Saturday, November 10, 2007

Dictatorship, Democracy, and the News of the Day

Norman Mailer, novelist, essayist, celebrity, character, died yesterday at the age of eighty four. I had very mixed feelings about Mailer's work and life, and often regarded him as a tragic figure in postwar American history, someone who could have been a much greater writer than he was, a "contender," a Pablo Neruda, if he had continued along the path of development on which he began in the late 1940s with the classic novel, The Naked and the Dead. If only he didn't stop re-inventing himself, making the medium the message, the personal the political, he might have left a much more significant body of work.

Many would disagree. They would point to Mailer's leading role, along with Truman Capote, in developing the non fiction novel and the importance of his portrayals of the 1968 Democratic convention, crime and death in The Executioner's Song, even the life of Marilyn Monroe. Some anarchists and humorists might even hark back to his campaign with Jimmy Breslin for Mayor of New York in the Democratic primary in 1969 (on a secessionist 51st state platform) where he ran fourth, ahead of a Bronx Congressman, as a glorious satire of American politics, or boring from within without being bored.

When Mailer was criticized(perhaps rightly for taking away votes and helping to nominate a conservative machine candidate, he replied that the people who voted for him wouldn't have voted for anyone anyway. For
New York, there was a happy ending as the incumbent Mayor, John V. Lindsay, who was in my opinion a better candidate than all of the Democrats, including Mailer, was re-elected.

But what does Mailer's death have to do with Dictatorship, Democracy, and the News of the Day. The Naked and the Dead, a novel of World War II that was a harbinger of the cold war, dealt with a U.S. army not of heroes but of draftees from a regionally diverse class divided country, an army where semilterate rural "rednecks" were thrown together with urban working class soldiers, where racist, ethnic, and religious bigotry flowed together with both a confused individualism and attempts at solidarity. The most important characters are a general, who seeks to mold the soldiers into an ideological armed killing machine, a representative of a kind of American fascism, representing in the postwar era, the "dream" articulated by Henry Luce of an "American Century" after the war in which U.S. corporations, technology, and elite military power would dominate the world, defeating revolutions and creating a Pax Americana as, the official story and myth went, the British empire had made the 19th century a British century and (forgetting about the Opium wars, Crimean war, suppression of the Indian national rising in 1857, colonial wars in Africa, among other things) a Pax Britannica. Against that general stands Lieutenant a representing symbolically New Deal liberal values, fighting what in the cold war era was largely a losing battle.

But what do these fictional characters have to do with the news of the day. A real general, Musharraf, has arrested thousands of Pakistanis and is hustling to maintain his power, suppressing mass demonstrations, placing his most important mainstream political opponent, Benazir Bhutto under house arrest, then releasing her, postponing elections and then, after George Bush told him to take off his uniform and hold elections, taking off his uniform and promising to hold elections, after he arrests the leading figures of the opposition who were expected to defeat him in those elections.

Both Musharraf and Bhutto are servants of that "American century" which with the destruction of the Soviet Union is a more powerful and negative force in international affairs in the 21st century than it was in the second half of the 20th, even though the U.S. national debt exceed ten trillion and the American people have had the wealth their labor produces squandered and the quality of their lives first "contained" and then reduced to pay for the wars and occupations of the American century. If there is a Lt. Hearn in Pakistan, it is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, whose courageous rulings helped set the stage for Musharraf's repression. And he is still under house arrest.

But there is another General, Hugo Chavez, who is in the news. There is a student movement which the U.S. is supporting against the Chavez government. Although Chavez has condemned this "movement" as a campaign by the children of privilege against his peoples government, it is attempting to define itself as a movement of democracy against dictatorship. While the students are attempting to use the symbolism of the 1960s (putting flowers into guns for example) and identifying with various "velvet revolutions" against governments that don't support the American century, it is important to see what is really happening here. Hugo Chavez is trying to establish a six hour day and reform the military. He is trying to eliminate presidential term limits, which would enable him to run again. One should remember that in the U.S. the two term limit for president was put into effect by constitutional amendment as a backlash against Franklin Roosevelt's winning four terms after his death. In the U.S., the executive office of the presidency was built up in the 1930s and 1940s to advance a pro labor progressive program against entrenched interests in Congress (Republicans and Southern Democrats) who used their power to either defeat or at least water down legislation supported by the working class and the depression poor, who today are Hugo Chavez constituencies in Venezuela.

To return to the Naked and the Dead, it is Hugo Chavez who like Lt. earn is working and working successfully to keep the people of Venezuela from falling back under the control of the wealthy oligarch, U.S. corporations, and the sort of Generals who have led juntas that have oppressed them in the past.

The students are in reality fighting for those forces, the way fraternity boys and often ROTC cadets rallied on college campuses in the 1930s against left students in the American Student Union and the Young Communist League who were supporters of anti-fascism, labor, and progressive political action.

Just as Franklin Roosevelt, in expanding the powers of the presidency in the 1930s was expanding the democratic rights of the people (even though those expanding powers were used ultimately after WWII to advance reactionary cold war policies) Hugo Chavez is expanding the democratic rights of the people by seeking to strengthen the executive power against the oligarchy and its U.S. corporate and government supporters. Musharraf and also Bhutto represent an oligarchy that has been aided and abetted by those who made the "American century" national policy after WWII since Pakistan was created in the late 1940s.

Chavez deserves the active support of all progressive Americans, even though the U.S. government is doing everything in its power to topple him, and Musharraf's tryanny, which he defends as a "transition" to
democracy, should be condemned for what it is, the sort of junta state that once characterized many Latin American governments exploiting and oppression their own people, with the support of U.S. corporations and
the U.S. government. As a tribute to Norman Mailer, we also might reread Naked and the Dead, even though some of its prose might be dated, to get beyond it and an "American Century" that has done so much damages to the American working class and the people of the world.

Norman Markowitz


jjack said...

I enjoy reading this blog but
I wish
it could be formatted so it
so hard to read. I don't know
if you
are cut and pasting articles
reformatting them but when the
looks like this it is really

Just my two cents.

Anonymous said...

I understand your point Jack, but what we do is post emails directly to the blog. We can deal with typos, but not the formatting.
Norman Markowitz