comment or information, please contact Andrew Copson on 07855 380 633 or Rory Fenton on 07403141133.

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.

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Protest for everyone who hates the Daily Mail

October 5, 2013 at 9:18 am (apologists and collaborators, Daily Mail, Human rights, humanism, mccarthyism, media, posted by JD, protest, Racism, thuggery, Tory scum)

Protest: for everyone the Daily Mail hates

London:
12pm, Sunday 6 October
Daily Mail offices, Young Street
London W8 5EH (High St Kensington tube)
Map

Share and invite your friends on Facebook

Manchester:
12pm, Sunday 6 October
St Ann’s Square, Manchester
Map

Share and invite your friends on Facebook

On Sunday, all the people hated by the Daily Mail – that’s pretty much all of us – are going to turn up at their headquarters, loud and proud about who we are. If you’re a woman, a Muslim, LGBT, a nurse, a socialist, a trade union rep, a disabled person or just someone who doesn’t like hatred being pumped into public life every day, turn up.

This is an upbeat, carnival-type protest, a statement of defiance against bigotry and hatred. So turn up in a good mood, with colourful banners, full of pride about who we all are.

Journalist and campaigner Owen Jones said: “A newspaper that once had the cheek to back Adolf Hitler and the Blackshirts has smeared Ralph Miliband, a Jewish refugee who fought the Nazis for this country, as a ‘man who hated Britain’.

“But the reality is it is the Daily Mail who hates Britain. They hate our proud institutions, like the NHS and the BBC. Their campaign of hatred has targeted women, public sector workers, trade unionists, immigrants, Muslims, benefit claimants, travellers, and other vast swathes of our society.

“We’re calling on all those hated by the Daily Mail to join us on Sunday, and to be loud and proud about what they are in a show of defiance against bigotry and hatred.”

Sam Fairbairn, Secretary of the People’s Assembly said: “Miliband announces he’ll scrap the Bedroom Tax and freeze energy prices, the next day the Daily Mail launches a vicious personal attack on his father. Millions are suffering under austerity Britain and this paper has made it clear who’s side they are really on – the corporations and the austerity addicted politicians. It’s the Daily Mail who really hates Britain.”

H/t: Comrades Bruce and Coatesy

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Ralph Miliband’s real beliefs

October 2, 2013 at 10:04 pm (good people, humanism, intellectuals, Jim D, literature, Marxism, socialism, truth)

Ralph Miliband

Above: Chief Petty Officer Ralph Miliband, defending bourgeois democracy in WW2

The Daily Heil‘s filthy, lying smears against Ralph Miliband may have had the unintended consequence of encouraging people to look into the life, thought and writings of this remarkable man.  I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve only ever read his most famous book, Parliamentary Socialism, but now intend to read as much as I can of his other writings and have already ordered a copy of his debate with Marcel Liebman, The Israel Dilemma.

I’ve also visited the Marxists’ Internet Archive and found a most informative 1995 appreciation by Leo Panitch that emphasises Ralph’s democratic and pluralist credentials, and also points out that even during his lifetime, he was smeared in much the same way that the Heil has just done:

Miliband was not spared the denigration himself. A few months after his critique of the new revisionism appeared, a letter to the editor appeared in The Guardian by John Keane, in response to an op-ed piece Miliband had written calling for a new socialist party in the wake of the defeat and marginalisation of the Labour Left. ‘Readers of [Miliband’s] theoretical works will know that he is an old-fashioned class reductionist and no friend of democratic pluralism. In practice, his class and party-centred perspective would reproduce the worst features of vanguardist politics: especially its authoritarianism, machismo, implicit racism, and pro-Soviet prejudices.’ It was a sad commentary on how far the level of intellectual debate in Britain (and not only in Britain) had sunk in certain circles that Miliband, who famously stood in the state debate against the reduction of state power to class power, and who had undertaken (beginning with his to well-known essay on The State and Revolution in The Socialist Register 1970) the most consistent criticism on the British Left of the undemocratic facets of Lenin’s writings and practice, should have been so traduced in this fashion by one of the new ‘civil society’ theorists.

Even leaving aside the venality of the attempt to tar Miliband with racism, etc., it was no less scurrilous to taint him with pro-Soviet prejudices: here was a Marxist who had never joined a Communist Party, or any vanguard party, who had opposed the invasion of Hungary as a young man, and who in his maturity had not only opposed the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan but had used it as an occasion (in his Military Intervention and Socialist Internationalism, the lead essay in The Socialist Register 1980) not just to deplore all such military interventions by Communist regimes (including the Vietnamese in Cambodia) but to undertake what has been called the ‘first notable attempt’ to theorize the international relations between unevenly developed socialist countries. Miliband’s long-standing personal litmus test for whether the reform of Soviet-style regimes was genuine was whether he would be allowed to start an association for the abolition of capital punishment in such regimes. (’Do you know why they have no cafés there?’ he asked me on his return from a visit to Russia. ‘Central Planning, of course,’ I replied. ‘Don’t be silly’, he said. ‘Cafés are where revolutions are hatched.’)

To appreciate just how unfair Keane’s attack was it is worth recalling that Ralph chose the following sentences to conclude his most important book, Marxism and Politics:

“Regimes which do, either by necessity or choice, depend on the suppression of all opposition and the stifling of all civic freedoms must be taken to represent a disastrous regression, in political terms, from bourgeois democracy, whatever the economic and social achievements of which they may be capable … [T]he civic freedoms which, however inadequately, form part of bourgeois democracy are the product of centuries of unremitting popular struggles. The task of Marxist politics is to defend these freedoms and to make possible their enlargement by the removal of their class boundaries.”

It was Ralph’s commitment to this kind of socialism that sustained him to the end of his life. In 1981 Ralph helped found the Socialist Society as an organisation devoted to socialist education and research. Unlike some of the other intellectuals involved, Ralph helped build the organization, and was a regular and punctual attender of steering committee meetings, no matter how frustrating they sometimes were. He also brought together a small socialist brains-trust which met regularly with Tony Benn, and was active with Benn and Hilary Wainwright in setting up the Chesterfield Socialist Conferences and the Socialist Movement that developed out of them. Yet this was only a continuation of the kind of work Ralph was always involved in, from the Centres for Socialist Education in the mid-1960s to the Marxist study centres he founded when he moved to Yorkshire in the 1970s. His commitment to developing the socialist intellectual community outside the cloisters of academe had never weakened.

This excellent article makes many of the same points as a spirited piece in today’s Graun by Ralph’s biographer Michael Newman.

So you never know: the Heil‘s filthy smear may serve a useful purpose if it encourages more people to seek out the true beliefs of this remarkable and admirable human being.
*********
Comrade Coatesy republishes his own 1994 obituary/review for Labour Briefing, here
Recommended: some very informative stuff from Poumista: http://poumista.wordpress.com/2013/10/01/ralph-miliband-democrat-and-anti-fascist/

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The marchers who made the Dream

August 28, 2013 at 12:04 am (Anti-Racism, civil rights, class, history, humanism, Jim D, United States)

The 1963 March on Washington is one of the most-remembered events of the civil rights movement — but what you learned in school left out a lot, writes Elizabeth Schulte at the US Socialist Worker website (no longer associated with the Brit SWP):

The front ranks of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (National Archives)

The march was about jobs and housing, as well as racism

THEY CAME from every corner of the country–from New York, Ohio, Georgia, Mississippi–to be at the largest demonstration that Washington, D.C. had ever seen.

Organizer Bayard Rustin captured the mood of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, held 50 years ago this August. “It wasn’t the Harry Belafontes and the greats from Hollywood that made the march,” Rustin said. “What made the march was that Black people voted that day with their feet. They came from every state, they came in jalopies, on trains, buses, anything they could get–some walked.”

More than 30 chartered trains and 2,000 buses brought people to the nation’s capital. The Brooklyn chapter of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) walked the 230 miles from New York City to D.C.–over a period of 13 days.

The United Auto Workers, one of the march sponsors, printed hundreds of signs with slogans such as “UAW Says Jobs and Freedom for Every American.” But other marchers brought homemade signs, with messages like “There Would Be More of Us Here, But So Many of Us Are in Jail. Freedom Now” and “Stop Legal Murders.”

An airplane full of celebrities, including Ossie Davis, Sammy Davis Jr., Sidney Poitier, Lena Horne, Paul Newman, Josephine Baker and Marlon Brando, was organized by Harry Belafonte. Singers Mahalia Jackson, Odetta, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and the Freedom Singers performed. CBS canceled all its daytime shows to broadcast the entire event, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech was televised around the world.

By 9:30 a.m., some 40,000 people had gathered in the Mall. Two hours later, there were twice as many. When the march stepped off, the crowd was estimated at a quarter of a million people. They were of all ages–college students, union members, families with children, older people. About a fifth of the crowd was white–this was overwhelmingly an African American march for jobs and freedom.

Excitement among the protesters was so great that they began marching on their own–the official heads of the march had to run to get to the front.

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - -

THE YEARS leading up to the historic 1963 march were marked by explosive civil rights battles throughout the South and a growing radicalization among many of the people who took part.

The second wave of the civil rights movement had been kicked off three years before by a handful of students in North Carolina who organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters starting in February 1960. In two months’ time, lunch counter sit-ins had spread across the South, involving some 50,000 Black and white youth.

In 1961, activists from the recently formed Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) joined the Freedom Rides organized by CORE. The goal of the Freedom Rides was to desegregate interstate bus lines throughout the South. The Freedom Riders were attacked by racist mobs, as local cops looked on.

The instinct of the national Democrats–who the civil rights activists initially looked to–was to try to tame the struggle. Attorney General Robert Kennedy offered civil rights activists tax-free status if they would agree to abandon their sit-ins and Freedom Rides, and focus on voter registration.

Recognizing this opportunity for further activism, activists seized on the offer and set up headquarters in Mississippi to register Blacks to vote. Organizers from CORE, SNCC and other groups initiated a campaign to register as many Black voters as possible in Mississippi. In the process, they established Freedom Schools, community centers and other initiatives to aid Blacks living in the poorest state in the country.

At every step of the way, the activists were met with violence from racist terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens’ Councils. While they were harassed, jailed and beaten, the Kennedy administration, unwilling to intervene for fear of offending the segregationist Southern Dixiecrat wing of the Democratic Party, continued to look the other way.

In April 1963, civil rights activists targeted Birmingham, Ala.–home to notorious segregationist Gov. George Wallace and racist Police Chief Eugene “Bull” Connor. When Connor ordered his cops to use clubs, dogs and fire hoses on peaceful protesters, it was televised, showing the whole world what Jim Crow rule in the South looked like.

For the activists, the violence begged the question: Why isn’t the Kennedy administration doing anything to stop it? And furthermore: How can a country that proclaims itself to be a beacon of democracy to the world be attacking Black children in its streets?

The event helped educate a wider audience about racism in the U.S. South. According to polls at the time, only 4 percent of Americans saw civil rights as a pressing issue before Birmingham. Afterward, that number grew to 52 percent.

The movement didn’t stop with the streets of Birmingham. The fight for civil rights spread across the South and around the country. 1963 saw more than 900 demonstrations in more than 100 cities, with more than 20,000 arrested and at least 10 deaths to the civil rights struggle. These protests were putting the Kennedy administration on the spot–pressuring it to make good on its promises of passing stalled civil rights legislation.

The 1963 March on Washington would bring together activists from the movement, but also people who had been radicalized by these events–and by the realities of everyday life for Blacks in the North and the South.

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - -

THE OUTRAGE over Bull Connor’s crackdown forced Kennedy to introduce a civil rights bill in Congress–and fueled the enormous turnout to the March on Washington. But the aims of the Kennedy administration–and the leadership of the march as well–didn’t always match the aspirations of marchers.

In their conception of the march, many SNCC activists, including John Lewis, envisioned mass civil disobedience–staging sit-ins and lie-ins across Washington, particularly in the offices of Southern members of Congress. But these more radical plans were halted by more conservative forces that seized leadership of the march organizing.

President John F. Kennedy had tried to stop the march from happening. When that failed, he set out to co-opt it.

In July, there was a march organizing meeting involving the “Big Six” civil rights leaders–A. Philip Randolph, who had led the aborted March on Washington movement in 1941; Roy Wilkins of the NAACP; James Farmer of CORE; John Lewis of SNCC; Whitney Young Jr. of the Urban League; and Martin Luther King, representing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

In the eyes of the more militant activists of CORE and SNCC, the march should be an expression of the growing frustration of Blacks at the federal government failing to take a side in the fight against the Jim Crow South. But for the more conservative civil rights leaders, such as the NAACP’s Wilkins, the focus was on simply getting a Kennedy-backed civil rights bill through Congress. The self-appointed march leaders made every effort to keep the march acceptable to the administration.

This didn’t stop FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover–who was particularly inflamed by the march button’s image of black and white hands clasped in solidarity–from treating the demonstration as a terrorist plot in the making.

When telling Kennedy that King was under the influence of communists didn’t get the march called off, Hoover spared no expense preparing for the violence that never came. Kennedy and the military even drafted a proclamation that would give the go-ahead for 4,000 troops assembled in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.–and 15,000 paratroopers–to break up the demonstration.

Meanwhile, march leaders cut speakers who might sound too radical, such as writer James Baldwin. Others were censored. The day before the march, the planned speech by SNCC John Lewis was revised by organizers. ” The original version, to which several SNCC activists had contributed, read:

In good consciousness, we cannot support the administration’s civil rights bill, for it is too little, too late. There’s not one thing in the bill that will protect our people from police brutality…What is in the bill that will protect the homeless and starving people of this nation? What is there in this bill to ensure the equality of a maid that makes $5 a week in the home of a family whose income is $100,000 a year?

Objections were also raised to Lewis’ angry tone in the original speech, exemplified by this section:

We will march through the South, through the Heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We will pursue our own “scorched-earth” policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground–nonviolently. We will fragment the South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of democracy.

Even with the revisions, however, the speech Lewis did ask a critical question: “Where is our party? Where is the party that will make it unnecessary for us to march on Washington? Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march in the streets of Birmingham?”

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - -

THE CLIMAX of the day in Washington was King’s speech. In it, he gave voice to the widespread frustration with the unkept promise of racial equality in the U.S.

[W]e have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

King expressed the urgency of these demands for the civil rights movement–and the fact that activists were no longer content to sit and wait for equality:

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the determination of the Negro. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.

Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

For most people, this is King’s most recognized speech. It’s been used and misused by politicians of many political stripes. As Gary Younge notes in his new book The Speech:

The ability of America’s powerful to co-opt and rebrand resistance to past inequities as evidence of the nation’s essential and unique genius is as impressive as it is cynical. Such sleight of hand is often exercised at the same time as attempts to correct the inequalities that made such resistance necessary in the first place are ignored or marginalized… Sanctified after his death, King’s speech would eventually be celebrated by those who actively opposed his efforts whilst he lived.

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - -

THE MORE radical version of King–for example, the man who spoke out against the U.S. war in Vietnam a few years later at the Riverside Church in Harlem–hasn’t been included in the history books.

By the same token, when we talk about the march itself, it’s important to emphasize the struggles that came before and after–including the many much smaller and modest actions and events. The activists who defied Jim Crow to organize the movement should be remembered as the heart and soul of the March on Washington–more so than the people who spoke from the front.

The march drew together both the activists from these fierce struggles, as well as people who were inspired by them–and because of this, it was inspirational on many levels. But it didn’t mean that the fight was anywhere near over. The Democratic Party, in particular, continued to drag its feet on civil rights legislation, while simultaneously trying to curb the movement’s more radical demands.

After Kennedy’s assassination later in 1963, his successor, Lyndon Johnson, pushed the Civil Rights Act through Congress in 1964, finally outlawing Jim Crow segregation. This was followed the next year by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which guaranteed Southern Blacks the right to vote.

The laws passed not because Democratic politicians had a change of heart, but because of the pressure of the mass civil rights movement across the South and throughout the U.S.

The Democratic Party establishment showed its real allegiances again at the 1964 national convention in Atlantic City. SNCC had organized delegates from the non-segregated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to claim the state’s seats from the Dixiecrat delegation. But party liberals led the way in trying to push a rotten compromise on the MFDP. When civil rights delegates refused the urging of figures like Hubert Humphrey–and even Martin Luther King–to retreat, they were escorted out of the convention by police.

These and other betrayals would lead some civil rights activists to reject relying on the Democratic Party–and turn to the more radical ideas, like those of Malcolm X. This set the stage for the the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. “Never again,” SNCC’s Cleveland Sellers later recalled, “were we lulled into believing that our task was exposing injustices so that the ‘good’ people of American could eliminate them. After Atlantic City, our struggle was not for civil rights, but for liberation.”

Others, like John Lewis, would dedicate themselves to the Democratic Party, despite its broken promises.

One of the greatest lessons of the civil rights era is that what we do makes a difference. It was the mass mobilization across the South that defeated Jim Crow segregation–and it was the hundreds of thousands who came to D.C. who made the March on Washington the historic occasion it was.

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