Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Restless Times, Big Love and Nagging Questions

This is the fourteenth chapter of a series excerpted from “Maverick Chronicles,” a memoir-in-progress. Previous stories can be found at VTDigger. By Greg Guma

Visiting Nicaragua as part of a peace delegation in 1983 was an inspiring experience. But I also noticed that the Sandinista road had some potholes. In bookstores, for instance, I saw only Marxist literature and imports from the Soviet Union. The country’s literacy crusade had made a huge difference, but right-wing propaganda was being replaced by ham-handed left-wing indoctrination.
Paulo Freire teaches
As a student of Paolo Freire, the Brazilian educator whose approach stressed the development of critical consciousness, I concluded that Nicaragua’s revolutionaries were passing up a chance to transform society. "We are unfinished beings in an unfinished reality,” Freire had explained in class. “We become educated every day. But education doesn't have to do with the quantity of information you eat. You are educated to the extent that you are engaged in creating knowledge."
     But how is knowledge created? I had asked.
     “Knowledge is a mixture of thought and action which becomes like a ball in permanent motion,” he said. “It moves in spirals until the 'teachment' comes forth and knowledge appears."
     The process sounded a bit like giving birth, a painful but liberating experience. Knowing demands reflection, action, curiosity, patience, hope to create and taking risks, Freire explained. But in most schools, the acts of knowing and creating new knowledge are divided, so places of education have essentially become shopping centers that sell existing knowledge.
     "In Latin America fatalism is expressed in reliance on God,” he said. “In North America it is the power of the establishment and technology that replaces God. It is as though history is already finished and not being created and growing."
     When I shared my impressions of Nicaragua during a speaking tour, some people in audiences nevertheless objected to my questions about the Sandinistas’ decision to suppress dissent or censor books and newspapers. They have no choice, folks said, pointing to US attempts to overthrown the new regime. They were right. The Reagan administration was funding a violent insurgency and other forms of destabilization. But the Sandinistas weren’t perfect, and support for them need not exclude a bit of constructive criticism.
      Self-criticism was supposedly an aspect of the Left’s approach to process. When it came to “our side,” however, any break from “unity” could be grounds for a charge of disloyalty, perhaps even “collaboration” with the enemy.
     Frustrated with such reactions, I stopped speaking about politics in public for a while and returned to the book business to launch Maverick Bookstore and Gallery in Burlington’s Old North End. The name felt appropriate, philosophically and because the Lloyds, my son’s family on Robin’s side, were related to the Maverick clan in Texas.
     Samuel Maverick was a big Texas personality and the origin of the word’s modern usage. The official story is that he won a ranch in a card game and afterward declined to brand his steers. Unbranded steers became known around San Antonio as mavericks.
     The TV show Maverick was pure fiction, but there was a large maverick family. Robin’s grandfather married Lola Maverick. He became famous briefly as a so-called “Communist millionaire;” she helped organize the Ford Peace Ship before World War I and co-founded the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Some of their children were activists as well, including Robin’s dad Bill. So, when I thought about an independent enterprise, not to mention my journalism and peace work, the name felt apt.
     Running a local business replaced political arguments with community service, brought in a modest income, and provided the opportunity to create an outlet for new community projects. But I was still restless, and spent considerable time over the next several years in Europe, seeing as much of the world as I could afford.
     At the end of the 1980s I tried to reconnect with Vermont as coordinator of the Burlington Peace and Justice Center and commissioner on the local Library Board. I even made a second run for the City Council, again getting 42 percent of the vote. In that race the local GOP Chair called me a “serious professional revolutionary anarchist,” an attack I turned into a campaign button. But despite some modest successes – forging a connection between the peace and environmental movements, publishing a book about Vermont, bringing the local library under direct city control – I felt disconnected, out of synch with the increasingly gentrified Burlington scene.
One of our Mexican campsites
Fortunately, I was deeply in love at the time. If we are lucky, at some point we experience a great love, one that stirs the soul and rocks the world. Mine was a Danish guitarist who visited Burlington with an international work camp when I was in my mid-30s and she was 20. For the next six years we pursued a trans-continental affair, wintering in my camper on the Mexican coast, mushroom hunting on a remote Danish island, trying to live together in Denmark and Vermont, breaking up and re-uniting and breaking up again. Finally, in 1990, we gave up struggling and married. A year later we picked up stakes and moved to southern California.
     Before arriving we were both offered jobs, she as a music therapist at a state hospital, me as manager of a bookstore in Santa Monica. Gail Stevenson, a successful therapist with celebrity clients and a Frazier Crane-like husband who offered advice on the radio, was about to open a trendy “eco-feminist” bookstore across from the Santa Monica Museum. She’d heard about my Vermont business and hoped to create something similar, a bookstore that was also a center for community activity. She already had a name – Revolution.
     The location was prime, the patrons affluent, sometimes famous, the space large and airy. But Gail was more concerned about what it looked like than how well it functioned as a business. The interior was designed by an architect partial to deconstructionist style, so books were piled on rough crates and lodged on stark metal shelves that made effective display difficult. Six months after the opening, an event heralded by a front page piece in the style section of the Los Angeles Times, the renovations still weren’t complete.
     No matter how much money we made it wasn’t enough. The main reason was Gail’s inability to stop spending on anything but books. The kid’s section had to be a posh playground with toys and designer pillows, the coffee bar had to feature only the best espresso machine and pastries. There were always more ads to place for events, and new ideas for an even better image. Meanwhile, I struggled to make payroll for a large seven-days-a-week staff and keep up with monster bills from our wholesalers.
     When I mentioned the problems to Gail, pleading with her to get a grip on the spending, her gaze would drift away, as if distracted by an invisible marvel somewhere in the distance. When I finished talking she’d turn back and say something like, “We need better biscottis.” It was maddening.
     Eventually, I demanded some changes. Making a comprehensive list of what was essential to get the operation into the black, I presented my case. The next day she introduced my replacement.
     Two weeks later I was unemployed. Three weeks after that I received a call from a member of the bookstore staff. On Gail’s 46th birthday, the staffer recounted, she had purchased a gun, learned how to use it at a shooting range, then driven to her Westwood office and killed herself. She was beautiful, blonde and wealthy, with a young son, an admired spouse and A-list friends. None of it turned out to enough.
    I stayed in L.A. for another year, but after the Revolution disaster I just couldn’t connect with the city’s ephemeral, often narcissistic culture. Three of my screenplays made the rounds – an historical epic on the Haymarket bombing, a film noir take on the CIA’s notorious MK-Ultra mind control program and a contemporary thriller about religious fundamentalists who carry out assassinations for a covert right wing group – but none of them survived the Hollywood meat grinder. After a few years neither did my marriage, although my love never faded and the memories remain.  
     Back in Vermont, the editorship of Toward Freedom opened up at the right moment, so I returned East and tried to recover. Still, the restlessness would not go away.
     In 1995, when an ex-girlfriend got in touch and I learned that she was moving to New Mexico for health reasons, I decided to give the west another try. Fortunately, the Internet had gone public by then, so it was possible to edit Toward Freedom long distance, even increase its immediacy and writer network. Dave Dellinger, who was co-chairing the board with Robin Lloyd, was skeptical but willing to give the idea a chance.
     A few months after arriving I was both editing TF and running yet another progressive non-profit, the Albuquerque Border City Project, an immigrant rights organization that provided legal services. As it happened, the US was just entering one of its periodic bouts with anti-immigrant fever.
     While living in L.A., I had watched the Border Patrol play a key role in the riots of 1992, deployed in Latino communities and arresting more than 1,000 people. Afterward, the INS had begun work with the Pentagon’s Center for Low-Intensity Conflict. The line between civilian and military operations was largely being erased. Human Rights Watch accused the US Border Patrol of routinely abusing people, citing a pattern of beatings, shootings, rapes, and deaths. In response, INS detainees in a private jail rioted in June 1995 after being tortured by guards.
     In many ways Los Angeles embodied the American Dream. The confluence of climate, capital and demographics had made California one of the world’s largest economies, an “international” state that was also the image capital of the world. But it was also rapidly becoming a "third world" state. As David Rieff noted in Los Angeles: Capital of the Third World, the rest of the country – and perhaps the world – might well follow the L.A. model. Rieff considered it, at the very least, a national archetype. The US was no longer an extension of Europe, he argued, becoming instead "an increasingly nonwhite country adrift, however majestically and powerfully, in an increasingly nonwhite world."
     While I worked in Albuquerque, the border became a battlefield, and government strategies for combating undocumented immigration re-militarized the region. The recently-passed North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) meshed neatly with more obvious aspects of low-intensity conflict (LIC) doctrine. The definition of immigration and drug trafficking as “national security” issues brought state-of-the-art military approaches into domestic affairs. Just as the projection of a “communist menace” was a smokescreen for post-war expansionism, a “Brown wave,” the “Drug War” and terrorism were being used as pretexts for military-industrial penetration.
     In New Mexico I immersed myself in immigration law and regional race politics, developing a coalition of sympathetic groups to fight back against the most draconian aspects of a new immigration reform law. We staged public rallies in Old Town, and brought Latino and Asian spokesmen to Santa Fe to testify at legislative hearings. Sensing potential, the progressive power structure welcomed such initiatives and offered me a spot on the State Human Rights Commission.
     I remained an outsider, however, one who didn’t fully understand the nature of the local culture or embrace some of its assumptions. The cause was just. But the small, progressive enclave I’d entered was isolated from a larger and essentially conservative community. Neither felt like a place where I could comfortably put down roots.
    What was I, an activist or a writer? A foot soldier in the long progressive march – a movement about which I was having some doubts – or a social critic and observer, always questioning conventional wisdom? Was it possible to be both? Wherever I went such questions followed.
     Maybe my standards were too rigid, or my expectations too high, I thought. Maybe a more practical, less perfectionist approach to life and work would serve me – and whatever came next – a bit better. After years of self-imposed exile it was time to go home and find out.

Maverick Chronicles will continue ...

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