Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Big Chandler Davis Event, Part II

The next speaker was Metta Spencer, who presents the text of her remarks here [ETA: Note Chan's response in Metta's comments]. To her question, "How were you a Communist for so long?" Chan gave a version of the story he'd told in Buffalo, concerning the Sartre article he'd seen in Les temps modernes that had enabled him to realize that he could admire and work with U.S. Communists on social justice in the U.S. while rejecting their illusions about the Soviet Union. He added that from 1953 to 1968, he felt that to attack the CP under those circumstances, having been a target, would be to say, "Oh, no sir! Not me: that other guy! I'm not guilty of the offense that the Communists are guilty of!" As to the interactions Metta mentioned between Communists and liberals and Leftists, he noted that there have been many occasions in his life when they've all sat down together and said, Okay, what can we learn from each other? Peter Rosenthal added that the CPUSA and the CPC did some wonderful things: they really did lead the fight against racism and the fight for women's equality.

An audience member asked a question that had also arisen in the Buffalo Q & A: Why don't we see the same mass progressive movements that we did a few years ago? Chan observed in response that over ten thousand people in Tel Aviv in 1982 had demonstrated against the invasion of Lebanon, whereas fewer than a thousand demonstrated in 2009 against what were perhaps greater atrocities. Also, in 2003, it was clear to anybody who read the papers that there was no connection between Iraq and 9/11 and no evidence that Iraq had nuclear weapons; nobody on the Security Council was fooled, the public wasn't fooled, millions protested around the word; but General Powell said, "You don't waste a mobilization" and the U.S. went to war. Bush got re-elected, albeit perhaps not in the most aboveboard fashion. Where did the demonstrators go? Judy Deutsch spoke of the powerful forces arrayed against any kind of activism in this era. Peter Rosenthal said, "But George Bush has proof that the weapons were hidden in Iraq: we didn't find them, did we? So they must have been hidden!" More seriously, he wondered whether the lack of a political movement with a unified vision might be a result of the factors Chan analyzed in "Shooting Rats in a Barrell: Did the Red-Hunt Win?"

Rosenthal had to leave then, being late for a meeting of lawyers representing the G20 protestors.

One of the three Israeli guys in the audience stood up to answer Chan's question: "I demonstrated in 1982 because at the time it seemed like there was a chance. At the moment, it seems hopeless. I've done what I could. Then I came here. I don't think of myself as an Israeli anymore, although I still have an accent." Chan observed that disavowing one's country to come to a country that was party to a much larger invasion is not much of an escape: "You can't run away from it: you're here." Judy Deutsch remarked that People often say, where's the hope? But what about people in hopeless situations who continue to act because they have no alternative? The eighty-six-year-old musician Ezra Schabas stood up and said, impassionedly, "First rule should be, Never give up hope. We're still here. We're still trying."

Emily Pohl-Weary said that reading about the Red Hunt feels like the post-9/11 world with its Culture of Fear. But maybe people are politically active in different ways . . . SF fan Merle von Thorn remarked that a lot of the activists have gone to the Internet and noted that we were raised in an affluent, comfortable time and we see everything as easy to get: her mother's parents had to scoop every microliter of the white out of an egg because they didn't know when they would eat another.

Aaron Davis said that for the Iraq War, the lies were obvious, but now there are a lot of latent activists who are confused by the changes in the world: part of the reason that people are not mobilized is that there is no central issue, and it's very hard to get good information. There's a lot of misinformation out there.

A historian in the audience remarked that in her parents' and grandparents' youth in the Caribbean, nobody had the belief that information was at their fingertips: getting a newspaper was a big deal. And she was teaching The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James a few years ago, and two young women came into her office saying that they didn't understand the class discussions. And they had some specific questions, and she answered them, but she still sensed that there was something not getting through. And finally they opened up and said, "Who is this Karl Marx guy anyway? James seems so attached to him." They'd never encountered the name before. Students now can't imagine anything different. How do you give that back and provide tools for their imagination?

Chan recalled that fifty-some years ago, people were enchanted with science fiction and socialism in the same breath. Judy Deutsch noted that the state of education in North America is sad, as is the state of the news media; but that's not true in the rest of the world: look at Haaretz and [some foreign event her metonym for which I did not recognize]. Natalie observed that the SF stories in It Walks in Beauty are not optimistic, but they reaise the image of a future in which things are different. Not necessarily better, but different. Historian Michael Wayne said, "Let's not forget how much has changed for the good," citing the advances in women's opportunities, in anti-racism, and most recently in gay liberation that we've seen in the past few decades. Historian Mohamad Tavakoli said that what has inspired him the most is seeing the undergraduates leading the faculty at the UT: they understand all of the details, all of the administrative ins and outs, of the current administration's attempts to shut down large parts of the University.

Judy Deutsch elaborated on her earlier point: "It's almost a privilege to require hope: people in desperate situations do what they have to do." Around this time, Peter Fitting decided to adjourn. I hadn't said much, being occupied with taking notes; and Emily Pohl-Weary hadn't said much, because she'd somehow ended up being the person who ran the microphone around to the questioners and commenters in the audience; but the talk had gone on for ninety minutes, and it was time for book-buying and book-signing. Not all of the people in the book-signing line asked for my signature as well as Chan's, but it was all good: I was so headachy and disoriented that I signed something like eight books with the date "21 Sept," thus creating Rare Collector's Items that had been inscribed a month before their owners even thought to buy them!

So the event was a big success. I hope in a subsequent post to offer reflections on it.

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