Monday, December 28, 2015

Shining and Other Paths, edited by Steve J Stern.

The Shining Path, or Sendero Luminoso, was a Maoist revolutionary movement born of Peru’s university system. It was the creation of Professor Abimael Guzman who, with fellow professors and students, saw communism as a potential liberating force for Peru’s impoverished underclass. They began by addressing the plight of highland, Quechua-speaking “Indians,” who labored long hours in poverty under a centuries-old, colonial, hacienda system. In that system, a “patron” owned the land and exercised such complete control that he was permitted to physically punish his workers. Organizing an army in the province of Ayacucho, Guzman and his cohort initiated retribution against patrons and corrupt local government bosses. The Peruvian military responded with violent attacks on Sendero villages and cadres, which began a war that lasted from 1980 to 1995 and claimed almost 70,000 lives. In the end, what defeated the Sendero Luminoso was an inflexible party dogma. By demanding that all regional produce go to the party, that traditional tribal leadership be abolished and replaced by their hierarchy and that children be conscripted for military service, they lost the support of the people they had come to liberate. The communists could not tolerate disloyalty to the party. Their response to resistance was assassination and massacre. Though the initial years of the war were dominated by Peruvian Army annihilations of Quechua-speaking communities, “by around 1988 it was the Shining Path’s massacres that populated the map of regional death” (Stern, p. 147). The military saw an opening, began arming highland (Serrano) communities, and expelled the Maoists with that support. Today, there are still a few bands of Sendero Luminoso, but the threat of revolution has passed.

Shining and Other Paths is an anthology of history and analysis discussing the rise and fall of the Sendero Luminoso. It’s five parts cover 1) The history of oppression and resistance that gave paved the way for the failed revolution; 2) The war in the highlands and Quechua life during this period; 3) The destruction of reform efforts by both the Shining Path and the Peruvian Armed Forces, 4) The different roles and political stripes of women during the war; and 5) The legacies of this war.

Frequently, an anthology will attempt to cast a wide net, representing voices of as many different political perspectives as possible. An editor covering a nation experiencing revolution, might choose to present articles written by government, revolutionary, native, reformist and reactionary individuals, to present the full spectrum of opinions. This book is distinctive in its single-point political perspective. Its writers are uniformly of a liberal-progressive stance that is to the Right of the Shining Path and to the Left of the government. Their concern is entirely with the well-being of the Quechua-speaking population, the poor city-dwellers and the Peruvian reformers, all of whom were the main victims in this conflict. According to a report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR), out of a national death toll of 69,280 people, 75% spoke Quechua as their native language.** To put this in perspective, 80% of the population speaks Spanish. Only 20% of the population speaks Quechua; yet they accounted for three-fourths of the casualties.

Shining and Other Paths is a compendium of thoughtful essays elucidating the destructive impact of the Maoist revolutionaries, and the government forces, on Peruvian society. But in many ways, this volume is a both a product and a victim of history. The Shining Path lost. It is this fact that informs the analysis recorded therein. If the revolutionaries had been successful, US leftist analysis would appear more conciliatory. After all, when the Vietnamese Communist Party was victorious, many of its wartime atrocities against perceived traitors and resistant communities in the countryside were forgotten. The rigorous demands and conscriptions imposed on farming communities by the Viet Cong were seen, by many sympathetic western scholars, as a necessary evil to create the conditions for victory and the overcoming of oppression. The Peruvian authors of this volume would also represent events differently. Within a nation where a successful revolution has occurred, a different, cleaner perspective on the events is taught in the schools and advanced to the public. Few US citizens are aware of British claims that US revolutionary soldiers scalped wounded Redcoats at Concord. The excesses of any revolution are sanitized in a campaign of honoring the “visionaries” who supported revolution and a public agreement of national forgetting. Shining and Other Paths is an insightful guide to the failures and injustices of its subject organization. But the reader must not forget the events and political agendas that inform this book’s conclusions. The writers represent views far more aligned with those of Peruvian reformers, who were assassinated by the revolutionaries, than with any other group. The Sendero Luminoso could not have gained a foothold in Ayacucho without initial Quechua support. They did speak to the aspirations of some disenfranchised Serranos. Some gave their lives for the Sendero view of the future and supported the Maoists even in defeat. I wonder what they would have said.

**"CVR. Tomo VIII. Chapter 2. "El impacto diferenciado de la violencia" "2.1 VIOLENCIA Y DESIGUALDAD RACIAL Y √ČTNICA"" (PDF). pp. 131–132.

Stern, Steve J. (ed.) Shining and Other Paths. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Islamophobia, the Red Scare and Donald Trump. Inspired by Reading Murray B. Levin.

In April of 1919, US postal officials discovered thirty-six bombs had been mailed to prominent politicians and industrialists throughout the United States. On June 2, 1919, a more successful effort through the mail produced eight explosions across the US. (Levin, pp. 32-4). These bombings were presented to  the public as a foreign-inspired Bolshevik plot. (Levin, p. 1). The public was understandably alarmed. A number of politicians used the opportunity to initiate the nation’s first Red Scare. Thousands of foreigners were deported. Offices of radical organizations were raided by federal agents. (Levin, pp. 52-3). Conservative politicians like Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer (the individual who ordered the raids) attempted to increase their personal power. Palmer used the publicity to launch a bid for the Presidency of the United States. (Levin, p 72).

Sound familiar? Replace Bolshevik with Islamic, and Palmer with Trump, and you have the USA in 2015. Have we learned so little about fear? Do we automatically revert to an irrational defensive posture which violates the rights of citizens and improves the circumstances of demagogic conservative politicians? Though I am sure that I could write an article of popular opinion, excoriating Trump for his fear-mongering, the truth is that Trump would not be successful without an ignorant public who is unaware of their history, their prejudices and themselves. It’s easy to point at Trump and say that he is the problem. But these epidemics of fear occur periodically in the United States against some foreign or “un-American” source. It results in our putting safety before human rights and oppressing a class of people. This time the target is Muslims.  Yes, there are some terrorist attacks occurring by some Muslims. But a large section of US citizenry, in one of its characteristic fits of anxiety, is failing to properly assess the risk. Saying that we should prevent Muslims from entering the country because of terrorism, is like saying that we should keep library cards out of the hands of Southern Baptists because they’re just going to burn  the  books; or that we should keep white teenage boys out of high school because they’re just going to go crazy and shoot-up the place. The large majority of Southern Baptists, white teenage boys and Muslim Americans are law-abiding, rational people. Far more rational than Trump’s noisy minions.

What is needed is a dispassionate discourse, not an emotional reaction. And this is what we should be demanding of our politicians. It has been said too often that terrorism relies upon fear to win. Too often because so many citizens are not listening and the message bears repeating. If you react out of fear, they win. The losers will be innocent citizens, our Bill of Rights, and you. If we can take a collective breath and begin examining the many reasonable options for curtailing violence, we will be able to produce a plan that balances civil liberties with safety. 

We must tread carefully. We must fully examine each proposal designed to prevent attacks. If, in  the process of securing the safety of our nation, we undermine the Constitution and  violate our laws, there will be no America as we know it, to defend. For example, we currently have a no-fly list for people whom we suspect could perform terrorist acts. If this limitation is fully vetted, and found to be constitutional, then the list may have other useful safety applications. Logically, if an individual is such  a danger to the US populace that their freedom to travel by  air has been proscribed, then it is reasonable to prevent their access to the purchase of firearms, with which they could cause more public harm. The aforementioned is a limited, cautiously contemplated limitation on individual rights. It may not stand-up to intelligent dialogue; but there should be a dialogue. Compared to the infringements proposed in some quarters that we prevent further immigration by Muslims, or curtail internet access for everyone, this proposal at least not a fear-based, bigoted reaction to outsiders. But, whatever our solutions will be, they must be approached with an attitude of calm and a method which respects due process. This collective breath is square one of an intelligent conversation. The next moves determine our freedoms for the near future. Lets avoid another Red Scare.

Levin, Murray B. Political Hysteria in America. The Democratic Capacity for Repression. New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers. 1971.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Guardian of Boston. William Monroe Trotter by Stephen R. Fox.

William Monroe Trotter was an early Twentieth Century radical for the cause of racial equality. Of course, what was radical in 1910 is accepted wisdom in 2015. Among his most memorable activities were his conflict with Woodrow Wilson over segregation in the federal departments of government, his agitation against the film “Birth of a Nation,” his organizing with The Niagara Movement (precursor to the NAACP) and his reporting from the Paris Peace Conference.

The main instrument for Trotter’s opinions was a newspaper that he founded in 1901 with George Forbes, called The Guardian. Publications created by and for African Americans were few, and played an important role in both informing and organizing the populace.  This newspaper was founded primarily in response to the accommodationist politics of Booker T. Washington, and remained a thorn in the side of this famous educator throughout his career. Trotter, as editor, hounded Washington for his unwillingness to address lynching (Fox, p. 27), segregation (Fox, p. 34) and the loss of voting rights for southern African Americans (Fox, p. 36). When Washington’s influence was eclipsed by the rise of the NAACP, African Americans finally had a superior advocate for their rights.

If Trotter had limited his criticism to Washington, history would have vindicated his perspective. “But he had the strong man’s flaw: his bulldog tenacity could often become a prickly stubbornness…Compromise was not flexibility, but cowardice. Other men were either manly or unmanly, with him or against him. These qualities made him an admirable spokesman for the protest tradition, but hamstrung his personal relationships.” (Fox, pp. 64-5). Trotter was unable to accept that a movement is a body with many organs that function for the well-being of the entire organism. As a result, he eventually alienated almost all of the important radicals whose perspectives he shared. WEB Du Bois, Archibald Grimke, George Forbes, Clement Morgan and William Ferris, all were one-time allies who deserted Trotter. This is a sad and frustrating theme in the book: while African Americans are losing many rights, facing a resurgent KKK and enduring an increase in lynching, Trotter is wasting movement energy on infighting.

Stephen R. Fox, for his part, does a heroic job of reporting on this important but difficult figure. He does his best to balance the editor’s valuable work and his difficult personality. But even the most saintly biographer cannot avoid editorializing about such flagrant personality deficits, as when he parenthetically discusses the activist’s “larger problem of subordinating his ego sufficiently to admit mistakes and remain on good terms with anyone whom he did not control.” (Fox, p. 118). At least one cannot accuse Fox of hagiography.

Despite William Monroe Trotter’s personal flaws there is much to recommend him. He put forth the then unpopular (now accepted) idea that African American organizations should be run primarily by African Americans in order to  empower them. Even the NAACP of his time had a majority of white men on its board. As a Harvard graduate from a well-off family, he had the opportunity for material comfort. But he “relinquished a comfortable, respectable existence” for a life that “brought him poverty…For over thirty years he genuinely put his people’s welfare above his own. And the tragedy of his life is that he died without much assurance that his dedication had been worth it.” (Fox, pp. 281-2).

Fox, Stephen R. The Guardian of Boston. William Monroe Trotter. New York: Atheneum, 1970.