Recommended reading: Democracy

Democracy Starts At Home
by Joseph Stiglitz, TomPaine.com
How can Bush spread democracy abroad when he undermines it at home?

What's happening in Venezuela

What happens in Venezuela matters, to the U.S. and to every other country in the region. At issue: Can the Chávez government and its movement -- the MVR -- survive, despite fierce U.S. opposition? If so, will they be able to fulfill their program of reducing social inequality and broadening participation and opportunity, without going bankrupt? Can the chavistas maintain its honesty and openness despite being so embattled? Or have they, as the opposition claims, already lost them?

I think: (a) the movement will survive any coup attempt -- just look what happened in April 2002; (b) the oil wealth won't last forever but probably long enough to finance huge institutional changes that will be felt for ever after; (c) they (or at least the leadership) are going to try to be pure, but it's tough to remain democratic when you're under siege, and not everybody is going to resist temptation when there's so much money being invested. Finally, (d) the chavista movement will continue to inspire radical reforms throughout the continent and beyond.

To find out what's up and get a sense of what may happen next, from the chavista perspective, check the text and links on The Cyber Cycle, weekly newsletter of the Venezuelan Information Office.


For a more literate proletariat

What could be more socially responsible and literary than defending public libraries? And so I pass this on, from the United Farm Workers.
Take Action: Online petitions to save Salinas libraries in John Steinbeck’s hometown will be handed in Tuesday

On Tuesday, April 12, National Library Week, more than 100 residents from Salinas, Calif.—including many farm workers and their children—will travel to the state Capitol in Sacramento and hand in petitions they have collected urging lawmakers to save their libraries.

Due to budget cuts, all three libraries in the city of Salinas, hometown of Grapes of Wrath author John Steinbeck, are on track to be shut down soon. Salinas is a poor largely agricultural community where many residents do not have money to buy books or access to computers. Their children don't have many places to study. This community desperately needs it’s libraries.

Last weekend in Salinas, as the nation marked Cesar Chavez’s birthday, dozens of authors, community activists and library backers organized an emergency 24-hour “read-in” outside the Cesar Chavez Public Library to call attention to this pending tragedy.

Make a difference and sign the petition today. Help us tell California elected officials that libraries and education are not expendable.

Sign the petition TODAY!

More literary news & comment

Frank Conroy dead at 69
The Long Writing Road, by Chip Scanlan

The unimbedded journalist

We read a lot about, and by, journalists "embedded" with the rich and powerful. Here is one who was fiercely unimbedded. For his story, see Gary Webb: Do What He Did. But there has to be more to it than that.

Recommended reading

These from the current Village Voice:

Liberty Beat: Circling the wagons around the defense secretary and his commander in chief. Whitewashing Rumsfeld by Nat Hentoff.

And this: "The dirty little secret about the modern soldier is that most of us are completely unsuited to being told what to do. You're thinking that an army can't run with its ranks full of anarchists. Well, we are not anarchists; we are iconoclasts." From The Essay: G.I. Joke. A real-life Yossarian on the comic efficiency of a soldier's life in Iraq, by Craig A. McNeil.


Saul Bellow

This felt weird: Today’s NYT carries the obituary of Saul Bellow, just after I had finished reading one of his most famous works. Check out Featured Author: Saul Bellow, especially Edward Rothstein's appreciation with the slide show. Here's my take on one big book: Humboldt's Gift. New York, The Viking Press, 1975.

Charlie Citrine, two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author and playwright, is haunted by the overwhelming spirit of Von Humboldt Fleisher, a once-brilliant poet and Charlie’s one-time mentor who went mad and abusive from his failure to make it big as a literary star or commercial success. Some very vivid character sketches of social types including sexy gold diggers, a would-be Mafioso, pretentious lawyers, and culture moguls after Charlie’s wealth (rapidly diminishing) or his talent (still intact), plus long-suffering wives (Humboldt’s ex and Charlie’s greedy brother’s current spouse); also amusing descriptions of Chicago society in the 1970s, and Greenwich Village in the 1940s. Most interesting to me were Charlie’s notes for a future essay or book on boredom, which “has more to do with modern political revolution than justice has. In 1917, that boring Lenin who wrote so many boring pamphlets and letters on organizational questions was, briefly, all passion, all radiant interest. The Russian revolution promised mankind a permanently interesting life.” (p. 200)

Also worth remembering: Humboldt, according to his widow,
“...used to say how much he would like to move in brilliant circles, be a part of the literary world.”

“That’s just it. There never was such a literary world,” I [Charlie] said. “In the nineteenth century there were several solitaries of the highest genius – a Melville or a Poe had no literary life. It was the customhouse and the barroom for them. In Russia, Lenin and Stalin destroyed the literary world. Russia’s situation now [mid 1970s] resembles ours – poets, in spite of everything against them, emerge from nowhere. Where did Whitman come from, and where did he get what he had? It was W. Whitman, an irrepressible individual, that had it and that did it.” (p. 370)

The writing is energetic, witty, intelligent and linked through references to very wide reading, and so gives many moments of pleasure. But as a total fictional experience, I found it disappointing – disjointed and jerky, farcical realism but with an ending that that is more like a shrug than an explosion or any kind of resolution.

Your Holiness

I suppose I've been remiss by not saying anything about the death of the pope. It's not that I hadn't noticed. It's just that I'm one of the many millions of people to whom it didn't really much matter -- although from the TV coverage you would never suspect that we even exist. Karol Wojtyla seemed like a basically nice old man, with some dangerously reactionary views on women, homosexuals and sex in general, along with a refreshingly persistent challenge to social and economic inequality. Like Max Weber, who spent a lot of time thinking about the role of the sacred (not only in The Protestant Ethic and the Rise of Capitalism), I am "religiously unmusical." That is, like Weber, I don't get any special thrill out of mystical claims of life after death, or some unseen and unknowable remote power controlling our lives, or any of the rest of it.

But like Weber, I do have a lively sociological curiosity, as to why other people get such thrills and are willing to believe such unprovable assertions. I was even wondering if Karol Wjtyla really "believed," but I suppose that's a ridiculous question -- "Is the Pope Catholic?" I think we have to distinguish between at least two kinds of beliefs. When I "believe" some claim or argument, I mean that I have adopted that claim as a working hypothesis. Believing requires no special emotional effort -- some things seem probably true based on my own experience or evidence I've read, and I'll believe those things until they're disproved. Once upon a time beliefs in gods must have seemed like reasonable working hypotheses, too, since people didn't have any better explanations available for the weather, disease, disasters or favorable events. A religious person today, though, must will him/herself to believe in God or gods, contrary to all available evidence. Willed belief is what they call "faith," and it takes effort. I wonder why they bother.