Subversive Writing in Contemporary America
Wrote the late, great Peter McWilliams in his book Ain’t Nobody’s Business If You Do, “In war, the first fatality is truth. The second is the civil rights of all ‘dissidents’. . .The price of freedom is eternal–and internal–vigilance. And an occasional laugh,” (19). A favored past-time in The United States is addressing social ills by “declaring war”on them. Currently, we are at war with crime, poverty, illiteracy, “Communism,” drugs, (and some might also add gays, minorities, the poor, and even personal freedom to that list). These “wars” inevitably receive blanket approval from the American news media, and the illusion of mass consensus is put into place. Opposition to said consensus is attributed to a “fringe” element, or a “youth” element with a different, yet still easily categorized, collective mind.
To say it is difficult to truthfully gauge the dominant attitude of American Society at any given time is an understatement (at least). And yet, media and citizenry alike seem to love nothing more than to attribute a “generational mind set” to groups of Americans, usually segregated into ten to twenty year increments. Thus we have The WWII Generation (now known somewhat presumptuously as “The Greatest Generation”), The Baby Boomers, The “Me” Generation, Generation X (known for no discernable reason as “the slackers”), Generation Y, and so forth. The concept that each “generation” has its own prevailing perspective or mood is specious at best. Still, we see time and again the very citizens that make up these generations embracing the very attitudes attributed (or perhaps “assigned”) to them. The words “In my day, we. . .” have started so many sentences that they have become cliché’. From whence does this feeling of collective conscience come? Who or what dictates mainstream American thought? And most of all, what is to be made of the ever-present voice of dissent?
Setting The Precedent
At the turn of the century, Upton Sinclair and other writers, “muckrakers” they were called, sought to expose the dangerous and inhumane working conditions many American laborers suffered. From the 1920s to the 1940s an emergence of African-American writers came about to show White America the trials, the indignities, and the horrors of The Black American experience. Throughout the 1930s, a Socialist underground began to gain prominence during a time of great economic hardship, which brought about a cultural battle that is still being waged today. The 1950s and 1960s introduced a counter-culture of alternative living, and drug and sexual experimentation, through the works of such “Beat” writers as William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Karouac––not to mention self-described “freaks” such as Ken Kesey and Abbie Hoffman. From the 1970s and to today, a great variety of cultural subgroups, from homosexuals, to anarchists, to “Satanists,” to Indigenous Americans, to neo-Nazis, and myriad others have made their presence known through publication. All of these groups of writers, for good or ill, have stood in glaring contrast to the American mainstream. All have attempted to alter the collective conscience . . .with varying degrees of success.
But within the current, fractured nature of contemporary America, is it even possible to maintain a “standard” mentality? And if there is no discernible mainstream, how can there be an “alternative?” Is it possible to remain subversive when the very nature of “revolution” has been co-opted by commercial society?
As mentioned before, I am of the opinion that the idea of one collective point-of-view has always been an illusion, and I feel that its acceptance as reality is mostly the product of general laziness and ennui. Now for instance, with the rhetoric of “ending partisan bickering” flying about, the real message from the top down is “Let us be of one voice. One quiet voice,” and it is met with overall compliance. But it is during these times of great apathy on the part of the rank and file (and a good amount of fear), that dissident voices become their loudest, most passionate, most confrontational.
Within a volume of collected essays
entitled The Subversive Imagination: Artists, Society, and Social Responsibility, editor Carol Becker states:
The Reagan-Bush years, devastating to all economically disenfranchised groups,
were uniquely so for artists, writers, and intellectuals. These individuals, already
marginalized by the impact of mass media and the general anti-intellectual tone of
North American society, felt relegated to oblivion–their values insignificant, their
opinions unsolicited, their role mainly to debate one another. Nonetheless, they
continued writing books, exhibiting work, pushing the boundaries of theory in all
areas. . .Yet the prevailing conservatism dominated while more progressive
investigations remained isolated from mainstream thought (xxii).
Consider no further than the relative disinterest of the “average” American in the Ayatollah’s fatwah calling for the death of writer Salman Rushdie for the publication of his book The Satanic Verses in 1991. Certainly no good American approved of the Ayatollah or his policies, and yet few fell over themselves coming to the aid of a subversive writer. Such a display might have set a precedent upon which North America was not willing to follow up (if nothing else, this incident did introduce the word fatwah into the American vernacular. For more fun with fatwahs, scroll down to the piece Fatwah, My Love. You’ll be glad you did.)
Alas, here we are now well into the start of a brand new millennium, and once again, dominated by a conservative status quo. Where are the dissident writers now? Holed up in smoky Village flats? At the corner coffee shop snapping fingers and slapping bongos? No. They are in prison. They are in exile . . .but more about that in a moment.
Reaching The Heartland (pt.1)
I’d like to share a personal story if I may. One of my favorite activites is to ride my bicycle from Yellow Springs, Ohio (Antioch College to be exact) back home to Cincinnati. This is certainly not a major chunk of the American Heartland, nor even of Ohio, but it is a good 60 mile stretch of it, and not a bad slice of the Midwest for a day’s worth of observation. my first ride of this kind was in Aug. of 2001, when I had just begun my graduate studies at Antioch. Riding through small, rural town after small, rural town this first time through, I was struck by how little has changed in these tiny burghs and hamlets since the 1980s (indeed how little has changed perhaps since even the early 1960s). Very few, if any, ATMs were to be found. I came across not a single soda machine that accepted dollar bills. I even rode past a Datsun which appeared to be in working order! More than anything, though, I was taken aback by the graffiti written on the underpasses. I had not seen such an explosion of right-wing, jingoistic rhetoric since Ronald Reagan’s glory days– “NO IMMIGRANTS,” “BOMB IRAK” (sic), “GO PAT [Buchanan] GO!” just to give a few examples. Certainly the nation has taken a sharp swerve to the right, but this is not the 1950s and it ain’t no Howdy Doody time. Mile upon mile, the stone walls screamed out, “WHITES ONLY,” “KILL A FAG,” and “NRA 4-EVER.” But, every now and then, an opposing viewpoint would pop up– “Gay Power,” “Justice for Peltier,” “ONAMOVE Free Mumia.” It’s safe to say that the majority of people who feel the need to express their views with spray-paint are young folk . . .and something was reaching a few of these kids. A small number were seeking out information that was not finding (or at least not affecting) the others. Although on a minor scale, the Heartland has been infiltrated . . .
The Voice of the Voiceless
In 1973 American publishing house Harper & Row released The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzenitsyn. From 1945 to 1953 Solzenitsyn had been a prisoner of The Archipelago: a secret “country” within The Soviet Union made up of interconnected prison camps. The culture of prison life, the brutality and inhumanity that prisoners suffer, and the overall corruption of a totalitarian government that claimed to champion “the people,” are some of the topics covered in this book. Solzenitsyn himself was forced to publish the book or risk it never seeing the light of day after Soviet Security seized the manuscript (the woman who was hiding it for the author finally gave up after 120 grueling hours of interrogation, “thereupon in her desperation and depression, she committed suicide,” ). Since then, The U.S.S.R. has fallen, and in the process deprived The United States government of its greatest international bogeyman. Currently, it is the U.S.A. itself that has more of its citizens in prison per capita than any other nation on Earth. The monolithic U.S. prison industrial complex rivals the U.S. military for corruption and exorbitant spending, and yet the mainstream (and usually “spend-conscious”) press makes practically no mention of this. Any politician who brings up the topic is labeled “soft on crime.” But a few lone voices break this conspiracy of silence. Arguably the strongest of these voices, the so-called “voice of the voiceless, ” comes from deep within the belly of the beast––Pennsylvania’s Death Row. That voice is revolutionary, journalist, and convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal.
In April of 1994 Abu-Jamal was asked to write and record a series of commentaries for broadcast on National Public Radio. Recorded at Huntington State Prison in Pennsylvania, the commentaries were set to be a regular spot on N.P.R. However, on the eve of its premiere (May 16th, 1994) the feature was pulled due to an outcry from The Fraternal Order of Police and a threat to N.P.R. from then-senator Bob Dole that federal funding would be cut if Abu-Jamal was given air time.
This is not the only time Abu-Jamal has been censored. His first book Live From Death Row had to be sneaked out of the prison, and Mumia was severely punished for the crime of “conducting the business or profession of journalism.” The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has since created what is known as “The Mumia Rule” banning the interview of any inmate in any Pennsylvania correctional institution (Abu-Jamal has continued to be interviewed since this rule’s implementation, but the interviewer is forbidden from using any tape recorder, paper, pencil, or pen). What is it about this man that makes him such a threat to city, county, state and federal governments? If it is a question of his guilt regarding the murder of police officer Daniel Faulkner, as so many would have us believe, is that really sufficient reason to forbid his words from being read or heard? More likely, it is Mumia’s astute observations of the corruption inherent in our prison system and all levels of the government, the racist and barbaric death penalty, and the vicious and absurd War on Drugs, that make him such a threat to the “powers that be.” Wrote Abu-Jamal in an essay entitled A Nation in Chains:
Look at it this way: the number of people imprisoned in the United States
is more than the number of people who live in thirteen states; the number
of people in American jails and prisons would constitute the eleventh
largest city in the nation; and the number of all people under “correctional”
control (meaning prison, jail, probation, or parole) is one and a half times
greater than the population of Chicago or Nicaragua (All Things Censored 201).
Just like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Mumia Abu-Jamal is exposing the Archipelago from the inside. As much as The Fraternal Order of Police, U.S. government, and it’s mouthpiece–the national press, would like to pretend that Mumia is a cold-blooded killer who deserves nothing but to be destroyed, enough people are hearing from and about him to keep his execution at bay . . .for now. People (even, as I’ve said, in small Ohio villages) are questioning the validity of his death sentence, the dubious tactics displayed by those within the judicial system, and the censorship of his work. Some are calling for a new trial, stating that he had not received a fair trial in 1981. Further still, many are demanding his immediate release in the aftermath of another man by the name of Arnold Beverly coming forward and admitting to the crime for which Abu-Jamal was sentenced. As yet, there has been no move to grant Abu-Jamal release or a new trial.
The Spirit of Crazy Horse
Like Mumia Abu-Jamal, Lakota freedom fighter Leonard Peltier is also currently incarcerated for murder that he very possibly did not commit (unlike Abu-Jamal, Peltier is not on Death Row, but rather serving two consecutive life sentences).
On June 26, 1975 two FBI agents, Ronald Williams and Jack Coler, drove onto The Pine Ridge reservation in North Dakota. Apparently they were chasing a runaway Indian fugitive named Jimmy Eagle. During a shoot-out with reservation inhabitants (mostly those involved with The American Indian Movement), both agents were killed, as was one Indian man. Peltier, after being illegally extradited from Canada, was tried for the crime and found guilty, despite the lack of much evidence that Peltier was even present during said shoot-out (other than his own claim that he was there, but not guilty of the crime). The lynchpin of Peltier being found guilty was testimony later proven to have been coerced from a mentally retarded woman.
Although he suffers from ill-health and is behind bars, Peltier continues to be a leader and activist in the struggle of his people: organizing health and recreational centers on reservations, and generally being an icon of hope under seemingly hopeless conditions. Apart from this, he is also an artist and author (Peltier has written a book entitled My Life is My Sun Dance). He has become something of a cause celebre within Hollywood’s more liberal circles and a symbol of attack for right-wing politicians riding the “tough on crime” ticket. The latter became particularly prominent at the end of 2000 when word surfaced that then-president Clinton was considering Peltier for one of his final pardons (Peltier was not pardoned).
Peter Matthiessen, who in 1983 published a book about Peltier and the F.B.I.’s war on The American Indian Movement entitled In The Spirit of Crazy Horse, became the target of intimidation, censorship, and harassment by public officials since before most copies of his book had even been shipped by the publisher. Lawsuits (that were later overturned) blocked paperback and foreign editions of Crazy Horse, and all copies disappeared from bookshelves for seven years.
Reaching The Heartland (pt. 2)
Matthiessen, Peltier, and Abu-Jamal all certainly owe a debt of gratitude to the members of the heavy metal rap band Rage Against The Machine (sadly now defunct). RATM had spoken often of Matthiessen’s book and quoted passages from it in a music video which received decent rotation on MTV. They held numerous benefit concerts for both Peltier and Abu-Jamal and are very much responsible for getting young people involved in their respective (and collective) causes. I have little doubt that the graffiti I observed whilst riding through Ohio calling for the release of Peltier and Abu-Jamal was created by Rage fans, and certainly at least a few of those responsible for getting Mumia Abu-Jamal to speak via satellite at the 2000 Antioch graduation ceremony came to his cause through this band’s music. It almost goes without saying that the members of Rage Against the Machine have been arrested numerous time for their actions, and their words have made them one of the most controversial acts of our time.
Rape and Boiled Angels
Lest we think that all of the “subversive” work being created today is coming from people with a left-wing agenda, and liberals are the only victims of censorship, we must consider The Angry White Males. This is the name of an underground tour that creeped (rather pathetically) across the Midwest in summer of 2001 featuring, besides mass-murderer memorabilia and a “performance artist” who vomits different colors on demand, the work of two banned writers: Jim Goad and Mike Diana.
Jim Goad, creator of the alternative magazine ANSWER Me! and author of The Redneck Manifesto, is seen by some to be the true voice of poor, frustrated, disenfranchised White America. Many others, however, see him as a dangerous influence on his small, but loyal readership. No stranger to crime or controversy, Goad has served two prison sentences–once for domestic violence and once for kidnapping. Along with his late ex-wife Debbie, Goad wrote the now infamous #4 edition of ANSWER Me! entitled The Rape Issue (Debbie Goad died of cancer while Jim was serving a two year prison sentence). Within this issue, the Goads claimed to look at all aspects of rape and the notion of “rape culture,” with a bent towards satire. In 1994, a copy of AM! #4 fell into the hands of an irate young coed from the university in Bellingham, Washington. She brought the copy, which had been purchased at a local store called The Newstand, to the Whatcom County Rape Crisis Center. Needless to say, folks at the Center were not amused. On February 14th of that year, police arrested Ira Stohl and Kristina Hjelsand, the owner and the manager of The Newstand, and charged them with “distribution of lewd material for profit,” a felony punishable by five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. The charges were later dropped, but ANSWER Me! soon vanished from shelves all across the country. Reprints have recently started to emerge due to the attention Jim Goad has been receiving from such “hip” magazines as Spin and the online mag Salon.
Even more extreme than Goad is comic book writer and artist Mike Diana. In 1990, Diana was a 22 year old, lower-class convenience store clerk who wrote and drew comics in his spare time. His main ‘zine was called Boiled Angel, and even Diana’s most ardent supporters agree that Boiled Angel is repulsive and disturbing beyond all justification. That year, Diana became a suspect in the killings of several University of Florida students after the Florida Department of Law Enforcement came into possession of Boiled Angel #6. Diana was arrested a year later when he unknowingly sold two copies of Boiled Angel (#s 7 and “#ate”) to an undercover Pinellas County sheriff’s deputy. Pinellas judge Walter Fullerton had Diana locked away under maximum security with no bond set. On March 27th 1992, due to the precedent set in the 1973 Miller vs. California case, Diana was convicted on three counts of obscenity charges (publishing, advertising, and distributing Boiled Angel). He was sentenced to three years probation, the terms of which include: a $3,000 fine, 1,200 hours of community service, he was forbidden from coming within 20 yards of any person under 18 years of age, he had to register as a sex offender, he was forced to attend a journalism ethics course and receive psychological counseling (both at his own expense), and most telling of all, he was forbidden from drawing at all, even for personal use, and had to submit to unannounced searches to ensure that he was not drawing. Since this time, Mike Diana has lost every attempt at appeal, and the Supreme Court has refused to hear his case. Like Goad, the White Males tour is bringing Diana considerably more attention than he had been getting. With the mainstream’s slowly growing awareness of such fringe writers as Goad and Diana, it is safe to say that “community standards” will be an issue of debate for years to come.
Love, Sexuality, and a Wall of Hate
According to an online article by a writer named Scott Pfeiffer (www.theroc.org), the prosecution in the Mike Diana case brought out as an expert witness one Dr. Sidney Merin, Ph.D. Dr. Merin’s assessment of Diana’s subject matter read like this; “a variety of paraphilias including necrophilia, bestiality, pedophilia, sodomy, outrage, physical and psychological mutilation, terror, homosexuality, and pure violence,” [italics my emphasis]. Homosexuality? Not to be glib, but isn’t this a bit like saying, “We were pelted with rocks, shards of glass, rusty nails, duck feathers, and burning chunks of wood?” Certainly anyone who has seen Boiled Angel would attest to the fact that, of the sexual activity Mike Diana illustrates, homosexuality is no more prominent than hetero (and is certainly the least of the atrocities). And yet, heterosexuality makes no appearance in Dr. Merin’s diatribe. The fact that the doctor chose to even mention homosexuality in the same breath with all this depravity is truly telling of how short society has come in viewing homosexuals in our culture.
Wrote Donn Teal in his 1971 book The Gay Militants, “Self-hate and a feeling of guilt are not typical in today’s homosexual, though it has been a labor to shake these leftovers of Judeo-Christian puritanism, and many of us are still wrestling with the inferiority complex which society has been only too glad to hoist upon us,” (345). Can we say that, 30 years later, much has improved? When a Christian minister and his followers scream at a grieving mother that her murdered, gay son is burning in Hell, how does a community get past such a thing? When there are even highly educated and supposedly intelligent individuals in our society who would still group homosexuals together with violent criminals, child molesters, and people who rape animals, how can a wall like that be brought down? The answer: pebble by pebble.
Ultimately, the goal of any writer is communication; to “only connect,” as EM Forster would say. When a writer is coming from a perspective that runs counter to the majority, that connection is much harder to make. Also, the necessity of making that connection is all the greater. The Gay Militants did not exactly burn up the best seller’s list upon publication. But, if it made a difference to at least a few who read it, than it was not written in vain. “The norm” is subverted when an idea as simple as “everyone should be allowed to love whom and however they wish,” occurs to people that had not before considered it.
Just as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin did not cause the Civil War, none of the writings I’ve mentioned in this piece have (or ever will) warp, destroy, or end life as we know it. But, they just might change a mind or two. Or better still, they might cause a thought or a discussion to take place that may not have otherwise. For those in charge that benefit from “the collective conscience” being relatively unconscious, that is a very dangerous possibility indeed.
Reaching The Heartland (pt. 3)
Some of the writers that I have chosen to discuss are and/or were writing for a particular cause. Some are simply fighting for their right to write. Some write for no other reason than to shock, offend, and provoke. It is important to remember that this last group is, and must be, just as protected by the conditions of our First Amendment than any of the others–perhaps more so. It is also important to remember that after all, writers are artists, and for many the goal is simply to entertain. That is certainly a noble goal, and in fact, I can think of few more worthwhile endeavors than to rally people together around a collective good feeling.
I’ve spoken of how disheartening it is for me to see what I perceive to be a return to right-wing mentality in our culture–particularly within the young people. Certainly I do not mean to suggest that a few small farm communities in Ohio represent the consciousness of the entire nation, but I still cannot help but see the current American mind set, cutting across the three generations that make up our current crop of adults, as a great wall of conservatism. However, I am happy to say I’ve seen holes in that wall, and little pinches of light are sprinkling through. This leads me to one last personal story.
That first Sunday night in August of 01, exhausted, sunburned, and philosophically depressed due to my bike ride from Yellow Springs to Cincinnati, I decided to take it easy for an evening and actually have some fun. My girlfriend at the time (now my wife) and I, along with two of our friends, went to a little bar in Covington, Kentucky to see local blues legend Sweet Alice perform. Alice, in her usual fashion, belted out some of the filthiest, raunchiest tunes one is likely to hear around these parts or anywhere else. As I looked around the packed house, and saw the integrated crowd laughing at Alice’s jabs at the local police, singing along to songs about the joys of “reefer,” and dancing as provocatively as they were able to tunes addressing all manner of sexual hanky-panky, it struck me how truly far we really have come. The people in the bar that night were regular, Midwestern, working folk. Some were as young as me, some were well into their sixties. But not only did blacks and whites (and Indians and Asians) mingle and dance together happily and unself-consciously, but men, who were clearly couples, danced together that night. Women danced with women. Sometimes gay and straight couples would switch partners and everyone laughed and had a great time. This was not an experiment. This was not seeing how the “other” lives. This was simply average people enjoying themselves and each other. I’ve been to WTO protests where police fired rubber bullets and tear gas into crowds. I’ve seen people riot in absolute frustration and face billy clubs and mace. I’ve seen migrant Mexican farmers, steel workers, and smash-the-state anarchists lock arms in solidarity. And yet, sitting in that little Kentucky dive that Sunday night in pre 9/11 America was a truly revolutionary moment. Right before my eyes, and perhaps for just the moment, the unthinkable became commonplace. That is true subversion, and if there was nothing else worth fighting and writing for, that would be enough.