Liberation Lit

Following a link from A Practical Policy, I read this story, “Segundo’s Revenge,” by Joe Emersberger, a writer unknown to me. I had read some other things at Liberation Lit, but nothing that carried out the LL  mission to combine the political and the artistic quite so deftly. It’s a terrific story, though I wish it were not quite reticent — I could do with a bit more characterization and description, but I kind of see why Emersberger keeps it simple, with a powerful through-line. I’ll be keeping this piece in mind as I work out how to make poems and stories of my own out of “political” material. When I was beginning as a writer many hears ago there was a strong bias in the classroom against the didactic and the political in literature and I absorbed that vibe even while having strong political convictions. I mean, I’ve already written plenty of political poems, but I don’t really know how to do it — I have no systematic understanding, though the frank admission in the Liberation Lit writers’ guidelines that there is some strongly perceived division between the political and the aesthetic is a healthy admission, I think. Perhaps at this moment in the West we are without a synthesis of the political and the aesthetic with the result that we have to make up a new method for each piece of work.

I’m trying to gather material impressions while I’m here in Vietnam that I’ll be able to turn into poems and stories — the story ideas I’ve had so far each take on the political situation of the sympathetic foreigner encountering the people and places and institutions of Vietnam. Nothing has gelled, but then I haven’t taken time to sit down and fill out my brief notes, which is how things usually begin for me.

Pakistan and Vietnam (VN Diary No. 20)

Isn’t it just time to quarantine Pakistan? Clearly, the country has not yet figured out what it wants to be and I don’t think the US can really have much effect on that process. Pakistan has the bomb, of course, which makes things more complicated — the world does not need a radical Islamic state armed with nuclear weapons — but I think the current meltdown actually offers the US an opportunity to take a hard look at reality. The Obama administration has shown a real willingness to make pragmatic policy decisions and perhaps they will take a good look at Pakistan and tell themselves the truth. I’m sitting in a hotel room in Hanoi Vietnam as I write this and I’m thinking how American history might have been different had Lyndon Johnson taken a cold-eyed look at the Indochina war and decided to step back. Barack Obama has an opportunity for making a clear-eyed judgment that the US cannot effectively intervene in Pakistan or Afghanistan; that the best we can do is set a fence around those who would do us injury. That fence can be both diplomatic and military — I am not a pacifist — but it must not involve the escalation of the number of American soldiers. The administration ought to let it be known that Pakistan must decide its own direction, but that if one light is turned on in a nuclear facility, it will be instantly destroyed. Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan must all be confronted with existential choices — their choices, not ours. Had the US taken such an existential position during Vietnam’s civil war — for that’s what it was until the US and the Soviets made it a proxy war — Vietnam would probably be a much more democratic place today. Had the US not backed French intervention in 1945, but instead had acceded to Ho Chi Minh’s pleas for a guarantee of Vietnamese sovereignty, Ho Chi Minh might never have turned to the Soviets, whom he distrusted even while admiring Lenin’s treatise on colonialism. If the US had not supported the French return to Indochina in 1945, the Vietnamese would have had to work out for themselves what their political destiny would be. I heard no less an authority than the old revolutionary and compatriot of Ho Chi Minh Huu Ngoc say just today in a lecture that had the French not been allowed back in — with the blessing of the US — that Vietnam would have taken a “capitalist,” Western route, that that was Ho Chi Minh’s preference. As it happens, I think there is a huge dose of revisionist history in that statement, but it is certain that things would not only have been different, but better, had Truman simply told the French to back off after World War II. Now the US needs to tell itself to back off, with the realization that there is literally nothing we can do to determine what sort of society the Pakistanis and the Afghans want to have. Morally it’s none of our business; practically, it’s a hopeless quagmire. All we can do is protect ourselves, which we ought to do vigorously, publicly, and transparently. The Vietnamese posed no threat to the US, except in out imaginations; the Afghans and the Pakistanis pose no threat, except in the case of the Pakistanis’ nuclear arsenal, which ought to stand under the constant threat of annihilation should it be activated.

The Old Populism

What with all the new populism going around, I’d just like to lay claim to a little of the old populism myself. To wit:

I don’t want your millions, Mister,
I don’t want your diamond ring.
All I want is the right to live, Mister,
Give me back my job again.

Now, I don’t want your Rolls-Royce, Mister,
I don’t want your pleasure yacht.
All I want’s just food for my babies,
Give to me my old job back.

We worked to build this country, Mister,
While you enjoyed a life of ease.
You’ve stolen all that we built, Mister,
Now our children starve and freeze.

So, I don’t want your millions, Mister,
I don’t want your diamond ring.
All I want is the right to live, Mister,
Give me back my job again.

Think me dumb if you wish, Mister,
Call me green, or blue, or red.
This one thing I sure know, Mister,
My hungry babies must be fed.

So, I don’t want your millions, Mister,
I don’t want your diamond ring.
All I want is the right to live, Mister,
Give me back my job again.

That one strikes a chord, what with the CEO of AIG urging his managers to give back half their bonuses — but only if they were more than a hundred grand.I just paid my taxes today and I realize, all things considered, I’m fairly well-off. My whole household income rounds out around the minimum bonus this guy Liddy thinks might be just a little excessive, under the circumstances, you understand. I actually got a bonus this year — for being at my job 20 years — it was in the mid three figures range, after taxes were withheld.

And here’s another one from the same file — pretty sure I learned them both from a Pete Seeger record when I was fifteen, listening secretly while my Republican fundamentalist parents were at work:

I’ve traveled round this country
From shore to shining shore
It really made me wonder
The things I heard and saw.

I saw the weary farmer
Plowing sod and loam
l heard the auction hammer
A knocking down his home

But the banks are made of marble
With a guard at every door
And the vaults are stuffed with silver
That the farmer sweated for

l saw the seaman standing
Idly by the shore
l heard the bosses saying
Got no work for you no more

But the banks are made of marble
With a guard at every door
And the vaults are stuffed with silver
That the seaman sweated for

I saw the weary miner
Scrubbing coal dust from his back
I heard his children cryin
Got no coal to heat the shack

But the banks are made of marble
With a guard at every door
And the vaults are stuffed with silver
That the miner sweated for

I’ve seen my brothers working
Throughout this mighty land
l prayed we’d get together
And together make a stand

Then we’d own those banks of marble
With a guard at every door
And we’d share those vaults of silver
That we have sweated for

Hmm . . . I guess we do own those banks now. I guess we’d better start living up to our progressive fantasies. Sentimantal? Maybe, but maybe we ought to try living up to our sentiments, too. That includes you, Mr. Obama.