Sunday, December 6, 2009


So as to avoid further humiliating his Stockholm hosts, Obama might have waited till after picking up his Nobel Peace Prize before announcing his “surge” of 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan, or -- even more immoral and illegal -- this, his expansion of the CIA/Blackwater drone program in Pakistan whereby our good guys can play their video games from air-conditioned comfort while they take out the bad guys -- and anyone else in the vicinity -- of yet another country under US attack.

But no, in your face as ever, Obama continues chucking his terrorist bombs -- all bringing death to civilian populations -- three active wars, troops into Columbia, coups and threatened coups in Latin America, racheting up rhetoric against Iran, sequestering US jobs and public health care, and next week, squelching meaningful targets at Copenhagen -- all the while protecting his presidential power and secrecy, and those who have seized it before him.

Bad sentences -- too long. Nevertheless, our dear leader's actions do bring up, as ever, the intertwined issues of terrorism, and state and revolutionary violence.

December began with a trenchant and complex anniversary, the 150th hat-tip to the execution of John Brown,

whose body may lie moldering in the grave, but whose stench or sweet smell occasionally rises, usually twice at fifty year intervals. Rather than getting weaker, as does the smell of a dead mouse under the refrigerator, this year an evaluation of John Brown seems more relevant than ever.

As always, since those heady days at Harper's Ferry, there has been debate -- as demonstrated in these duelling articles, the NY Times celebrating, and attacking. The latter may seem surprising, but if you're anti-war, and would rather not have seen the Civil War happen, you might come down that way (if you ignore the preponderancy of historians who see the trigger as the election of Lincoln -- an "existential threat" to the slave-holding, agricultural south.) The story is worth reading and reflecting upon, and I can heartily recommend W.E.B. duBois's classic biography, John Brown, for some passionate history and classy writing.

John Brown made a surprise appearance in my recent novel, Skulk,

writing three letters from the grave to encourage our daredevil duo, Gronsky & Skulk, in their quest to create a post-9/11 teaching moment for America. Here is the end of his last:

My children, be not afraid. Whatever calamity beckons, we may feel quite cheerful in the assurance that God reigns and will overrule all for His glory and the best possible good. The angels of the Lord will bear us up, and the sufferings of men cannot imprison, chain or hang the soul. I cannot remember a night so dark as to have hindered the coming day, nor a storm so furious or dreadful as to prevent the return of warm sunshine and a cloudless sky.
Yours in faith,
John Brown

I cribbed much of the language from letters quoted in du Bois. God-driven, thus scary, but full of Gramsci's "optimism of the will" we need today if we are to continue trying to abolish our own and others' slavery.

These are issues which concern me in my writing and in my political life. While generally silly, the undertext of The Annotated Nose,

my last year's novel, bursts out toward the end as its hero, Alexei Pigov, takes on the task of becoming a plague doctor to fight "the contemporary plague", the lethal slavery of being forced to act out someone else's scripts (as we are now cast in Obama's dance of death). Toward the end of his stump sermon to his "Dearly Afflicted," he exhorts them to

“Leave your inner child behind, sucking its thumb and slurping its pap. Be not afraid of your anger, for anger can change the world when it is heard, understood, and expressed symbolically in ways that will endure. Remember the exalted words of T-Bone Slim: ‘Wherever you find injustice, (here, all chant together) the proper form of politeness is attack.’ When we are done with it, the entire developed world will understand every word of Heraclitus and Ecclesiastes.”
“I call then for mass resistance! Leave your private islands and sign up! Become a registered alien! Cultivate the Promethean gesture!”

Actually, not much different from John Brown. He dies of cancer of the throat, brought on no doubt by ineffective yelling.

My current novel, The Good Doctor Guillotin,

also addresses the question of terror from below vs. terror from above. Dr. Guillotin, progressive member of the National Assembly is playing a Mozart sonata with Tobias Schmidt, the German piano maker contracted to build the first "machine".

After a pause, Guillotine continued, “The tyranny of the small, yes, as always. But the machine will belong to the state.”
“And who will the state belong to, Doctor? Revolution will put the people in the place of the king, with the same absolute rule. And the people are simple, simple like violence, ruthless violence, radically simple, a simple, unifying law for society. Violence is like the law of gravity. They will love the machine, Doctor. The machine, that simple mechanism, a machine that might bear the legend ‘Humanity, Equality, Rationality’—a veritable icon of civilization. We may even see the king beheaded,” Schmidt whispered, subito piano—“if we still have our heads to see with. In a year or so children will be given toy machines. They can practice beheading sparrows.”
“The danger,” said Guillotin, putting his violin back into its case, “is not that a particular class is unfit to govern. Every class is unfit to govern. But liberty, equality, and fraternity are the only road to peace and harmony.”
Schmidt laughed sardonically. “The giant footprints of liberty may look awfully much like graves,” he said. “The people will ask for bread, and we’ll toss them severed heads. When they thirst, we’ll offer them the blood from the scaffold.”

I saw a photo of an Obama protestor's sign which said something like "THIS DEMONSTRATION IS NOT (YET) ARMED". The next few years may not look like a tea-party.

Happy Deathday, JB.

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