Our Century: The Eighties

Our Century: The Eighties

Protest and Survive

Ihave come to the view that a general nuclear war is not only possible but probable, and that its probability is increasing….


Protest and Survive

Ihave come to the view that a general nuclear war is not only possible but probable, and that its probability is increasing…. I do not argue from this local episode or that: what happened yesterday in Afghanistan and what is happening now in Pakistan or North Yemen. I argue from a general and sustained historical process, an accumulative logic, of a kind made familiar to me in the study of history. The episodes lead in this direction or that, but the general logic of process is always toward nuclear war.

The local crises are survived, and it seems as if the decisive moment–either of war or of peacemaking and reconciliation–has been postponed and pushed forward into the future. But what has been pushed forward is always worse…. All moves on its degenerative course, as if the outcome of civilization was as determined as is the outcome of this sentence: in a full stop….

If my arguments are correct, then we cannot put off the matter any longer. We must throw whatever resources still exist in human culture across the path of this degenerative logic. We must protest if we are to survive. Protest is the only realistic form of civil defense.

–E.P. Thompson, January 23, 1981

Perhaps because he is a Southerner, there lives in Carter still–I think–an ability to be tormented…. If he can still be tormented, he can be made to pause–the machinery can be made to pause–and we will have to find a way to use that pause.

–James Baldwin, “Notes on the House of Bondage,” in advance of the Carter-Reagan election, November 1, 1980

In The Crack-Up, Fitzgerald…wrote: “It is sadder to find the past again and find it inadequate to the present than it is to have it elude you and remain forever a harmonious conception of memory.” America has found its past again; the sadness will come.

–Richard Lingeman, “The Hollow Man,” on the election of Ronald Reagan, November 15, 1980

The Church Revolutionary in Latin America

“We have confidence that the revolutionary process will be something original, creative, profoundly national…. With the majority of Nicaraguans, what we aim for is a process that will lead firmly toward a fully and authentically noncapitalist Nicaragua, neither dependent nor totalitarian,”[said Nicaragua’s bishops in their Pastoral Letter on socialism]….

A young guerrilla on the barricades of Estelí put it another way. “Look at this cross,” he shouted at a foreign journalist, waving a revolver with one hand and holding up the cross hanging from his neck with the other. “I am not a Communist, as Somoza calls all who fight against his Government. I am a Catholic and a Sandinist!”

–Penny Lernoux, May 24, 1980

The Road to Reaction in El Salvador

At 5 each morning and afternoon in San Salvador, precisely at 5, thousands of tiny green parrots flock over the city, screaming and crying. They light on fountains, on the green statues of generals, on walls imbedded with jagged glass. Called los pericos, they are so mysteriously punctual that the old people tell time by their passing.

That predictability is matched now by the right-wing ritual of firing shots into the city air at 8 in the evening, and the staccato regularity of rifle reports, machine-gun fire and the explosion of incendiary bombs. The birds now light on concertina wire and the burnt carcasses of jeeps and trucks. With each passing, there is a longer litany of assassinations, mass murders, bomb detonations, disappearances and mutilations.

As los pericos quieted for the evening on Sunday, March 23, Msgr. Oscar Romero stood behind the altar of the Divine Providence Hospital chapel, saying mass for the repose of a friend’s mother….

“Let’s be united in faith and hope as we pray for Sarita and for ourselves,” were the Archbishop’s final words before he fell to his death behind the altar. His heart had been torn open by a magnum slug, a single shot fired by a hired killer at a distance of twenty meters.

–Carolyn Forché, June 14, 1980

Black Olympians?

President Carter’s decision to boycott the Olympics…to punish the Soviet Union [for its invasion of Afghanistan] directly linked politics with sports…. [T]here was a bitter irony in this. For many years, whenever blacks tried to use sports as a vehicle for gaining political equality, whites told them that “politics has no place in sports.”…

In 1968, at the Olympic Games in Mexico City, two Afro-American athletes won gold and bronze medals in the 100-meter dash. On the awards platform, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a Black Power salute. Their act of courage was a statement–a symbolic declaration that black America is not yet free, and that the very principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution remain a fraud regarding black, brown and poor people. As a result of their protest, Smith and Carlos were denounced, vilified and condemned. Their chief defender, sociologist Harry Edwards, was subsequently denied tenure at the University of California at Berkeley. Black Americans were warned again: politics had no place in sports.

–Manning Marable, March 22, 1980

Thatcher sticks to the Caligula principle (“Let them hate us as long as they fear us”).

–Christopher Hitchens, “Minority Report,” May 14, 1983

Capitol Airlines

The Generals say they know something worth fighting for
They never say what till they start an unjust war–
Iranian hostage Media Hysteria sucks
The Shah ran away with 9 Billion Iranian bucks

Col. Roosevelt and his U.S. dollars overthrew Mossadeq
They wanted his oil now they got Ayatollah’s dreck
They put in the Shah and they trained his police the Savak
All Iran was our hostage quarter-century That’s right Jack

–Allen Ginsberg, October 3, 1981

Family Feud on the Left

If the other side is for chastity, piety and other values bred in Little House on the Prairie, is the left, then, opposed? If they are the “moral majority,” is everyone else, as one self-effacing button proposes, a member of an “immoral minority”? One novel position that has been gaining ground is that the left ought to try to co-opt the profamily position for itself. Betty Friedan offered the feminist–some would say postfeminist–version of this approach in her book The Second Stage.… It is worth taking seriously–if only as a cautionary example of what can happen if we rush off…to meet the right on its own turf….

There is, of course, a profamily constituency out there,…people who respond to the issues that the right has encoded as profamily, and it is important to be precise about what these are: opposition to abortion, to gay rights, to racial integration, to teen-age sexuality and to morally ambiguous books like Catcher in the Rye. The mistake on the left…has been to imagine that right-wing profamilyism arises from some deep and potentially anticapitalist and communitarian yearning–for “a haven where love and commitment can take precedence over competition and struggle.” Maybe there is a little of that worthy sentiment admixed in the support for Alfonse D’Amato, Jesse Helms, Jeremiah Denton and the rest, just as there was an appealing strain of anticommercialism in the support for Adolf Hitler.

Barbara Ehrenreich, March 13, 1982

Solidarity–Lest We Forget

So many monstrosities have been spawned over the last sixty years by Communists under the pretext of contempt for formal bourgeois freedoms that I would like to strip the palimpsest of its Stalinist accretions by going back to the days of the Bolshevik revolution. Accused at the time by Lenin and Trotsky of democratic fetishism, Rosa Luxemburg replied:

We have never been idol-worshippers of formal democracy. Nor have we been idol-worshippers of socialism or Marxism either…. [We] have always revealed the hard kernel of social inequality and lack of freedom hidden under the sweet shell of formal equality and freedom–not in order to reject the latter but to spur the working class into not being satisfied with the shell, but rather, by conquering political power, to create a socialist democracy to replace bourgeois democracy–not to eliminate democracy altogether.

These words, written so long ago, remain valid today and still provide the key to the underlying unity of our struggle in Poland, in El Salvador and in the heartland of Western capitalism.

Daniel Singer, arguing against equation of communism with fascism
in wake of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski’s military coup in Poland, July 3, 1982

Facing South Africa

Even the most pervasive totalitarianism has gaps, and history has a way of evading the most ingenious plans for its cancellation. The painfully slow, difficult walk to freedom, in author James North’s phrase, has proceeded in fits and starts, past grave markers that serve as milestones: Sharpeville, Soweto, Crossroads. But now the walk has speed-ed to a march, a trot, a ragged run in several directions at once. The gaps are opening and closing in rapid disorder, and fighters are more plentiful than martyrs, always a sign that struggle is overtaking victimization.

–Andrew Kopkind, November 22, 1986

The next few years will tell whether Green politics–or the bioregionalism behind it–will take hold on this continent. The ecological imperatives we face demand it…. The past is killing us; the present is inert and unheeding; this is the politics of the future, and an awful lot of people seem to sense it.

–Kirkpatrick Sale, “Bioregional Green,” on the first continental bioregional conference, June 16, 1984

Springtime for Hitler

The point of Reagan’s impending trip to West Germany is to drive home a simple message: in World War II the peoples of the free world, mostly Americans, British and German, fought shoulder to shoulder against Soviet totalitarianism. Since there is no internationally recognized border in the President’s mind between fantasy and fact, this is the history he now believes and thus it is perfectly natural for him to stand in silent appreciation over the bones of an S.S. man, foe of Bolshevism and, like the Nicaraguan contra, the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers.

The President’s reluctance to include a concentration camp on his agenda is equally understandable. In his mind he visited one right after the war, and as Spiro Agnew once said about slums, “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.”… Of course he was making the whole thing up, but everyone shrugged it off as a minor example of the President’s preference for the world in his head rather than for the less alluring reality outside. They used to lock people up for this kind of delusional mania.

–Alexander Cockburn, “Beat the Devil,” May 4, 1985

Chickens Come Home to Roost

Until now no president has so vastly replaced open policies with covert ones, has so cynically removed the major issues of his Administration from the possibility of public debate, has so brazenly and hypocritically done one thing with a closed hand and the exact opposite with the other. The arms deal–variously called Iranagua, Gippergate and, by Reagan, “our Iran policy”–did not take place on the margins of policy but at its very heart.

C.I.A.-watchers estimate that there are at least fifty live covert-ops around the world, from Algeria to Zambia. Many of those involve terrorism on a scale so grand that they make the odd Arab hijacking or kidnapping look like a quiet day in Miami. The Administration managed the election of Duarte in El Salvador and then conceived of the tactic of terror-bombing civilian villages…. Reagan has approved money and arms for his chosen guerrillas in Chad and in Cambodia. He has sanctioned training of troops in Guatemala, and he has made Honduras into a permanent U.S. staging base….

…Reagan was forced into the covert mode of foreign policy by the legacy of Vietnam and the history of democratic opposition to imperial adventure. Nixon came a cropper of the peace movement of the 1960s; it is wonderfully ironic that, after all this time, Reagan has fallen victim to the same syndrome he has so often pronounced cured.

–Editorial, on revelation of the arms-for-contras deal, December 2, 1986

Glasnost and Us

Things will come flying through the windows of glasnost that Mikhail Gorbachev and the architects of radical reform in the Soviet Union neither foresee nor completely control. Heads will roll, jobs will shuffle and forces long repressed will bid for power…. It is clearly a breath of fresh air…and it is bound to reverberate not only within its own vast borders but around the world as well.

–Editorial, June 13, 1987


Mark Stevens [Mapplethorpe’s model in Mr. 101Ž2] is wearing a black leather garment, cut away to expose his buttocks and his genitals, something like the tights affected by the sports at Roissy, where “O” underwent her sweetly recounted martyrdoms….

What is interesting is less the phallocentrism of Mapplethorpe’s aesthetic than the politicizing of that aesthetic, preeminently in the images from the late 1970s…[the] period in which gays were coming out of the closet in large numbers…. I am insufficiently a historian of that movement, but my hunch is that sadomasochism must have presented some of the same sorts of dilemmas for the gay liberation movement that lesbianism initially did for the women’s liberation movement. So this is not, as it were, “The Joy of S&M” but an artistic form of a moral claim on behalf of practices other gays might have found difficult to accept…. It would be known in advance that such image[s] would challenge, assault, insult, provoke, dismay–with the hope that in some way consciousness would be transformed. Its acceptance as art cannot be the only kind of acceptance at issue.

Arthur C. Danto, September 26, 1988

[The exhibit prompted the right’s attack on the public display and funding of provocative art.]

Flo Don’t Know

When Jesse Jackson talks about the “dispossessed and the disenfranchised,” he does not refer only to the poor or the voteless but to people who are radically removed from the nourishing institutions and the enlivening spirit of American society. In Michigan, especially, that includes whites as well as blacks, and people who are just getting by in the economy as well as those who are suffering on welfare. Hundreds of thousands of white workers have lost their jobs, and the ones who are still working live with a permanent sense of insecurity. A pall of pessimism has settled over the scene.

“We work every day,” Jackson reminds crowds of the underemployed, who invariably respond with knowing assents. “And we are still poor. We pick up your garbage; we work every day. We drive your cars, we take care of your children, we empty your bed pans, we sweep your apartments; we work every day. We cook your food, and we don’t have time to cook our own. We change your hospital beds and wipe your fevered brow, and we can’t afford to lie in that bed when we get sick. We work every day.” By the end of the speech the nods of approval are mixed with tears.

–Andrew Kopkind, following Jackson’s victory in Michigan primary, April 9, 1988

The Priest Who Fights the Regime

It is still the rainy season in Haiti, and with the sporadic but vengeful rains, and then the mud, and then the dust that hides everything, it has been difficult to get around, and even harder than usual to find out what is happening across town, much less outside the capital. “It’s the rain,” officials tell you when telephone communications are cut the minute unrest breaks out. “It’s the rain,” when the electricity goes off just as night falls and the army starts shooting. But rain cannot explain away the recent massacre of hundreds of peasants nor the beatings and arrests of people in the parish of Haiti’s most outspoken bishop, nor the ham-handed attempt to silence the country’s best-known and best-loved progressive priest, [Jean-Bertrand Aristide].

–Amy Wilentz, September 12, 1987

This fall, Bush has avoided history, rolled up the window of his limo and turned up the volume of Bobby McFerrin’s hit song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Sooner or later the music is bound to stop.

–Andrew Kopkind, “The Campaign of Do-Nothing Candidates,” November 7, 1988

Pittston Power

At 4 P.M. on September 17, two large trucks wound their way up the dusty mountain road leading to the Pittston Coal Company’s Moss 3 preparation plant in Carbo, Virginia. At the entrance, the trucks stopped, their rear doors opened, and out stepped ninety-eight miners dressed in camouflage, accompanied by a minister. They marched quickly past the [guards]…and occupied Moss 3. The security people…fled the plant.

Within minutes, 200 supporters of the miners had massed at the entrance to the plant and barred the state police from going inside…. By nightfall, the number of people outside the plant had swelled to 2,000. Welcome to what United Mine Workers of America vice president Cecil Roberts calls “class warfare in southwestern Virginia.”

–Phill Kwik, October 16, 1989

As the Wall Falls

The ideological morticians are wrong in assuming that this death of an epoch heralds a capitalist eternity. The lesson of events in East Germany is that people inspired by an idea can bring down walls. Two centuries after the French Revolution there are plenty of Bastilles to be stormed.

Editorial, December 4, 1989

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