Friday, May 20, 2011

The Truth Is Out There.

From the very first episodes, I loved "The X-Files."  What wonderful stories of life in McWorld!  What a vivid dramatization of the fears and anxieties of life in the 20th Century.  Well, it's now the 21st Century, but I don't see that much has changed.  Big Brother is still watching. Aliens are still abducting people.

In researching and writing Darkness Visible, I came to realize the horrors of industrialization.  These horrors existed on so many levels: pollution, very dangerous working conditions, no social or economic safety nets, no job security, political corruption, extreme economic and class oppression. (I'd like to point out that the majority of people in the world today live in conditions similar to those of working Americans in 1892.) The advantage that our great-grandparents had over us today is that they could clearly see who was running the country: the Robber Barons and their banker buddies.
A bessemer converter in action.

But we live in a world that's run by powerful, hidden forces.  The World Bank, the IMF, the Federal Reserve, the G20 Summit--Who are these people?  Some folks find it easier to believe that visitors from outer space are running the show on Earth.  I hate to tell them. It's far, far scarier than that.

BBC-America is re-running "X-Files" episodes as part of their "scifi" afternoon series.  I'm enjoying seeing a pre-sex-addition-scandal David Duchovny and a lovely, very young Gillian Anderson once again fight the dark forces in collusion with the government to get to the truth, which has to be out there, somewhere.  You never know whom to trust.  Cigarette-smoking-man, Krychek, the Black Guy with information. They aren't the prime mover, but they act at his (its? their?) insidious bidding.  It's a much, much darker vision that that of the mythology of the 1990s, "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer."  To get imprisoned in a Siberian gulag where alien slime oil is poured into your ear is a helluva lot more frightening than confronting a wisecracking bleached-blond vampire.

However, is it scarier than working at a Bessemer converter, or a blast furnace with molten iron running in hellish rivers just feet from you?  I'd say it is.  With steelmaking, the dangers are manifest.  If black alien oil is sloshing around in your eyeballs, you've had it.  You're in the thrall of the Unseen Forces running the planet.  You don't know who did it or why but you're being punished.
Fox Mulder is attacked, yet again, by a mysterious force.

My advice to you is to trust no one in power. Or allegedly in power.  I say that after looking at centuries of human history.  If you want to believe, believe your senses.  There are many truths, and they are still out there.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Death and Other Symbolic Acts

A. A violent order is a disorder; and
B. A great disorder is an order. These
Two things are one. 

--Wallace Stevens "Connoisseur of Chaos"

"Should we celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden?" asked the TV reporter. "Well," said the thoughtful young lady,"as a Christian, I know we should not be happy about any death, but I think of him as an evil machine, not a human."  Interesting rationalization. Combine "evil" with "nonhuman" and you can justify celebrating death.

Let me add quickly here that I am not implying that the US should not have tracked down and killed bin Laden. Maybe this young woman has watched "Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines" once too often. Still, I can't help wondering how much Osama's death will change anything in the dynamic of terrorism. Not much, methinks. Acts of terrorism are symbolic:  Bring down the World Trade Center, blow up the embassy, sink the warship, kill the evildoers (viewed from both sides of the terrorism divide).

This week marks the 125th anniversary of another violent labor confrontation in U.S. history: the infamous Haymarket Square incident in Chicago.  The stage was set when the company, McCormick Harvesting Machine, locked out workers who were seeking an eight-hour workday.  Workers had come under attack by company-hired Pinkertons during a strike the year before.  This time, strikebreakers were brought into the plant under the protection of hundreds of police.  On May 3, 1886, the unionists rushed forward to confront strikebreakers at the end of their shift.  The police fired on the crowd, and gunfire erupted.

Outraged, local anarchists called for a huge rally to be held in Haymarket Square the following evening.  The large crowd assembled was calm and quiet--until the police tried to clear them from the square.  Someone threw a bomb at the police, the police fired back.  The five minutes of ensuing chaos ended with 8 police dead and 50 wounded, many of these from "friendly" fire, and an estimated 60 casualties among civilians  from the unfriendly variety.

In one of the great miscarriages of justice in US history, four of the union organizers were convicted of murder and hanged in November of 1887.  In 1893, the mayor issued a posthumous pardon, but the damage had been done.  The dream of an eight-hour workday was put on hold for decades.  A company had once again asserted its control over the lives of the workers.

Emma Goldman, lover of fellow-anarchist Alexander Berkman, deemed the Haymarket martyrdoms "the most decisive influence in my existence."  Berkman called the Chicago anarchists "a potent and vital inspiration."  After Berkman's ill-fated 1892 assassination attempt on Frick, Goldman said that Berkman had felt compelled to go to Pittsburgh after reading about Carnegie Steel's throwing Homestead strikers' families out of company homes into the street.

For decades afterward, violence continued in Haymarket Square, this time of the symbolic kind.  Commemorative statues were erected, and repeatedly vandalized. During the Vietnam War "Days of Rage" Weathermen planted a bomb on one and blew it up.  My point is that anarchists have always been big on symbolic acts of violence: blowing up statues, assassinating archdukes at Sarajevo, shooting at evildoing company executives.

The parallels with the Homestead confrontation six years later need not be belabored (pun intended). While the Big Company was the prime mover, Pinkertons, police, strikers, and anarchists all played roles in the outcome.  What good was all this violence? No good at all, for anyone, except the few who owned the companies.  In fact, acts by anarchists ironically set back the labor movement for years--but on the other hand, they wouldn't have been spurred to violence had the companies been more amenable to concessions to workers.

Anarchists, terrorists, and insurgents of all stripe have completely given up on Those In Power and can see no other course to unseat them but violence. Bin Laden had said  in interviews that his initial inspiration to establish al Qaeda came after seeing Palestinian families thrown out of their homes and herded into camps. He had grown increasingly frustrated at instituting reforms in the repressive rule of his home state of Saudi Arabia, and gave up trying.  Did all the killing and destruction he initiated do any good?  No.  But it did accomplish one of the goals of al Qaeda:  Create fear and loathing on both sides of the Have/Have Not global constituencies.  Turn "them" into evil machines.

As we congratulate ourselves on bringing Osama to justice, we should also keep in mind that nothing has changed, really.  The global war goes on, and will go on, out of the control of any single government or movement.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand is dead, but so are 16 million others. A violent order is a disorder.  A great disorder is an order. These two things are one.