Writing and self-isolating in a time of plague: “What’s Left?” May 2020 (MRR #444)

The terrifying thing about an outbreak that requires people not to leave their homes for 90 days is it means the only ones to survive will be freelance writers.
—Sam Adams, senior editor, Slate Magazine

I dropped out of graduate school at UCSD in 1979 after a traumatic breakup with a lover. I spent the next two plus years drunk twenty-four/seven, even spending nine months homeless living in and around the UCSD campus. Friends helped me reconstruct my life, find a place to live and get a job. And from that point on until my retirement I was gainfully employed.

Almost.

I hated working for someone else. Even my best jobs never went past six years, and on average they lasted only two. I always made sure to stay employed long enough to qualify for unemployment benefits and then to get terminated in such a way as to collect said benefits. That was six months of paid writing time as I saw it, and occasionally during economic downturns I managed to double that. I’m a writer, have been since I was twelve, and I did much of my writing after hours, after either school or work. Being on unemployment was like being on a paid writer’s holiday.

It’s in the nature of a writer to self-isolate. I tended to spend days blending into weeks sitting at home alone writing while on unemployment living in San Diego and the Bay Area. Computers and word processing software have been a boon to writing. I’ve always owned a Mac, starting with a modified Mac Plus in 1985. After the laptop was invented I would of course take the one I owned to write in cafes and coffee shops. I still do. But even now I prefer writing in libraries because of the peace and quiet. Staying holed up in my residence writing—self-quarantining if you will—has always been second nature to me.

Of course that meant also drinking alone while writing when I drank alcohol. Being a day drunk went with the territory, so much so that when I retired I had to make rules for myself limiting my drinking to after five in the afternoon. The alcoholic writer is a common trope. Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Bukowski, William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, Edgar Allen Poe, Dylan Thomas, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, Raymond Chandler, Hunter S. Thompson; the list of alcoholic writers I admire is long. “Taking the cure” has often meant suffering from writer’s block and other writing problems as a consequence. Fortunately, I never had that problem when I stopped drinking.

Writing in a time of plague is a tricky business however. It’s becoming common to compare COVID-19 not just to various flu-like diseases but also to the AIDS/HIV pandemic. “There’s no sense in comparing the two viruses — the novel coronavirus and HIV. They are not alike, not in speed or reach or genome.” (Ryan Kost, “They survived one plague. Now HIV/AIDS survivors face down the coronavirus,” SF Chronicle) Whereas COVID-19 is transmitted through airborne and physical human contact and has a 1-3% mortality rate, for instance, AIDS is sexually transmitted and had an 11% mortality rate at its height. About the only thing they have in common is the fear they’ve generated. As a member of the queer-friendly community back in 1980, I remember the whispered anxiety that a new “gay cancer” was making the rounds. Gay bashing has always been a reality for the LGBTQI+ community, exacerbated by the public’s fear of AIDS. The community response has ranged from staid volunteer self-defense organizations like the Castro Community on Patrol to the far more militant Bash Back! movement. Now people are freaking out if someone even coughs or sneezes nearby. Asian/Chinese bashing caused by COVID-19 fears is coming to rival the gay-bashing related to fear of AIDS. US combat veterans have started patrolling San Francisco’s Chinatown in response. I bear the vaccine mark of the polio virus from the 1950s fear of poliomyelitis. As with polio, good solid science halted the spread of HIV and, with luck, it will do so against COVID-19.

Another thing these disparate diseases have in common is the loneliness and isolation engendered by catching the illness. Being confined or quarantined as a consequence of having a potentially life-threatening disease can be almost as deadly as the illness itself. So can the fear of being infected. I and everyone I know are sheltering-in-place due to COVID-19 and after a month-plus cabin fever has already set in. Gay men have told me about going through all this before, only far worse. The social isolation, the fear of losing one’s friends and employment, being condemned and ostracized, the fear of death. Gregory Fowler has described this poignantly: “I had straight and sadly some gay friends who would not eat out in restaurants if a gay person worked there or wouldn’t invite their gay brother over for Sunday dinner. At its worse, there were weeks when we would hear of the death of 2, 3, 4… friends and acquaintances, all the time living in fear of our own death. This didn’t go on for a few weeks or a few months, but for year after year after year, it became embedded into our daily existence and our constant fight for survival, all the while watching our friends die as the government stood by and did nothing!”

The AIDS and COVID-19 crises are not comparable in so many ways. Coronavirus sheltering-in-place is inconvenient, disruptive and sometimes risky, but it’s not stigmatizing. The response to both require comparable strategies, namely mutual aid and revolution. I’m running out of space and revolution is a fraught term, so I’ll discuss mutual aid now and defer revolution for a future column.

I’ve known members of the Radical Faeries, a group of gay men “which blends counter-cultural values, queer consciousness and spirituality.” (Rory Carroll, “Hold the applause for Facebook’s rainbow-colored profiles, activists say,” The Guardian) Founded by former Communist Party member Harry Hay, the Radical Faeries grew into a loose international network that owned rural land and urban buildings designated sanctuaries for communal living, hosted occasional tribal gatherings, and took care of their own. That meant providing companionship, nursing and hospice for its members who had contracted AIDS. When Harry Hay died in 2002, the Radical Faeries took care of his partner, John Burnside, until he too died in 2008. I did volunteer work at Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS) for several years. PAWS started as a free food and medicine delivery service for people with AIDS confined to their homes because “no one should have to make the difficult choice of caring for themselves or caring for their beloved pets.” PAWS has since expanded their free comprehensive support services “to pets of seniors and individuals living with disability or illness,” providing a pet food bank, free and subsidized veterinary services with partnering veterinarians, and pet care services like dog walking and in-home cat sitting. I drove around San Francisco delivering supplies before I eventually did shifts at the PAWS pet food bank.

Well before Peter Kropotkin wrote: “[p]racticing mutual aid is the surest means for giving each other and to all the greatest safety, the best guarantee of existence and progress, bodily, intellectual and moral” in his book Mutual Aid, the practice of human sociability and solidarity have been key to our survival. Long a feature of immigrant communities in the US, mutual aid societies reflect the “sentiment that members of a community that might be overlooked by government efforts may be more successfully reached by people in their circles. Some leftist activists also see mutual aid as part of the work of building the bonds needed for mass movements and a more cooperative democratic society.” (Abigail Savitch-Lew, “Mutual Aid Movement Playing Huge Role in COVID-19 Crisis.” CityLimits) But whether viewed as an immediate, ad hoc solution to problems better left to government, as a way to shame the government into doing its jobs or as the tip of the anarchist spear critiquing the State as an unnecessary, harmful and violent institution, mutual aid was a feature of both the AIDS crisis and today’s COVID-19 pandemic. It’s Going Down, a website “for anarchist, anti-fascist, autonomous anti-capitalist and anti-colonial movements,” features a separate “COVID-19 Mutual Aid” page with hundreds of listing in almost every state in the country.

Shopping and grocery delivery, supply and clothing runs, pharmacy prescription pickups, food preparation, free money—the list of activities and resources covered by mutual aid programs and groups can be long. But providing mutual aid is no substitute for the radical social change required to make such piecemeal efforts obsolete by transforming the whole of society into one based in part on mutual aid. I think the postmodern “resistance of everyday life” is wholly inadequate to the task, but the concept of revolution has fallen into disfavor. So we’ll unpack revolution next time.

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution by Peter Kropotkin
Anarchy in Action by Colin Ward
From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890-1967 by David T. Beito
The Fire in Moonlight: Stories from the Radical Faeries 1971-2010 ed. By Thompson, Young, Neely
Radically Gay: Gay Liberation in the Words of Its Founder by Harry Hay
The Trouble with Harry Hay: Founder of the Modern Gay Movement by Stuart Timmons

Practical resistance: “What’s Left?” June 2014, MRR #373

The logic is inescapable. If US politics are irredeemably corrupt, then to try and reform them is a waste of time, even counter productive. If America is bound and determined to destroy the planet through its imperial activity, then to sustain this country is folly while to hasten its demise is necessity.

Only a fool fights in a burning house.

I’ve been on a doom-and-gloom jag lately. We’re all fucked, everything is going down the porcelain highway, the planet is bound for a slow-motion apocalypse. I keep harping on this pessimistic perspective, which allows for only two real choices; burn it all down, or party hard and die young. Well, this column I will mention a couple of political causes that you can get behind that might make a difference. Winning them won’t bring about The Revolution, which I’m convinced isn’t happening in my lifetime, but these small victories might make our lives a little bit easier, and counter the rampant nihilism in which I’m currently mired. But first, a sidebar with respect to relevance.

I once did an interview with David McReynolds in the 1980s for San Diego Newsline, a tiny independent community newspaper. McReynolds was a pacifist and democratic socialist, a member of the War Resisters League and the Socialist Party USA, of which he was their presidential candidate. He said something during that interview that has stayed with me, with regard to a central fallacy in Marxism. This fallacy holds true for both orthodox, vulgar Marxism (which called itself “scientific socialism”) and the plethora of Leninist variations of Marxism (all hail the science of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse Tung Thought!). As McReynolds explained, in science and the mathematics upon which science is based, 2+2=4. This formula is correct, and science is based upon a number of such correct formulations, truths that cannot be denied without denying reality itself.

If, however, your political ideology is defined as “scientific,” or “based on science,” or a “science” unto itself, then the formulations of your ideology are supposed to be scientifically correct. There are various and sundry Marxist and Leninist sects which promulgate their “correct political line” as scientific fact, on everything from whether or not to vote for Obama to who to support in the Syrian civil war. In the case of Syria, for instance, these sectoids fight over whether to support Assad whole heartedly, or provisionally, or as “objectively anti-imperialist,” debating in turn whether to support the Syrian opposition unreservedly, or reservedly, or just one or another opposition organization or individual. On this one issue alone, there can be a myriad contending positions, and believe me, there are scores of Leftoid sects vying against each other for possession of the correct political line on the Syrian civil war. Problem is, if all these groupuscules possess a political ideology based on science, and if their political pronouncements are all supposed to be scientifically correct, then why the fuck do they all disagree so vehemently with each other on virtually everything?

That’s because Marxism is not a science. But rather than argue this further (let alone probe the difference between ideology and theory), I will present a couple of political issues that most of us will consider important, broadly define as correct, and ultimately hope to see triumph in order to make our lives better. Unless, of course, you contend that “the worse things are, the better things are,” that the more miserable most of humanity becomes, the faster we all will inevitably rise up in revolution against state and capital. In which case, you can stop reading now.

STOP THE TRANS-PACIFIC PARTNERSHIP

The Obama Administration is currently negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free trade treaty on steroids. Encompassing a dozen nations around the Pacific Rim (Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore,Vietnam, and the United States), with more hoping to join, the TPP is being negotiated behind closed doors. The rigid secrecy extends to members of the US Congress, who aren’t privy to most of what’s being discussed, and who are prohibited from disclosing the little they do know. Shit has been leaking out about the TPP negotiations however, and it ain’t looking good. In addition to all the official government representatives cutting deals in smoke-filled rooms, there are over 600 business representatives from the likes of Chevron, Walmart and Halliburton participating in these trade talks. Similar trade deals in the past have resulted in 3 billion plus dollars in corporate handouts.

There are provisions for media censorship and the banning of buy-local policies. Big Pharma will be allowed to limit access to medicines, and governments will be restricted from regulating food labeling. Workers rights, organizing, and safety will be severely undermined. Foreign companies will be able to legally challenge US environmental regulation. Increased fracking, and the increased export of all fossil fuels will be promoted. In turn, fossil fuel corporations will be allowed to sue governments that stand in their way. The TPP is not so subtly considered an effort to encircle and contain China internationally. Finally, this massive corporate power grab, neoliberal restructuring of government power, systematic suppression of human and workers rights, and gutting of the climate and environment which the Trans-Pacific Partnership represents is intended to be pushed through the US Congress using Fast Track. Fast Track is a legislative process by which treaties are railroaded through without any opportunity for discussion, debate or amendment by up or down vote only.

We need to stop the TPP by any and all means necessary.

SEE SOMETHING, LEAK SOMETHING

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was intended to provide clear democratic access and oversight of federal intelligence and security agencies—the CIA, NSA, FBI and DIA specifically—by giving individual citizens a mechanism to request and receive classified documents being held by those agencies. But when MIT PhD candidate Ryan Shapiro made FOIA requests of three of the above agencies for documents regarding allegations that a CIA tip led to the arrest of Nelson Mandela by South Africa’s apartheid government in 1962, and Mandela’s subsequent internment in prison for 27 years, all three stonewalled Shapiro and denied his FOIA requests on grounds of national security, national defense, and executive privilege.

The Catch 22 Squared around this needs to be emphasized. The CIA, NSA, FBI and DIA are tasked with protecting national security, and thus see threats to national security at every turn and under every rock. The anti-war, anti-apartheid, and radical green movements, everything from the Left to Occupy Wall Street, have all been considered threats to national security and potential sources of domestic terrorism. Nelson Mandela himself was denounced as a Marxist terrorist, and remained on the US terror watch list until 2008. US security and intelligence agencies have been, and continue to be instrumental in the surveillance and subversion of all these progressive movements. For these agencies, the FOIA itself is a threat to national security, and those who request classified material through the FOIA are also considered threats to national security. In the case of the NSA, that agency completely refused to acknowledge the very existence of the documents requested by Shapiro in denying his FOIA application.

Shapiro, who has made over 400 FOIA requests over other issues in the past, decided to draw the line when the CIA, FBI, NSA and DIA used their official position to thwart his FOIA requests regarding Mandela by issuing repeated national security exemptions. In January 2014, Shapiro filed a lawsuit against the CIA, DOD, DOJ and NSA for their non-compliance.

“The failure of the NSA, FBI, DIA, and CIA to comply with my FOIA requests for records on Mandela highlights that FOIA is broken and that this sad reality is just one component among many of the ongoing crisis of secrecy we now face,” Shapiro says. The issue for him is that the public needs to keep the government accountable. “It’s not surprising those in power wish to keep their actions secret. What’s surprising is how readily we tolerate it. We are all familiar with the security-oriented signage instructing us to ‘See something, Say something.’ In the interest of promoting a fuller conception of national security, I add, ‘See something, Leak something.’ The viability of our democracy may depend upon it.”

It’s simple. See something, Leak something.

***

I’ll mention principled political issues from time to time in future columns, to try and counteract my deep and deepening cynicism and pessimism. It’ll be an uphill struggle, all the way.

Stranger in a strange land: “What’s Left?” October 2009, MRR #317

And Moses was content to dwell with the man: and he gave Moses Zipporah his daughter. And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.

Exodus 2:21-22

I’m riding on a bus, or sitting in a library, or sipping tea in a coffee shop, or even relaxing in a chair at home, and I’m tired. I didn’t get enough sleep the night before, so pretty soon I’m nodding off. My head slumps, my mouth drops open, I start to snore. Everything goes black. It lasts only a moment, though for all I know I’m out for hours. Suddenly, with a start, I’m awake again. I don’t know where I am or what I’m doing. The sense of disorientation is profound. Sometimes, it feels as if I’ve been transported to an alien world. Sometimes, I can’t even understand what the people around me are saying.

For an instant, I’m utterly bewildered.

That sense of complete estrangement, of being a stranger in a strange land, is how I’ve been feeling lately. The Left in this country is rallying around a president who makes sweetheart deals with Wall Street and Big Pharma, asserts executive power and privilege against Congress, regularly withholds information from the public on grounds of national security, and steadily escalates US military involvement in a foreign quagmire, while the Right protests and riots in the streets. It’s enough to give this aging commie vertigo.

For the record, I don’t give a flying fuck about Obama.

I won’t spill any ink debunking the significance of Barack Obama’s electoral victory in particular, or of the increase in Democratic party clout generally. Nor will I waste my time trying to disabuse people of the belief that some kind of revolution happened last November 8. The next few years are bound to deeply disappoint a lot of young people, bleeding-heart liberals, and aging ‘60s lefties who’ve come to consider Obama as God’s gift to progressive politics. But, maybe not. I know way too many progressive types who look fondly back to the Clinton years, despite the fact that Bill Clinton gutted welfare, pushed through NAFTA’s ratification, and initiated the policy of regime change against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. For all of Obama’s criticisms of Bush, there are numerous ways in which our current president’s policies are a mere continuation of his predecessors, as Michael Hirsh has so ably pointed out in his 7-31-09 Newsweek article “Barack W. Bush.” I’ve done a number of columns in the past about how there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Democrats and the Republicans, and I could do many more columns about how Obama is the nothing more than the ever-so-slightly-to-the-left-of-center face of the American ruling class.

What’s far more interesting to me is that such a modest shift in political emphasis within the American bourgeoisie would cause such a monumental tumult, as well as the disconcerting Left-Right reversal mentioned above. The Left bitches about Obama’s betrayals, yet falls into line behind the Democrats when push comes to shove. The Right claims the mantle of populist rebellion, yet gets its marching orders from its corporate Republican enablers. When the SEIU and AFL-CIO announced that they would counter the presence of the birthers, tea bag partiers and other fringe rightists at the August congressional town hall meetings devoted to discussing health care reform, I had visions of Weimar Germany, of Communists and Nazis battling each other in the streets. Then I remembered how well that turned out for the working people of Germany, not to mention for the Left, the Jews, Gypsies, and gays, let alone for the Poles, Russians, French and much of the rest of Europe. I have no doubt who would win in any scenario where there’s actual street fighting between Left and Right in this country. Concentration camp stripes do not become me.

One small incident did help restore my sense of sanity in the topsy-turvy political landscape of the past several months. On July 20, members of Crimethinc Ex-Workers Collective (CWC) attempted to hold a Convergence in Pittsburgh. A group of Anarchist People of Color (APOC) converged as well and unceremoniously evicted the CWC folk five days later, condemning them for white supremacy in the anarchist movement, and gentrification of the surrounding impoverished neighborhood. Folks critical of APOC have used terms ranging from misguided and wrong to idiotic and racist to agent provocateurish and COINTELPRO in describing their actions.

By the way, I don’t give a flying fuck about Crimethinc or APOC either. Plug those two names into Google, and spend the next umpteen wasted hours reading the utter crap from both sides, and everything in between, about the incident. Don’t expect me to reprise the sorry facts here. The capacity for the anarchist movement to tear itself to shreds, to give sectarianism a good name, to make itself look the fool, is limitless. That’s reassuring. It’s what I’ve come to expect, given past practice.

I’m no longer a stranger in a strange land. I’m right at home.

I hear that APOC has denounced Food Not Bombs as white supremacist, and that the National Anarchists are using this anarcho-debacle to try to recruit disaffected white anarchists into their ranks. These shenanigans reaffirm that modern anarchism has become a pathetic joke. At a time when conventional politics seem to have turned upside down, it’s good to know that something like anarchism’s propensity for self-humiliation and self-destruction remains a constant upon which I can depend.

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