July 30, 2018
“Devil’s Mile, The Rich, Gritty History of the Bowery”
Alice Sparberg Alexiou
St. Martin’s Press, 290 pages
For much of the twentieth century, the Bowery meant destitution. It was where hobos slept in flophouses, where the homeless dozed on sidewalks, where vagabonds flocked to saloons and immigrants crowded in tenements. Nowadays the destitute don’t even have the Bowery. Where once they shared dormitories with bedbugs for 25 cents a night, now instead loom swanky high-rises. Manhattan, remade in the era of mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg, erased its poor, while promoting the interests of real estate moguls like Donald Trump. Who knows where the vagrants went – the outer boroughs, other cities, rusting inner suburbs, a few can doubtless still be spotted drifting like ghosts around their fast-disappearing old haunts. But they won’t be there long. According to Alice Sparberg Alexiou’s “Devil’s Mile, the Rich, Gritty History of the Bowery,” the thoroughfare has been remade in typical New York style: developers get rich, as they sweep inconvenient locals away.
Over forty years ago, when the real estate boom first picked up steam, New York landlords targeted middle class and poor families in rent-controlled and rent-stabilized apartments. The idea then was to drive them out, renovate the property and make millions, selling it as co-ops. Throughout the eighties and nineties, this pattern repeated in almost every Manhattan neighborhood. Why should the Bowery have remained untouched? Even if it was the world-famous destination of the down and out, the Bowery too, inevitably and finally became a magnet for real estate speculation.
New bars and fancy hotels “are the Disneyfied version of the old Bowery saloons, refashioned and glammed up for the young moneyed class that crowd into these places to party and decompress from Manhattan’s ferocious work environment,” Sparberg writes. “This is the demographic that now drives the Bowery economy.” The thoroughfare that added the term “Bowery bum” to the American lexicon, what Sparberg calls “the street synonymous with despair,” is now, like much of Manhattan, the playground of the rich. And the homogenization, the elimination of all classes except the very affluent, continues apace. “Notice all the half-finished towers that are going up, some as high as sixty stories, imperiously dwarfing the old brick walk-ups…that house artists, Chinese families and small businesses.” Those walk-ups are doomed, and not just because the logic of capitalism – unending, ultimately cancerous growth – dictates it. But because the Bowery metamorphosed often in its past, and each change was distinct, discrete and a nearly complete rupture with what came before.
Back when Manhattan was primeval forest, in the 1600s, the Bowery, Sparberg reports, was originally a Lenape footpath. “To the west of the path and surrounded by hills (where now stand the state supreme court and parts of Chinatown) was a huge freshwater pond…Between the hills stretched flat, marshy terrain teeming with aquatic life: redwinged blackbirds, coots, herons, bullfrogs, beavers. Several streams undulated through the flat area…Indians in canoes traversed the island via streams…” Sparberg traces the endeavors of the Dutch in New Amsterdam, then the British, noting a key abattoir on the Bowery, which linked the street in everyone’s mind with the meat business. In the late 1700s, Sparberg writes, the Astors came to the Bowery and, stingy and penny-pinching, amassed their fortune. In the 19th century, theaters crowded the Bowery, drawing a working class audience, including Walt Whitman, while Irish and German gangs, most famously the Bowery Boys, fought nearby.
Sparberg also portrays the civil war’s impact, especially with theatrical productions of the smash-hit, abolitionist tale, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” German beer gardens proliferated along the Bowery; one, according to Sparberg, held 3,000 people. She also sketches the infamous ties between Tammany Hall and the Bowery, how the bums were shipped from one polling place to another, voting repeatedly for the Democratic machine. Indeed it was in this post-civil war era that derelicts first began flocking to the Bowery. Then came Italian and Jewish immigrants, making the Lower East Side “the most densely populated place on earth, at the beginning of the twentieth century.” Prohibition squeezed the Bowery, but once lifted, more alcoholic wrecks than ever thronged the street, especially during the Depression. Lastly, in the 1970s, punk rock and its internationally famous venue, CBGB, flourished on the street Sparberg calls “New York’s dumping ground.”
The Bowery’s ongoing, posh transformation breaks abruptly with the immediate past. But it is in tune with the gentrification that has swept American cities in recent decades, making rents everywhere unaffordable for those working full time at minimum wage. When even the working poor cannot pay for shelter in urban America, is it any surprise that the homeless cannot find a sidewalk to sleep on? With gentrification come laws criminalizing loitering, eating in public, sitting on park benches – things homeless people do. Ejected from city centers, they pitch their tents on the outskirts, as in Seattle, or the slums, as in Los Angeles. They have to go somewhere, but everywhere they turn in gentrified America, the sign says “Keep Out.” Even the Bowery.
June 19, 2018
“A Nation Unmade by War”
Haymarket Books, 180 pages
In handing unprecedented power to his administration’s generals, Donald Trump has endorsed the U.S. military brand – failure is the new success. A seventeen-year long war in Afghanistan with no end in sight and no new ideas – hello? What about leaving? Fifteen years in Iraq and precious little to show for it besides nearly a million displaced Iraqis, cities turned to rubble, continued fighting and untold thousands dead? A proxy war in Yemen. Missiles flying into Syria. A failed state in Libya. And what do our military sachems say? The wars in the Middle East are a “generational conflict,” something we can bequeath to our grandchildren. And why? Because these generals have no idea other than doing the same thing over and over, even though it hasn’t worked. This, as Tom Englehardt explains in his new book, “A Nation Unmade by War,” is the definition of brain-dead.
That’s our military – the most expensive in the world by far, feasting like a vampire on our tax dollars – with not a single idea other than to repeat the same thing that has failed over and over. “An empire of madness,” Englehardt calls the U.S. with its endless wars and determination to deny the environmental catastrophe of climate change unfolding right before our eyes. Not only to deny but to ship crude from tar sands, fracked gas, coal and oil all over the world, to fry the planet as fast as possible. The brain-dead, endlessly violent military and the equally brain-dead, ecocidal fossil energy promoters – this is the lethal combination currently directing the world’s lone superpower.
This book is not a happy read. It documents the cost of America’s war on terror – $5.6 trillion – and how Bush and Cheney’s “soaring geopolitical dreams of global domination proved to be nightmares.” Indeed, Englehardt observes that in the past 15 years “no goal of Washington – not a single one – has been accomplished by war.” And yet the American wars grind on with no end in sight. Meanwhile, we inhabit “a country that no longer invests fully in its own infrastructure, whose wages are stagnant, whose poor are a growth industry, whose wealth now flows eternally upward in a political environment awash in the money of the ultra-wealthy and whose over-armed military continues to pursue a path of endless failure in the Greater Middle East."
“A Nation Unmade by War” consists of Englehardt’s journalistic columns, edited and strung together in book form. As such, there is a certain inevitable repetition, but given the stakes here, this is not a bad thing. Much of what Englehardt has to say cannot be said often enough. In fact, often enough won’t come until these arguments echo in so many people’s brains that they start opposing, en masse, a disastrous, mindlessly fatal political course. At the book’s start, Englehardt quotes Amr Moussa, former head of the Arab League, announcing that an invasion of Iraq would “open the gates of hell.” Anyone who doubts the truth of Moussa’s prescient words, need only look at our post 9/11 grotesquely swollen and expensive national security state with its 17 secret agencies, or glance at the numbers of the secretive special operations command, seventy thousand soldiers strong, “which might be thought of as the president’s private army,” or consider the drone assassination program, creating new terrorists worldwide for our assassin-in-chief, or listen to our military leaders like David Petraeus referring to the mayhem we’ve unleashed on the Middle East as a “generational struggle.”
If doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result each time defines insanity, what are we to make of our generals’ endless calls for more missiles, more drones, more soldiers, where the previous flood of such has failed? Could it be that, well before Donald Trump’s attempt at kingship, our military leaders in Washington had lost their minds? This money, these trillions of dollars, could have gone to shift the world’s second worst carbon polluter from fossil fuels to renewables. In a country with truly sane leaders that would have happened. Our leaders would have observed the freak weather embodied in hurricanes, droughts, wildfires, “nuisance flooding” in coastal cities and listened to our scientists’ warnings about our profligate burning of oil and gas. Instead scientists are screaming in the wilderness, the planet has overheated, arctic and Antarctic ice melt, Greenland is losing its glaciers, all of which means many feet of sea-level rise, but what do we get? A trillion-dollar upgrade of our nuclear arsenal, which will doubtless provoke Russia and China to something similarly wasteful, and eternally expanding war in the Middle East. Our so-called leaders will reap the ruined world they deserve, but unfortunately they may very well drag the rest of us down with them.
May 27, 2018
"Neruda, The Poet’s Calling"
HarperCollins, 628 pages
Many know that Pablo Neruda, Nobel Prize laureate and Chilean poet, was a communist. Less well known is that until the 1960s, he was a diehard Stalinist. Though he had an understandable reason for this – Stalin was the only world leader to support the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, whose fascists murdered so many of Neruda’s friends – still his blindness about the dictator who slaughtered twenty million people is startling.
Neruda never left the communist party. As Marc Eisner documents in his new biography, "Neruda, The Poet’s Calling," the communists claimed him to the bitter end, finally and fearlessly right in the teeth of Pinochet’s fascist regime. Eisner’s description of Neruda’s 1973 funeral, after the coup and Allende’s suicide, is powerful: tens of thousands walked behind the coffin in defiance of Pinochet’s troops, who essentially had to stand down. “Communist youth of Chile!” A leader called out. “Companero [brother] Pablo Neruda!” And the crowd answered, “Presente! [he is present] Companero Salvadore Allende! Presente! Companero Victor Jara! Presente! Companero Pablo Neruda! Presente!” This, right under the eyes of the troops, defending the CIA-backed dictator.
For Neruda, the Spanish Civil War was a formative experience. Though a renowned poet before it, that struggle permanently altered his character and art; his youthful melancholy vanished, as Eisner documents. Neruda’s rival Jorge Luis Borges said: “When he became a communist, his poetry became very strong. I like Neruda the communist.” After Spain, Neruda became “a people’s poet.” He argued for “a dirty poetry, grimy from the hands of the worker, smelling of both ‘urine and lilies.’” Heartbroken by the fascist murder of his great friend, poet Federico Garcia Lorca, he wrote 21 poems in response to the civil war, collected in "Spain in the Heart." His friend, Rafael Alberti, who fought in the civil war, called Neruda’s poems “sacred verses for us.”
The list of writers who attended Neruda’s Second International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture, “as the bombs fell on Madrid,” reads like a who’s who of early twentieth century literature: Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Mann, John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, Octavio Paz, Langston Hughes and many others. Later, campaigning in Santiago for a presidential candidate, Neruda read from "Spain in the Heart" to members of the porter’s union: “They were completely silent while he read. When he ended, many applauded…then a man…[a] leader of the union said, ‘Companero Pablo, we are a much forgotten people. I can tell you that we have never felt such great emotion…’ The worker started to cry, as did others.”
As a diplomat, Neruda saved the lives of over two thousand Spanish Republicans, who would certainly have perished in Franco’s prisons and concentration camps, had he not arranged for a boat to bring them to South America and then for them to reside in Chile. Eisner writes: “Newspapers across the world described the venture, with Neruda, Chile’s ‘foremost poet,’ as The New York Tribune described him, identified as the director of the operation…One of the immigrants remembered: ‘The change could not have been more striking. We, the damnable reds, the humiliated, the dangerous, the murderers, transformed into heroes of democracy, treated marvelously, praised, cheered by crowds at the Mapocho station.’” Later there were accusations about Neruda conspiring against Trotsky in Mexico, there was his poem on Stalingrad, his campaigns for electoral office as a communist party candidate, his time as a senator, his poem against the United Fruit Company in Guatemala, more poems, his support for strikers, his newspaper articles throughout Latin America, his travels to the Soviet Union, his dramatic escape and exile from Chile during anti-communist years, when he could have ended up in a concentration camp for communists, run by the young Pinochet, his friendship with the radical Mexican muralists Rivera and Siqueiros, more poetry, his friendship with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and many other writers, his meetings with Castro and Che Guevara, his frantic travels all over the world – what a life!
Appended to this biography’s end are shocking allegations, made in recent years, that Neruda was murdered by Pinochet’s henchmen, while in the hospital for prostate cancer. He reportedly told his communist driver that he had been injected with poison. A few years ago, with the exhumation of his remains, it became clear that the official cause of death – cancer – was untrue. Whether these allegations of murder are confirmed remains to be seen. But it would not be surprising to learn that Neruda not only lived for his communist beliefs, but died because of them as well.
April 10, 2018
"The Infernal Library"
Henry Holt, 379 pages
Dictators are lousy writers. Yet many have felt the urge to commit their thoughts, such as they are, to paper and then to compel their captive audience not only to read them, but also to rhapsodize about them. Given the abysmal nature of this genre, one can only conclude that Daniel Kalder – whose book "The Infernal Library, On Dictators, The Books They Wrote and Other Catastrophes of Literacy", required him to slog through thousands of pages of hogwash – has uncommon stamina. How he did it, and wrote so well about it, is something to marvel at. He ploughed through the oeuvre of Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, Gaddafi, Franco and many others and adroitly summarizes their banal pensées. Having read his book, one feels no need to consult the original sources. Of Mussolini’s "Fascism Its Theory and Philosophy," Kalder writes that it “sounds like the work of a clever autodidact, way out of his depth, drowning in his own pretension.” Of Hitler he remarks, “it seems that Hitler’s ideas were fluctuating, and that as late as 1919 he was interested in pursuing career opportunities other than crazed ultra-nationalist, anti-Semitic genocidal tyrant.” The ghastly "Mein Kampf" sold well in Nazi Germany, but could never compare with the market share of another dictator tome: “The billion selling 'Quotations from Chairman Mao' was coming.”
Mao’s bibliography reveals that in addition to theoretical works, the chairman wrote poetry, which Kalder describes as “not as bad as Hitler’s painting, but not as good as Churchill’s.” As dictators who murdered more people than anyone else in the history of civilization, Hitler, Stalin and Mao deserve their own category. But Kalder’s literary focus leads him to lump these mass murdering genocidal tyrants together with garden variety murderous dictators. And so "The Infernal Library" also considers the writings of Zaire’s Mobuto, of Haiti’s Papa Doc Duvalier, of Uganda’s Idi Amin, and of Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, who “took a break from declaring that he would build socialism while not actually building it,” to issue several tomes on the subject. And then there was Gaddafi’s unforgettable "The Green Book." “The problem is that the book is exceedingly awful,” Kalder writes. “It is not merely boring or banal or repetitive or nonsensical…It is quite simply stupid.” Even by the extremely low standards of dictator literature, "The Green Book" flunks.
There is only one point to quibble with here: Kalder refers to Khrushchev’s “naïve good Lenin/bad Stalin dichotomy.” But the man who dared stand before the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956 and denounce Stalin to an audience of true believers, was anything but naïve. He knew the difference between a dictator like Lenin, who had killed people in a revolution and a civil war and a world-class mass murderer like Stalin, who had sabotaged any hope in the revolution with his purges, Terror and gulags and, in "On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences," reportedly deployed that difference to great effect. He found Leninism useful and Stalinism criminal.
Kalder aptly describes Khrushchev as “a jovial fat man of peasant stock,” who, coming to power, “had just spent two decades wading through gore on behalf of a capricious master, who had murdered many of his close colleagues.” But for all his savvy toughness and experience, Khrushchev was maneuvered out of power within a decade of his heart-stopping speech. After this came Brezhnev, who also produced tomes of deadly prose. Somehow Kalder read these too.
Addressing dictatorship itself, Kalder asks, could it happen here? And he answers, yes. “It couldn’t happen here? Why not? It happened there.” He cites the United States’ “long, deep experience with millenarian hopes and apocalyptic terrors that, in mutant form, played an important role in the rise of the twentieth century’s great dictators.” Kalder’s in-depth exposure to dictatorial prose gives him a well-informed appreciation of just how fragile and tenuous our exemption from tyranny really is.
March 27, 2018
"Antifa, the Anti-Fascist Handbook"
Melville House, 259 pages
Anti-fascists are often berated by politicians and the media for interfering with the First Amendment rights of Nazis. That media outcry occurs because, before they gain power and ban free speech, fascists always scream about their First Amendment rights. Fascists use those rights to advocate depriving various groups of their life and liberty. They also advocate genocide. Should they be allowed to do so? The illiberal and logical response is no. That has been the answer of anti-fascists from the 1920s to the present. They take fascists at their word, and history has proved them right to do so. They do not underestimate the danger. They know very well that Nazis marching in a Jewish neighborhood in Skokie, Illinois, would kill all the in habitants if they could.
There’s another reality: police often support fascists. In Greece, police in large numbers voted for and have protected the fascist group, now political party, Golden Dawn. According to Mark Bray’s recently published "Antifa, the Anti-Fascist Handbook," with the police “looking the other way, or even participating in anti-immigrant violence,” local immigrants were attacked by Golden Dawn in 2012. The anti-fascist strategy to contain fascists was set back when police arrested and tortured 15 anti-fascists. Meanwhile, closer to home, in Charlottsville last summer, a fascist drove his vehicle into a crowd, killing Heather Heyer, one of many counter-protesters, whom the police failed to protect. Since then, police have guarded fascists in Boston and Washington, D.C. from peaceful counter-protesters, going so far as to escort the beleaguered fascists to the nearest metro stop.
"Antifa, the Anti-Fascist Handbook" lays out five lessons for anti-fascists: Historically fascists have gained power legally; many inter-war anti-fascists didn’t take fascism seriously enough, until it was too late; socialist and communist leadership responded more slowly to fascism than their rank and file membership; fascism steals from left ideology, strategy, imagery and culture; it doesn’t take that many fascists to make fascism. Bray notes the link between fascism and capitalism, warning that “it would be a mistake to entirely reduce fascism to a last resort of an endangered capitalist system.” But at the same time, “anti-fascism must necessarily be anti-capitalist. As long as capitalism continues to foment class struggle…fascism will always loom in the background as an authoritarian solution to popular upheaval.” How many reactionary donors who back Trump would in fact feel more comfortable in a neo-fascist state than in the social democracy advocated by Bernie Sanders? My guess is – a lot.
To the argument that suppressing fascist speech leads to a slippery slope, which ends with other groups or everyone losing free speech, this book replies: not if anti-fascists, rather than the state, do it, and do it through direct action. When fascists are quiet, so are anti-fascists, who do not take disrupting fascist speech to the next level. When they shut up the fascists, who are yammering to kill all the Jews or gays or Muslims, anti-fascists don’t then generally expand their attack to the next garden variety conservative group. “Efforts to deny a platform to fascists,” Bray writes, “grew out of the historic struggle…of movements of leftists – Jews, people of color, Muslims…to make sure that fascists do not grow powerful enough to murder them.”
In the past, many leftists mistook fascism for mere counterrevolution. The mistake cost them dearly in the interwar period. “Fascist ideological, technological and bureaucratic innovations,” Bray writes, “created a vehicle for the imperialism and genocide that Europe had exported around the world to bring its wars of extermination home.” This view casts the current fascist hysteria about a genocide of the white race in a rather strange light. There is no evidence, anywhere, for this supposedly impending white genocide. And speaking of extermination, two of the three countries with enough nuclear firepower to wipe out the human race happen to be majority white countries – the U.S. and Russia.
While “anti-fascists value the free and open exchange of ideas, they simply draw the line at those who use that freedom to promote genocide…” Bray writes. He observes that many liberals “support limiting the speech of working class teens busted for drugs, but not limiting the speech of Nazis.” In this context, it is worth remembering that both Hitler and Mussolini were invited into their respective governments, who knew very well what their views were, because they had expressed them freely for some time. Anti-fascists aim to create a climate in which that will not happen again. They aim to stop something that can start very small and then metastasize very quickly, with all the trappings of legitimacy.
“The Nazis and their allies killed roughly two hundred thousand Roma,” Bray writes, “about two hundred thousand ‘disabled’ people and thousands of homosexuals, leftists and other dissidents, while Hitler’s ‘final solution’ murdered six million Jews…these then are the stakes of the conversation.” Anti-fascist, Jewish and communist partisans helped Western democracies win World War II. The argument could be made that the Red Army did in fact largely win that war for us. These anti-fascist contributions to our current freedom, affluence and security are often conveniently forgotten.
Instead of liberals and leftists climbing up on a high horse to condemn anti-fascists, we should be thanking them.