Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Chris Hedges, Howard Zinn, and Our Responsibility as Writers

As usual, Chris Hedges writes a fascinating article in Truthdig, this time about Howard Zinn and his unjustified persecution by the federal government. Zinn died in January, and thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, his 423-page FBI file was declassified and opened by the government.

What Hedges writes about specifically is Zinn's New York Times best-seller A People's History of the United States, which is about the history of dissent in our nation. Listen to an amazing 'rockified' excerpt here. Hedges taught this text to prison inmates over the five weeks preceding the posting of his Truthdig article.

Picture: Howard Zinn from the front page of

Now, what fascinates me so thoroughly with all this is the idea of fighting the tide of functional illiteracy through political engagement and constructive dissent, all of which involves the use of language. Hedges wrote in an earlier post that our loss of engagement with language, especially a clear understanding of nuances, is a serious impediment to recognition of manipulative tactics. And this is why I teach English. What little bit I can do to engage students in the process of critical thinking, to bring their attention to tactics of verbal or conceptual coersion, I do. And I do this because I feel very strongly that this is a genuine path to individual freedom (take control of your life and empower yourself by looking, reading closely, and thinking about what is really being said). For the most part, we still enjoy freedom of choice, and we need to take advantage of our ability to say 'no' when a commerical or political interest might possibly do us harm. Hedges indicates that freedom of choice is sometimes not always possible, particularly with the Patriot Act and with the proliferation of cameras that chart our every move. But, conscious thought about the ramifications of our actions--allowing ourselves to operate outside the autopilot we are set on by corporate and political interests--is freedom.

We are such a media-nourished society that most of the thinking is done for us. We are much like baby flies, to whom pre-digested material is given by a the parental entity. It's a pretty digusting comparison, but not inaccurate. Much as our food is processed and full of fillers, so too is our information.

When I wrote the story "Amerian Soma," it was 2005. It was my first political work and shortly thereafter, the momentum I gained in writing it rolled me right into the composition of "Evolution." Both were born, in part, because of what I'd studied in graduate school. Between 1998-2000, after I returned from my scholarship work in Germany, I studied the German social satirist George Grosz under Grosz scholar Barabara McCloskey. Barbara was an avowed Marxist and very interested in worker's rights. I remember hearing that she spent her summers with Fred Evans in Mexico, where they helped with a political movement (although I don't know the details and might well have what little I do know wrong). While my thesis ended up talking more about Grosz's apolitical career while an American exile (but his strong influence on the Black empowerment movement via Grosz's student Romare Bearden), reading Grosz's early polemics and manifestoes made me realize something about the purpose of art. I'll excerpt Grosz from his 1925 essay "Art is in Danger":

"...come out of your seclusion, let the ideas of the working people take hold of you and help them fight this rotten society."

Now, I do have to admit that I saw Grosz as a pure rabble-rouser, one who reveled in defying authority and being disrespectful, especially during his foray into Dada. I still believe this. But it is his belief that art should serve some purpose besides aesthetics and entertainment remained with me. Sure, for awhile this became unpopular, especially after artists kicked Social Realism and its related propaganda to the curb and moved towards the opposite pole, complete abstraction.

But do we, as writers, have some responsibility to engage in dissent? Or maybe the mere act of creating is an expression of individual defiance against the forces that tend to drown us out. Still, the simple act of creation as defiance was true in Hitler's Germany, where artists like Emil Nolde were denied brushes and oil paint, placed under daily surveilance, and forced into hiding or destroying their creations. While we don't now live under these kinds of circumstances, we do have to compete with other media like movies, games, and popular music, where images overwhelm and lyrics become bland mantras. What, then, is our responsibility, if there is any at all, as writers?

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